1. Research Foci and Goals

My research focuses on issues at the intersection of ethics (both normative ethics and metaethics) and philosophy of action.  The basic idea that guides my research is the following: examining the central features of agency will inform our answers to fundamental questions about our moral and political obligations to others, the nature of moral motivation and normative reasons as well as the kinds of reasons we have to value our capacity for full-blooded agency.  In pursuit of this idea, my research has two foci:

  • Non-Standard Forms and Expressions of Agency: our understanding of agency ought to include not simply fully developed, rational humans but also collective agents, non-human animal agents and those aspects of human agency that fall below full-blooded agency.
  • The Nature of Moral Agency and its Import for Metaethics: our distinctive agential capacities are understood through the lens of their import for understanding moral deliberation, moral motivation, normative reasons and moral truth.

In light of each of these areas of research, I have the following goals:

  • To produce a more descriptively accurate account of the diverse range of kinds of agency as well as a more fine-grained picture of its upper and lower limits.
  • To provide a clearer and more complete account of our capacity for (moral) motivation, the nature of normative reasons and the kind of reasons we have to value of our capacity for full-blooded agency.
  •  To bring the resources of a complete, fine-grained view of human agency to bear on metaethical questions.

2. Non-Standard Forms and Expressions of Agency

I explore two forms of agency that fall outside of the bounds of our traditional view of human agency: (1) shared and collective agency; (2) non-human animal agency and its relationship to less-than-ideal expressions of human agency.

2.1. Shared and Collective Agency

In recent years, collective agency and responsibility have received a great deal of attention.  My research in philosophy of action explores the nature and possibility of shared intention.  I use these arguments to draw out the normative implications of these views for theories of collective responsibility and for the nature of other-regarding moral attitudes, such as respect and recognition.

In “Shared Intention and Reasons for Action” (2015, Philosophy of the Social Sciences), I consider whether views about shared intention run awry of the traditional analogy between what makes shared intentional action intentional and what makes individual intentional action intentional.  Most theories of intentional action agree that if acting for a reason is a necessary condition for the action in question to be an intentional action, the reason need not genuinely justify it.  The same should hold for shared intentional action.  I argue that, by virtue of the common knowledge condition for shared intention, proponents of these accounts turn out to claim—often implicitly—that shared intention is possible only if the participating agents form their intentions on the grounds of genuinely rational considerations.  In this sense, they “over-rationalize,” as I call it, shared intention.  As a result, I show that these arguments are forced to accept the following untenable claim: instances of shared intention must be instances of genuinely rational intentional action, whereas individual intentional actions need not be.

In ““Shared Goals, Shared Intentions and the Problem of Circularity,” I consider a solution to a well-known problem for some accounts of shared intention and joint action.  As Frederick Stoutland (1997) and Björn Petersson (2007) make clear in their respective challenges to Michael Bratman’s view, accounts of shared intention tread close to vicious circularity. They do so by introducing attitudinal states toward sharing an intention such as “I intend that we act together” as necessary conditions for intentions to be shared.  Call this The Circularity Problem.  My suggestion in this paper is that the worry about circularity is sufficiently serious to warrant trying to build an account that does not require these sorts of attitudinal states.  But can we do so while retaining the distinctive features of shared intention?  I consider whether we can build an account of shared intention on the grounds of agents’ possessing intersecting and interdependent goals under conditions of common knowledge.  By developing a sufficiently robust account of goals, including showing why they are subject to rational requirements in much the same way as intentions, I demonstrate that they can indeed take the place of the circularity-producing intentions.

My research on shared agency also considers the normative aspects of shared intention.  In “What We Can Intend: Recognition and Collective Intentionality” (2016, The Southern Journal of Philosophy), I consider whether other-regarding moral attitudes, such as respect and recognition, have a special status that requires that we undertake them together in order for them to be fully realized.  Although we do not commonly hold this to be true of respect (I can respect someone even if she fails to respect me), I suggest that a more complete understanding of the moral import of recognition reveals a different demand for genuine mutually-regarding (and ultimately collectively held) attitudes of regard for one another.  To do so, I challenge the received view of recognition in political philosophy and ethics.  In political philosophy, it is often part of a communitarian response to liberal theories of distributive justice.  There, it describes what it means to respect others’ right to self-determination.  In ethics, Stephen Darwall argues that it comprises our judgment that we owe others moral consideration.  I present a competing account of recognition on the grounds that most accounts answer the question of why others deserve recognition without answering the question of what is involved in recognizing them.  This paper answers the latter.  I argue that, in general, recognition is something that we do to others rather than something that we think about others.  In particular, recognition is an intentional action to treat another individual as a legitimate, self-determining agent.  I then show that recognition’s realizability requires that agents understand their intentions as dependent on others for their satisfaction.  Thus, relations of recognition are instances of collective intentionality.

Most recently, I have considered the relationship between views about collective responsibility and collective agency in “How I Learned to Worry About the Spaghetti Western: Collective Responsibility and Collective Agency” (2017, Analysis).  One exciting development in the literature on collective agency concerns whether collective, non-distributive responsibility can be assigned to non-agents, such as crowds and nation-states.  In this paper, I focus on the underappreciated and interesting case of arguments that derive substantive metaphysical and ontological conclusions about the nature of collective agents (or non-agents) from these attributions.  I provide two arguments showing why this order of inference fails.  I show that if we accept it, we are forced, implausibly, either to grant that non-agential collectives engage in actions or to deny the traditional claim that we can only be held responsible for actions rather than events.  But even if one denies this point, I show that this order of inference does not generate a generalizable, reliable conclusion about the kind of entity that is the plausibly responsible party.  In particular, a group may lack agency in a given instance, be non-distributively responsible in that same instance and yet be a collective agent across time.  I further explore aspects of collective responsibility for an invited chapter entitled “Commitments and Collective Responsibility,” which has been accepted for publication in the Routledge Handbook of Collective Responsibility (eds. Saba Bazargan-Forward and Deborah Tollefsen).

2.2. Non-Human Animal Agency and Less-Than-Ideal Human Agency

My interest in cases of agency that fall outside of the bounds of the traditional, familiar case of the human agent extends to non-human animal agency.  In particular, I consider its relationship to the intuition that actual human agency is frequently less than ideal, less than full-blooded and frequently subject to mistakes, errors and the like.  My interest in this topic began with my paper “Ideal Agents and Minimum Agents,” which I presented as a Refereed Symposium at the Pacific APA and that is in preparation for submission.

In a series of papers co-authored with Daniel J. Povinelli (University of Louisiana), I take on the question of non-human primate agency.  In “Chimps as Secret Agents” (2016, Synthese), we provide an account of chimpanzee-specific agency that avoids the tangled debate about non-human animals’ capacities for propositional thought.  We do so by showing that chimpanzees are capable of what we call reason-directed action, even though they may be incapable of more full-blown action, which we call reason-considered action.  Although chimpanzee agency does not possess all the features of typical adult human agency, chimpanzee agency is evolutionarily responsive to its environment and overlaps considerably with our capacities.  As such, it is an evolved set of capacities for goal-directed behavior, which solves problems that chimpanzees (and humans) naturally encounter.  Thus, it ought not be understood simply as a deficient instance of human agency.

We extend and expand upon this argument as it applies to human agents in “Two Ways of Relating to (and Acting for) Reasons” (2018, Mind & Language).  We suggest that a full account of acting for reasons must also recognize the various types of relationships that agents have with their reasons.  We focus on two types.  The first is the traditional case, where agents act in light of reasons that they take to be their own and that they endorse.  We call this the Endorsement Relationship.  A second way of relating to reasons is what we call a Directed Relationship with one’s reasons.  This includes cases in which agents’ actions are the product of reasons but toward which agents do not have an Endorsement Relationship.  The Endorsement Relationship is uncontroversial.  In this paper, we defend the existence and importance of the Directed Relationship.


3. The Nature of Moral Agency and its Import for Metaethics

The concern that animates the research described in §2 is largely what I have called ‘theoretical’ or descriptive. These theoretical concerns lead naturally to questions concerning the ‘practical,’ or normative, features of agency.  As I describe below, my research on moral agency aims to clarify the central features of this capacity (e.g., what it means to be motivated to act) such that we can answer central questions about moral truth in metaethics.

3.1. Theories of Motivation, Cognitivism and Moral Anti-Realism

This area of my research is anchored by my paper “What Kind of Theory is the Humean Theory of Motivation?” (2017, Ratio).  There, I consider an underappreciated problem for proponents of the Humean theory of motivation (HTM).  Namely, it is unclear whether is it to be understood as a largely psychological or largely metaphysical theory.  I show that the psychological interpretation of HTM will need to be modified in order to be a tenable view and, as it will turn out, the modifications required render it virtually philosophically empty.  I then argue that the largely metaphysical interpretation is the only plausible interpretation of the Humean theory’s central claim that desires are necessary conditions for motivation.  This interpretation also fits better with the important roles that HTM plays in both moral psychological and metaethical debates.

In “What the Humean Theory of Motivation Gets Wrong” (Accepted, The Journal of Philosophical Research), I show that defenses of the Humean theory of motivation (HTM) often rely on a mistaken assumption.  They assume that desires are necessary conditions for being motivated to act because desires (and other non-cognitive states) themselves have a special, essential, necessary feature, such as their world-to-mind direction of fit, that enables them to motivate.  Call this the Desire-Necessity Claim.  Beliefs (and other cognitive states) cannot have this feature, so they cannot motivate.  Or so the story goes.  I show that the route by which a Humean defends this claim has a surprising and unintended result.  Namely, the Humean ends up denying that the Desire-Necessity Claim is true.  In doing so, she grants that it is at least equally plausible, if not more plausible, to claim that desires are not able to motivate by virtue of what they necessarily possess.  Instead, desires contingently possess features that enable them to do so, such as their relative strength (among others).  One notable implication of this argument is that it is reasonable to ask whether beliefs and other cognitive states can possess the same (or a functionally equivalent) contingent, motivation-producing features.  As I outline in §4.5 below, I have two planned papers where I will develop an answer to this question.

3.2. Normative Reasons

Just as motivation figures both in a descriptive account of agency as well as in metaethical debates, so too do normative reasons.  Here my interest lies in showing that a better theory of rationality will provide the beginnings of a clearer and more ecumenical view of how considerations have normative force.

In “Normative Reasons, Deliberation and the Wide-Scope of Rationality” (in preparation), I argue that, contrary to appearances, there is one feature of normative reasons upon which (at least non-Humean) reasons internalists and externalists can agree.  That is, they can agree upon what I will call the Kantian Thought that rationality has requirements of its own, which play a non-trivial role in determining whether a reason is normative.  I argue that the most promising view of rationality to fill this role is the wide-scope view of rational requirements, such as that defended by John Broome.  If the requirements of rationality are understood in this way, how then are we to understand normative reasons and their ability to compel us to act?  Following Star and Kearns (2008), I argue that normative reasons are facts or, as they put it, evidence in favor of or against f-ing. I then show that, for the non-Humean reasons internalist, reasons’ normative force is generated by our understanding of the relevant facts about our desires, preferences, etc. insofar as they are relevant for our deliberations about f-ing.  For the reasons externalist, reasons’ normative force is generated by our understanding of the facts that we judge to apply to deliberative questions about f-ing.  This view meets both the externalists’ claim that reasons are dependent on facts of the matter and the internalists’ claim that reasons bear a special relationship with our internal deliberative and/or motivational states.

3.3. The Value of Agency, Constitutivism and Metaethical Constructivism

Another aspect of my research in metaethics focuses on the question of agency’s value and import.  I explore this issue on its own, as well as in the context of constitutivist views of agency and metaethical constructivist views.

In “Why Care About Being An Agent?” (2017, Australasian Journal of Philosophy), I argue that there is a non-constitutive set of reasons to care about our capacity for agency.  The question ‘Why care about being an agent?’ asks for reasons to be something that appears to be non-optional.  But perhaps it is closer to the question ‘Why be moral?,’ or so I argue.  Here the constitutivist answer—that we cannot help but have this aim—seems to be the best answer available.  I suggest that regardless of whether constitutivism is true, it is an incomplete answer.  I argue that we should instead answer the question by looking at our evaluative commitments to the exercise of our other various capacities for which being a full-blown agent is a necessary condition.  Thus, the only kind of reason available is hypothetical rather than categorical.  The status of this reason may seem to undermine the importance of this answer.  I show, however, that it both achieves much of what we want when we cite categorical reasons and it highlights why agency is valuable.

For some philosophers, notably (some) constitutivists, we can ground a theory of moral truth and the normative requirements incumbent upon us by producing a more complete view of the proper nature and expression of our agential capacities.  In “Constitutivism and the Self-Reflection Requirement” (2016, Philosophia), I consider an underappreciated aspect of the constitutivist’s argument in defense of this thesis. Constitutivists explicitly emphasize the importance of self-reflection for rational agency and, thereby, for grounding constitutivism’s metaethical promise.  Interestingly enough, there is no clear account of how and whether self-reflection should play(s) this role.  In this paper, my aim is to clarify how self-reflection might play this role and to determine whether it is necessarily normatively oriented.  I conclude that constitutivism can rely on self-reflection to be what I refer to as Weakly Normatively Oriented.  Namely, it can only justifiably take self-reflection to produce non-moral pressure to consider the kinds of motives and reasons that inform one’s actions in light of one’s non-moral aim to be an autonomous agent. Thus it cannot guarantee or even provide a necessary condition for the metaethical promise that some constitutivists take their view to have.

In “The Varieties of Moral Improvement, or Why Constructivism Must Explain Moral Progress” (2017, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice), I argue that, surprisingly, metaethical constructivism has at least as pressing a need to explain moral progress as moral realism does.  I take moral progress to be, minimally, the opportunity to access and to act in light of moral facts of the matter, whether they are mind-independent or -dependent.  For the metaethical constructivist, I add that moral progress ought also mean that agents come to be or could come to be motivated to act in light of the right kind of moral judgments.  Together I take this to mean that, for all forms of constructivism, moral progress must be explained as a form of moral improvement, or agents aspiring to be better sorts of moral agents.  I then consider how (and whether) this requirement is met by three different versions of metaethical constructivism: Humean constructivists as represented by Sharon Street (2008; 2010; 2012), Kantian constitutivist constructivists as represented by Christine Korsgaard and constructivists about practical reason as represented by Carla Bagnoli (2002; 2013).

4. Current and Future Research 

My current and future research extends the aforementioned foci that I have pursued thus far in my career, namely: Non-Standard Forms and Expressions of Agency and The Nature of Moral Agency and its Import for Metaethics.

I have two projects that treat these foci together.  The first develops further my view of the non-idealized aspects of human agency in the context of a richer, more descriptively accurate theory of practical reason (§4.1). The second further explores a phenomenon I dub “failures of agency,” or how best to understand various kinds of less than full-blooded expressions of agency (§4.2).

In the context of The Nature of Moral Agency and its Import for Metaethics, I have two papers that  consider whether moral standing is, at its base, also a metaethical concept and, more broadly, whether it can be used to vindicate naturalist moral realism (§4.3).

Drawing on my earlier work on the nature of moral agency, I also plan to pursue the question of whether all putative moral facts of the matter (e.g., justice, suffering, harm, etc.) are similar in kind.  This question is guided by the work that I have undertaken on constitutivism and metaethical constructivism in that these views contend that moral facts might be grounded in aspects of human agency rather than in the world.  I take this insight to point to a much more general problem for moral realist views.  Namely, might there be a difference in kind among moral facts such that a moral realist vindication of the existence of one kind of moral fact (namely, mind-independent ones such as fairness) cannot be translated into a vindication of other kinds of moral facts (namely, facts such as suffering that are at least partially known through first-person experience)? (§4.4)

Finally, drawing on my work on the Humean theory of motivation, I will provide a positive defense of the claim that both desires and beliefs can motivate by virtue of sharing (some of) the same contingent, motivation-producing characteristics.  In so doing, I provide a defense of motivational cognitivism, and, thereby, a natural route to undermining moral anti-realism’s reliance on motivational non-cognitivism. (§4.5)


4.1. Practical Reason

My monograph in preparation, Enriching Practical Reason, focuses on an underappreciated problem with the idealized picture of practical reason (and, thereby, practically rational agency).  My aim is twofold: first, to provide a descriptive account of the nature of attitudes such as endorsements, commitments and the upshots of the process of self-reflection that do not typically figure in an idealized picture of the practically rational agent and are often thought to undermine practical deliberation; second, to determine when (if at all), we have good reason to appeal to these attitudes as weighting considerations in our practical deliberation.  My suggestion is that a better understanding of the nature of these attitudes—namely, their distinctive features—will demonstrate that they do not hinder practical reason; rather, they actually enrich it, at least when we have independently good reasons to adopt them.  I have already begun work on this project while a Guest Researcher at the University of Oslo’s Center for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN) in May-June 2016 and May-June 2017.  I am continuing working on this project while I serve as an Academic Visitor at ANU (July-August 2019)

I will apply the conclusions of my monograph in the planned paper “Normative Reasons, Moral Particularism and Future Commitments.” There, I will explore whether engaging in actions done for distinctively moral reasons establishes future commitments to act in ways consistent with those reasons.  I then consider the import of this argument for determining the plausibility of moral particularism’s claims that moral reasons do not generalize.

4.2. Revisiting Questions About the Nature of Agency

In the future, I will continue to pursue my line of research concerning non-standard forms of agency.  In particular, I will aim to close a gap that exists in the literature (and that my own published work highlights) regarding two central questions.  First, what is the nature of the capacity for agency, given that it is a set of bundled necessary and sufficient capacities?  Second, what constitutes failing to exercise our agential capacities?

In a planned paper entitled “What Kind of Property is the Capacity for Agency?,” I explore the metaphysical status of the capacity for agency.  In this project, I focus on what it means to “have” or possess the capacity for agency.   There is a gap between explaining the features or expressions of agency and understanding agents as types of individual entities who possess certain properties that we call the capacity for agency.  Drawing on Khadri Vihvelin’s (2004) account of bundled dispositions, I argue that agency’s metaphysical status is best understood as the dispositional ability to unite the individually necessary and sufficient capacities for agency and jointly deploy them.  In this regard, I challenge the commonly held view that agency is itself a property of agents.  Instead, it is something that they do rather than something that they are.

I will also provide an account of a phenomenon I dub “failures of agency.”  To explain cases where things go awry when individuals act as agents, philosophers of action often appeal to the finking and masking of dispositions or capacities for agency.  They use these terms as a catchall to describe the misfiring, broadly understood, of the exercise of capacities or dispositions that are necessary and sufficient for agency.  Sometimes this misfiring is a product of internal interference—say, by competing dispositions that the agent has—while in other cases it is the product of external interference.  But finks and masks are not sufficiently broad to explain what I will characterize as failures of agency.  In “What is Agential Failure?,” I defend the claim that failures are what we might call local failures that then affect the exercise of at least one of the capacities necessary for agency and thereby have a downstream effect on the generalized capacity for agency of which it is a part.

4.3. The Metaethical Underpinnings of Moral Standing

Although much ink has been spilled about the status of mind-independent moral facts, surprisingly little attention has been paid to an important feature of the moral landscape.  This feature is moral standing, whereby individuals gain the standing to deserve moral consideration and, more strongly, are moral rights bearers.  In this area of my research, I explore the metaethical underpinnings of moral standing.

Debates about moral standing typically focus on whether personhood or the capacity for suffering is necessary and sufficient for being a moral rights bearer.  Interestingly enough, debates about personhood often take the capacity for autonomy or, more broadly, agency to stand in for personhood (e.g., Korsgaard 1996; 2009; Martin 2006; McMahan 2005; Liao 2010; Regan 2004/1984; but compare with Warren 1997). Yet for this type of argument to work, it is necessary to show why the fact that an individual is an agent is morally significant such that it renders beings who possess such a capacity moral rights bearers.  This requires a broader theory about moral standing that does not collapse agency into personhood.  That is, we need a theory of agency’s moral importance that treats agency as sufficient for moral standing rather than merely a necessary condition for personhood.  In my paper in preparation, “Agency, Personhood and the Metaethical Grounds of Moral Status,” I provide such an argument.  To do so, I show that the designation ‘agent’ represents an independent moral ground for moral standing and is thus an evaluatively thick term.

In “Why Moral Status Matters for Metaethics” (2018, Journal of the American Philosophical Association), I consider whether a theory of moral standing can provide a route to vindicating the claims of the (naturalist) moral realist in much the same way that the Humean theory of motivation and judgment internalism are often used to undermine them.  But to be vindicatory in this way, I show that naturalist moral realist can explain moral standing in ecumenical terms that do not already favor a moral realist picture of moral facts.

4.4. Moral Facts: Are They All the Same in Kind?

In my paper in preparation, “The Metaethical Problem of Suffering,” I consider another underappreciated problem for understanding the metaethical underpinnings of moral standing.  Moral philosophers have a long history of regarding suffering to be a ground-level, morally relevant fact.  The metaphysical and epistemic status of moral facts has preoccupied naturalist moral realists and metaethicists more generally.  Yet it is unclear whether moral facts about first-person experiences such as suffering are similar in kind to mind-independent moral facts, such as those about fairness.  In this regard, an argument vindicating the latter may not be able to fully vindicate the former.  Minimally, we cannot treat all putative moral facts as presenting the same kind of metaphysical and epistemic burdens for metaethics.  This observation sheds light on what I show is an underappreciated metaethical problem—namely, suffering’s status as a moral fact about which we can have moral knowledge, which I call the Metaethical Problem of Suffering.  In this paper, I argue that a constrained version of what are called full information accounts of the good provides the best model for solving the problem.

4.5 Motivation, Cognitivism and The Guise of the Good 

My current and future research in this area extends the line of argument that I developed in showing that the Humean theory of motivation (HTM) is implausible as a primarily psychological theory (and should instead be treated as a metaphysical theory) and that it cannot deliver on its claim that desires necessarily motivate.  Given that HTM is often used to vindicate various forms of moral anti-realism or, at the very least, to raise questions about whether moral (cognitive) judgments can motivate us directly to act, my research provides the space for developing a defense of motivational cognitivism and, thereby, to consider the broader metaethical implications of such an argument.

In a series of papers (tentatively entitled “Desires, Motivation and Contingency” and “Why (Some) Beliefs Motivate”), I focus on two aspects of motivation, both of which seek to challenge the received Humean view that desires are individually necessary for motivation.  First, I consider whether cognitivism about motivation—or the claim that we can be directly motivated to act in light of cognitive states such as beliefs—might be better defended by determining what desires and beliefs share (in at least some cases where they might be motivationally efficacious) rather than the ways in which they differ.  Second, I argue that both desires and beliefs, when they are able to motivate, share features that represent our judgment that we are doing something we ought to do.  That is, their capacity to motivate is indexed to our judgment that we are acting in ways that we take, in light of antecedent reasons, preferences and commitments, to represent a state of affairs that “ought to be pursued.”  In both cases, I compare what this feature shares with and how it differs from the standard guise of the good thesis (e.g., Gregory 2013; 2016; forthcoming; Raz 2010; Setiya 2010; Stocker 1979; Tenenbaum 2007; Velleman 1992).  If this argument is correct, then we have a natural route to proving that motivational cognitivism is true, while also granting that beliefs and desires motivate by virtue of (some of) the same contingent features.