The Goals of Moral Worth

Oxford Studies in Metaethics (provisionally forthcoming)

It is a platitude that good people do the right thing for the right reasons. Taken at face value, this platitude implies that some motivating reasons are the right reasons, given that our motivating reasons are the ones for which we act. More particularly, the platitude implies that normative reasons and motivating reasons are the same kind of entity. I argue that philosophers have misunderstood the significance of this claim. It is generally taken to show that we must shape our conception of motivating reasons to resemble our antecedent conception of normative reasons. However, I argue that satisfying the claim actually requires our normative reasons to more closely resemble the historically dominant conception of motivating reasons as pairs of beliefs and desires. I call this view the dual aspect account of normative reasons. I conclude by demonstrating how adopting this novel account of normative reasons provides new resources for defending the commonsense thought that virtue amounts to no more than doing the right thing for the right reasons.

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One Desire Too Many

Philosophy & Phenomenological Research

I defend the widely-held view that morally worthy action need not be motivated by a desire to promote rightness as such. Some have recently come to reject this view, arguing that desires for rightness as such are necessary for avoiding a certain kind of luck thought incompatible with morally worthy action. I show that those who defend desires for rightness as such on the basis of this argument misunderstand the relationship between moral worth and the kind of luck that their argument employs. Consequently, the argument provides no reason to doubt the popular view that a desire for rightness as such is no part of virtue. I conclude by suggesting that a family of worries about merely accidentally right action presuppose one side the recent debate about objectivism and perspectivism about moral rightness.

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Sentimentalism About Moral Understanding

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

Some philosophers, so-called pessimists, have found that deference to moral testimony money is objectionable. According to this view, there's something sub-optimal in forming one's moral beliefs strictly on another's word. Hills (2009) argues that moral deference is defective in this way because it fails to impart moral understanding, which is the ability to offer moral explanations of a certain type. I argue that we should instead conceive of moral understanding as a partly non-cognitive phenomenon and offer independent reason for thinking that the very best kinds of moral actions require it.

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The World Is Not Enough (with N. G. Laskowski)


Throughout much of his career, Derek Parfit suggests that anyone who possesses normative concepts is in a position to know, on the basis of their competence with such concepts alone, that reductive realism in ethics is not even possible. The small amount of attention that this ambitious claim has received has been exclusively critical. We argue that, while Parfit comes up short of establishing it, Parfit's claim does provide the raw materials for advancing a new and interesting challenge to reductivists, one that clarifies what's at stake in the debate between them and non-reductivists. On our reading of Parfit, reductivists can make sense of a class of analytic claims without collapsing into a form of non-reductivism only if reductivism is packaged with either a radical brand of particularism or contingentism.

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Reducing Duty to Virtue Through Goals

This paper offers a new defense of virtue theory in normative ethics, the view that one's moral duty is to be understood as the act that the person of good character would perform in one's circumstances. It begins by conceding that virtue theory, as standardly conceived, is vulnerable to two well-known objections: first, the Euthyphronic objection that virtue theory is either arbitrary or superfluous, and, second, that agents lack stable character traits, and so lack virtuous character traits as a special case. However, I show that both of these criticisms can be evaded by defending the claim that virtuous action is analytically prior to virtuous character, explaining the former in terms of doing the right thing for the right reasons. Virtuous character, I argue, is merely the disposition to do the right thing for the right reasons. On the view ultimately defended, moral duties are understood in terms of virtuous actions, and virtuous action is understood in terms of acting for the right reasons.

Down for redraft

Primary Reasons as Normative Reasons

This paper argues that analyses of moral rightness in terms of the balance of competeing reasons require that reasons are more finely grained than facts. It then argues that Donald Davidson's primary reasons, initally conceived of as motivating reasons or the rationalizing causes of our actions, are consistent with weighing explanations and that independent linguistic data suggests that they play this role.

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Factualists Can’t Solve The Wrong Kind of Reason Problem

The wrong kind of reason (WKR) problem is a problem for attempts to analyze normative properties using facts about the balance of normative reasons. This paper argues that this problem cannot be solved if factualism is true -- that is, if each normative reason is numerically identical with some fact, proposition, or state-of-affairs. Solving the WKR problem requires a wholly disjoint distinction between the right- and wrong-kind reasons for an attitude. I argue that some facts give both right- and wrong-kind reasons for an attitude. Consequently, no such distinction between the two types of reasons is wholly disjoint if reasons are facts, or the like. I conclude by suggesting that reasons are instead partly constituted by facts or fact-like entities.

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Beyond Bad Beliefs

Some people's beliefs in well-evidenced, true racial generalizations seem objectionable. An increasingly popular explanation of why they're objectionable, known as moral encroachment, is already emerging (see Fritz (2017), Schroeder (2017), Bolinger (2018), Moss (2018; fc), Basu (fc), and Basu and Schroeder (fc)). The approach holds that whether a claim is backed by suffcient evidence isn’t strictly a function of the evidence; it is also a function of the moral stakes engendered by the belief. According to it, though the statistical correlation between being an attendant and being black is strong, it is not strong enough to propositionally justify the woman’s belief given the high moral stakes that belief engenders. I argue that many of the cases that motivate the moral encorachment view are actually better explained by a different theory according to which bad beliefs are bad not because they lack propositional justification, as moral encroachment theorists hold, but because they lack doxastic justification. On the view I propose, the racist's true, well-evidenced beliefs are the product of wishful thinking, so they are not doxastically justified.

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Should is Subjunctive Must

Many non-English languages like Greek, Hungarian, and French lack a discrete lexical item for weak necessity, expressed in English by 'should' and 'ought'. Rather, weak necessity in these languages is realized by combining a strong necessity term, like English's 'must' or 'have to', with the subjunctive mood. Put simply, the challenge is to explain how weak necessity is sometimes the product of strong necessity and the subjunctive mood. von Fintel and Iatridou (2008) argue that counterfactual conditionals offer the correct model for understanding how strong necessity combines with the subjunctive to produce weak necessity; Silk (2016) argues that the correct model is provided by presupposition. I argue that both of these approaches fail and that modal subordination provides the correct model. I develop a semantics that explains how weak necessity is the product of these two, more basic components through modal subordination.

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World-relational Expressivism

This paper is in its early stages. Elsewhere I argue that modal terms have an independent pronoun-like world parameter, whose reference is fixed by context. The main objection to this approach is that it must posit extremely strong pragmatic effects in the determination of that reference. I show how the semantics for modal terms I develop combines with the recent expressivist approach of MacFarlane and Williams (2016) and Charlow (forthcoming) to overcome this objection and offer a new expressivist semantics for deontic language.

No Presuppositional Disagreement for Metaethical Contextualists

Contextualist semantics often have trouble explaining how people disagree when they use context-sensitive terms. Recently, contextualists have sought to ground disagreement over modal utterances in their associated presuppositions. This paper focuses on the proposals of Silk (2016a,b,c) and Perl (2016), who undertake this strategy in defense of their semantics for deontic (and epistemic) modals. I argue that their proposals suffer from related flaws. First, both proposals locate moral disagreement in a proposition describing what is morally required, independently of what the disputants believe is morally required, which I call the objectivity proposition. I argue that objectivity propositions make their contextualist proposals redundant. Second, I argue that both proposals’ attempts to secure disagreement go too far, predicting disagreement where disputants are intuitively talking past one another. I conclude by diagnosing the source of these defects in the particular way that each proposal deviates from the seminal semantics of Kratzer (1977, 1981, 1991, 2012) on which they are based.

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