Select Publications

For informal — but possibly more helpful — summaries, see this blog post.

Parfit's Ethics. Cambridge University Press (2021).

Derek Parfit was one of the most important and influential moral philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This Element offers a critical introduction to his wide-ranging ethical thought, focusing especially on his two most significant works, Reasons and Persons and On What Matters, and their contribution to the consequentialist moral tradition. Topics covered include: rationality and objectivity, distributive justice, self-defeating moral theories, Parfit's Triple Theory, personal identity, and population ethics. [Synopsis here.]

'Pandemic Ethics and Status Quo Risk', Public Health Ethics (forthcoming).

Conservative assumptions in medical ethics risk immense harms during a pandemic. Public health institutions and public discourse alike have repeatedly privileged inaction over aggressive medical interventions to address the pandemic, perversely increasing population-wide risks while claiming to be guided by “caution”. This puzzling disconnect between rhetoric and reality is suggestive of an underlying philosophical confusion. In this paper, I argue that we have been misled by status quo bias—exaggerating the moral significance of the risks inherent in medical interventions, while systematically neglecting the (objectively greater) risks inherent in the status quo prospect of an out-of-control pandemic. By coming to appreciate the possibility and significance of status quo risk, we will be better prepared to respond appropriately when the next pandemic strikes.

'The Right Wrong-Makers', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (2021), 103 (2): 426-440.

Right- and wrong-making features ("moral grounds") are widely believed to play important normative roles, e.g. in morally apt or virtuous motivation. This paper argues that moral grounds have been systematically misidentified. Canonical statements of our moral theories tend to summarize, rather than directly state, the full range of moral grounds posited by the theory. Further work is required to "unpack" a theory's criterion of rightness and identify the features that are of ground-level moral significance. As a result, it is not actually true that maximizing value is the relevant right-making feature even for maximizing consequentialists. Focusing on the simple example of utilitarianism, I show how careful attention to the ground level can drastically influence how we think about our moral theories.

'Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good', in D. Portmore (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism (2020), 498-512.

Consequentialist views have traditionally taken a maximizing form, requiring agents to bring about the very best outcome that they can. But this maximizing function may be questioned. Satisficing views instead allow agents to bring about any outcome that exceeds a satisfactory threshold or qualifies as “good enough.” Scalar consequentialism, by contrast, eschews moral requirements altogether, instead evaluating acts in purely comparative terms, i.e., as better or worse than their alternatives. After surveying the main considerations for and against each of these three views, I argue that the core insights of each are not (despite appearances) in conflict. Consequentialists should be deontic pluralists and accept a maximizing account of the ought of most reason, a satisficing account of obligation, and a scalar account of the weight of reasons. [Synopsis here.]

'Pandemic Ethics: The Case for Risky Research' (with Peter Singer), Research Ethics (2020), 16 (3-4): 1-8.

There is too much that we do not know about COVID-19. The longer we take to find it out, the more lives will be lost. In this paper, we will defend a principle of risk parity: if it is permissible to expose some members of society (e.g. health workers or the economically vulnerable) to a certain level of ex ante risk in order to minimize overall harm from the virus, then it is permissible to expose fully informed volunteers to a comparable level of risk in the context of promising research into the virus. We apply this principle to three examples of risky research: skipping animal trials for promising treatments, human challenge trials to speed up vaccine development, and low-dose controlled infection or “variolation.” We conclude that if volunteers, fully informed about the risks, are willing to help fight the pandemic by aiding promising research, there are strong moral reasons to gratefully accept their help. To refuse it would implicitly subject others to still graver risks.

'Willpower Satisficing', Noûs (2019), 53 (2): 251-265. (Descendant of RoME 2013 Young Ethicist Prize paper, 'Satisficing by Effort'.)

Satisficing Consequentialism is often rejected as hopeless. Perhaps its greatest problem is that it risks condoning the gratuitous prevention of goodness above the baseline of what qualifies as "good enough". I propose a radical new willpower-based version of the view that avoids this problem, and that better fits with the motivation of avoiding an excessively demanding conception of morality. I further demonstrate how, by drawing on the resources of an independent theory of blameworthiness, we may obtain a principled specification of what counts as "good enough".

'Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons?', American Philosophical Quarterly (2019), 56 (2): 125-134.

Are non-natural properties worth caring about? I consider two (related) objections to metaethical non-naturalism. According to the "intelligibility" objection, it would be positively unintelligible to care about non-natural properties that float free from the causal fabric of the cosmos. According to the "ethical idlers" objection, there is no compelling motivation to posit non-natural normative properties because the natural properties suffice to provide us with reasons. In both cases, I argue, the objection stems from misunderstanding the role that non-natural properties play in the non-naturalist's understanding of normativity. The role of non-natural properties is not to be responded to, but to mark which natural properties it is correct for us to respond to in certain ways.

'Fittingness Objections to Consequentialism'(2019), in C. Seidel (ed.) Consequentialism: New Directions, New Problems?, Oxford University Press.

New work in the foundations of ethics—extending the fitting attitudes analysis of value to yield a broader notion of normative fittingness as a (or perhaps even the) fundamental normative concept—provides us with the resources to clarify and renew the force of traditional character-based objections to consequentialism. According to these revamped fittingness objections, consequentialism is incompatible with plausible claims about which attitudes are truly fitting. If a theory’s implications regarding the fittingness facts are implausible, then this can be taken to cast doubt on the truth of the theory.

'Rethinking the Asymmetry', Canadian Journal of Philosophy (2017), 47 (2): 167-177.

According to the Asymmetry, we've strong moral reason to prevent miserable lives from coming into existence, but no moral reason to bring happy lives into existence. This procreative asymmetry is often thought to be part of commonsense morality, however theoretically puzzling it might prove to be. I argue that this is a mistake. The asymmetry is merely prima facie intuitive, and loses its appeal on further reflection. Mature commonsense morality recognizes no fundamental procreative asymmetry. It may recognize some superficially similar theses, but we will see that they derive from more familiar principles, and are compatible with there being moral reason to bring happy lives into existence.

'Knowing What Matters' (2017), in P. Singer (ed.), Does Anything Really Matter? Parfit on Objectivity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parfit's On What Matters offers a rousing defence of non-naturalist normative realism against pressing metaphysical and epistemological objections. He addresses skeptical arguments based on (i) the causal origins of our normative beliefs, and (ii) the appearance of pervasive moral disagreement. In both cases, he concedes the first step to the skeptic, but draws a subsequent distinction with which he hopes to stem the skeptic's advance. I argue, however, that these distinctions cannot bear the weight that Parfit places on them. A successful moral epistemology must take a harder line with the skeptic, insisting that moral knowledge can be had by those with the right kind of psychology -- no matter the evolutionary origin of the psychology, nor whether we can demonstrate its reliability over the alternatives.

'Virtue and Salience' (with Helen Yetter-Chappell), Australasian Journal of Philosophy (2016), 94 (3): 449-463.

This paper explores two ways in which evaluations of an agent's character as virtuous or vicious are properly influenced by what the agent finds salient or attention-grabbing. First, we argue that ignoring salient needs reveals a greater deficit of benevolent motivation in the agent, and hence renders the agent more blameworthy. We use this fact to help explain our ordinary intuition that failing to give to famine relief is in some sense less bad than failing to help a child who is drowning right before your eyes, in a way that's compatible with the contention that there's no principled reason to see the one life-saving act as any more or less choiceworthy than the other. Second, we argue that alleged ‘virtues of ignorance’ are better understood as ‘virtues of salience’. Rather than placing demands on what we believe, these virtues place demands on what we find salient.

'Against "Saving Lives"', Bioethics (2016), 30 (3): 159-164.

Bioethicists often present “saving lives” as a goal distinct from, and competing with, that of extending lives by as much as possible. I argue that this usage of the term is misleading, and provides unwarranted rhetorical support for neglecting the magnitudes of the harms and benefits at stake in medical allocation decisions, often to the detriment of the young. Equal concern for all persons requires weighting equal interests equally, but not all individuals have an equal interest in “life-saving” treatment.

'Value Receptacles', Noûs (2015), 49 (2): 322–332.

Utilitarianism is often rejected on the grounds that it fails to respect the separateness of persons, instead treating people as mere “receptacles of value”. I develop several different versions of this objection, and argue that, despite their prima facie plausibility, they are all mistaken. Although there are crude forms of utilitarianism that run afoul of these objections, I advance a new form of the view—‘token-pluralistic utilitarianism’—that does not.

'Mind-Body Meets Metaethics: A Moral Concept Strategy' (with Helen Yetter-Chappell), Philosophical Studies (2013), 165 (3): 865-878.

The aim of this paper is to assess the relationship between anti-physicalist arguments in the philosophy of mind and anti-naturalist arguments in metaethics, and to show how the literature on the mind-body problem can inform metaethics. Among the questions we will consider are: (1) whether a moral parallel of the knowledge argument can be constructed to create trouble for naturalists, (2) the relationship between such a "Moral Knowledge Argument" and the familiar Open Question Argument, and (3) how naturalists can respond to the Moral Twin Earth argument. We will give particular attention to recent arguments in the philosophy of mind that aim to show that anti-physicalist arguments can be defused by acknowledging a distinctive kind of conceptual dualism between the phenomenal and the physical. This tactic for evading anti-physicalist arguments has come to be known as the Phenomenal Concept Strategy. We will propose a metaethical version of this strategy, which we shall call the `Moral Concept Strategy'. We suggest that the Moral Concept Strategy offers the most promising way out of these anti-naturalist arguments, though significant challenges remain.

'Fittingness: The Sole Normative Primitive', Philosophical Quarterly (2012), 62 (249):684–704.

This paper draws on the ‘Fitting Attitudes’ analysis of value to argue that we should take the concept of fittingness (rather than value) as our normative primitive. I will argue that the fittingness framework enhances the clarity and expressive power of our normative theorising. Along the way, we will see how the fittingness framework illuminates our understanding of various moral theories, and why it casts doubt on the Global Consequentialist idea that acts and (say) eye colours are normatively on a par. We will see why even consequentialists, in taking rightness to be in some sense determined by goodness, should not think that rightness is conceptually reducible to goodness. Finally, I will use the fittingness framework to explicate the distinction between consequentialist and deontological theories, with particular attention to the contentious case of Rule Consequentialism.

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