Reason: Theoretical and Practical
As a PhD student at Rutgers and a post-doctoral lecturer in the Normativity: Epistemic and Practical project, my research focused on questions about reasons, rationality, and normativity that cut across ethics and epistemology, and on how ideas from value theory and the philosophy of practical reason could be used to illuminate topics in epistemology, (especially the nature and value of rationality, justification, and knowledge).
While much of my research since becoming a permanent lecturer at Southampton has been a smooth continuation of these older interests, the range has been expanding to encompass other parts of epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics. A year ago I published a paper arguing that knowledge should be analyzed in non-normative terms, and that epistemology in the narrow sense is a branch of the philosophy of mind. This project led me to an analysis of knowledge inspired by Theaetetus's idea that 'knowledge is nothing but perception', which I think Socrates prematurely dismissed in favor of a proto-JTB account. I defend this thought in a working paper entitled 'Knowledge and the Presentation of Reality', where I argue that knowledge is that general factive mental state which, when occurrent, constitutes a presentation of the fact that p. While this paper defends one side of Theaetetus's idea (knowledge is quasi-perceptual access), I defend the other side in my new paper 'Non-Epistemic Perception as Mere Technology': perception is occurrent knowledge, and the mere sensing of objects and features is just part of the technology of perception rather than part of its fundamental nature.
Another major focus of my recent work has been defending epistemic non-consequentialism. In particular, I have been developing what I call Epistemic Kantianism, modeled on Kantian ethics, which is a view that I previewed in my dissertation but didn't make central. This view is the first systematic and explicitly non-consequentialist epistemology. I've also been arguing that this view is consistent with reliabilism, which I don't think is best understood as a version of epistemic consequentialism. These ideas are explored in my new papers 'An Epistemic Non-Consequentialism' and 'Reliabilism without Epistemic Consequentialism'. Working on these ideas increased my fondness for Kantian ethics simpliciter, and my paper 'Respect and the Reality of Apparent Reasons' shows how Kantian ideas can be used to explain the normativity of rationality in general. In the longer term, I'm looking to develop a neo-Kantian ethics that transparently avoids some of the less attractive implications of Kant's views (even when interpreted liberally).
What follows is a more detailed, paper-by-paper overview of my completed research. This research is either published/forthcoming, under review, or going under review soon. If you'd prefer to just see a list of papers with abstracts, you can also go to this shorter page.
1. Epistemic Axiology and Deontology
1.1. Truth, Rationality, and the Structure of Epistemic Value. To explain the significance of rationality from the epistemic point of view, I argue that we need to reject some widely assumed views about epistemic value. Many epistemologists working on epistemic value assume that derivative value has to be grounded in fundamental value via instrumental relations. I think this assumption—which I call Instrumentalism about Derivative Value—is mistaken. Rejecting Instrumentalism is not uncommon in the wider value-theoretic literature, but epistemic value theorists have continued to assume it and have not explored what follows if it is rejected. In "Veritism Unswamped" (now out in Mind, and which is a long successor to a short critical piece published in Thought), I develop a theory of epistemic value that dispenses with this assumption and show how it solves long-standing problems. I rely on Thomas Hurka’s idea that properly valuing fundamental value is itself derivatively but non-instrumentally valuable. Using that idea, I argue that central epistemic properties like justification, coherence, and substantive rationality derive non-instrumental epistemic value in virtue of the fact that they manifest different epistemically fitting ways of valuing accuracy.
This theory of derivative epistemic value leads to a simple account of why rational belief necessarily has value from the epistemic point of view. The picture honors the intuitive thought that we care about rationality because we care about accuracy. But it is perfectly consistent with the thought that someone whose belief-forming processes are unreliable might be fully rational. I argue that this story is the same story we need to explain the epistemic value of forms of belief that are instrumentally connected to fundamental epistemic value. Once Instrumentalism is abandoned, we can have a unified and truth-oriented account of epistemic value. The concluding chapter of my dissertation, "Rationality and Fundamental Epistemic Value", explains why the value of rationality seems especially puzzling, why Instrumentalist accounts of the value of rationality fail, and how the framework from "Veritism Unswamped" solves the puzzle.
1.2. Epistemic Non-Consequentialism. As I note in 'Veritism Unswamped', it is not obvious that the rejecting the instrumentalist model of derivative epistemic value requires rejecting epistemic consequentialism; indeed, the view from Hurka that inspires mine was meant to help consequentialists in ethics. Ultimately, however, I do think we should reject epistemic consequentialism, and don't think it stands up well once the instrumentalist model of derivative epistemic value is undermined. In my new paper 'An Epistemic Non-Consequentialism', I develop the first systematic non-consequentialist epistemology, which I call Epistemic Kantianism. I propose that the fundamental epistemic norm is a norm of respect for the truth, and argue that this view is able to capture everything that might have seemed attractive about epistemic consequentialism while also avoiding the problems for that view, which I argue cut much deeper than the case-based objections that Berker raised in 'Epistemic Teleology and the Separateness of Propositions'. I also argue in 'Reliabilism without Epistemic Consequentialism' that rejecting epistemic consequentialism doesn't require abandoning the insights of reliabilism, which I argue never was firmly intended as a version of epistemic consequentialism, and can be naturally understood in several non-consequentialist ways, including a Kantian way.
2. Reasons, Rationality, and Justification
In "What Apparent Reasons Appear to Be" (a 2015 paper in Philosophical Studies), I develop an account of subjective reasons on which they are constituted by exercises of competences to correctly respond to objective reasons. Specifically, I claim that subjective reasons are apparent facts that we are competently attracted to treat like objective reasons. Owing to the competence/performance distinction, it is possible to be competently attracted to treat apparent facts as if they were objective reasons even when they are not objective reasons. Indeed, it is even possible to exercise our competence to correctly respond to objective reasons when we systematically fail to act or think for reasons that are objectively good. This fact is what explains why one's non-factive mental duplicate in a skeptical scenario has the same subjective reasons that one has: for one’s duplicate will retain the competence to respond to objective reasons that one has.
Following many meta-ethicists, I understand rationality in terms of subjective reasons. Hence, I think that we should deny that rationality consists as a matter of conceptual necessity in responsiveness to reasons that are objectively good (though these properties may extensionally coincide, given one version of Epistemic Kantianism). In “On Divorcing the Rational and the Justified in Epistemology”, I rely on this picture to provide an account of the conceptual difference between rationality and justification. The difference is that while rationality turns on the balance of subjective reasons, justification turns on the balance of objective reasons one possesses. I also discuss this view in my Philosophy Compass paper ''Epistemic Reasons I: Normativity''.
What is it to possess an objective reason? Here again I rely on a distinction from virtue epistemology. While subjective reasons are considerations that we merely competently treat like objective reasons, possessed objective reasons are considerations that we aptly treat like objective reasons: that is, we treat them like the objective reasons that they actually are in virtue of manifesting competence. On this view, possessing an objective reason is itself an achievement. I develop this account of possession in my new paper “The Achievements of Reason”. This paper unifies themes from the two aforementioned papers in a larger view that I call Rationalist Virtue Epistemology.
This view emerged from collaborations and interactions with Ernest Sosa. In “The Place of Reasons in Epistemology” (forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Reasons and Normativity but written years ago), Sosa and I stress that reasons must be possessed in order to do most work in epistemology, and argue that possessing a reason has to be understood as an exercise of competence. We also claim that this competence is not essentially reasons-based: manifestations of that competence need not themselves be based on reasons. While I still endorse that claim, I think it is misleading. Indeed, our picture was too pessimistic. As "The Achievements of Reason" illustrates, competences can be Reason-based without being reasons-based in the narrower sense that Sosa and I had in mind, and there are good reasons to take competences to be Reason-based.
A final issue I've worked on under the heading of Reasons, Rationality, and Justification is the topic of what it is to believe something for normative reasons. One might be surprised to see someone working on this topic in its own right, since one might have thought that this topic is merely a special case of the broader topic of believing for reasons. But this attitude would have to rest on a highly substantive view: namely, the Composite View, on which believing something for a normative reason is nothing more than (i) believing something for a reason where (ii) that reason happens to correspond to a normative reason, where (i) and (ii) are independent. In a joint paper with Errol Lord called "Believing for Normative Reasons: Prime, Not Composite", I argue that this view is false and defend an alternative conception of believing for normative reasons on which it is prime, not composite. A key motivation for this view is thematically related to my other work above: namely, the thought that believing for normative reasons is naturally viewed as an achievement. I also discuss this view in my Philosophy Compass paper ''Epistemic Reasons II: Basing.''
If believing for normative reasons can naturally be viewed as an achievement, some important implications follow for epistemology that I discussed in the first chapter of my dissertation. Perhaps most importantly, I think it follows that it is a mistake to treat evidentialism and virtue epistemology as being rivals at all. Evidentialists can without revising their core view make room for competence by viewing it as a necessary condition for being sensitive to evidence-for relations, which is itself required for the achievement of heeding the evidence. Even if the founding fathers of evidentialism (viz., Conee and Feldman) failed to notice this place for competence in their core view, it does not follow that evidentialism must take an impure, hybrid form to exploit competence.
3. Virtue Epistemology
I've written several papers about virtue epistemology, defending a view that is in between the character-based responsibilist virtue epistemology of Zagzebski and the skill-based virtue epistemology of Sosa. In my recent paper ''Can Performance Epistemology Explain Higher Epistemic Value?'', I argue that the normativity of skill cannot ground the kind of normativity associated with reasons and rationality, and suggest that Sosa's attempt in recent work to argue otherwise rests on a mistake within the theory of skill-based normativity, and indeed that some of the examples that he takes to support his view are actually counterexamples to it.
In “Responsibilism out of Character” (published in 2017 in the OUP collection Epistemic Situationism), I argue that responsibilists should abandon the assumption that there is a connection between epistemic responsibility and character traits, and show how abandoning this assumption allows them to sidestep the empirical challenges of situationists. Like 'Veritism Unswamped', this paper's central contribution rests on extending a theme from Thomas Hurka into epistemology: Hurka has long argued that the virtue statuses that attach to acts (which I call 'act-attaching virtue properties') don't presuppose that the agent performing the acts has a stable disposition to perform acts of this kind, and indeed argues that these act-attaching virtue properties are metaphysically prior to the virtue properties that attach to persons.
In my new paper ''Responsibilism within Reason'' (commissioned for a CUP collection on virtue epistemology edited by John Greco and Chris Kelp), I go farther in defending a novel sort of responsibilist virtue epistemology, arguing first that all of the standard objections to responsibilist virtue epistemology only target optional features of one version of the view, and then developing a new version that I call 'Kantian Responsibilism'. Much like Kant supplemented the foundational normative theory he developed in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Practical Reason with a 'doctrine of virtue' in the final Metaphysics of Morals for evaluating imperfect beings and their conduct, so I think the foundational normative theory I develop in 'An Epistemic Non-Consequentialism' is usefully supplemented by the view developed in this paper. While I don't think virtue epistemology is successful as a foundational normative theory, I do think responsibilist themes have a proper place in a subordinate kind of virtue epistemology.
4. Knowledge and Perception
In "Knowledge as a Non-Normative Relation" (recently published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research), I argue against the view that knowledge is constituted by normative properties/relations or is itself a normative relation, and develop a positive non-normativist account of the nature of knowledge. Shortly after I wrote this paper, I started to work on the nature of perception, and my views about knowledge and perception have started to converge in a surprising way that returns epistemology to its origins in Theaetetus. In my new paper ''Non-Epistemic Perception as Mere Technology'', I argue that perception is occurrent knowledge, and that the mere sensing of objects and features of a sort that doesn't deploy recognitional capacities is only part of the technology of perception, not a key to its fundamental nature. At the same time I wrote the first draft of this paper, I started to write a paper about the nature of inferential knowledge in which I argued that it was just a kind of perceptual knowledge. It gradually became clear to me that the strategy I'd used to defend this claim could be easily generalized to defend the bolder claim that knowledge is that mental state which, when occurrent, constitutes a quasi-perceptual presentation of a fact. That paper morphed into a paper that I now call ''Knowledge and the Presentation of Reality''. This paper is primarily a defense of what I call access monism, the view that there is just one fundamental way of knowing (viz., factive presentation). But I also argue that an especially simple and powerful version of access monism provides the basis for an argument that knowledge just is that factive mental state which, when occurrent, presents one with a fact.
5. Practical Reason
5.1. The Normativity of Rationality in General. While my early work focused on explaining why epistemic rationality matters from the epistemic point of view, I have always also been interested in why rationality (period) matters (period). I think the broader problem about the normativity of rationality is not restricted simply to requirements of coherence, as the literature often assumes. The broader problem is well posed by this question: how could it be true that we necessarily have real reason to comply with the requirements of rationality if rationality only requires us to respond to apparent reasons?
In “Respect and the Reality of Apparent Reasons”, I take a shot at answering this broader question. The answer relies on two key suggestions. The first is the suggestion that there are kinds of duties---which I call duties of respect---of which it is true that if one appears to violate a duty of this kind, one is in fact violating a duty of this kind. To see an example of this phenomenon, consider the loyalty called for by some relationships. It is easy to argue that if it appears to you that X-ing would constitute disloyalty and you decide to X anyway, you are thereby in fact violating a real, not merely apparent, duty of loyalty. The following case illustrates this:
(DISGUISE) A and B agreed to have a monogamous relationship. But A worries that B would cheat if B got the chance. A decides to test this hypothesis. With the help of some extraordinary costuming, A manages to dress up like a totally different person on whom B would have an instant crush. Disguised, A has been showing up around B's workplace to make advances. B believes on the basis of this misleading evidence that this is a fascinating person distinct from A. B now seems to be having a date with this distinct person when A had planned to be out of town....
Suppose that A suddenly reveals the truth and demands an explanation. The following would not be a convincing response on B's behalf: “Look, I was not really disloyal. After all, it is you I am showing to a fine evening!" Plausibly, this is because loyalty calls (objectively!) for us to respond to the appearances in certain ways. Hence, for duties of loyalty, if it appears that one is violating a duty of this kind, one is in fact violating a duty of this kind.
The second key suggestion is a suggestion that allows us to generalize this point. I argue that there is an objective norm of respect for objective reasons that we violate whenever we fail to correctly respond to apparent reasons. What is wrong with someone who violates the norms of rationality is that this person violates this objective norm. For that reason, when one has an apparent reason to X, one in fact has a real objective reason to X. And this reason is not merely a slack one, since reasons of respect generally are peremptory rather than enticing. I argue that this story gives rationality all the significance that we could reasonably demand of it.
5.2. The Philosophy of Practical Reason. Ruth Chang and I have been co-editing the Routledge Handbook of Practical Reason, which is the first book of its kind dedicated to recognizing an area of philosophy that we call the philosophy of practical reason. The original proposal for the volume can be found here, though there have been changes to authors and topics. The volume will likely be published in early 2019. Contributors include Elizabeth Anderson, Chrisoula Andreou, Nomy Arpaly, Michael Bratman, John Broome, Sarah Buss, Agnes Callard, Ruth Chang, David Copp, Jonathan Dancy, Stephen Darwall, David Enoch, Patricia Greenspan, Elizabeth Harman, Sally Haslanger, Pamela Hieronymi, Errol Lord, Coleen Macnamara, Jennifer Morton, Margaret O'Little, Derek Parfit, Sarah Paul, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Peter Railton, Connie Rosati, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, T. M. Scanlon, Tamar Schapiro, David Sobel, Michael Stocker, me, Sergio Tenenbaum, Valerie Tiberius, R. Jay Wallace, Natalia Washington, Monique Wonderly and David Wong. It will be dedicated to the memory of Derek Parfit.
5.3. Kantian Philosophy of Practical Reason and 'Constructivism'. A couple of years ago, I published a long study of John Skorupski's book The Domain of Reasons in Philosophical Quarterly that I called 'Spontaneity, Apriority, and Normative Truth', focusing on the interaction between his 'spontaneity' based epistemology of normativity and his non-naturalist metaphysics of normativity, which I don't think sit well with each other. While Skorupski's approach is deliberately Kantian in many ways, the book contained virtually no discussion of the kind of broadly constructivist Kantian approach found in writers like Korsgaard and Markovits. I argued that Skorupski's metaphysics should become Kantian in this further way if it is to sit well with his metaphysics.
Skorupski wrote a response arguing that this approach isn't really Kantian, and that we shouldn't accept any view worth calling 'constructivist'. But I hope to stand by my earlier claims. Indeed, in re-reading Kant as an inspiration for my views in epistemology, I've become persuaded that Skorupski indeed may be wrong about Kant, and that 'constructivism' isn't such a bad label for some of Kant's claims. These are claims for which I hope to argue in future work, though it may wait until after my papers on Kantian epistemology have been (hopefully, someday) accepted for publication.
5.4. Constitutivism, Reasons Fundamentalism, and the Right Kind of Reasons Problem. In joint work with Errol Lord, I have been pursuing an independent argument in favor of the constitutivist view that normativity is grounded in the constitutive standards of correctness of certain kinds of attitudes (of which Kantian constructivism is one version). In 'Reasons: Right, Wrong, Normative, Fundamental', Lord and I argue that this constitutivist view is the best solution to a new problem for reasons-based approaches to normativity that we call the right kind of reasons problem. We argue that the best solution to the more familiar wrong kind of reasons problem for reasons-based analyses of other normative statuses (e.g., the buck-passing account of value) implies that not all reasons are genuinely normative, and hence that there is a further problem for reasons-based theorists to explain the difference between reasons of the kind that are suited to ground genuine normativity (reasons of the right kind in a strong sense). Constitutivism provides the best account of this difference that is consistent with the strictures of the reasons-based approach to normativity.
6. Miscellaneous Work
In addition to working on the above topics in epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of mind, I also have some more miscellaneous interests. My first publication, 'How to Be a Redundant Realist', raised a problem for List and Pettit's central argument for 'non-redundant realism' about group agency, and sketched an alternative 'redundant realist' account of group attitudes that is consistent with, and indeed better explains, the data about judgment aggregation that they use to defend their view. In a related paper that I wrote around the same time --- 'How Groups Possess Evidence' --- I sketched an account of collective epistemic rationality that drew on some of the ideas in 'How to be a Redundant Realist', and which further undermines the case for non-redundant realism about group agency from facts about collective rationality.
Another publication of mine --- 'The Illusion of Discretion' --- is more closely related to my interests in normativity, but doesn't fit neatly into any of the above categories. This paper considers a permissivist thesis I call Discretion, which says that if one has sufficient evidence for p, it can be epistemically permissible for one either to believe p or to be agnostic on whether p. Many epistemologists treat Discretion as a datum. But as several writers have argued, if it is true, it may have important implications for whether we can exercise direct control over our doxastic attitudes without irrationality. Roughly, the thought is that if sufficient evidence does not decide whether we should believe or be agnostic, we can simply will to go either way with no irrationality.
An Epistemic Non-Consequentialism
Reliabilism without Epistemic Consequentialism
What Apparent Reasons Appear to Be
On Divorcing the Rational and the Justified in Epistemology
The Achievements of Reason
The Place of Reasons in Epistemology
Believing for Normative Reasons: Prime, Not Composite
Epistemic Reasons I and II: Normativity and Basing
Responsibilism out of Character
Can Performance Epistemology Explain Higher Epistemic Value?
Responsibilism within Reason
Knowledge as a Non-Normative Relation
Non-Epistemic Perception as Mere Technology
Respect and the Reality of Apparent Reasons
Routledge Handbook of Practical Reason (Proposal)
Skorupski on Spontaneity, Apriority, and Normative Truth
Reasons: Right, Wrong, Normative, Fundamental
How to Be a Redundant Realist
How Groups Possess Evidence
The Illusion of Discretion