Research Statement

AENEAS: Dido loves Aeneas, and she threatens to kill herself when he decides to leave her in the pursuit of his fate as the future founder of Rome. Aeneas has moral reasons to stay – staying with Dido is almost certainly what Aeneas has the most and mightiest moral reasons to do. And yet we may be inclined to resist the thought that Aeneas has a duty to stay. Afterall, no one should be held hostage by a former lover’s threats.When Aeneas leaves Dido, he chooses a suberogatory action, an action that is morally permissible yet has moral considerations counting against it and possibly none in favor (one’s own glory is not, afterall, a moral reason to act). 

We make many prima facie incongruent moral assessments like this, and existing moral frameworks have difficulty accounting for them without making significant compromises. I take a conciliatory approach to hitherto intractable debates in contemporary moral philosophy by vindicating apparently incongruent intuitions about moral assessments, which are grounded in opposing philosophical perspectives. I contend they are compatible when integrated into a moral theory at different levels, even when the tensions stem from apparently contradicting moral frameworks, such as those between consequentialism and deontology or between proponents of absolute duties and pro tanto duties.

In my dissertation, The Unified Account of Moral Assessment,I propose that the proper understanding of the conceptual relationships between various puzzling moral phenomena and their corresponding moral assessments reveals underlying unity in our patterns of assessment, providing evidence fora new moral framework. The key distinction underpinning this framework lies between wrongness (or rightness) and moral permissibility. I propose that each is a distinct type of act-assessment used for assessing different features of actions – one of which is made by appeal to the objective features of the action alone and one of which is made by appeal to the agent’s motivations in addition. Permissibility, I argue, is an assessment of a latter sort because of its close relationship to assessments of moral justification. What we know a bout permissibility in several puzzling scenarios impose constraints on justification that are not accommodated by existing views. While all existing accounts hold that morally justified actions are shown to be non-wrong, I argue that moral justification proves morally permissible actions are morally adequate despite their moral failings. I argue that wrong actions are sometimes justified and therefore morally permissible. One upshot of this argument is the possibility of Permissible-Wrong Action – morally permissible actions that are nonetheless morally wrong.

Applying Permissible-Wrong Action, I explain the possibility genuine moral dilemmas by arguing that conflicts between two absolute duties are practically resolvable if we are sometimes permitted to act even when so acting is prohibited by a duty and therefore wrong. The project also intervenes in a range of other debates in contemporary ethics. I offer a principled vindication of the Doctrine of Double Effect as the natural consequence of a framework like mine. My account of justification helps us make sense of moral residue and the problem of dirty hands, since justified wrong actions are a clear source of “moral remainder.” I also plan to address applied ethical issues, such as abortion and euthanasia (also likely Permissible-Wrong Actions), simultaneously making sense of seemingly unrelated curiosities inaction theory and experimental philosophy (Knobe Effect cases). My approach reveals an underlying unification to a wide variety competing intuitions about these moral phenomena – a sort of unification no other philosopher has previously identified.

I am currently preparing chapters from this dissertation as publishable articles. “The Adequacy Account of Justification” will most likely be ready for submission in the spring of 2019, while several other papers are in the pipeline. I am preparing a paper on“The Asymmetrical Account of Permissibility,” in which I present a novel account of moral permissibility. I am also preparing a paper on “Permissible-Wrong Action,” in which I finally deploy my account of moral permissibility in order to explain the possibility of Permissible-Wrong Action. In addition, I am working on a semi-independent piece on “The Realm of the Erogatory,” in which I argue that suberogation and supererogation are the natural upshots of proposing the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. Conference drafts of these papers are currently available, and I workshop these pieces at professional conferences, such as the APA, as they develop.

My next project, Distinctively Moral Harms and the Limits of Duty, follows from my dissertation research. It is a part of my larger research agenda to develop a consequentialist moral theory that is nonetheless overall consistent with deontic intuitions about wrongness. I motivate the project as follows. We should avoid harming people. Regardless of one’s particular political or philosophical orientation, we are all likely to agree that if we can prevent a terrorist attack without torture, then we should avoid torture.If we can deter unwanted immigration without separating immigrant children from their families, then we should avoid child-separation at the border. While the moral prohibition on harm is a simple call for common decency, we have difficulty making sense of it.

Harm plays asymmetric roles in different moral theories. While consequentialists think the harmful consequences of actions have a special moral significance and should be avoided, they often permit harmful actions for the greater good. Meanwhile, deontologists argue that the specific harmful consequences of actions do not ground our duties, yet their theories yield the strongest prohibitions on harmful action. However, neither sort of view satisfactorily accommodates the intuition that an adequate moral theory must: (1) explain the special moral significance of harm, and (2) yield a strong prohibition on harmful action. As a result, ethicists send mixed messages about the moral significance of harm.Without an adequate analysis of harm, we lack an understanding of the link between harm and the duties prohibiting harmful action. My project closes the gap by developing a view on the special significance of distinctively moral harms and arguing that our consent practices demarcate the limits of duty. This project will yield two papers – “Distinctively Moral Harms” and “The Limits of Duty” – which I will begin drafting when the articles yielded by the dissertation are ready for submission to journals.

Overall, my research agenda aims to shake-up traditional approaches to long-standing debates in ethics. Even in the face of critical opponents, the flurry of original views I have on offer will hopefully inspire new ways of thinking about these debates.If we make even a little progress in some of these conversations, we have a lotto gain, especially in terms of understanding deeply felt moral phenomena like moral dilemmas, which have long been hard to defend philosophically. Since Agamemnon, Orestes, and their ilk, we have needed these tools, and I am offering them.    

Aeneas and Dido