Works in Progress

The primary concerns of my research are diachronic rationality and the conception of the self over time. Currently, I’m extending the theoretical apparatus I've developed for normative reasons – regarding prudence, instrumental reasoning and the self – to better understand the core practical, metaphysical, and ethical aspects of dementia. In a series of papers, I explore a different facet of the same subject: what to do when present and future selves conflict – first, from the forward-looking perspective of the individual who is making prudential decisions concerning her future; second, from the backward-looking perspective of the surrogate decision-makers and others who are looking at the conflict from a third-person perspective; and finally, concerning the moral capacities of the previously competent and the extent to which they have values.

What are the unique challenges of taking our future desires and values into account when it comes to the prospect of dementia, and how should we think of the nature of the self undergoing such a transformation? How should others act on our behalf if they know the preferences of our earlier and later selves conflict? Few experiences are as inscrutable or as powerful as that of advanced dementia. It is a prospect about which people deliberate and make choices – oftentimes choices as momentous as whether to live or die. Yet first-personal knowledge of what it is like to have dementia can be gained only by undergoing the experience itself. Given this inscrutability, is there a way to make a rational choice – either for oneself in advance, or for others?

The Very Present Self

I argue that the first-personal, deliberative standpoint of agency — and its attendant conception of the self — requires a distinctively Humean conception of reasons, according to which normative reasons are determined by one’s present concerns and voluntarist commitments. In particular, rational decision-making about the sort of life one wants to live, or the sort of person one wants to be, depends solely on one’s commitment-avowals at the time of decision. A striking consequence of this view, which I defend here, is that prudence (in the sense of acting with practical foresight) is not a requirement of rationality: there are no non-subjective reasons to promote one’s future well-being. Both an objectivist account of reasons (and the notion of the self as equally real at all times) and Korsgaard’s account of deliberative agency should be rejected because they cannot make sense of our reasons for becoming or avoiding becoming a certain kind of person, with different interests from those we have now.

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Interpreting "What One Would Have Wanted"

When the aim is to respect autonomy — when making decisions on behalf of somebody — is asking what your loved one would have wanted a useful way of trying to be their agent? Against prevalent assumptions in current medical practice, I argue that in contexts involving the care and treatment of those with advanced dementia, the notion of “what one would have wanted” is conceptually, epistemically, and practically problematic. When applied to cases involving those with advanced dementia, the notion is either (1) incoherent, (2) fundamentally indeterminate, or (3) normatively irrelevant.

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Rationalizing Explanations

Practical reasons must be able to make sense of – to rationalize – action in terms of intentional psychological factors. In a widely influential paper, Warren Quinn has argued that desires are not sufficient to rationalize action. Many take his argument to be devastating to the Humean position. I argue here that it fails on several fronts, and that it does so in ways that help to illuminate the nature of rationalizing explanations. i) A crucial distinction in the structure of rationalizing explanations is conflated, thereby also obscuring the distinction between explanation and justification. ii) Affective desires can play an essential role in rational motivation, and a ‘thick’ Humeanism can meet the required rationalizing condition on practical reasons. iii) Quinn’s method of argument itself is problematic, since it would show that even evaluative beliefs cannot rationalize.

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Deliberative Relevance and the Metaethical Implications of Damasio's Work

Deliberative reasons determine what considerations are relevant to a decision. Not all considerations having to do with a choice situation provide reasons that are relevant to the choice. It is a notable fact that we discriminate among various considerations that might provide reasons, determining which are relevant to our deliberations. What makes certain desires relevant to a specific decision-making context, that is, what puts them among a person’s present active reasons? I defend the Humean account of normative reasons against Scanlon's challenge that it cannot explain the phenomenon of deliberative relevance. But I also argue against the tendency to appeal to neuroscientific evidence to support a noncognitive account of normative reasons. The evidence that emotional capacities are necessary for good decision-making does not help to establish their role in a metaethical account of reasons. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a defense of noncognitivism cannot be accomplished in that way.

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