My work spans epistemology and ethics to address issues of agency and responsibility. How might we be responsible for our beliefs, especially contentious and partly self-defining beliefs about, for example, morality? How should we think of the desiderata for such self-defining beliefs – are we after knowledge of a distinctly practical kind, or perhaps understanding, and what does forming these beliefs virtuously involve? How do our social relationships and roles matter in shaping our individual and collective epistemic responsibilities? Finally, how do social relationships and roles matter ethically in shaping our relational responsibilities?
Should you believe that p? Many epistemologists think you can answer this question by figuring out the answers to two other questions: what information do you have bearing on whether p, and what’s the right way for you to interpret and evaluate that information? One problem with this proposal is that it seems there isn’t always some right way for you to interpret and evaluate your information. Or rather, the answer to this last question isn’t always a given one, as opposed to one we give ourselves. I argue that what we should believe, in the sense of what it’s rational for us to believe, depends in part on our own epistemic commitments as to good ways of interpreting and evaluating evidence. These commitments are things we partly give ourselves, rather than things to which we simply find ourselves subject. They are also things for which we are responsible.
The thesis that we are partly responsible for what it’s rational for us to believe in this way (“responsibilism”) calls for a different way of thinking about what to believe. Questions about what to believe depend in part on questions about who to be.
I offer three arguments in support of responsibilism. First, I appeal to would-be permissivists about rationality, arguing that certain responsibilist forms of permissivism fare better than other, more standard forms of permissivism in handling the major objections to permissivism. Second, I argue that the most plausible meta-normative story about the source of epistemic rationality’s normativity supports responsibilism. Finally, I offer a two-part argument for the claims that (i) we sometimes encounter cases of “epistemic underdetermination,” where there is not just one rational attitude for us to take toward some proposition, and (ii) a responsibilist story is attractive in light of such cases.
I have published on moral and religious testimony and understanding (see my Publications page for details). In "Moral Testimony: A Re-conceived Understanding Explanation," I've argued that understanding, conceived as affectively and motivationally rich, is an important desideratum when it comes to moral belief. Understanding is also importantly in tension with deferring to testimony, since settling a question by deferring to testimony can discourage us from coming to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the issue for ourselves.
In "Disagreement, Testimony, and Religious Understanding," I extend these claims in two ways. First, I argue that understanding is also an important desideratum for religious belief. Second, I explore relationships between appropriate responses to testimony and appropriate responses to disagreement, suggesting that understanding is also importantly in tension with altering one’s beliefs in the face of disagreement.
I intend to to build on these papers both by exploring the diachronic burdens of testimony and disagreement in moral and religious domains - obligations to re-think one's views, invite further conversations, inquire into an interlocutor's reasons, etc - and also by considering the ethical value of states of understanding.
Emulation and Disagreement
Many philosophers think that encountering a disagreeing interlocutor can sometimes give us reasons to change our views. In particular, disagreement sometimes gives us a reason to think our previous view might not be accurate or rational. But in an in-progress draft paper I suggest that we may also get additional reasons to change our views, in certain cases. The desirability of emulating an interlocutor may generate distinct reasons to change one’s view.
This suggestion builds on my dissertation, where I argue that what it’s rational for us to believe depends in part on our epistemic commitments and values, which in turn are – in limited ways – up to us. The fact that these rationality-shaping values are in some sense up to us makes questions about what to believe depend in part on questions about who to be. But questions about who to be are not answered in isolation. Rather, we become who we are in part by identifying role models and making friends. One thing that can happen when we encounter a disagreeing interlocutor is that we learn that a person we aspire to be like (in epistemic respects) thinks differently about some issue. This can give us a distinctly aspirational reason of emulation to think similarly, even apart from worries about whether own previous opinions were inaccurate or irrational. A central question will be: is this an epistemic reason? Given some recently influential delineations of the epistemic, I believe it is. But even if we take a more restrictive view of epistemic reasons and see this as a non-epistemic reason to change one’s views, it seems to me a genuine reason – one that can appropriately motivate a rational human agent.
Literature on disagreement connects with questions about “higher order evidence” and the rationality of doubting one’s faculties generally. I am interested in the appropriate epistemic role of intellectual humility, in shaping how we process evidence. I am also interested in the ethical value of intellectual humility.
I've previously published on the problem of evil and skeptical theism ("On the Problem of Paradise"), claiming that an influential critique of skeptical theism relies on a highly misleading presentation of certain conditional probabilities. The paper invites the further question: should we be radically humble as the skeptical theist suggests, or what is the appropriate role of intellectual humility, in our reasoning about the problem of evil? Also, how might intellectual humility be formally modeled? These questions are clearly relevant to the problem of evil, but there are quite generally fascinating epistemological issues here, about the kind of attitudes it’s appropriate to have when we take our faculties to be highly and especially fallible in assessing the import of some particular evidence.
I am additionally interested the ethical value of intellectual humility in interpersonal relationships. Intellectual humility about our assessments of the characters and motivations of others may counteract judgmental tendencies. On the other hand, unchecked or extreme intellectual humility may prevent us from justly condemning unethical behavior and may exacerbate vulnerability to abuse. These topics connect also to my interest in the ethical value of understanding others.
Parenting and motherhood
In addition to my work in epistemology and what we might think of very broadly as the ethics of belief, I also have interests in applied ethics – in particular, underexplored issues in the ethics of parenting and motherhood. In a recently published article, I argue that mothers commonly have pro tanto moral reasons not to breastfeed. These include considerations of fairness or justice as well as moral “opportunity costs”. My conclusion is in tension with the dominant narrative influencing feeding decisions, which puts moral pressure on mothers to breastfeed and assumes that any reasons not to breastfeed are (merely) selfish or practical.
There are at least two interesting philosophical questions about breastfeeding: what is the act’s moral status, and how should we conduct public discourse about the issue? Answering the first question requires making a detailed assessment of the probable benefits of breastfeeding for babies. But it also requires other, and sadly more neglected, tasks. We must identify other morally salient considerations. (My article is a start here.) We must also consider how these benefits to babies matter within broader ethical frameworks. In future work, I intend to argue that answering the second question, about public discourse, requires reconsidering the locus for decisions about infant feeding and childrearing generally. I am interested in the way well-meaning attempts to further women’s autonomy can result in saddling women with unfair decision-responsibility when it comes to childrearing. More generally, I intend to write further on the scope of the particular and relational responsibilities of parenthood – how these are grounded for different sexes, how extensive they are, and how we represent them in public discourse.
An essay I wrote on the topic of breastfeeding - intended to be accessible on non-philosophers - recently received honorable mention for the Marc Sanders Public Philosophy Award.