Published Works

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I specialize in ethics and am interested in the nature of reasons, their motivational and justificatory force, and in the relevance of scientific studies to such theorizing. Taken as a whole, the line of thought that my work traces is threefold. First, my general aim is to resist the over-intellectualism prevalent in contemporary analytic philosophy. While I propose a naturalistic understanding of the mind that can capture a robust conception of normativity, in the end the expressive and voluntarist elements of my view remain, in an interesting sense, irreducible to non-normative states. Thick Humeanism respects the facts of moral psychology while protecting the notion of normativity from assimilation to a collection of psychological facts. The second aim is to argue for the role of both affective states and avowals in rational motivation. The third, and related, strand draws upon insights and challenges provided by work in the cognitive and social sciences: I have a keen interest in empirical psychology and its bearing on normative questions of all sorts.

The Special Status of Instrumental Reasons

The rationality of means-end reasoning is the bedrock of the Humean account of practical reasons. But the normativity of such reasoning cannot be taken for granted. I consider and reject the idea that the normativity of instrumental reasoning can be explained - either in terms of its being constitutive of the very notion of having an end, or solely in terms of instrumental considerations. I argue that the instrumental principle is itself a brute norm, and that this is consistent with a Humean account of practical reasons.

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Altruism and the Experimental Data on Helping Behavior

Philosophical accounts of altruism that purport to explain helping behavior are vulnerable to empirical falsification. John Campbell argues that the Good Samaritan study adds to a growing body of evidence that helping behavior is not best explained by appeal to altruism, thus jeopardizing those accounts. I propose that philosophical accounts of altruism can be empirically challenged only if it is shown that altruistic motivations are undermined by normative conflict in the agent, and that the relevant studies do not provide this sort of evidence. Non-normative, purely causal, psychological factors would be empirically relevant only if the notion of altruism is broadened to include the requirement that one recognize certain situations as calling for altruism. But even in that case, the relevant studies are not designed in such a way that could threaten philosophical theories of altruism.

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The Choice between Current and Retrospective Evaluations of Pain

Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues have made an interesting discovery about people’s preferences. In several experiments, subjects underwent two separate ordeals of pain, identical except that one ended with an added amount of diminishing pain. When asked to evaluate these episodes after experiencing both, subjects generally preferred the longer episode—even though it had a greater objective quantity of pain. These data raise an ethical question about whether to respect such preferences when acting on another’s behalf. John Broome thinks that it is wrong to add extra pain in order to satisfy a person’s preference for a better ending. His explanation for this intuition is that pain is intrinsically bad. I argue against this explanation, and raise several doubts about the moral intuition Broome endorses. In doing so, I offer alternate interpretations of Kahneman’s data, and show that these each yield different values which are relevant to the ethical question.

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Jon Elster's Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions

Book Review
"Consider the absent lover. Will 'absence make the heart grow fonder,' or will it be 'out of sight, out of mind'? ...To some it will seem intuitively true that such mechanisms describe standard causal patterns in human psychology. They seem good inputs for further generalizing, for deeper and broader explanations of how the mind works. But others will be dismayed. They worry that 'mechanisms' are no better than made-up stories. Elster is sensitive to this worry: 'Stories are ad hoc and arbitrary; mechanisms are not' (15). He does not explicitly say why not. His book as a whole, with a great many examples analyzed and interpreted, constitutes the answer. The internal alchemies he identifies are not haphazard. There is for the most part an engine that drives them all, namely the human need to act and feel for good reason, and to see oneself as acting and feeling for good reason...."

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