Me

I work primarily in ethics, including meta-ethics and moral psychology. My present research focuses on desires, reasons, wellbeing, and more recently, disability.

I sometimes get the chance to expose the wider world to a bit of philosophy. Amongst other things, I sit on an NHS funding priorities committee, have advised an NHS research ethics committee, and have given numerous talks to the public on various aspects of ethics including on the value of pleasure, the ethics of genetic testing, and on human altruism. I am always happy to hear from anyone who is interested in me or my work.

My CV as of April 2017.

Book

I'm finishing a book-length defence of desire-as-belief, under contract with Oxford University Press.

According to desire-as-belief, the word “desire” just picks out a special subset of our beliefs: beliefs about reasons. On this view, wanting to do something is just the same thing as believing that there is reason to do it. This view allows us to see how human behaviour should be explained: by appeal to our desires, which is to say, our beliefs about reasons. This view also allows us to see how desires matter for rationality: because we ought to live up to our conscience. On these issues, desire-as-belief delivers a satisfying middle ground between Humean views on which our desires are all that matter, and anti-Humean views on which our desires never matter.

Email me if you'd like to see a draft.

Papers

Click titles for more information and downloads.

Disability as Inability

Forthcoming. The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.

If we were to write down all those things that we ordinarily categorise as disabilities, the resulting list might appear to be extremely heterogeneous. What do disabilities have in common? In this paper I defend the view that disabilities should be understood as particular kinds of inability. I show how we should formulate this view, and in the process defend the view from various objections. For example, I show how the view can allow that common kinds of inability are not disabilities, can allow that minor kinds of inability are rightly not described as disabilities, and can allow that socially imposed inabilities need not be disabilities. In the second half of the paper, I show that this theory is superior to rival theories. I criticize the wellbeing theory of disability (Kahane and Savulescu 2009, Savulescu and Kahane 2011, Harris 2001) and conventionalist theories of disability (e.g. Barnes 2016). Finally, I show how the inability theory is consistent with the best versions of the social model of disability.

Disability and Wellbeing

Forthcoming. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, LaFollette, H. (Ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.

Why Do Desires Rationalize Actions?

2018. Ergo 5:40

I begin the paper by outlining one classic argument for the guise of the good: that we must think that desires represent their objects favourably in order to explain why they can make actions rational (Quinn 1995; Stampe 1987). But what exactly is the conclusion of this argument? Many have recently formulated the guise of the good as the view that desires are akin to perceptual appearances of the good (Stampe 1987; Oddie 2005; Tenenbaum 2007). But I argue that this view fails to capitalize on the above argument, and that the argument is better understood as favouring a view on which desires are belief-like states. I finish by addressing some countervailing claims made by Avery Archer (2016).

How Verbal Reports of Desire May Mislead

2017. Thought 6:4 pp.241-249.

Ascriptions of desire can be misleading: "I don't want P" can mean "I fail to want P" or "I want not P". And sometimes desires are too obvious to be worth mentioning. I show how these two phenomena have led people to make mistakes, especially in rejecting the claim that all motivation requires desire, and in their estimations of how much divergence there is between desire and normative judguent.

Are All Normative Judguents Desire-like?

2017. The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 12:1 pp.29-55.

Normative judguents play a distinctive motivational role. This might seu like a reason to adopt non-cognitivism. But non-cognitivism is committed to the implausible claim that other-regarding (and logically non-atomic) normative judguents are desires. Desire-as-belief explains the motivational role of first-personal (atomic) normative judguents without implausibly entailing that all normative judguents play a similar motivational role.

Might Desires Be Beliefs About Normative Reasons For Action?

2017. The Nature of Desire, Deonna, J. and Lauria, F. (eds). OUP pp.201-217.

I defend the view that desires just are beliefs about reasons for action from some of the most common objections. I consider objections from the notion of direction of fit, the existence of appetites, weakness of will, and addiction. I also object to nearby views that treat desires as more like perceptual states.

Reasons as Good Bases

2016. Philosophical Studies 173:9 pp.2291–2310

I offer a new theory of normative reasons: they are good instances of motivating reasons ("bases"). Just as many functional itus can be evaluated by thinking about how good they are as mubers of their kind, I suggest that a good reason to do something just is a motivating reason to do it that is a good instance of its kind. This theory has various interesting implications. This paper is a kind of follow-up to the paper on buck passing, below.

Hedonism

2016, The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being, Fletcher, G. (Ed.). Routledge

A Very Good Reason To Reject The Buck Passing Account

2014. The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92:2 pp.287-303

The buck passing account analyses values (goodness) in terms of reasons. But reasons can be better or worse than one another - indeed, this is the normal way we pick out normative reasons, as good reasons. That suggests that the buck passing account implicitly appeals to the very thing it is trying to explain. Perhaps the main complication for this argument is the distinction between predicative and attributive value: I argue that buck passers should be buck passers about both. I then sketch the theory of reasons that I defend in the paper above.

The Guise of Reasons

2013. American Philosophical Quarterly 50:1 pp.63-72

The guise of the good says that desires somehow represent goodness. The guise of reasons says that they represent normative reasons. These theories are very similar in that both say that desires are representational, and that they represent normative properties. But the difference between thu might nonetheless be significant. I show that it is and that the latter view is superior. This is independently interesting but also shows how sympathisers of this general kind of view can avoid some standard objections.

Changing Direction On Direction of Fit

2012. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15:5 pp.603-614

I argue against Smith and Humberstone's analyses of the direction of fit metaphor. Instead, I argue for a normative interpretation of the metaphor, on which beliefs ought to fit the world, and the world ought to fit our desires. Making these claims more precise and plausible occupies much of the paper.


Reviews
2015. Steve Finlay's A Confusion of Tongues in Analysis 75:4 pp.687-689
2013. Fred Feldman's What is this thing called Happiness? in Mind 122:487 pp.820-823
2012. Andrew Reisner and Asbjørn Steglich-Petersen (eds.), Reasons for Belief in NDPR.
2009. Mark Schroeder's Slaves of the Passions in Ratio 22:2 pp.250-257

Other

Click headings to expand.


What is Philosophy?

Six Questions Answered

1. What is Philosophy?

Philosophers tend to address very abstract questions, such as whether there's a God, whether we have free will, and whether anything is objectively true. The subject tends to be divided into the following central areas:

  1. Metaphysics: What reality is like
  2. The Philosophy of Mind: What we are like
  3. Epistemology: The limits of our knowledge about reality
  4. Ethics: How we should live

Philosophers try to understand these issues by carefully defining different theories about them, and by trying to demonstrate that some of those theories are superior to others.

Since it's so broad, you almost certainly think about some parts of philosophy from time to time. And since it's so broad, there are probably some parts of philosophy that you'd love, and some parts you might not be so keen on.

2. Do philosophers still exist? Or do you just study the past?

There are plenty of professional philosophers around today, and we don't merely report on what the great dead philosophers said. We contribute to the debates they started, or else investigate questions they didn't even consider. Of course, we sometimes study the great dead philosophers, but we normally read them in order to build their insights into our own theories. Our present theories demonstrably improve on theirs, and will continue to improve as we continue to work on these issues.

Admittedly, it's a bit weird to call ourselves "philosophers". That label suggests that the bearer is some kind of all-knowing sage, delivering cryptic soundbites from some exotic location. That's not us: we're just university employees who are based in philosophy departments. As you might imagine, we talk about the profession from time to time, and it's easiest to call ourselves "philosophers", in the same way that the people in the economics department are "economists", in the physics department "physicists", and so on. We also regret that the label has weird connotations.

3. Do philosophers make progress?

We do. No philosopher today will read older books of philosophy without groaning from time to time at points of ignorance and confusion: we do this because we've made progress and we now know things that were not apparent to our predecessors. No doubt our successors will do the same when they read our work. Will this process ever come to an end? Not soon, for certain. Still, our theories will continue to approximate the truth to a greater and greater degree, and that is enough to make our work worthwhile.

Of course, it being research, I can't tell you what the next successes of philosophy will be. And even present philosophical influence - such as the effective altruism movement, and on animal rights - are hard to praise without first deciding whether such development are good or not, and that is just the sort of thing we are trying to work out. But past successes are easier to judge: philosophers such as Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, let alone Plato or Aristotle, have had an enormously positive influence on the Western World and beyond.

4. Has philosophy been superceded by science?

In some respects, philosophy is like science. Like scientists, philosophers try to offer theories that make sense of the world. And in many places, the boundaries between philosophy and science are very hard to define. Indeed, until recently, the two were barely distinguished at all: the split is in part the result of the modern university system which has a habit of enforcing strict boundaries between disciplines. Philosophers continue to develop views that are informed by relevant developments in science.

Still, there is a broad difference in methodology between philosophy and science. Scientists do plenty of theoretical work, but they also rely a lot on experimental data. Philosophers obviously want their theories to be consistent with all relevant experimental data(!), but that data often underdetermines the correct choice of philosophical theory. Often, to decide between philosophical theories, you need to rely on the use of logic and abstract reasoning. In this respect, philosophy is perhaps comparable to mathematics, in that it examines the most fundamental concepts that are the bedrock of science itself.

Those are my views. Other philosophers think differently! For example, the philosophical empiricists broadly claimed that we can only know anything via sense experience, and some empiricists might claim that philosophy is valid only to the extent it is continuous with science. Debate about the merits of empiricism are a central part of philosophy. One extreme version of empiricism is Verificationism, according to which (very roughly) a question doesn't even make sense if it can't be answered by science. Again, that view continues to be discussed in philosophy today. (If you like the sound of that view, you might read A.J. Ayer's classic book "Language, Truth, and Logic", which is both short and readable!)

5. Why study Philosophy?

In part, the answer is because philosophy is an intrinsically worthwhile pursuit. But you might worry that studying philosophy is poor preparation for the world of work. This is mistaken. The modern workplace requires employees to move from role to role, and to adapt to new roles as times change. Moreover, progression up the career ladder often depends precisely on the ability to adapt to new roles and to apply yourself to new problems. For this reason, the value of modern education often comes from the transferable skills that it delivers: how to think, how to communicate, and how to work. These skills will help you not just at some limited range of tasks, but instead help you with every task you need to do, in any role, at every stage of your career. Studying philosophy helps develop such transferable skills, such as the ability to recognise problems and solve them methodically, to carefully evaluate lines of reasoning, to express ideas in a clear and persuasive manner, and so on. Such skills will prepare you well for a lifetime of varied work.

It's difficult to find truly reliable long-term data on career outcomes for philosophy graduates. But common efforts find that philosophy graduates do well. For example, the complete university guide has a comparison of graduate earnings, and according to their information, philosophy graduates compare favourably to other graduates (e.g. above biology, English, French, German, History, Sociology, and others).



How to Write A Philosophy Essay

A step by step guide to writing an essay

1a. An opening paragraph

Look at the set essay question. You have one job: Answer that question. That doesn't mean "report on issues related to that question", but instead that you must explain, to the reader, what the right answer is. So your first task is to decide what answer your essay will defend. For example, imagine the question is "Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?". If that's the question, your essay must either defend the "yes" answer, or else defend the "no" answer. Your first job is to work out which one you are defending.

Let's assume you know what answer you'll defend. (If you don't, read this anyway, and I'll return to you under "This is hard!", below.) Given that you know what answer you'll defend, you can start writing your essay. Write: "In this essay, I defend the view that ___", where the blank is a very succinct answer to the title question. Now write: "I show this by ___.", and leave the blank for now. You now have an outline of the first paragraph of your essay! Like so:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

1b. Further setup

Next, we'll need to ensure the reader understands the basic subject matter of the essay. We'd better explain the central topic, and define key terms. For each named thing in the title (and possibly one or two other things besides), write down a word or two to indicate you need a paragraph on that thing. Your essay will now look something like this:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

  1. God [first thing I need to explain]
  2. the cosmological argument [and a second]

1c. Add your central argument

Now you need to give your central argument. Perhaps you are going to show that a certain theory is false because you have a counterexample to it. Perhaps you are going to show that a certain argument fails because a premise is false. Perhaps you are going to show that a certain argument survives a certain objection because the objection misunderstands the argument. Again, let's assume you know what argument you'll give. (Again, if you don't, read this anyway, and I'll return to you under "This is hard!", below.) Possibly, you'll need more than one paragraph to explain your point. Again, write a couple of words to summarise each such paragraph.

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

  1. God
  2. the cosmological argument
  3. time is infinite [my main argument against the cosmological argument]

1d. Discuss possible replies

Next, you'll need to consider objections to your argument. Think about what others might say in response to your argument. Perhaps there is a natural counterpoint they might make. Add a word or two summarising that point, and then a word or two for how you would respond. Very possibly, there is more than one natural objection to your own argument. As a rough guide, you should respond to somewhere between one and three such worries. Your essay now looks like this:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I show this by ___.

  1. God
  2. the cosmological argument
  3. time is infinite [my main point]
  4. big bang [opponent's first reply]
  5. big bang had a cause [how I'd respond to that reply]
  6. nothing infinite [opponent's second reply]
  7. infinitely many atoms [how I'd respond to that reply]

1e. Complete the introduction, add the final paragraph

Now you can return to the introductory paragraph to your essay, and fill in the blank. This is easy: just summarise the outline you have just written, in the future tense. You can then add the final paragraph of your essay too: just write the same thing but in the past tense. Your essay now looks something like this:

"Does the cosmological argument succeed in proving there is a God?"

In this essay, I defend the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I object to the argument by claiming that past time is infinite and had no beginning. An opponent might reply that time had a beginning with the big bang, but I reply that even the big bang had a prior cause. An opponent might alternatively reply that time cannot be infinite because nothing is infinite, but I show that there are various real-world infinities, such as the number of atoms in the universe.

  1. God
  2. the cosmological argument
  3. time is infinite [my main point]
  4. big bang [opponent's first reply]
  5. big bang had a cause [how I'd respond to that reply]
  6. nothing infinite [opponent's second reply]
  7. infinitely many atoms [how I'd respond to that reply]
In this essay, I have defended the view that the cosmological argument fails to prove there is a God. I objected to the argument by claiming that past time is infinite and had no beginning. An opponent might reply that time had a beginning with the big bang, but I showed that even the big bang had a prior cause. An opponent might alternatively reply that time cannot be infinite because nothing is infinite, but I showed that there are various real-world infinities, such as the number of atoms in the universe.

People sometimes call this final paragraph the "conclusion" of the essay. I find this a bit confusing, since in one important sense, your "conclusion" is the central claim that you defend (here: that the cosmological argument fails), and that claim should be clear from the very start of the essay, not appear only at the end!

1f. Done!

The plan above is a serious and appropriately detailed essay plan. Write the missing paragraphs. You now have a draft essay!

As you get more practice, and more confident, you might write essays with a slightly more adventurous structure, content, and so on. But although the instructions above are a bit formulaic, this is the formula for a good reason: it keeps things crystal clear. I still start new work in roughly this way, and it is not just a model for babies! Philosophers think - and rightly so! - that simplicity in presentation is a virtue, not a vice.


2a. This is hard!

Ok, so the above was the best-case scenario. Unless you are very lucky, it won't work like that. Probably, you'll face one of three stumbling blocks:

  1. You don't know what answer to defend.
  2. You know what answer to defend, but not which argument(s) to use to defend it.
  3. You thought you knew those things, but as you wrote your plan, or the paragraphs themselves, it fell apart.

Now for the key message: Overcoming these obstacles is often the central task of writing a philosophy essay. Possibly, you are used to thinking of the challenge of writing an essay as the challenge of filling up the word count. You might well need to hit some assigned word count, of course, but making the content good is the really hard part of a philosophy essay, and that means overcoming the problems above.

2b. Three Strategies

I have three main pieces of advice for overcoming these difficulties.

First, have a go. First drafts of all my work are absolutely dreadful. But with each draft I learn something new, and that informs the next version. Again, your goal is not to write one essay which reaches the word limit, but instead to write a good essay. Often, you do that by writing an essay, realizing that half of it is wrong, and starting afresh. Always remember that this is progress, and not moving backwards. Even if you are really unsure about the best way to proceed, start planning an essay - any! - with an argument - any! - and see how well it works. This process is the writing process, and it is often time-consuming. Sorry about that. But it gets easier, and over time you'll find yourself spotting upcoming pitfalls, and ways to avoid them, at a greater distance.

Second, talk the essay through. Find a classmate, friend, partner, or whatever, and discuss the issues with them. Talk through your argument and see how they react. Ask if they have better ideas about how you might make your case. (Criticise those ideas together too!) Again, a large part of writing a philosophy paper is working through the relevant ideas, before you put them on paper, and that's often easier with someone else to work them through with.

Third, sometimes, you should simply be happy to hand in an essay that makes a case for a view that you aren't sure about. Perhaps you don't really know if the cosmological argument fails, and aren't sure if there are infinitely many atoms in the universe. But if your essay makes a sensible case for those claims, it's ok to have residual doubts. A philosophical essay is always written as a firm case for a conclusion, but need not be an expression of confident personal belief. You might make a hypothetical case for a view, acting as a kind of devil's advocate.



How to Write Clearly

Some random advice

The task of a writer is not to merely write down their thoughts, but instead to provide a service for a reader. That is, think of your model as an instruction manual: something designed to make someone else's life easier. You are trying to explain things in a way that will help a reader understand what's going on. That guiding principle should inform every choice you make about how to structure your essay, how to explain particular ideas, and so on. Beyond that, here is a ragtag list of pointers:

  • Each paragraph should make a single and self-contained point. If you don't know what that point is, something has gone wrong.
  • Guide the reader with signposts such as "So far, I have shown that...", "I now explain my central argument", "But there is an objection we should consider...", and so on.
  • Try to find ways to express your claims more concisely. This allows your essay to cover more ground, and makes it easier to read.
  • Imagine your reader is intelligent, but does not know the subject at all. You'll need to explain any term that would be unfamiliar to such a person.
  • Don't use a complicated word if a simple one will do.
  • Some students try to avoid reusing words ("Descartes says __, Kant asserts __, and Bentham proclaims __"). Don't do this - it's ok to reuse the same word multiple times! Doing so is often clearer: the reader has no clue whether you are using a different word to mean the same thing or instead to mark an important contrast (is the point that Descartes was less certain than Bentham?).
  • Look things up if you aren't sure! Many simple mistakes can be avoided in this way, such as confusion between "e.g." and "i.e.", or the correct use of apostrophes. (On punctuation, see this guide.)


Contact

Dr Alex Gregory, Department of Philosophy, University of Southampton, Avenue Campus, Southampton, SO17 1BF, United Kingdom
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