Research

 

Coercion and Captivity (2014) in The Ethics of Captivity, Lori Gruen, ed. Oxford University Press What is captivity? I argue that captivity occurs when a self-directed organism is substantially controlled by someone else (a captor) for that captor’s sole benefit. I consider three modes of captivity with an eye to examining the effects of captivity on free agency and considering whether these modes depend on or constitute coercion. These modes are physical captivity, psychological captivity, and social/legal captivity. All these modes of captivity may severely impact capacities a person relies on for free agency in different ways. They may also undermine or destroy a person’s identity-constituting cares and values. On a Nozick-style view, coercion amounts to conditional threats, and therefore many of the processes creating captivity are not coercive. However, this view overlooks the role that barriers to action play in making threats effective. Thus, an enforcement view of coercion is better to understand the coercion that takes place in captivity, but the effects of the use of power on a captive’s psychology remain an important area of investigation. (Keywords: control, autonomy, agency, Nozick, power)

Harmful Beneficence Journal of Moral Philosophy: 8, 2011.Beneficence is usually regarded as adequate when it results in an actual benefit for a beneficiary and satisfies her self-chosen end. However, beneficence that satisfies these conditions can harm beneficiaries’ free agency, particularly when they are robustly dependent on benefactors. First, the means that benefactors choose can have undesirable side-effects on resources beneficiaries need for future free action. Second, benefactors may undermine beneficiaries’ ability to freely deliberate and choose. It is therefore insufficient to satisfy someone’s self-chosen ends. Instead, good beneficence depends on whether the benefactor avoids undue influence over a beneficiary’s deliberation and whether the choice of means is compatible with the beneficiary’s conception of her good. Consequently, benefactors must have substantial respect for a beneficiary’s free agency and the practical competence to choose means that take into account the beneficiary’s conception of her good and the wider set of circumstances that influence her life.

“Worthy Lives” (2010) Social Theory and Practice 32 (2)  I defend a revised version of Bernard Williams’ meaning objection: the claim that it is defensible to pursue meaning-conferring goals that conflict with impartial moral reasons. Samuel Scheffler’s and Barbara Herman’s arguments on behalf of hybrid consequentialism and Kantianism respectively do not show that these views are moderate in what they demand of agents with respect to meaning. We can defensibly prefer meaning-conferring projects over moral demands in some paradigm cases.

Citizen Responsibility for War in Imperfect Democracies Dialogue (2009) 43 (04)Are individual citizens of voting democracies morally responsible for unjust wars waged by their state? Moral responsibility for unjust wars involves both retrospective and social responsibility. Citizens of imperfect democracies are retrospectively responsible when they choose to vote for a leader they know will wage an unjust war. This situation occurs very rarely. For example, US citizens did not have this political option at the outset of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. However, even when citizens are not retrospectively responsible they have the social responsibility to engage in collective action to address the harms unjust war causes.

“Ethical Reasons and Political Commitments”in Lisa Tessman, ed. in Feminist Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy: Theorizing the Non-Ideal, Springer, 2009.   Political commitments to resist oppression play a central role in the moral lives of many people. Such commitments are also a source of ethical reasons. They influence and organize ethical beliefs, emotions and reasons in an ongoing way. Political commitments to address oppression often contain a concern for the dignity and well-being of others and the objects of political commitments often have value, according to ideal moral theories, such as Kantian and utilitarian theory. However, ideal moral theories do not fully explain the ethical reasons political commitments engender. First, ideal moral theories do not explain the normative priority that agents give to politically committed ethical reasons. Their profound effect on a politically committed agent’s ethical deliberation and choice and the precedence they are given over other ends cannot be wholly understood through the moral obligations within ideal theories. Second, although politically committed reasons are valuable in ideal theory for the benefits they bring to others, they are not fungible with other reasons ideal theory would regard as having equal ethical value. A person might substitute another beneficial humanitarian aim for that to which she is politically committed and nevertheless regard herself as having done a morally wrong thing for failing or betraying her commitment. Politically committed ethical reasons are also motivated and informed by the social location of agents and their relationship to structures of oppression. Although there are universal ethical reasons to oppose oppression, this means that some of a person’s actual ethical reasons will be irreducibly particular.

Pluralism, Imagination and Estrangement Philosophical Papers (2006) 35 (3). This paper considers the problem of political conflict in liberal democracies. People are going to lose political contests over things they are passionate about but the hope is that, in liberal democracies they will regard even the unwelcome result as legitimate. But what would make us believe a political result is legitimate when we believe it is the wrong thing? Rawls tries to solve this problem of political disagreement in society by the idea of an overlapping consensus–from which we can draw public reasons that we all regard as legitimate sources for political choice even when the choice conflicts with our own view. I argue in the paper that Rawls’ account fails to see that are our debates about laws and policies involve imagining other people in our society and what’s behind their reasoning. Just as people utilize imaginative heuristics to understand other people’s motives they also use such heuristics to understand what’s driving others’ advocacy for particular laws and polices. Even the most mainstream public reasons they proffer may not be seen as genuine.  Thus, if the winning side’s argument ostensibly draws on the overlapping consensus, some will become estranged from the polity if they believe there are suspect comprehensive doctrines lurking behind those arguments. Public reason alone isn’t enough to drive political change either– such change is possible only when a group succeeds in causing others to re-imagine the effects of a law or policy. Although Rawls argues that it should be intelligible that same sex marriage is in line with the pre-existing overlapping consensus in liberal societies, I argue that this is not a good explanation of how judges came to regard same sex marriage as part of equality before the law. In fact, the political action of gays and lesbians over time was necessary for for judges to recognize the justness of same sex marriage. The wall that political liberalism wants to maintain around private doctrines also makes it impossible for oppressed groups to directly debate issues regarding the private doctrines of others–and they need to do this if they have any hope of succeeding at transforming the conceptualization of themselves in the public sphere.

“Sacrifices, Aspirations and Morality” (2006) Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (1) One way to look at Bernard Willliams’ arguments about integrity is through the idea of moral sacrifice: Is a moral requirement reasonable if we have to sacrifice something essential to what we care most about? Williams’ objection to impartiality is not convincing when the content of the projects we care about it left open. But if we consider morally permissible or noble projects then the point of the view becomes much clearer. Even defensible ethical projects can be threatened by what Williams calls ‘the morality system.’  Indeed, even cases where people care much more about moral outcomes than anything else aren’t explicable within the morality system. One of the overlooked insights of Williams’ objection is that we often interpret moral demands holistically, in terms of the lives we think we should lead, rather than only in terms of moral duties or outcomes.

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