Neither Sensitivity Nor Safety

This paper argues that neither sensitivity nor safety can explain popular intuitions and legal practices regarding so-called “naked” statistical evidence. I begin by introducing these intuitions and practices, introducing the notions of sensitivity and safety, and summarizing two recent papers arguing that these epistemological notions can solve our legal puzzles. I then argue that they cannot. I show that neither sensitivity nor safety is either necessary or sufficient for admissibility, that criteria of admissibility using factive modal notions such as these would not be action-guiding, that it is difficult even to formulate plausible versions of modal criteria because it is unclear what they should hold fixed, and that these notions bear little relation to the legal concept of probative value. Together, these considerations strongly suggest that, however we construe the project of explaining popular intuition and legal practice regarding “naked” statistical evidence, neither sensitivity nor safety can do the job.

This paper was previously presented at New Directions In Philosophy of Law 2019, and at the second Dartmouth workshop on Truth, Power, and the Foundations of Democracy. Here’s the latest draft.

Varieties of Moral Ignorance

Some people think that being ignorant of the moral status of one’s act is itself a moral mistake, for which one might be directly morally blameworthy. The literature on this topic tends to focus on being ignorant of the fact that one’s act is morally wrong. But there are many other ways to be ignorant of the moral status of one’s act, since there are many other moral statuses that acts can have. This paper discusses cases of agents who are ignorant of the fact that their act is permissible, or required, or supererogatory. I argue that it is very implausible that all such agents are blameworthy in virtue of being ignorant of the moral status of their act. The agents’ ignorance seems blameworthy in some cases, but neutral in others, and sometimes positively praiseworthy. Moreover, it is difficult to discern any general patterns among the cases in which moral ignorance seems blameworthy and those in which it does not; in particular, the difference does not seem to hang on whether the agent is picking up on features of the act that are genuinely morally significant, nor on whether she over- or under-estimates the moral significance of these features. I close with a tentative positive suggestion: some of our intuitions about these cases are explained by the idea that relating to one’s moral achievements or failures in the right or wrong way can itself be a further moral achievement or failure.

This paper isn’t quite ready for the internet yet. But, if you’d like to see the latest draft, shoot me an email and I’ll send it to you.

Radical Internalism

This paper is a reply to Amia Srinivasan’s “Radical Externalism”. I share Srinivasan’s radical worldview. But I do not agree that externalism about epistemic justification is the better approach in light of the radical worldview that we share. First, I note that Srinivasan mischaracterizes the disputants: she describes intuitions about cases as “the” internalist intuitions and “the” externalist intuitions, when in fact there are a multitude of internalist and externalist views, not all of which entail the verdicts that Srinivasan ascribes to them. Along the way, I also point out a problem with one of Srinivasan’s cases, and I say a little about what I think drives internalist intuitions in classic philosophical cases. I then argue that, although Srinivasan’s three cases do lend intuitive support to the specific version of externalism that she favors, these cases are somewhat simple in focusing only on single axes of social oppression, while examples that involve complex and intersecting ideological forces intuitively support internalism again. I close by offering a rival characterization of the fundamental dispute between internalists and externalists in epistemology, and arguing that this makes internalism the preferable approach for those with a radical worldview. In brief: I hold that the spirit of the dispute between internalists and externalists is about what sort of attitude to take toward the people we evaluate, and what to reward. And I think that the internalist answers to these questions look appealing when we think about the systematic and pernicious epistemic distortion that ideological social forces leave in their wake. The appropriate response to epistemic oppression — as with all other forms of oppression — is to galvanize, mobilize, and resist. Internalism can explain this, and can show us how.

This paper isn’t quite ready for the internet yet. But, if you’d like to see the latest draft, shoot me an email and I’ll send it to you.

I'm Not Angry, Just Disappointed

This is co-authored work with my friend Mariam Kazanjian (Indiana University).

We defend a minimal cognitive account of blame, which we call “Minimal Blame”. On our view, someone’s forming certain moral beliefs about another person is ordinarily sufficient for her to count as blaming that person. Specifically: if someone forms the belief that another person has acted wrongly without adequate excuse, or the belief that someone harbors objectionable attitudes, then she ordinarily counts as blaming that person. This is in stark contrast to every view so far defended on the nature of blame, according to which additional affective and/or conative components are necessary conditions on someone’s forming an attitude of genuine blame. We hold that, although blame is often and prototypically accompanied by certain familiar affective and conative states — roughly, angry resentment (an affective state) and a disposition to confront the blamed person (a conative state) — these states should not be deemed necessary for someone to count as genuinely blaming another person. We hold this view in light of empirical information, summarized in the paper, indicating that victims of severe and prolonged mistreatment eventually stop having the affective and conative reactions that characterize prototypical blame. We think that these agents should still be counted as blaming their tormentors if they continue to believe that they are being treated wrongly or shown inadequate care, and we defend this claim on political grounds. (Our project is thus an ameliorative project).

This paper isn’t quite ready for the internet yet. But, if you’d like to see the latest draft, shoot me an email and I’ll send it to you.

Moral Obligation and Epistemic Risk

This is co-authored work with my friend Boris Babic (Caltech and INSEAD).

We address the idea that, in cases in which you have information about the base rate of a socially disvalued trait within a certain social group and you then meet somebody who is a member of that group, you face an inescapable conflict between the requirements of epistemic rationality and those of morality: rationality requires that your credence that this individual has the socially disvalued trait matches the base rate in the group, while morality prohibits this. We bring the good news that this idea is mistaken. Moreover, we need not adopt a conception of epistemic rationality that is unfriendly toward data and probabilistic reasoning in order to secure this result. On the contrary, one of the most technical and statistics-friendly ways of thinking about epistemic rationality entails that no particular attitude is required in cases like this. The good news follows from a version of accuracy-based epistemology according to which epistemic agents are rationally required to form and revise their credences so as to maximize expected epistemic utility, where epistemic utility is measured by a loss function known as a “scoring rule” which embodies the agent’s attitude toward epistemic risk. The key point is that epistemic rationality permits a wide range of attitudes toward epistemic risk, allowing for a wide range of ways of thinking about the relative disvalue of high credence in a falsehood and low credence in a truth. This is all we need in order to show that the allegedly-inescapable conflict is readily escapable; there are plenty of options on which morality smiles and at which rationality shrugs, and thus no inevitable conflict between the requirements of these two normative domains. We close by discussing the extent to which our argument generalizes to other kinds of reasoning besides predictive inference. Results are mixed.

This paper is promised to Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, but it won’t be out for a while. Here’s the latest draft.

How to Be a Moral Fetishist

This paper continues my defense of the value of trying to act morally rightly. I begin with the popular refrain that there are two kinds of moral motivation: an explicit concern with acting rightly, which we call “motivation by rightness de dicto”, and a concern with features of acts that are in fact among those that make them right, which we call “motivation by rightness de re” I argue that this way of talking misuses the de re/de dicto distinction, thereby obscuring the possibility of an overlooked third kind of moral motivation: a motivation whose object is that the agent acts morally rightly, but that represents acting morally rightly under another description. This is what the phrase “motivation by rightness de re” would refer to if the “de re” qualifier were used in the standard way familiar in philosophy of language. I then argue that the motivations underlying much ordinary moral deliberation are of this overlooked third kind; ordinary deliberators are often motivated to strike the right balance between everything that maters at stake in their circumstances, and this is a species of motivation by rightness de re correctly construed. Along the way, I show that we cannot explain many of the phenomena involved in ordinary deliberation if we assume that deliberators are solely concerned with the particular morally significant things at stake in their circumstances, and I relate the question of which motivations are of the overlooked third kind to current work in moral metasemantics. I close by classifying “anti-fetishist” arguments into three camps and using the foregoing considerations to raise novel challenges for each of them. The arguments all fare poorly given that some ways of being motivated to act rightly are ubiquitous, bear no resemblance to the caricatures of “moral fetishism” found in the literature, and indeed seem praiseworthy.

This paper isn’t out yet. Here’s the most recent draft.

Don't Know, Don't Care?

This paper concerns responsibility for moral ignorance: ignorance of facts about which acts are right or wrong, what things are valuable or disvaluable, what obligations we owe to others, and so on, arising from ignorance of the moral significance of non-moral facts rather than from ignorance of those facts. The existing literature on this topic falls into two camps. Some take a “voluntarist” approach to moral responsibility and use it to argue that we are rarely, and perhaps never, blameworthy for moral ignorance. Others take a “quality-of-will” approach to moral responsibility and use it to argue that we are often, and perhaps always, blameworthy for moral ignorance. I take a third line: I argue that when the quality-of-will approach is properly understood, we can see that it does not entail that we are often blameworthy for moral ignorance. What it entails is that we are blameworthy for ignorance that involves failure to care adequately about what is in fact morally valuable. It is unclear what proportion of moral ignorance is like this. I then argue that, while some moral ignorance clearly results from inadequate moral caring, it is possible to care adequately about the considerations that make an act wrong while still failing to realize that it is wrong. I offer cases to illustrate this point. I then suggest a change of direction that quality-of-will theorists should take in our thinking on this topic: we should focus on articulating the standards for adequate caring — that is, the moral standards that specify what it is to care “adequately”. I make an initial proposal for a structure that the standards for adequate caring might take, and identify four promising avenues for future research on this topic.

This paper is forthcoming in Philosophical Studies. Here’s the penultimate version. Please cite the published version once it becomes available.

I previously presented this paper at the Concordia Workshop on Virtue and Moral Reasoning under Oppressive Social Conditions 2018, as a lunch talk at NYU in Fall 2018, as a colloquium talk at SMU and Syracuse in Spring 2019, and at the Northeast Normativity Workshop 2019 and Pacific APA 2019. I am grateful to participants in all of these discussions for their formative feedback.

Who's Afraid of Normative Externalism?

This paper is about higher-order moral uncertainty: it is about what someone should do when she's not only uncertain what first-order moral theory is true, but also uncertain whether this moral uncertainty is itself morally relevant. I discuss a puzzle that arises for people, like me, who are fairly confident that the correct response to moral uncertainty is to maximize expected moral value, but also have some credence in a so-called “externalist” theory that holds that moral uncertainty is morally irrelevant and uncertain agents should simply do whatever is in fact most valuable. If the correct response to higher-order uncertainty is to maximize expected value, then we must find a way to incorporate our credence in externalism into our decision-making. This turns out to be quite difficult to do. After dismissing some unsatisfactory strategies, I introduce my preferred solution to the puzzle. I then show that my preferred solution has the surprising implication that my credence in normative externalism is itself, in a sense, morally irrelevant.

Here's the paper.

I have promised this paper to the book Meaning, Decisions, and Norms: Themes from the Work of Allan Gibbard, edited by Billy Dunaway and David Plunkett.

I previously presented versions of this paper at the REAPP workshop on Moral and Rational Uncertainty 2017 at the University of Reading, the International Formal Ethics Conference 2017 at the University of York, and the Decisions, Games, and Logic (DGL) conference 2016 at the University of Michigan. I am very grateful to particpants in all of these discussions for their formative feedback.

Praiseworthy Motivations

This paper is about which motivations are praiseworthy. I argue that if motivation by rightness de re is praiseworthy, then so is motivation by rightness de dicto. I think that intuitions to the contrary result either from poorly-constructed cases that do not present genuine minimal pairs, or from misunderstanding of a basic point about moral metaphysics. I argue that when we carefully compare correctly constructed cases, the minimal differences that do exist between these two types of moral motivation to do not seem to affect an agent's praiseworthiness. I also address the question of what we should say about agents who are well-meaning but morally mistaken, such that they are motivated to act rightly (or to be fair, or to be just, or to promote well-being, or etc.) but their trying to do so leads them in fact to act wrongly (to be unfair, to be unjust, to undermine well-being, etc.). I argue that such agents' motivations can still be praiseworthy.

Here are the proofs for the paper.

This paper is forthcoming in Nous. I presented it at the Northwestern University Society for the Theory of Ethics and Politics (NUSTEP) conference 2016, and the Pittsburgh-CMU Graduate Conference 2016. A version of this paper was my writing sample for the job market.

Accidentally Doing the Right Thing

This paper is about moral worth. I defend the view that an act has moral worth only if its agent did the right thing because it's the right thing to do, and I criticize the view that an act can have moral worth if its agent does the right thing because of its right-making features. All parties to this dispute agree that an act lacks moral worth if it is an instance of someone's merely accidentally doing the right thing. So defend I a general account of what it is to do something accidentally, and use it to support my view. I focus on cases in which agents have no idea that their acts possess a certain property, including the much-discussed case of Huckleberry Finn (who has no idea that his act is morally right); my position is that having no idea that one's act is F is sufficient for accidentally doing an F thing. 

Here's the penultimate version of the paper.

The final version of this paper is in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Please cite the published version, rather than this one.

I previously presented this paper at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress 2017, at the USC/UCLA Graduate Conference in 2017, at the Great Plains Philosophy Symposium in 2016. I also gave a version of it as my job talk to the philosophy departments at USC, Notre Dame, Simon Fraser, Florida State University, McGill, the University of Miami, the University of Chicago, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. I am very grateful to participants in all of these discussions for their formative feedback.

We Can Have Our Buck and Pass It, Too

This paper argues that the moral rightness of an act is a reason to perform it. I argue against those who think that only an act's right-making features can be reasons to perform it. After noting some grounds on which one might think that my view is obviously correct, I respond to the main argument against it, which relies on an intuition of redundancy or "double-counting". I show that this argument drastically overgenerates, and I suggest that it is based on a confused picture of moral metaphysics. I then offer a way to revise our understanding of the redundancy intuition such that it makes no silly metaphysical assumptions, and avoids the overgeneration problem, but also no longer challenges my view.

Here are the proofs for the paper.

This paper is in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, volume 14. I previously presented it at the UNAM Graduate Conference 2018, the Central APA 2018, the Madison Metaethics Workshop 2017, the Princeton-Michigan Metanormativity Workshop 2017, and the Vancouver Summer Philosophy Conference 2017. I am very grateful to participants in all these discussions for their formative feedback.

The Trouble with Standards of Proof

Unlike the rest, this paper is not part of my doctoral research project; this is part of a second research project in legal epistemology. I argue that the canonical way of arguing for our adoption of a particular standard of proof in criminal trials – which posits an ideal ratio between two or more trial outcomes (i.e. false positive, false negative, true positive, true negative) and then attempts to reverse-engineer the standard of proof that is most likely to yield this ratio in the long run – is scuppered by skeptical difficulties in determining the distributions of apparent guilt both among genuinely guilty and genuinely innocent defendants, and that the extent of this problem has not been fully appreciated. I argue that optimism about this issue is unwarranted in the face of information regarding the prevalence of misleading evidence and juror biases in our trial system. I then suggest three responses to the problem and explain I do not find any of them fully satisfactory.

Here's the paper.

I previously presented this paper at the second Harvard Graduate Legal Philosophy Colloquium in 2016, and to Scott Hershovitz's Introduction to Philosophy of Law class at Michigan in Winter 2018. I am grateful to participants in these discussions for their formative feedback.