My research explores ways in which contemporary ethical and political theory can be enriched by attending to experiences that are often neglected in current philosophical discussions of morality, such as experiences of spontaneity, cultural participation, and artistic creativity. I draw on the phenomenology of these everyday experiences to inform central questions in value theory about freedom, action, creativity, and equality. My current research project contends that thinking about valuable, non-moralized experiences of what is interesting, fun, original, and beautiful can motivate and shape new, more capacious philosophical theories of personhood and action. Developing a new picture of the person generates a new picture of the citizen, too. Individually, we are aesthetic agents as well as moral agents; collectively, we are cultural agents as well as political agents.
Freedom, Agency, Creativity
“Freedom and the Value of Games,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 2018
The difficulty view of games says that games are worth playing because they make easier activities into harder, therefore more worthwhile, activities. I agree that this might be part of what makes games worth playing, but I argue that they are also valuable because they provide players with an experience of freedom when they’re playing. [postprint] [published version] [podcast on “What Makes Games So Awesome?” with Luke Cuddy]
“Spontaneous Freedom” (under review)
Spontaneous freedom—the freedom of unscripted activity that “free spirits” enjoy—is central to ordinary talk about “freedom.” But it is absent from many contemporary moral philosophers’ accounts of freedom. I provide a phenomenological study of spontaneous freedom and argue that to experience spontaneous freedom is to experience one’s activity as not settled in advance by anyone else’s conscious, reflective decisions or even by one’s own conscious, plans. I then argue that the phenomenology of spontaneous freedom lends support to compatibilists in the free will debate. [Draft of October 30, 2018]
“Integrity and Spontaneity” (under review)
A popular view of the self, advanced by Christine Korsgaard among others, holds that the ideal self is one that is well-ordered, actively constituted through rational deliberation. Such “integrity theories” are attractive because they provide an account of agency according to which ideal moral agents are guaranteed to endorse their actions and beliefs and to honor their promises and agreements. But I argue that integrity theories also forbid moral agents to seek out valuable experiences of spontaneous freedom: fully “integrated” agents must act in a manner that they antecedently, reflectively endorse, while spontaneous freedom requires acting in a manner not antecedently fixed by one’s own decisions. [Draft of October 22, 2018]
“Freedom beyond Choice” (manuscript available on request)
I argue against the widely held liberal view that I have all of the freedom that I could want if I am able to effectively exercise my autonomous choice. I contend that spontaneous freedom is a further sort of politically worthwhile freedom that I might lack even when I can effectively exercise my autonomous choice. When the choices that I make are predictable to other agents who can shape my choice-making environment, my ability to experience spontaneous freedom is threatened. This conclusion suggests that “big data” that enables corporations or governments to accurately predict the behavior of consumers or citizens can threaten our freedom, even when it does not prevent us from freely choosing.
“Agency, Moral and Aesthetic” (work in progress)
Philosophers who study agency typically aim to develop theories that are well suited to understanding and vindicating moral rights and duties. Such theories often treat moral responsibility and autonomy as the main course of human life while regarding aesthetic experience as, at best, the after-dinner cocktail. I argue that philosophers must develop less comprehensively moralized theories of agency in order to account for the richness of everyday human experiences of what is interesting, fun, cool, or beautiful.
“The Political Morality of Nudges in Healthcare,” in Nudging Health: Health Law and Behavioral Economics, 2016.
I argue that nudges can be morally troubling when they prevent people from directly engaging with the reasons and values that bear on decisions that it is morally important that they make for themselves. This concern is particularly salient as to choices where it is important for people to directly engage with values that bear on the choices, and many healthcare decisions are exactly these kinds of choices. [preprint] [published version]
Culture, Politics, Equality
“Remixing Rawls: Constitutionalizing Cultural Liberties,” forthcoming, Northeastern University Law Review, 2019
I develop a liberal theory of the cultural rights that must be guaranteed by just legal and political institutions, drawing on Rawls’s argument for the “fair value” of the “equal political liberties.” I contend that the logic of Rawls’s argument requires that the fair value of rights to participate in culture must also be guaranteed as a constitutional essential. Because our experiences of the culture around us profoundly shape our values, equal respect for members of a liberal democracy requires that all citizens have roughly equal opportunities to do things like make movies, publish novels, and exhibit paintings. [preprint]
“Liberal Equality, Neutrality, and Culture” (manuscript available on request)
An essential component of liberal equality is the equal ability of individuals to form their own, autonomous conceptions of the good. A further basic commitment of liberal political theory is that, in order to live together in a just and peaceful society, we do not need to coordinate with one another about the good, only about the right. I argue that the view that we can achieve liberal equality without politically addressing questions about the good neglects the constraints that culture places on individuals as they form their own worldviews. Real liberal equality requires ensuring that everyone has an equalopportunity to contribute to cultural production just as much as it requires that everyone have equal opportunities to participate in politics.
“On Vanguardism” (work in progress)
Some “vanguardist” theorists of democracy, such as Lenin, argue that the only thing that matters in democratic governance is preventing one class from being subordinated to another. If Lenin’s view is right, all the actions of democratic bodies should be determined by instrumental calculations about how best to prevent class subordination. Non-vanguardist theorists, such as Rosa Luxemburg, argue instead that democratic governance should reflect the independent judgments of members of a community. I develop a reading of Luxemburg according to which vanguardism prevents the sort of spontaneous bubbling up characteristic of the value of spontaneous freedom. Successful democratic communication requires participants in a democracy to directly engage with the question of what their community should do, rather than relying on previously settled doctrines and plans.
History and Miscellany
“Poincaré, Sartre, Continuity and Temporality,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 2006
I examine the relation between Henri Poincaré’s definition of mathematical continuity and Sartre’s discussion of temporality in Being and Nothingness and argue that Poincaré’s definition of mathematical continuity allows the for-itself to be understood both as connected to a past and future and as distinct from itself. I conclude that the gap between two terms in a temporal series comprises the present and being-for-itself, since it is this gap that occasions the radical freedom to reshape the past into a distinct and different future. [preprint] [published version]
“Kantian Genius and Artistic Creativity” (work in progress)
In Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant develops a theory of “genius,” which he defines as a faculty for the creation of beautiful art that is original and unprecedented and that also exhibits taste. It is puzzling why Kant thinks that artworks need to be created by geniuses in order to be beautiful, because beauty seems to be a feature of artworks as they are experienced by their audiences, while genius seems to be a historical feature of their creators. I aim to show why Kant might hold this view. I argue that part of the pleasure that the audience derives from viewing beautiful art is the pleasure of seeing that humans are among the originators of novelty in the world, which depends on the history of the art’s creation.
“Having Fun” (work in progress)
Every day, people tell each other, “Have fun!” Psychologists often regard fun as a motive for behaviors or beliefs. A few organizational psychologists have provided more theoretical accounts of fun, typically in order to explore the effects of fun on employee motivation and job performance or in order to “make learning fun.” Surprisingly, there is no extant philosophical account of fun. I develop a philosophical typology of fun, adventure, play, and pleasure. Fun is distinct from pleasure because it necessarily involves some degree of uncertainty about what will happen next and because it involves not taking what one is doing too seriously. My account allows us to distinguish between fun and pseudo-fun, providing a foundation for a critique of merely manipulative attempts to make work and school “fun.”
My dissertation, Freedom’s Spontaneity, is about spontaneous freedom—the freedom of unscripted activity that “free spirits” enjoy. While the freedom of spontaneity has often been disregarded in contemporary philosophical discussions, which have focused instead on the freedom of autonomy, deliberation, and choice, I argue that spontaneous freedom is a valuable form of freedom that enables us to feel that we are among the sources of novelty and creativity in the world. We must adjust our moral theories in order to accommodate the value of spontaneous freedom. I further argue that the study of spontaneous freedom has implications for politics: states should promote spontaneous freedom by providing the material and social preconditions for us to feel that our lives could head in unanticipated directions. [full abstract]