Research

 
Photo by  Lori Greig

Photo by Lori Greig

Why Desperate Times (But Only Desperate Times) Call for Consequentialism 
Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, Vol. 8, ed. Mark Timmons (2018).
final version (please cite to this version)
penultimate draft

People often think there are moral duties that hold irrespective of the consequences, until those consequences exceed some threshold level – that we shouldn’t kill innocent people in order to produce the best consequences, for example, except when those consequences involve saving millions of lives. This view is known as “threshold deontology.” While clearly controversial, threshold deontology has significant appeal. But it has proven quite difficult to provide a non-ad hoc justification for it.  This chapter develops a new justification, showing that acting like a threshold deontologist is a good strategy for being moral, given our uncertainty and imperfect moral knowledge. And failing to use good strategies for being moral is, itself, morally bad.  


Response to Adam Kolber’s ‘Punishment and Moral Risk’ (Invited Commentary)
University of Illinois Law Review Online, Vol. 2018, no. 2 (2018): 175-183.
final version (no log-in required)

Adam Kolber argues against retributivist theories of punishment, based on considerations of moral uncertainty.  In this reply, I suggest that Kolber’s argument will not have the implications he supposes, in part because, if it’s able to raise difficulties for retributivism, similar problems will arise for a wide variety of other approaches to punishment.


Ethics for Fallible People (Dissertation)
extended dissertation summary
(for a copy of the full text, please email me)

Our moral judgments are fallible, and we’re often uncertain what morality requires.  I argue that, in the face of these challenges, it’s not only rational to use effective procedures for trying to be moral – we have a moral responsibility to do so, and being reckless when navigating moral uncertainty, is, itself, a form of moral wrongdoing.  These strategic requirements present a large class of under-explored norms of morality.  I use these norms to address moral and social questions concerning, for example, interpersonal toleration, exceptions to moral rules in high-stakes cases, and principal-agent relationships (such as those between lawyers and clients).


Trying to Be Moral, Morally
(for a draft, please email me)

In our daily lives, we’re often unsure what being moral requires, and our moral decision-making is far from perfect.  For example, we might wonder whether to become a vegetarian, whether it’s okay to break a small promise for a large benefit, or whether we should lie to a friend for the friend’s own good.  But we need to act anyway.  I develop a framework for thinking about moral norms for trying to be moral, and provide a positive argument that morality does make claims of this type – that we morally ought to use good strategies for navigating moral uncertainty (and are acting wrongly if we don’t).  Much of the current literature asks what it’s rational to do in the face of moral uncertainty, employing decision-theoretic models to address that question.  This paper provides the foundation for a different type of conversation about moral uncertainty: one that asks what guidance morality, itself, provides to fallible, uncertain moral agents who are nevertheless trying to be moral.  And if it’s true that we are morally compelled to use good procedures for trying to be moral, these responsibilities present a wide swath of under-explored moral norms that may ultimately help shed light on other moral and political puzzles.


What Decision Theory Can’t Tell Us About Moral Uncertainty
(for a draft, please email me)

Often, we need to decide how to act, while we’re unsure what morality calls for.  There is a growing philosophical literature on this type of moral uncertainty.  But much of it asks how to rationally pursue the goal of acting morally, using decision-theoretic models to address that question.  In this paper, I provide the negative argument that these popular approaches won’t be able to answer crucial questions about how we should navigate moral uncertainty.  


Disappearing Moral Responsibilities: A Problem for the Ethics of Principal-Agent Relationships
(for a draft, please email me)

When we make decisions under ordinary circumstances, we are responsible for making morally good decisions -- for ensuring that our choices don’t impermissibly harm others, for example, or for making decisions that fulfill imperfect duties of kindness or generosity.  But sometimes we delegate our decision-making to others, perhaps asking financial professionals to plan our investments, or authorizing a lawyer to navigate a legal dispute in our stead.  It’s commonplace to delegate decisions in principal-agent relationships like these, but I argue that standard norms surrounding this delegation generate under-appreciated moral problems: they suggest that sometimes the principal’s responsibilities for making morally good decisions simply disappear when the decision-making power is assigned to an agent, neither being retained by the principal, nor transferred to the agent making the decisions.  This raises problems for standard approaches to principal-agent ethics, especially given the morally significant – and sometimes morally problematic – decisions that agents make on our behalves.  I introduce some of the difficulties that flow from this structure, including the way that it leads ordinary people to provide material support to terrible practices, and removes opportunities for discretionary kindness.  I close the paper by beginning to sketch approaches that may be fruitful in addressing these problems.


A Morally Risky Profession?: Moral Risk and Lawyering Ethics
(for a draft, please email me)

According to standard views of lawyers’ ethical responsibilities, lawyers should be willing to “zealously” advocate for their clients – right up to the limits of the law. Declining to take effective, legally permissible steps out of moral squeamishness, or an inclination to be generous with adversaries, would often be seen as violating a lawyer’s ethical obligation to the client, according to widely accepted norms in the profession.  But these same, traditional accounts of ethical legal practice also take lawyers to be ethically obligated not to violate the law.  The thought is that they must be willing to approach that line, but not cross it.  Navigating these two requirements seems to require a very high level of precision – one that may be difficult to achieve in ordinary professional contexts.  And the structure of these obligations means that when lawyers face uncertainty, they can’t use one approach that’s common in day-to-day life: avoiding a questionable activity just in case it’s morally wrong and opting for an alternative that’s clearly morally permissible.  For a lawyer, there may not be an alternative that’s clearly morally permissible, so this way of reducing the risk of wrongdoing isn’t available.  Instead, avoiding an activity just in case it’s wrong would often mean either erring in the direction of violating an obligation to a client or erring in the direction of violating obligations to the law.  This suggests that we’re typically asking lawyers to take on an unusually high risk of moral wrongdoing.  At a minimum, we need to provide lawyers with better guidance about how to navigate this predicament.  We can’t assume precision is possible, and need to give better advice about what to do when it’s not.  But these difficulties may also raise some doubts about the standard views of lawyers’ ethical responsibilities.


Living the Soundbite Life: What We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy
(I’m not ready to share a draft of this yet, but feel free to ask me about it if our paths cross!)

This paper explores one overlooked cost of privacy losses.  When we’re living under observation, whether from government monitors or social media followers, not only will others see pieces of our lives, they will also overlook a great deal. Surveillance algorithms may only call attention to activities with certain features, social media followers may browse past half of our posts, and no one experiences the full context of our words and actions.  I raise worries about whether this fragmented surveillance may cause us to lead more fragmented lives, creating strings of soundbites rather than lives that are richer, coherent wholes.  And I’ll ultimately suggest that looking at this problem may help us to get a clearer understanding of what is being “chilled” (and why it matters) when privacy scholars worry that privacy limitations have a “chilling effect” on innocent behavior.