Academic Writing

Ethical theory, especially virtue ethics, drew me to philosophy. Since graduate school my research, pulled in the wake of my teaching, has shifted in the direction of practical ethics. Most of my publications are available for download through my philpapers profile. Please email if you'd like a copy of something that isn't posted there.

Articles & Chapters

"Against the Supposed Obligation to Prolong the Human Species." Forthcoming in Res Philosophica.

Advocates of Mars colonies commonly appeal to a supposed obligation to act so as to maximize the longevity of the human species. When this principle is defended, it is often by appeal to the alleged costs—of incoherence or misanthropy—of denying it. Against this supposed obligation, I argue for two theses. The modest thesis: it is not incoherent and need not be misanthropic to prefer human extinction sooner rather than later. The ambitious thesis: we should prefer human extinction sooner rather than later. The supposed obligation to prolong our species is no justification of human activities in space.

"Dealbreakers and the Work of Immoral Artists." Journal of the American Philosophical Association 9, no. 3 (2023): 389−407. [ doi | pre-print ]

A dealbreaker, in the sense developed in this essay, is a relationship between a person's psychology and an aspect of an artwork to which they are exposed. When a person has a dealbreaking aversion to an aspect of a work, they are blocked from embracing the work's aesthetically positive features. I characterize dealbreakers, distinguish this response from other negative responses to an artwork, and argue that the presence or absence of a dealbreaker is in some cases an appropriate target of moral evaluation. I then use the concept of dealbreakers to develop a new approach to the question of our moral obligations with respect to the work of immoral artists, arguing that there is no general obligation binding us to cultivate or eliminate a dealbreaking aversion to their work. I conclude by suggesting several other philosophical debates that could benefit from a focus on dealbreakers.

I wrote "How I came to write 'Dealbreakers and the Work of Immoral Artists'" for the New Work in Philosophy substack. It's not a summary of the paper, but rather a short account of the experiences that prompted the questions the paper engages.

I was privileged to participate in an APA Live discussion, along with A.W. Eaton, Dominic Lopes, Heather Battaly, and Michael Hannon on the argument I develop in "Dealbreakers." The APA has archived a recording for members.

"The Ethics of Terraforming: A Critical Survey of Six Arguments." Invited chapter in Martin Beech, Joseph Seckbach, and Richard Gordon (eds.) Terraforming Mars (Salem: Wiley-Scrivener, 2021): 99−114. [ doi | pre-print | publisher | amazon ]

If we had the ability to terraform Mars, would it be morally permissible to do it? This article surveys three preservationist arguments for the conclusion that we should not terraform and three interventionist arguments that we should. The preservationist arguments appeal to a duty to conserve objects of special scientific value, a duty to preserve special wilderness areas, and a duty not to display vices characteristic of past colonial endeavors on Earth. The interventionist arguments appeal to a duty to fulfill our pioneering nature, a duty to extend the lifespan of our species, and a duty to restore the ecosystems Mars may once have housed. The preservationist arguments are stronger than the interventionist arguments; terraforming Mars is probably morally wrong.

Portions of this chapter are adapted from my earlier JAPA paper on colonizing Mars. But I'd like to highlight one of the new arguments. In his "Space Colonization and Existential Risk" Joseph Gottlieb criticizes my anti-colonization paper, arguing that I have not properly attended to the value of preserving human civilization. Read my response to Gottlieb in Section 6.4.2 of this terraforming chapter.

"Barbarous Spectacle and General Massacre: A Defense of Gory Fictions." Journal of Applied Philosophy 37, no. 4 (2020): 511−527. [ doi | pre-print ]

Many people suspect it is morally wrong to watch the graphically violent horror films colloquially known as gorefests. A prominent argument vindicating this suspicion is the Argument from Reactive Attitudes (ARA). The ARA holds that we have a duty to maintain a well-functioning moral psychology, and watching gorefests violates that duty by threatening damage to our appropriate reactive attitudes. But I argue that the ARA is probably unsound. Depictions of suffering and death in other genres typically do no damage to our appropriate reactive attitudes, and until we locate a relevant difference between these depictions in gorefests and in other genres, we should assume that the depictions in gorefests do no damage. I consider and reject three candidate differences: in artistic merit, meaningfulness, and audience orientation. Until genre skeptics identify a relevant difference, we should accept the taste for gory fictions as we would any other morally innocuous variation in taste.

The argument I develop in "Barbarous Spectacle" is substantively discussed in:

I contributed a guest post on the ethics of horror movies to Justice Everywhere, a blog focused on practical ethics and public affairs.

"Stable Strategies for Personal Development: On the Prudential Value of Radical Enhancement and the Philosophical Value of Speculative Fiction." Metaphilosophy 51, no. 1 (2020): 128−150. [ doi | pre-print ]

In her short story "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," Eileen Gunn imagines a future in which Margaret, an office worker, seeks radical genetic enhancements intended to help her secure the middle-management job she wants. One source of the story's tension and dark humor is dramatic irony: readers can see that the enhancements Margaret buys stand little chance of making her life go better for her; enhancing is, for Margaret, probably a prudential mistake. In Section 1 I argue that our positions in the real world are sufficiently similar to Margaret's position in Gunn's fictional world that we should take this story seriously as grounding an argument from analogy for the conclusion that radical genetic enhancements are, for us, probably a prudential mistake. In Section 2 I defend this method. When the question at hand is one of speculative ethics, there is no method better fit to the purpose than argument from analogy to speculative fiction.

"Humans Should Not Colonize Mars." Journal of the American Philosophical Association 3, no. 3 (2017): 334−353. [ doi | pre-print ]

This article offers two arguments for the conclusion that we should refuse, on moral grounds, to establish a human presence on the surface of Mars. The first argument appeals to a principle constraining the use of invasive or destructive scientific techniques. The second appeals to a principle governing appropriate human behavior in wilderness. These arguments are prefaced by two preliminary sections. The first preliminary section argues that authors working in space ethics have good reason to shift their focus away from theory-based arguments in favor of arguments that develop in terms of pre-theoretic principles and beliefs. The second argues that, of the popular justifications for sending humans to Mars, the justification of scientific curiosity alone survives reflective scrutiny.

The argument I develop in this paper is substantively discussed in Joseph Gottlieb, "Space Colonization and Existential Risk," Journal of the American Philosophical Association 5(3) 2019.

The BBC World Service's In the Balance produced an episode on the ethics and economics of Mars colonization. I was privileged to participate along with Dr. David Parker (director of human and robotic exploration for ESA) and Bas Lansdorp (founder and CEO of Mars One). Our discussion touches on some of the content of "Humans Should Not Colonize Mars."

"Fanciful Examples," with Jason Swartwood. Metaphilosophy 48, no. 3 (2017): 325−344. [ doi | pre-print ]

This article defends the use of fanciful examples within the method of wide reflective equilibrium. First, it characterizes the general persuasive role of described cases within that method. Second, it suggests three criteria any example must meet in order to succeed in this persuasive role; fancifulness has little or nothing to do with whether an example is able to meet these criteria. Third, it discusses several general objections to fanciful examples and concludes that they are objections to the abuse of described cases; they identify no special problem with fanciful examples.

"Ways to Be Worse Off." Res Philosophica 93, no. 4 (2016): 921−949. [ doi | pre-print ]

Does disability make a person worse off? I argue that the best answer is yes and no, because we can be worse off in two conceptually distinct ways. Disabilities usually make us worse off in one way (typified by facing hassles) but not in the other (typified by facing loneliness). Acknowledging two conceptually distinct ways to be worse off has fundamental implications for philosophical theories of well-being.

"Ways to Be Worse Off" won the 2017 Routledge, Taylor & Francis Prize awarded by the APA to the two best papers published by non-tenure-track faculty in 2016.


The Reward of Virtue [ archived online ]

Most work in neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics begins by supposing that the virtues are the traits of character that make us good people. Secondary questions, then, include whether, why, and in what ways the virtues are good for the people who have them. My dissertation is an argument that the neo-Aristotelian approach is upside down. If, instead, we begin by asking what collection of character traits are good for us-- that is, what collection of traits are most likely to promote our own well-being-- we find a collection of traits a lot like the traditional slate of virtues. This suggests an egoistic theory of the virtues: the virtues just are those traits of character that reliably promote the well-being of their possessor. In addition to making the positive case for character egoism, I defend it from some anticipated objections. Most importantly, I argue that character egoism doesn't inherit the problems of ethical egoism. I conclude by arguing that character egoism can account for two virtues traditionally thought beyond its reach: honesty and justice.

Précis of The Reward of Virtue [ libre: cc by-sa ]

This is the précis I prepared for the public portion of my dissertation defense. It's a 20-minute presentation, intended for a general audience.