Research

Research Statement (PDF)

My primary research interests are in metaethics, applied ethics, philosophy of language, and epistemology mostly approached from a neo-pragmatist perspective. I also work on the origins of normativity and the philosophy of human rights and have interests in the study of race, gender, and social justice.

Dissertation

My dissertation fills a gap in the literature in metaethics. I develop a globally anti-representationalist, use-based semantics for deontic moral vocabulary by first building a framework that shows what it is that we want out of an account of meaning as use and then filling out that framework with an account of the pragmatic and inferential structure of deontic moral language, with a particular focus on the explanatory link between the function (in terms of utility) of moral language and the contours of its use. Along the way, I solve (or dissolve) a number of classic problems in metaethics including how moral judgments can be both cognitive and inherently motivating, what distinguishes moral judgments from other practical judgments, and how we ought to think about the objectivity of moral discourse. Click here to read the abstract.

Current and Future Projects

In my current work, I am exploring the relationship between trust and the standing hold others accountable to shared moral norms. The standing to hold accountable is integral to well-functioning social practices, but standing is often undermined by a lack of trust among members of the social group. In particular, when agents either have reason to distrust or no reason to trust that those whose standing they recognize will reciprocally recognize their own standing to hold accountable, then, I argue, it is rational for them to withhold recognition. In such cases, recognizing the other’s standing to hold one accountable would institute a kind of hierarchical relationship that threatens the recognizer’s agency.

Engaging with work on blame, holding, and responsibility as well as in speech-act theory and normative pragmatics, I argued in “Trust, Communities, and the Standing to Hold Accountable” that this breakdown of trust helps to explain why so many of us met with rejections of standing when we tried to hold old friends, family, and other acquaintances accountable for their support of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election. I am currently working to extend this reasoning to an account of hypocrisy in “Hypocrisy as a Failure of Trust.” In both papers, I explore the idea that the relevant sort of trust is built up in relationships in which the parties have myriad opportunities for low-stakes holding in the context of shared projects and social, community, and civic organizations.

My plan is to continue developing this project by exploring the implications for our moral practices of the decline in participation in such organizations documented in the work of Robert Putnam and others. I also want to examine the relationship between these phenomenon, the growing prominence of social media, and social media call-out culture. My working hypothesis is that while social media facilitates massive social interconnectedness, it does not provide a venue for the kind of low-stakes holdings that generate trust. Every attempt at holding accountable on social media is a potential public shaming. If this is right, then we might understand the growing popularity of call-outs, draggings, and pilings-on as kind of communal response to a general lack of recognition of standing to hold accountable.

In a separate research project that evolved out of my dissertation, I am thinking about an under-discussed and under-theorized bifurcation in our use of the term ‘moral’ and its cognates. When talking about morality we might be talking about actual human moral systems (religious or cultural codes of conduct) or we might have in mind any sort of reasoning that seems appropriate to deciding how to act when our actions affect others or, perhaps, things that are valued by others. In fact, we often take actual human moral systems like codes of honor or systems of religious morality to be both authoritative yet open to criticism on moral grounds. In this way, moral discourse seems to function as a mechanism both of enforcement and of revolution. The practices of deploying extant moral systems, I want to argue, is ontologically dependent on the more basic practice of moral discourse (in the general sense). By applying the framework for use-based analyses of meaning that I have developed in my dissertation, I hope to show that various pragmatic and epistemic features of moral assertions (in the general sense) make them particularly well suited to be adapted (or coopted) for the use we find for them in cultural and religious codes of conduct.