Abstracts of Academic Papers in Preparation
Abstract: Two theses central to an important modern conception of objectivity with regard to matters of fact are: 1) Observational evidence can be theory independent; 2) Canons of evidence and warrant can be justified through a priori reflection. I give reasons for thinking each of these theses is false. Many thinkers, however, have held that should these theses be false, any empirical claim would be true only relative to the conceptual scheme by which it was made. But cognitive relativism, I argue, is false if even coherent, for it implies the possibility of meaningful utterances that are in principle uninterpretable by some competent interpreters. Thus, something must be wrong with the inference from the falsity of the two theses of objectivity to the truth of cognitive relativism. I attempt to say just what is wrong with this inference.
Abstract: Not everyone favours a campus culture marked by wide freedom of expression, wide academic freedom, and strong respect for such civil liberties as freedom of association and access to information. Administrators, student groups, and even many professors are working hard to limit freedoms and civil liberties at their universities, and they’re succeeding. Some of those who advocate rules and regulations desire to create a university in which people from marginalized groups feel safe and welcome; some want to stem the baleful effects of politicized teaching and research; some think that freedoms put at risk cherished social goals—anti-racism, for instance, or a woman’s right to choose. Drawing on Ronald Dworkin’s 1995 article “Why Academic Freedom?”, I explain how respect for academic freedom and civil liberties on campus is an integral part of a compelling vision of the nature and purpose of higher education. I propose we pursue this vision even should the critics be right about its costs.
Abstract: According to Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse, the heart of theism is the doctrine that God is entitled to our worship. So believers who fail to worship God thereby act unethically. Since, according to Aiken and Talisse, this argument is valid and has a false conclusion, its premise must also be false. I contend against Aiken and Talisse 1) that actually, the argument is invalid, 2) that irreligious believers are not acting unethically, and 3) that worship need not be ignoble when motivated by love.
Abstract: Epicurus and Epictetus agree that anxiety robs one of happiness. Epicurus maintains that anxiety arises when one believes that one might not attain something one wants. The key to living a happy life, then, Epicurus reasons, is to want only those things one is sure one will get. Epictetus, though, thinks it possible for one to want something, to believe that one might not get it, and yet not be anxious. To avoid anxiety, Epictetus, says, one need simply whatever one gets. But this requires that one believe that everything happens for the best.
Abstract: Freedom of expression and the other civil liberties can be valued intrinsically, as an essential part of respect for the autonomy of rational agents. Those who value freedom of expression as an essential part of respect will reject laws against the expression of hate on the grounds that they are insults to people’s dignity. Or so at least they have traditionally. Recently, though, Jeremy Waldron has argued that respect for autonomy is well served by laws against the expression of hate. I criticise Waldron’s position on both practical and philosophical grounds. In the end, I argue, laws against the expression of hate do not express a commitment to respect for autonomy but threaten to erode it.
Abstract: The dogmatist says “Whatever happens next, it will not count as evidence against my belief or theory.” The evidentialist says, “I believe only according to the evidence I have.” The critical rationalist says, “I seek to falsify my beliefs.”
The trouble with evidentialism is that it is actually a sort of dogmatism: beliefs such as that the world is orderly or that love is better than hate cannot be held on evidence good enough by the evidentialist’s own standards. Critical rationalism avoids this result since, for the critical rationalist, there is no such thing as rational belief. We avoid dogmatism not by being concerned to believe truly, but rather by being concerned not to believe falsely.
Two questions remain: Is it possible to live as a critical rationalist? Would it be wise to do so?
Abstract: Evaluative aesthetic judgements are best understood not as claims about properties of objects but, rather, as reports of what their speaker values. Can one who holds this view consistently maintain that such judgements can be backed by reasons and be subjects of dispute? I argue that there are three levels on which dispute concerning evaluative aesthetic judgements can occur, the levels of description, of interpretation, and of evaluation itself.
Abstract: A commitment to act in ethically sound ways can draw on the idea that by acting ethically, one secures various ends that one wants for their own sakes. Or it can stem from a love of ethics for its own sake.
Rarely is one wise to be committed to ethics as a means to other ends. One is wise to be committed to ethics only if one loves ethics for its own sake. Whether a person is wise to love ethics for its own sake depends on the place of that love in her psychic economy, given her temperament and talents and her circumstances and prospects. If loving ethics causes her trouble and woe, then she is foolish to love it.
Arguments that loving ethics is almost never worth it may begin from either of these premises: 1) ethical commitments are other-regarding commitments; 2) any other love or commitment one has can turn out to be ethically unsound. Each premise is true but the conclusion does not follow. Though the love of ethics is harder and riskier than most, it can be, and it often is, wise to love ethics passionately.
Abstract: Emotional harm is no less truly harm than is physical harm. That fact stands as an objection to the argument that since words, drawings, photographs, dances, songs, and the rest cannot by themselves cause physical harm, we ought to be free to express whatever we want however we want to whomever we want. We who advocate wide freedom of expression, then, must argue that harm though it is, emotional harm does not, overall, constitute sufficient grounds for suppressing or censoring or punishing expression. I supply a two-part argument to this conclusion. The first part emphasizes the relation between freedom of expression and respect for persons, the second considers the bad consequences socially of restricting expression.
Abstract: Anomalous monism is the doctrine that while each individual mental event is a physical event, no mental property of an event is a physical property. Critics contend that anomalous monism, when coupled with the premises from which Donald Davidson argues to it and the thesis that the mental properties of events supervene on their physical properties, makes it impossible for us to understand just how by citing the reasons that cause an action we manage to explain that action. I argue against this contention by showing, first, that reason explanations are dispositional explanations and, as such, are possessed of all the explanatory force of dispositional explanations, and, second, that the claim that reason explanations are dispositional explanations is entirely consistent with anomalous monism.
Abstract: “Worship, because it involves blind submission, is not a fit attitude for a person to take toward anything, not even toward God.” From Diagoras to Christopher Hitchens, critics who find religion not merely false but offensive and troubling have endorsed this argument.
In this paper, I distinguish two versions of the argument against worship and examine criticisms of each. The key issues I address are, first, whether being slavish is inevitably debilitating and, second, whether in worshipping God a person necessarily acts slavishly. I find, in the end, that one can worship without being slavish, though perhaps this result depends on implicitly identifying worship with love and admiration alone. If it does, then God need not be uniquely worthy of worship.
Abstract: On Christine Korsgaard’s Kantian account of the sources of normativity, a person who fails to treat others with respect is violating his own canons of deportment. I explain how this conclusion doesn’t follow from Korsgaard’s premises.
Abstract: Bernard Williams holds that the only rationality of action is the rationality of internal reasons, of claims that touch pro-attitudes of agents for whom they are reasons. John McDowell counters that Williams ties the concept of a reason for action too closely to motivation. I respond that loosening this tie leaves the idea that there are external reasons without the normative significance partisans of the external reasons approach to ethics wish it to have.
Abstract: Kant holds both that knowledge must be of a mind-independent world of objects and events and that knowable reality is constituted by the structuring powers of the mind. But if knowable reality is constituted by mental powers, then it wouldn’t seem to be of a mind-independent world. I describe how Kant reconciles his two commitments. His view is that our representations accord with our forms of receptivity and our conceptual framework of regulative rules; but, yet, our representations stem from what, for Kant, is an ultimate reality.
Abstract: Anomalous monism has often been accused of being incompatible with the claim that mental properties are causally efficacious. Davidson's response to this accusation shows only that mental properties have causal relevance, and this has not satisfied his critics. I appeal to the idea that mental properties are causal powers to explain how they are not only causally relevant but also causally efficacious.
Abstract: For normative epistemological enquiry to make legitimate practical claims on us, it must be the case that we have control enough over our beliefs and our epistemic standards that we could bring either into line with what the results of such enquiry indicate they should be. We do not, however, possess freedom of belief; we are not free to believe at will what we want to believe. Nonetheless, we are free to perform many actions, both physical and mental, that bear on whether the beliefs we acquire are justified. Our freedom of action, then, provides us with a measure of indirect control over our beliefs and epistemic standards. I argue that this measure of control is sufficient to make us responsible for what we believe. I conclude that though we are without freedom of belief, normative epistemology can make legitimate practical claims on us.
Abstract: I find in the Protagoras both a unifying philosophical thesis and an edifying pedagogical lesson. The unifying philosophical thesis is that if we are to hold that virtue is teachable, as Protagoras does, then we had better be prepared to say that virtue is theoretical knowledge, as Protagoras isn’t, and, moreover, that it is knowledge of the ethically good. The pedagogical lesson of the Protagoras is that it is futile to look only to ethology, sociology, psychology, or any other empirical science when seeking to learn the nature of ethical value. One must, rather, look beyond this world to another.
Abstract: Michael Smith argues that respect for others emerges as an imperative of practical reason once we see what we have most reason to do. I show how, despite Smith, our emotions and desires can make it prudent for us to treat people badly, no matter how clear-headed we are.
Abstract: To what extent and in which areas should professors, students, administrators, and other members of a university community be free to go about their business as they wish?
Stanley Fish thinks members of university communities should be free just in a few areas, and that their freedoms in the areas in which they have some should be quite narrow. Ronald Dworkin, for his part, thinks we should all be very free in almost every area. The worries that drive Fish to his conclusion are three: wide academic freedom protects bad teaching, it puts liberal education at risk by encouraging professors to proselytise, and it invites politicians to stick their noses where they don’t belong. I propose that we can save the project of higher education from these pitfalls even if we conceive of campus community as Dworkin does. And it’s a good thing, too, that we do not need to restrict academic freedom and freedom of expression and other civil liberties on campus in order to preserve and reinvigorate the university, for Dworkin’s appreciation of the scholar’s tasks and the mission of the university is much superior to Fish’s.
Abstract: The suffering and sorrow in our world tells against the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and all good and loving God. One objection to this claim is that much suffering and sorrow is produced by actions freely performed, and a world lacking free-willed creatures is a world less good than any with them. This objection succeeds, though, only if creatures less apt to produce suffering and sorrow than we are would not be creatures possessed of free will. I argue that even on a libertarian conception of free will there is nothing inconsistent in the idea of people who choose rightly more often than we do, and who yet still choose freely.
Abstract: Epicurus advocates living a quiet life as the route to happiness. He does so by arguing from premises that include psychological egoism and hedonism, among other controversial claims. I attempt to see how many controversial claims can be removed from his argument before that argument either becomes weak or loses its character as Epicurus’s argument.