My research is in moral psychology. I write on the topics of trust, promises, character, self-deception, and rationalization. I have also done work in bioethics (in particular, trust and consent) and the philosophy of art (in particular, fiction-directed emotion, imaginative resistance, and the autographic/allographic distiction).
Regarding trust, promises, and character, I am interested in such questions as: What sorts of considerations underwrite rational trust in others? What capacities must one believe that one has in order to make sincere promises and to responsibly invite the trust of others? What does it mean to trust well, and what are the moral stakes of distrust?
Regarding self-deception and rationalization, I am interested in such questions as: What is rationalization, and how does it differ from motivationally biased belief formation? Can rationalization be understood as a kind of performative pretense? Is it possible to pretend without knowing it?
I post some recent work to my Academia.edu page. You can also read a two-page summary of my research program or look at my C.V. for a complete list of publications. Feel free to email me for copies of papers.
Papers on Trust, Promising, and Character
Situationists such as John Doris, Gilbert Harman, and Maria Merritt suppose that appeal to reliable behavioral dispositions can be dispensed with without radical revision to morality as we know it. This paper challenges this supposition, arguing that abandoning hope in reliable dispositions rules out genuine trust and forces us to suspend core reactive attitudes of gratitude and resentment, esteem and indignation. By examining situationism through the lens of trust we learn something about situationism (in particular, the radically revisionary moral implications of its adoption) as well as something about trust (in particular, that the conditions necessary for genuine trust include a belief in a capacity for robust dispositions).
We maintain that in many contexts promising to try is expressive of responsibility as a promiser. This morally significant application of promising to try speaks in favor of the view that responsible promisers favor evidentialism about promises. Contra Marušić, we contend that responsible promisers typically withdraw from promising to act, and instead promise to try, in circumstances where they recognize that there is a significant chance that they will not succeed.
Situationists in moral philosophy infer from empirical studies in social psychology that human beings lack cross-situational behavioral consistency: that is, for the most part, we human beings are not able to act in the same trait-relevant way across a range of distinct types of situations, because those situational differences trigger differences in behavior. In this paper we defend the following thesis: one who accepts this conclusion (that is, one who judges that human beings in general are not possessed of behavioral consistency) cannot make a promise in good faith. This has serious consequences for the ethical institution of promising and its associated reactive attitudes
Papers on Deliberation, Rationalization, and Self-Deception
Self-Deception as Unwitting Pretense draft in progress | pdf
I defend the view, first advocated by Gendler (2007), that self-deception should be modeled as a form of imaginative pretense. The view faces a serious obstacle. It seems unaccountably mysterious that mere pretenders defend their self-deceptive commitments even when so doing undermines their own goals. If self-deceivers are just pretending, why don’t they stop when it no longer serves their purposes? I propose that this objection can be answered if we distinguish pretense that is witting from pretense that is unwitting. I analyze these two modes of pretense in terms of the subject’s differential access to the metacognitive representation that she is pretending. The revised model, self-deception as unwitting pretense, gives an explanation for three behavioral tendencies found among deeply conflicted self-deceivers: canny evasive maneuvers, a tendency to self-sabotage, and a tendency to abandon the self-deceptive posture when the stakes are raised high enough.
I distinguish the category of “rationalization” from various forms of epistemic irrationality. I maintain that only if we model rationalizers as pretenders can we make sense of the rationalizer’s distinctive relationship to the evidence in her posses- sion. I contrast the cognitive attitude of the rationalizer with that of believers whose relationship to the evidence I describe as “waffling” or “intransigent”. In the final section of the paper, I compare the rationalizer to the Frankfurtian bullshitter.
Rationalization in the sense of self-justification is a phenomenon very familiar to us all. It’s not cheating because everyone else is doing it too. I didn’t report the abuse because it wasn’t my place. I understated my income this year because I paid too much in tax last year. I’m only a social smoker, so I won’t get cancer.The mental mechanisms subserving rationalization have been studied closely by psychologists. However, when viewed against the backdrop of philosophical accounts of the regulative role of truth in doxastic deliberation (deliberation about what to believe), rationalization can look very puzzling. Almost all contemporary philosophers endorse a version of the thesis of deliberative exclusivity: a thinker cannot in full consciousness decide whether to believe that p in a way that issues directly in forming a belief by adducing anything other than considerations that she regards as relevant to the truth of p. But, as I argue, rationalization involves the weighing of considerations that the thinker knows very well are truth-irrelevant or inconclusive. This paper reconciles rationalization with deliberative exclusivity by modeling rationalization as a kind of performative pretense.
I argue for the existence of a category of practical reasons which I call ‘Deliberation-Volatile Reasons’ or ‘DVRs’. DVRs have the distinguishing feature that their status as reasons for action is diminished when they are weighed in deliberation by the agent. I argue that DVRs are evidence of ‘deliberative blind spots’. I submit that an agent manifests a peculiar kind of practical irrationality in so far as she endeavours to find a deliberative path to what she has reason to do, when the discovery of such a path renders the destination inaccessible. Michael Brownstein further develops these (and other) ideas to characterize hyperopic decision-making.
Papers in the Philosophy of Art
Nelson Goodman’s distinction between autographic and allographic arts is appealing, we suggest, because it promises to resolve several prima facie puzzles. We consider and rebut a recent argument which alleges that digital images explode the autographic/allographic distinction. Regardless, there is another familiar problem with the distinction, especially as Goodman formulates it: It seems to entirely ignore an important sense in which all art works are historical. We note in reply that some art works can be considered both as historical products and as a formal structures. Talk about such works is ambiguous between the two aspects. This allows us to recover Goodman’s distinction: Art forms which are ambiguous in this way are allographic. With that formulation settled, we argue that digital images are allographic. We conclude by considering the objection that digital photographs, unlike other digital images, would count as autographic by our criterion; we reply that this points to the vexed nature of photography rather than any problem with the distinction.
Preserving the Autographic/Allographic Distinction (with P.D. Magnus) forthcoming in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism | pdf
We reply to objections from John Zeimbekis that our account of the autographic/allographic distinction collapses. We maintain that while Zeimbekis’s arguments do challenge an element of Goodman’s own theory of notation that derives from his requirement of recoverability, Goodman’s requirement can be abandoned without losing the explanatory power of the autographic/allographic distinction as we have refined it.
Agency and Volition in Make-Believe Worlds forthcoming in How to Make Believe (DeGruyter) | pdf
I examine considerations adduced by philosopher J. David Velleman in favor of the view that Second Life Residents exercise real agency while animating their virtual bodies. I then argue that important disanalogies between Second Life and real life should give us pause in attributing full-blooded personhood, and therefore full-blooded agency, to Second Life Residents. In particular, I argue that Residents are less inclined to have volitions, desires about the content of their will, in the sense articulated by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. I argue that structural features of Second Life make individuals less inclined to care about their Second Life avatars in the same way that they care about their real lives. Finally, I point out ways that the analysis of agency in Second Life illuminates aspects of agency in the real world.