Research

 

About

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 dissertation argues that a full appreciation of freedom must account for the value of spontaneous freedom—the capacity to engage in activity that does not merely execute a preexisting plan. My current research 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, and Personhood

 Dissertation: Freedom’s Spontaneity

 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]

“Spontaneous Freedom” (writing sample) (under review)

Spontaneous freedom, the freedom of unplanned and unscripted activity enjoyed by “free spirits,” is central to ordinary talk about “freedom.” However, spontaneous freedom is absent from many contemporary moral philosophers’ accounts of freedom, which are concerned primarily to identify the sort of freedom that is prerequisite for full-fledged moral responsibility. Drawing from a range of literary cases, I undertake a phenomenological study of spontaneous freedom. I 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. Recognizing the value of spontaneous freedom contributes to the free will debate by helping to make sense of the libertarian demand for incompatibilist freedom on the ground that compatibilist freedom cannot suffice for genuine creativity. The experience of spontaneous freedom provides for much of the creativity that the libertarian is after, but does not require any metaphysical commitment to incompatibilism. Because our individual and collective decisions impact the extent to which experiences of spontaneous freedom are possible, the problem of freedom and creativity turns out to be an ethical and political problem—how to provide social circumstances that make spontaneous freedom possible—rather than a metaphysical one about the truth or falsity of determinism. [Draft of October 30, 2018]

“Freedom and the Value of Games,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 2018

This essay, recently published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, explores the features in virtue of which games are valuable or worthwhile to play. The difficulty view of games holds that the goodness of games lies in their difficulty: by making activities more complex or making them require greater effort, they structure easier activities into more difficult, therefore more worthwhile, activities. I argue that a further source of the value of games is that they provide players with an experience of freedom, which they provide both as paradigmatically unnecessary activities and by offering opportunities for relatively unconstrained choice inside the “lusory” world that players inhabit. [postprint] [published version] [podcast on “What Makes Games So Awesome?” with Luke Cuddy]

“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. In an essay that I will draft this year, I will 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: admiring a new acquaintance’s sense of fashion, cooking a stew, playing a game, or appreciating a bit of graffiti. I do not argue that all theories of agency and personhood should be grounded in aesthetic experience; rather, we should adopt a more pluralistic view of agency. Theories that aim primarily to account for moral responsibility might better explain actions arising from duty, but theories aimed at understanding aesthetic experience can better account for fun and creativity.

“Freedom beyond Choice” (work in progress)

In this essay, 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 and act in accordance with my choices. I contend that spontaneous freedom is a further sort of politically worthwhile freedom that requires more than the freedom of choice and that I might lack even when I can effectively exercise my autonomous choice and act in accordance with it. Particularly, I argue that when the choices that I make are predictable to other agents who have the opportunity to influence my choices, my ability to experience spontaneous freedom is threatened. This conclusion suggests that “big data” that enables governments or corporations to accurately predict the behavior of consumers or citizens can threaten our freedom, even when it does not prevent us from making our own choices.

Open-Mindedness and Rational Belief (future paper)

For John Stuart Mill, part of what makes it worthwhile to doubt the beliefs that we presently hold, even when doing so does not make our beliefs more likely to track the truth, is that doing so keeps our beliefs “living truths” rather than “dead dogmas.” I contend that Mill’s argument shows why it can be epistemically desirable to suspend our judgment about the truth of a belief even when doing so does not conduce to our holding more true beliefs than we otherwise would. This is because we hold beliefs that we doubt in a different way than those beliefs we do not interrogate. I draw on Ian Hacking’s work on “kinds of people” to suggest that living beliefs are those beliefs that have the power to provoke us to reshape other associated beliefs and practices.

Culture, Politics, Equality

“Remixing Rawls: Constitutionalizing Cultural Liberties,” forthcoming in Northeastern University Law Review, 2019

The work on free will and agency described above argues that thinking about valuable, non-moralized experiences can motivate and shape new, more capacious philosophical theories of freedom, 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.  Inthis article, forthcoming in Northeastern University Law Review, I develop a liberal theory of the cultural rights that must be guaranteed by just legal and political institutions, drawing on Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness as well as on contemporary literary and cultural theory. I argue for the constitutional protection of cultural liberties by examining John Rawls’s argument that the “fair value” of the “equal political liberties” must be guaranteed to all citizens. 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. In order for everyone to have an equal opportunity to exercise the fundamental moral power to form one’s own independent conception of the good, the material resources for cultural production must be democratically allocated. 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. I contend that ensuring that all citizens have roughly equal opportunities to shape and influence their shared culture would require reforming many areas of U.S. law. Such reforms include applying anti-discrimination law more broadly to the conduct of cultural organizations, expanding fair use protections in copyright law, and restricting private control of capital in order to democratize the means of cultural production. [preprint]

Liberal Equality, Neutrality, and Culture (future paper)

In an essay that I will begin drafting this spring, I plan to argue that liberal political theory fails to account for the impact of our non-moral cultural lives on our capacity to live with one another as equals. 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.  In the modern world, individuals hold highly divergent views about what is good and valuable, but, liberal theory suggests, if we effectively coordinate about what is right, we can avoid intractable disagreement and leave questions about the good to individuals in the private sphere. The view that we can achieve liberal equality without coordinating about the good neglects the constraints that culture places on individuals as they form their own conceptions of the good. We are cultural agents through and through: people form their ideas of what is good and valuable in the context of their cultural surroundings. Any given culture makes a particular, more or less narrow, range of ideas about the good available and eligible for adoption by its participants. The range of eligible values and beliefs about the good is not simply a natural fact, like a fact about the evolutionary history of the mind; it reflects human decisions. If some people are better socially positioned than others to shape the limits of this range, then the equal ability of individuals to form their own, autonomous conceptions of the good is threatened. I will argue that liberals who accept these truisms about the role of culture in value formation must reject the claim that we can achieve democratic equality without coordinating about the good. If deliberation about matters of value is confined to the private sphere, some will be left to lead and others to follow in matters of value, an outcome that should be antithetical to the basic egalitarian commitments of liberalism. Real liberal equality requires ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to cultural production just as much as it requires that everyone have equal opportunities to participate in politics.

On Vanguardism (future paper)

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, then democratic bodies should never themselves have experiences of spontaneity, because all their actions should be determined by instrumental calculations about how best to prevent class subordination. Non-vanguardist democratic 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 the problem with vanguardism is that, in the political arena, it 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.

Further Research

“The Political Morality of Nudges in Healthcare,” in Nudging Health: Health Law and Behavioral Economics, edited by I. Glenn Cohen, Holly Fernandez Lynch, and Christopher T. Robinson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 97-106.

A common critique of “nudges”—policy interventions that are designed to make it more likely that people will make choices in their own interest or in the public interest that stop short of coercing compliance—is that they reduce someone’s choices or elicit behavior through means other than rational persuasion. In this paper, published in the edited volume Nudging Health: Health Law and Behavioral Economics, I argue against this form of critique. 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]

“Poincaré, Sartre, Continuity and Temporality,” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 37 (2006): 327-330. 

In this note, published in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, I examine the relation between Henri Poincaré’s definition of mathematical continuity and Sartre’s discussion of temporality in Being and Nothingness. Poincaré states that a series A, B, and C is continuous when A=B, B=C and A is less than C. I explicate Poincaré’s definition and examine the arguments that he uses to arrive at this definition. I argue that Poincaré’s definition is applicable to temporal series, and I show that this definition of continuity provides a logical basis for Sartre’s psychological explanation of temporality. Specifically, I demonstrate that Poincaré’s definition 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 (future paper)

Everybody, it seems, wants to have fun. Every day, people tell each other, “Have fun!” Psychologists often regard fun as a motive for behaviors or beliefs without explaining what fun is. 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. The absence of philosophical literature on fun might be expected if fun coincided perfectly with some other concept of which philosophers have produced a fuller account, like play or pleasure or humor. But “fun” does not entirely coincide with ordinary understandings of, for example, play. Sometimes we play games that are no fun, and sometimes we have fun when we do something that does not appear to be “play,” like going for a hike. In this paper, 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.”