“The Counterfactual Comparative Account of Harm and Reasons for Action and Preference: Reply to Carlson.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol. 22 no. 3 (June 2019) pp. 673 – 677.
The counterfactual comparative account of harm has emerged as the main contender in the recent literature on the nature of harm. But Erik Carlson argues that the account violates plausible normative principles connecting harm with our reasons to perform certain actions and to prefer certain outcomes. According to Carlson, the account implies that we have reason to perform actions and to prefer outcomes that we do not in fact possess. This paper defends the counterfactual comparative account from these objections.
“Epistocracy is a Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing.” Journal of Ethics, vol. 23 no. 1 (March 2019) pp. 19 — 36.
‘Epistocracy’ is the name of a type of political power structure in which the power is held by the knowledgable—for example, by restricting the right to vote to those who can demonstrate sufficient knowledge. Though Plato and Mill defended epistocratic views, it has found few contemporary advocates. In a recent book, however, Jason Brennan argues that epistocratic power structures are capable of outperforming democratic ones. His argument is two-pronged: first, he argues that democratic procedures with universal suffrage allow poorly-informed voters to pollute the electorate, and that doing so has negative policy-related consequences that are easily avoidable. Second, he argues that voting does not possess any non-intrinsic value, and so restricting suffrage to the educated does not result in a loss of status or standing for less well-educated persons in any meaningful way. I argue that epistocratic techniques are (a) impossible to implement fairly, and (b) represent an ineffective solution for the problems they are designed to solve. On these bases, I recommend rejecting it.
“Against Reductive Ethical Naturalism.” Philosophical Studies, vol. 176 no. 8 (August 2019) pp. 1991 – 2010.
This paper raises an objection to two important arguments for reductive ethical naturalism. Reductive ethical naturalism is the view that ethical properties reduce to the properties countenanced by the natural and social sciences. The main arguments for reductionism in the literature hold that ethical properties reduce to natural properties by supervening on them, either because supervenience is alleged to guarantee identity via mutual entailment, or because non-reductive supervenience relations render the supervenient properties superfluous. After carefully characterizing naturalism and reductionism, we will present, explain, and raise objections against each of the main reductionist arguments: (a) that supervenience does not support the claim that ethical properties and their subvenient natural properties are mutually entailing; (b) that reductive views undermine the claim that ethical properties yield resemblance; and (c) that supervenience does not entail that non-descriptive ethical properties are superfluous in the most fundamental sense.
“Two Conceptions of Justice,” Journal of Moral Philosophy, vol. 14 no 5 (November 2017) pp. 495 – 514.
What is the relationship between justice and moral permissibility? If an action would constitute an injustice, does that decisively rule it out, morally speaking, or merely count heavily against it? This paper argues that although the injustice of an action counts heavily against performing it, this effect can sometimes be overridden by consequentialist concerns. This suggests that injustice does not conclusively rule out actions that generate it, which in turn suggests that an approach to justice that conceives of it as an object of intrinsic moral value more accurately reflects the behavior of justice than do more traditional deontological approaches.
“How to Accept the Transitivity of Better Than,” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 173 No. 5 (May 2016) pp. 1309 – 1334.
Although the thesis that the moral better than relation is transitive seems obviously true, there is a growing literature according to which Parfit’s repugnant conclusion and related puzzles reveal that this thesis is false or problematic. This paper begins by presenting several such puzzles and explaining how they can be used in arguments for the intransitivity of better than. It then proposes and defends a plausible alternative picture of the behavior of better than that both resolves the repugnant conclusion and preserves transitivity. On this threshold-based model of lexicality, hedonic episodes whose intensity is above a certain point are lexically greater (in absolute magnitude) than those whose intensity is below it. The final sections argue that this model is independently plausible and can be defended from several important objections.
“A Defense of the Counterfactual Comparative Account of Harm,” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 48 no. 4 (October 2012) pp. 285 – 300.
Although the counterfactual comparative account of harm, according to which someone is harmed when things go worse for her than they otherwise would have, is intuitively plausible, it has recently come under attack. There are five serious objections in the literature: some philosophers argue that the counterfactual account makes it hard to see how we could harm someone in the course of benefitting that person; others argue that Parfit’s non-identity problem is particularly problematic; another objection claims that the account forces us to see many harms where there is just one; a fourth objection is based on the claim that the counterfactual account makes mysterious the distinction between harms and mere failures-to-benefit; and a final problem arises from cases of pre-emption, in which the nearest possible world in which the harmful event does not occur is a world in which some other harmful event occurs. This paper argues that, properly understood, harm essentially involves a counterfactual comparison, and that these comparisons are sensitive to context in the manner typical of counterfactual conditionals, and that, augmented with two plausible distinctions, this account has the resources to provide satisfying responses to each of the objections that have been raised against it.
“Perspective-Neutral Intrinsic Value,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, vol 92. no. 3 (September 2011) pp. 323 – 37.
Is it possible to do a good thing, or to make the world a better place? Some philosophers argue that it these things are not possible, because this perspective-neutral value does not exist. Some have argued that ‘good’ does not play the right sort of grammatical or semantic role and does not describe the objects it applies to; or that all good things are good in some particular way, and that there is no such thing as “just plain” good; or that goodness is inherently perspective-dependent. I argue that the logical and semantic properties of ‘good’ are what we should expect of an evaluative predicate; that the fact that there are many ways of being good is not a threat to the thesis that some of these ways are independent of perspective; and that there are examples that convincingly demonstrate that some ways of being good are perspective-independent.
“Moorean Pluralism as a Solution to The Incommensurability Problem,” Philosophical Studies vol. 153 no. 3 (April 2011) pp 335 – 49.
Several prominent ethical philosophers have attempted to demonstrate that there exist instances or types of value that are of crucial moral significance but which cannot legitimately be compared with one another. Bernard Williams and Michael Stocker, for example, argue that it can sometimes be rational to regret having chosen the all-things- considered better of two alternatives, and that this sense of regret entails that the goodness of the worse option is not made up for by and is therefore incommensurable with that of the better. Joseph Raz and others have made similar points. In this paper, I propose a theory of value that is monistic in that it countenances just one sort of morally crucial value, but pluralistic in that several distinct properties bearer this value. I then explain how this view avoids incommensurable values without doing violence to the core intuitions that seemed to necessitate them, and how it fits into a larger conception of morality, right conduct, and moral psychology.
“In Defense of the Trichotomy Thesis,” Acta Analytica vol. 25 no. 3. (2010) pp. 317 – 327
According to a standard picture, for any two comparable objects and a basis for comparison, either one is greater than the other or they are equal with respect to the basis. This picture has been called the Trichotomy Thesis, and although it is intuitive and plausible, it has been called into question by such philosophers as Derek Parfit, James Griffin, Joseph Raz, and Ruth Chang. Chang’s discussion is particularly rich, for she proposes and provides a detailed account of a possible fourth relation that, she argues, provides a satisfying explanation of hard cases of comparison. In this paper, I will examine a version of the main argument against the Trichotomy Thesis, and attempt to show that it is unsound.
“The Amenability of Pleasure and Pain to Aggregation,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice vol. 13 no. 3 (June 2010) pp. 293 – 303.
Many philosophers, such as Bentham, Mill, Moore, and possibly Plato, among others, have found it obvious that pleasure and pain come in measurable quantities, and that these quantities are of central importance to morality. This thesis is controversial, however, and several philosophers have presented or felt compelled to respond to arguments for the conclusion that it is false. One important class of these arguments concerns the use of numbers to represent aggregates of pleasure and pain. If pleasure and pain were measurable quantities, then, by definition, it would be possible to perform various mathematical and statistical operations on numbers representing amounts of them. For example, it would be possible to add them together and to subtract them from one another, and the results of such an operation would be coherent, and could themselves be thought of as amounts of pleasure or pain. It would also be possible to meaningfully and coherently express relationships between amounts of pleasure and pain in terms of ratios: it would be possible to say, meaningfully, that one episode of pleasure contained twice as much pleasure as another episode; or that one episode contained a third as much pain as another. It is sometimes argued that such expressions must be false or meaningless; that these kinds of claim about amounts of pleasure and pain do not make sense, and that pleasure and pain therefore do not come in amounts suitable for numerical representation. In this paper, I present, explain, and rebut several of the most interesting and significant instances of this type of argument in an effort to show that, in general, it is specious.
“Pleasure, Desire, and Oppositeness,” Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy (May, 2010).
Why is pain the opposite of pleasure? Several theories of pleasure and pain have substantial difficulty explaining this basic feature. Theories according to which pleasure and pain are individual sensations or features of sensations have particular difficulty, since it is difficult to understand how pairs of sensations could be opposites. Some philosophers argue that the pain is the opposite of pleasure because pain and pleasure are fundamentally a matter of desire and aversion, and desire and aversion are clear opposites. I argue that the structure of desire and aversion does not correspond to that of pleasure and pain. I propose that pleasure and pain are opposites because pleasure is good and pain is bad, and good and bad are clear opposites. I show that this view explains the structure of opposition of pleasure and pain, and I answer several objections.
“The Problem of Interpersonal Comparisons of Pleasure and Pain,” Journal of Value Inquiry vol. 42 no. 1 (March 2008).
Several philosophers have argued that interpersonal comparisons of utility are problematic or even impossible, and that this poses a problem for the thesis that pleasure is a legitimate, measurable quantity. This, in turn, is thought to pose a problem of some kind for a variety of normative ethical and axiological theories. Perhaps it is supposed to show that utilitarianism or hedonism is false, or is supposed to show that there is no genuine hedonic calculus, or that any view that presupposes that pleasure and pain are morally relevant is false or untenable. Its proponents begin by noticing that interpersonal comparisons of pleasure and pain are impossible in some relevant sense. This impossibility has been exploited by different philosophers for different purposes. It is clear, however, that a great many ethical theories rely in some way on the thesis that pleasure is measurable, and that its incoherence therefore threatens a great many theories in ethics. The purpose of this paper is to survey several of the most interesting versions of this argument; then to explain several attempts to respond to the problem, and to explain why each attempt fails; then to present, explain, and defend the correct solution to the problem.