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.

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.

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.

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 forthcoming 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.

Don't Know, Don't Care?

This is a new-ish paper. The 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 close by considering the kinds of caring responses that can reasonably be demanded of people, arguing that philosophers should shift our theoretical focus to this topic.

Here’s a draft of the paper.

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.

How to Be a Moral Fetishist

This is a new-ish paper. The paper continues my defense of the value of trying to act morally rightly. I address the popular complaint that this constitutes an objectionable “moral fetishism”. First, I suggest that many existing depictions of people trying to act rightly are caricatures displaying only the most odd or unnatural versions of this kind of motivation. Second, I argue that there is a kind of motivation by moral rightness that is extremely widespread and not at all odd or unnatural. We can see this by focusing on moral “hard cases” involving conflicts of value, in which it is unclear what the right thing to do is. I argue that, when we face a conflict between moral values and respond by deliberating about the relative importance of these values, this can only be explained by our being motivated to strike the right balance between the different values at stake. I then argue that this motivation – wanting to strike the right balance between the different values at stake – just is a species of wanting to act rightly. That is because moral rightness just is the property that an action has when it appropriately responds to all of the morally significant features of the situation. So being motivated to strike the right balance is one way for moral rightness per se to be the object of one’s motivation. If this kind of motivation constitutes “moral fetishism”, then we are all moral fetishists.

I don't yet have a version of this paper that I'm comfortable putting on the internet. But I am very happy to send copies of the current draft to interested parties! Email me: zoe.johnsonking@nyu.edu