My Research

Overview

I work primarily in ethics. My present research divides broadly into two areas:

Preference

Here I am interested primarily in two puzzles. The first is about explanation: a very attractive model of human behaviour explains all our choices as resulting from our preferences (what we want). How can this model be squared with the intuitive thought that we are sometimes moved by our ethical views? The second puzzle is about justification: a very attractive theory of rationality says that rational choices are those that satisfy our preferences. Why do our preferences make a rational difference to what we do? I aim to solve both of these puzzles by developing a theory of preference which treats our preferences as part of our ethical views, rather than as something external to them. More specifically, I defend a version of desire as belief, according to which desires just are beliefs with a particular kind of normative content.

Disability and Wellbeing

Here, one issue that interests me is how we define "disability". For example, many think that obesity and hayfever are not disabilities. Is there any principled basis for this claim? More generally, is there anything that all disabilities have in common, or do our views about disability need to be reformed if they are to be principled? A related interest in this area is on the relationship between disability and wellbeing: Are disabilities by definition bad for people? If not, are they in fact normally bad for people? To what extent are the relevant harms mediated by social choice? I aim to resolve these issues by offering a theory of disability that defines disability with reference to contraints on options, and that connects questions about the harms of disability to broader questions about the value of liberty.

Papers

"How Verbal Reports of Desire May Mislead"

2017, in Thought. (PDF)
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 judgement.

"Are All Normative Judgements Desire-like?"

2017, in The Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 12:1 pp.29-55. (PDF)
Normative judgements play a distinctive motivational role. This might seem like a reason to adopt non-cognitivism. But non-cognitivism is committed to the implausible claim that other-regarding (and logically non-atomic) normative judgements are desires. Desire-as-belief explains the motivational role of first-personal (atomic) normative judgements without implausibly entailing that all normative judgements play a similar motivational role.

"Might Desires Be Beliefs About Normative Reasons For Action?"

2017, in Deonna, J. and Lauria, F. (eds) The Nature of Desire. OUP pp.201-217 (PDF).
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, in Philosophical Studies 173:9 pp.2291–2310 (PDF)
I offer a new theory of normative reasons: they are good instances of motivating reasons ("bases"). Just as many functional items can be evaluated by thinking about how good they are as members 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.

"A Very Good Reason To Reject The Buck Passing Account"

2014, in The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92:2 pp.287-303 (PDF)
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, in American Philosophical Quarterly 50:1 pp.63-72 (PDF)
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 them 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, in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15:5 pp.603-614 (PDF)
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 etc.

Reviews, handbook entries, and other such things:

Work in progress

I'm now working on a book-length defence of desire-as-belief, incorporating some of the work above but significantly expanding on it in various ways. Beyond that, I'm also primarily working on the following papers. Email me if you'd like to see the most recent draft of any.