- “Moral Uncertainty and Value Comparison,” in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Volume 13, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (forthcoming)
- “A Priorism in Moral Epistemology” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- “Particularism Doesn't Flatten,” in the Journal of Moral Philosophy
Moral Fetishism and Responding to Reasons
According to “moral hedging,” one ought to exercise caution when one is morally uncertain. However, some philosophers have recently argued that moral hedging requires that one exhibit the wrong kind of moral concern (namely, de dicto, as opposed to de re, moral concern). Call this objection the “fetishism objection” to moral hedging. Proponents of the fetishism objection often draw from a reasons-responsiveness account of the moral worth of actions, according to which (roughly) an action has moral worth only if one is motivated to perform that action by the reasons that morally justify the action.
In my paper, I examine the relationship between the reasons-responsiveness view and the moral fetishism objection. First, I argue that one can consistently accept the reasons-responsiveness view while also accepting that one ought to exercise caution when morally uncertain; one can accept both by adopting a particular account of what we have moral reason to do. Second, I describe the two types of moral fetishism that are objectionable by the lights of a reasons-responsiveness account, and argue that moral hedging need not involve either type.
Ultimately, I hope to show that those of us who accept reasons-responsiveness views about moral worth can accommodate the idea that epistemic humility—even about moral matters—is a moral virtue.
The Limits of Subjective Moral Obligation
Philosophers often distinguish between objective and subjective moral obligations, where the latter are moral obligations that one has in light of one's beliefs or evidence. Philosophers usually treat subjective moral obligations as the moral obligations that track an agent's moral culpability.
There's some debate, however, about how far subjective obligations—and exculpation—can go. For example, what happens if one has misleading evidence for a false moral proposition? Could one be exculpated for torturing people simply because one is acting in accordance with a subjective moral obligation? Can someone “get off the hook” for anything, at least in principle, simply by having a misleading body of evidence? The literature on this is split into two camps. One camp says that only non-moral false beliefs can lead to exculpating subjective moral obligations, and that false moral beliefs do not exculpate. The other camp says that all types of beliefs can lead to exculpating subjective moral obligations. Thus, their disagreement is about whether one could ever be exculpated by being morally mistaken.
I want to propose a different solution to this puzzle, although my solution is compatible with the first camp's view. My solution is this: there are certain sorts of actions one can never be subjectively morally obligated to perform, and certain moral propositions that one can never be subjectively morally obligated to believe. That is, I hold that there are constraints on subjective moral obligations, and thus constraints on exculpation. But I don't want to go so far as to say that one is never exculpated by being morally mistaken.
I get to this conclusion by way of a two-stage argument. In the first stage, I argue that one never has moral reason to violate a “moral fixed point.” In the second stage, I argue that one can only be subjectively obligated to do what one has moral reason to do. Thus, one can never have a subjective moral obligation to violate a moral fixed point (and thus is never exculpated for violating one). However, there could be other moral propositions—propositions that are not moral fixed points—that one can still be subjectively obligated to violate.
Moral Recklessness and Collective Action
I plan to argue that the rational and moral permissibility of taking moral uncertainty into account in the course of moral deliberation (in an attempt to avoid moral recklessness) can justify certain kinds of consumer behavior. Consequentialists often try to justify boycotting insensitive markets (markets that do not respond to the demands of an individual consumer, or to the demands of a small number of consumers) by appealing to the existence of thresholds at which reduced consumer demand will reduce production. However, I argue that these appeals to thresholds fail—in order for one to justify boycotting an insensitive market by appealing to the existence of such a threshold, one would also have to make one of several implausible assumptions about the behavior of other consumers. However, I do not conclude that it's irrational for one to boycott an insensitive market when one is uncertain about the behavior of other consumers; instead, I argue that one can reasonably boycott such a market in an attempt to avoid moral recklessness.
The Burden of Proof in Moral Debates
I plan to argue that moral recklessness—even moral recklessness that results from a failure to attend to one's moral uncertainty—can affect on whom the burden of proof falls in moral debates. There are plausible, often ignored dialectical principles that suggest that when one party in a moral debate is behaving in a way that’s prima facie reckless, the burden of proof falls on that party. The combination of these views—that one can be reckless under conditions of moral uncertainty, and that recklessness affects on whom the burden of proof falls—challenges the standard view about the burden of proof in moral debates, and has implications for how we answer certain questions in applied ethics.
Moral Uncertainty and Non-Ideal Moral TheoryI would like to develop a larger project in which I explore the relationship between moral uncertainty, subjective/objective moral obligation, and non-ideal moral theory.
Moral Uncertainty and Value Comparison
Several philosophers have recently argued that decision-theoretic frameworks for rational choice under risk fail to provide prescriptions for choice in cases of moral uncertainty (where moral uncertainty is an epistemic state in which one's credences are divided between moral propositions). They conclude from this that there are no rational norms that are “sensitive” to moral uncertainty. This conclusion is surprising; if it's correct, then there's no rational requirement that moral uncertainty affect one's moral deliberation, even if one cares about acting in accordance with moral norms.
In this paper, I argue that one has a rational obligation to take one's moral uncertainty into account in the course of deliberation (at least in some cases). I first provide positive motivation for the view that one's moral beliefs can affect what it's rational for one to choose. I then address the problem of value comparison, which shows that when we're uncertain between competing moral propositions, we cannot determine the expected moral value of our actions. I argue that we should not infer from the problem of value comparison that there are no rational norms governing choice under moral uncertainty; even if there is no way of determining the “expected moral value” of one's actions in cases of moral uncertainty, a morally-motivated decision-maker can still have preferences over lotteries that entail the existence of rational requirements for choice.
The A Priori in Moral Epistemology
My doctoral dissertation was on moral particularism, the view (roughly speaking) that moral generalizations shouldn’t play a role in moral theory.
There are two kinds of moral particularism: eliminativism, according to which there exist no true moral principles, and abstinence, according to which one should never use moral principles in moral deliberation. In my dissertation, I argue that while at least one version of eliminativism is defensible, abstinence is untenable; however, I only take a few steps towards developing what I think is a good particularist theory of moral deliberation.
I published a paper in the Journal of Moral Philosophy titled “Particularism Doesn't Flatten,” which was based on a chapter of my dissertation.