Below are abstracts for my current and future work.
Ethics in the Shadow of Love (draft available on request)
One of the central questions facing human beings is how we should respond to the humanity of others. Since the enlightenment, secular Western ethics has gravitated towards two kinds of answer: we should care for others’ well-being, or we should respect them as autonomous agents. Largely neglected is an answer we can find the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism: we should love all. Analytic philosophers have started to pay more attention to love. But unlike those working within religious traditions, for whom an ideal of love for all serves as the central, organizing ideal in ethics, most of these philosophers see love as confined to the domain of intimate relationships between friends, family, romantic partners and the like. This paper argues that an ideal of love for all, of agape, can be understood apart from its more typical religious contexts and moreover provides a unified and illuminating account of the the nature and grounds of morality. Against challenges to the idea that love for all is possible, I offer a novel account of what it would be to love all. I go on to argue that while it is possible to love all, most of us should not, as doing so would rule out the possibility of loving particular friends and families. Instead, we should approximate love for all. I argue that the minimal approximation of love for all is, surprisingly, respect, deriving the basic, structural features of deontological ethics (including anti-welfarism and anti-aggregation) from my account of love for all.
When and why we should tell the truth. Philosophers have traditionally answered this question with an exclusive focus on lying and deception, i.e., dishonesty. But where dishonesty involves withholding the truth, indiscretion is sharing or eliciting a truth that should be left unsaid. I argue that these vices and their correlative virtues must be theorized together as they constitute two halves of an answer to our question. Philosophers have traditionally explained our obligations to be honest in virtue of our status as agents or communicators in the abstract, treating relationships as exceptions to a general rule. I argue, however, that a unified account of honesty and discretion must start with the concrete relationships that a speaker is in with her interlocutors. Our relationships set the boundaries of what information is and is not “in bounds.” These communicative norms are constitutive of our relationships—that my friend can ask about my private life where my colleague cannot is part of what makes it the intimate friendship that it is. I argue that our reasons to tell the truth are explained by the relationships we are in: we have reason to follow their communicative norms just insofar as we have reason to be in the relationship. We moreover have reasons to share or withhold the truth in order to shape our relationships; relationships and their constitutive norms just are a product of our behavior, so by telling or withholding the truth, we can put certain topics in or out of bounds, molding our relationships into something new. We should make our relationships more loving, or barring that, better approximations an ideal of love. I close the chapter with a discussion of whether and how lying per se can involve a wrong distinct from deception.
The Importance of Being Constant (under review, draft available on request)
Where "Ethics in the Shadow of Love" is an investigation into how we should act towards others in general, this paper turns to special relationships and partiality, taking our selective love for friends and family as a point of departure. A theory of partiality must answer two questions: what motivates (virtuous) partiality and what justifies it. Suppose my friend Kevin is sick and I cancel my plans to volunteer at a soup kitchen in order to bring him soup. It seems obvious that I am justified in being partial to him because we are friends—our special relationship permits (and sometimes requires) partiality. Yet when I act out of love for him, I am not motivated by the fact that we are friends, but instead by non-relational facts, e.g., that Kevin is sick. Where the relationship seems like a necessary normative reason it seems not to be a motivating reason; this introduces a tension to a theory of partiality, with normative and motivational explananda pulling in opposite directions. The solution to this tension lies in recognizing the (largely ignored) diachronic nature of partiality. To act of out love is not to be moved by the fact of one’s relationship; it is to have a history of so relating to someone. And it is in virtue of that history that non-relational facts (e.g., that Kevin needs help) have greater rational weight. I defend a (defeasible) rational requirement to be constant with respect to the way we relate to others. Having shown that it offers a unified account of the ethics and moral psychology of partiality, I argue this requirement can be generalized to other cases of reasoning in the face of parity.
A paper about forgiveness
A paradigmatic expression of love for another is forgiveness. Especially in relationships of central importance, an unforgiven wrong can feel unbearable, a metaphorical something that obstructs the relationship. But what is the something that forgiveness removes? And for what reason(s) do we forgive? One common thought is that forgiveness is or involves waiving a right to recompense; I’ll argue, this is too weak—forgiveness is not about giving something up so much as it is about restoring a relationship. Forgiveness and its acceptance constitute a mutual acknowledgement that the wrong done was an aberration, a violation of the norms that govern who the forgiver and the forgiven are to one another. To forgive, then, is to reaffirm those norms with a mutual recognition of each person’s place in the relationship. We should, but are never required, to forgive just when we have greater reason to restore our relationship than to demand our rights for recompense be honored. I consider the implications of this relationship-based conception of forgiveness for personal relationships and political relationships, looking especially to truth and reconciliation commissions and the penal system.
Consent & Relationships
When does consent successfully waive a right, i.e., generate a permission? The standard answer is when it is informed, voluntary and competently given. But that is less an answer than a restatement of the question: how much information is needed? how voluntary the tokening of consent? how competent the agent? Extending the relationships-based framework of my dissertation, I argue that an adequate conception of consent must recognize that the relationships we inhabit fundamentally structure the rights we bear to others in two respects: first, many of our rights are waived not by explicit consent but exactly by entering into special relationships with others—part of what it is to be a friend, teacher or partner is to have waived certain rights and thereby allowed for a kind of interaction that would otherwise be permissible. Second, our relationships set the terms by which further rights are waived are themselves set by the relationships we inhabit—the requisite levels of information, voluntariness and competence are all a function of the ends of our relationships. Of course, the history of medicine as well as sexual violence in marriage provide ample evidence that many relationships set unacceptable terms of consent. I argue that our relationships successfully waive rights and provide the normative standards for consent only insofar as they are determinate realizations of an indeterminate ideal of autonomy. In the absence of good relationships, consent may be impossible—or rather possible only after a healthy relationship is established. This framework helps us at once make sense of the variety of cases of morally transformative consent and of the central importance of legal and social norms around consent, e.g., campus policies around sexual consent or hospital policies around research and treatment.
Privacy, Politics and Big Tech
When pressed on Google’s surveillance of customer data, CEO replied, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.” His response reflects a common view: that privacy matters just when (and because) the particular information at issue is embarrassing or could be used in some way to undermine our interests. But as the 2016 US election made abundantly clear, the question of who has what access to what information is also a question about power. Drawing on the framework developed in “Honesty and Discretion” I argue that questions of consumer privacy should be reframed: instead of asking what rights consumer have over their data, we should instead ask how candidate regulatory regimes around data and information would structure the relationships between citizens, corporations, political candidates and the state. Engaging with a growing literature in sociology and legal academia, I argue that the central concern in debates about “privacy” is less a matter of individual consumer’s rights and more a matter of social relationships. Google, Facebook, Apple and others’ anonymizing and aggregating data before it is sold is not a solution to the real problem. I argue that the informational norms that would best serve democratic ends and facilitate healthy relations of power between citizens, companies and political entities are far more restrictive than most public policy proposals currently consider.
On Deceiving (Prospective) Subjects of Social Science Research
Some research in the social sciences depends on deceiving the subjects of an experiment in order to gather good data. When and why is this permissible? I put the view developed in “Honesty and Discretion” to work and argue against Shiffrin and others that when the ends of the relationship between researchers and subjects requires it, lying is often not wrong in such cases, nor even is there a pro-tanto reason not to lie in light of whose violation some recompense is owed. What is wrong, however, is the way in which researchers often obscure those motives in order to obtain consent to enter into the researcher-subject relationship in the first place. I will argue that researchers must be more upfront with potential subjects about the nature of the prospective relationship, and drawing on the literature on clinical trials , I argue that doing so can be consistent with the need for researchers not to undermine the integrity of the study by focusing patients' attention on the possibility of imminent deception.
Algorithmic Fairness is a Political Question
When is an algorithm fair? ProPublica’s much-cited reporting has raised that question about COMPAS—an algorithm used to predict recidivism for pre-trial detention hearings. Though on some measures (viz. “calibration”), the algorithm treats white and Black defendants the same, other measures (viz., false positive rates) reveal worrying racial disparities. A nascent literature in philosophy and computer science has asked what measure should be used to quantify the fairness of an algorithm. I argue that the literature is off on the wrong foot. Fairness is not a property of algorithms considered in and of themselves but only as a tool within the criminal justice system. What metric is used to judge the fairness of an algorithm is not an a priori question; false positive rates might be a poor measure of fairness in some contexts but an important one in others, in particular in environments which suffer from a crisis of racially disparate mass incarceration. There is no single privileged measure of fairness; competing metrics should be understood as representing distinct (and sometimes equally legitimate) political ends. The right metric of fairness should be seen as a political question, to be decided on democratically. To see algorithmic fairness this way is to reframe the debate: instead of arguing for one measure of fairness over another, we should equip citizens with the tools to decide which ends to prioritize or compromise in setting pre-trial detention.
Arbitrariness: A Charge Against Metaethical Non-Naturalism
This paper is concerned with explanation and normativity. It argues for a familiar thesis—reductionism about the normative—on familiar grounds: there is something about non-reductive views that leaves them unable to explain the connection between the normative and the non-normative. In its most familiar form, this style of argument focuses on supervenience, and claims that non-reductive views are unable to explain the modal connection between the normative on the non-normative. But instead of focusing on supervenience, I argue that we should redirect our focus on the connection between the normative and the non-normative more generally, of which modality is just one aspect. The deeper point to notice about the connection between the normative and the non-normative isn't modal so much as explanatory. In short, I claim that that the connection between the normative and the non-normative is not an arbitrary connection; it is an intelligible one. It is the sort of connection for which there must be a ground, a reason why it obtains. Non-reductionist views, of a kind typified by Parfit, Scanlon, and Enoch, as well as more exotic views like Rosen’s that reject supervenience, all make the connection between the normative and the non-normative arbitrary, by refusing to countenance a ground for why the connection obtains. They should therefore be rejected. This project has two parts. Making precise this notion of arbitrariness and argues that non-reductionist views fail to respect the non-arbitrary character of the connection between the normative and the non-normative will be the task of the first section of this paper. Having gotten clear on what the challenge of arbitrariness is, I present what I take to be the necessary approach to solving the challenge: an appeal to essences, i.e., to the natures of things. Only by showing that the connections between the normative and the non-normative are essential, i.e., follow from the natures of things, can the connections be shown to be non-arbitrary. I then consider many forms such an essentialist view could take, arguing that non-reductionist attempts at developing an essentialist metaphysics of normativity must be abandoned in favor of reductionism.
Clarke's Non-Dogmatic Rationalism
The argument against non-naturalism I make in the prior paper resonates with the objection Samuel Clarke makes against Hobbes and other voluntarists. Clarke is often read as of a piece with other historical rationalists like Price and Balguy, and their descendants, including Ross, Nagel and Parfit. It is easy to see these thinkers as forming a natural group. When pressed to give an explanation of why morality has the content it does or why one should be moral, the response is a kind of principled dogmatism: moral truths are fundamental, and admit of no further explanation. Clark, however, is not dogmatic and should not be read as in fellowship with the others. Clarke’s famous objection to the voluntarism of Hobbes is that it leaves morality unexplained and arbitrary, i.e., that an appeal to a sovereign’s will—be it God’s or a king’s—cannot explain why the moral law is one way rather than another. Clarke, unlike many of his fellow rationalists, is therefore committed to their being some reason why the moral law is the way it is: it is in the nature of things that certain actions are “fit”. Fitness is a matter of multiple things (agents, their roles, their circumstances and actions) coming together just right, like a peg and a hole; fitness is explained solely in virtue of the natures of the relata (and not in virtue of something external to them like a command of God or a fundamental normative law). By distinguishing his essentialist metaphysics from his epistemological rationalism, I argue that we should read Clarke as offering an importantly different view from those with whom he is often grouped. Moreover, I suggest that his critique of voluntarism should be taken seriously as an objection not just against voluntarists but other rationalists and that his appeal to the natures of things is perhaps the only way to adequately meet his challenge.