Abstracts of Works in Progress | PhilPapers
"The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life"
(Southern Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming)
I defend the theory that one's life is meaningful to the extent that one promotes the good. Call this the good cause account (GCA) of the meaning of life. It holds that the good effects that count towards the meaning of one's life need not be intentional. Nor must one be aware of the effects. Nor does it matter whether the same good would have resulted if one had not existed. What matters is that one is causally responsible for the good. I argue that the best theory of the meaning of life should clearly distinguish between subjective fulfillment and objective meaningfulness. The GCA respects the distinction. And it is superior to its leading rivals in the recent literature, most notably those of Erik Wielenberg and Susan Wolf.
"How Not to Defend Response Moralism"
(Journal of Aesthetic Education, forthcoming)
Response moralism holds that audience reactions to works of fiction can be morally bad. This position appears implausible: How could it be bad to enjoy fictional suffering? It's just fiction; no one is harmed. My goal is to sketch the most compelling avenue of defense for the theory. I show both how and how not to defend response moralism. First I argue that Allan Hazlett's recent defense fails. Then I defend a Moorean suggestion for how to support the theory. Most important, I argue that the difficulties for the theory have not been fully appreciated. To this end, I present, but do not attempt to solve, four issues facing response moralism.
"Five Tests for What Makes a Life Worth Living"
(Journal of Value Inquiry, forthcoming)
I identify four historically precedented tests for what makes a life worth living: (1) The Suicide Test (Camus), (2) The Recurrence Test (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), (3) The Extra Life Test (Cicero and Hume), and (4) The Preferring Not to Have Been Test (Job and Williams). I argue that all four fail. In response to Smilansky's objections, I defend a fifth, The Pre-Existence Test for what makes a life worth living: (5) A life worth living is one that a benevolent caretaker with foreknowledge would allow. A life worth avoiding is one that a benevolent caretaker would disallow. I argue that this usefully test tracks the general extension of the concept of what makes a life worth living. I consider three objections and note that there appears to be an indeterminate middle category of lives worth neither.
(Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, forthcoming)
Is cinematicity a virtue in film? Is lack of cinematicity a defect? I think not. I argue that the term 'cinematic' principally refers to some cluster of characteristics found in films featuring the following: expansive scenery, extreme depth of field, high camera positioning, and elaborate tracking shots. We often use the word as a term of praise. And we are likely right to do so. We are right if we mean that the film does well what movies often do well. We are wrong if we mean that the film is good for doing what is merely distinctive of film. Ultimately, I argue that the rightful praise of a film for its cinematicity provides no support for any substantive medium specificity thesis.
"Painful Art and the Limits of Well-Being"
(Suffering Art Gladly, forthcoming)
My goal in this paper is not so much to defend a solution to the paradox of tragedy, as it is to explore the implications of a few contenders. In particular, I am interested in whether painful art is bad for audiences. And if so, is it rational for people to watch melodramas or to listen to love songs? Should we encourage our loved ones to avoid sad songs? More fundamentally, I am interested in what painful art can tell us about the nature and importance of human welfare.
"The Salacious and the Satirical: In Defense of Symmetric Comic Moralism"
A common view holds that humor and morality are antithetical: Moral flaws enhance amusement, and moral virtues detract. I reject both of these claims. If we distinguish between merely outrageous jokes and immoral jokes, the problems with the common view become apparent. What we find is that genuine morals flaws tend to inhibit amusement. Further, by looking at satire, we can see that moral virtues sometimes enhance amusement. The position I defend is called symmetric comic moralism. It is widely regarded as patently absurd. I hope to correct this mistake.
"Less Good but not Bad: In Defense of Epicureanism about Death"
"The Power to Make Others Worship"
(Religious Studies, 2012)
"The Ethics of Singing Along: The Case of 'Mind of a Lunatic'"
(Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2013)
In contrast to film, theater, and literature, audiences typically sing along with popular songs. This can encourage a first-person mode of engagement with the narrative content. Unlike mere spectators, listeners sometimes imagine acting out the content when it is recited in the first-person. This is a common mode of engaging with popular music. And it can be uniquely morally problematic. It is problematic when it involves the enjoyment of imaginatively doing evil. I defend a Moorean view on the issue: It is wrong to enjoy evil whether real or merely fiction. I develop my position through an examination of the controversially song "Mind of a Lunatic" (1990) by the Houston based rap group Geto Boys.
"It's a Wonderful Life: Pottersville and the Meaning of Life"
(Film and Philosophy, 2012)
"The Feels Good Theory of Pleasure"
Most philosophers since Sidgwick have thought that the various forms of pleasure differ so radically that one cannot find a common, distinctive feeling among them. This is known as the heterogeneity problem. To get around this problem, the motivational theory of pleasure suggests that what makes an experience one of pleasure is our reaction to it, not something internal to the experience. I argue that the motivational theory is wrong, and not only wrong, but backwards. The heterogeneity problem is the sole source of motivation for this, otherwise, highly counterintuitive theory. I intend to show that the heterogeneity problem is not a genuine problem and that a more straightforward theory of pleasure is forthcoming. I argue that the various experiences that we call “pleasures” all feel good.
"Immortality and Significance"
(Philosophy and Literature, 2011)
"'Pickman's Model': Horror and the Objective Purport of Photographs"
(Revue Internationale de Philosophie)
It is commonly held, even among non-Bazinians, that photographs are typically perceived as more objective than other forms of depiction. The implications of this putative feature of photographic reception for the fiction film have been relatively ignored. If photos do have an objective purport, it would explain the power of a common device used in horror movies where a monster is selectively revealed through a degraded image, usually an amateur video recording. However, I argue that a better explanation is forthcoming. It is not the objective purport of photographs that accounts for the peculiar power of these scenes, but the power of our imaginations to picture monsters far more terrifying than those that can be readily depicted. This gives us reason to be skeptical of the idea that the objective purport of photographs contributes significantly to the reception of fiction films.
“The Ghost is the Thing: Can Horror Reveal Audience Beliefs?”
(Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 2010)
"Rubber Ring: Why do we listen to sad songs?"
(Narrative, Emotion, and Insight, 2011)
In this essay, I discuss a few ways in which songs are used, ways in which listeners engage with and find meaning in music. I am most interested in sad songs—those that typically feature narratives about lost love, separation, missed opportunity, regret, hardship, and all manner of heartache. Many of us are drawn to sad songs in moments of emotional distress. The problem is that sad songs do not always make us feel better; to the contrary, they often make us feel worse. So, why do we listen to sad songs? I argue that we seek out sad songs, partly, to intensify distress, which helps us reflect on situations of profound personal significance.
"Grounding Moralism: Moral Flaws and Aesthetic Properties"
My goal in this article is to provide support for the claim that moral flaws can be detrimental to an artwork's aesthetic value. I argue that moral flaws can become aesthetic flaws when they defeat the operation of good-making aesthetic properties. I do not defend a new theory of aesthetic properties or aesthetic value; instead, I attempt to show that on both the response-dependence and the supervenience account of aesthetic properties, moral flaws with an artwork are relevant to what aesthetic properties obtain. I provide a description of the main features of both theories of aesthetic properties, and then explain how moral flaws can become aesthetic flaws on either account. I address several objections to moralism about art including the "moralistic fallacy."
(The Continuum Companion to Aesthetics, 2012)
The common assumption is that works of popular are less serious, less artistically valuable. Popular art is driven by a profit motive; real art, high art, is produced for loftier goals, such as aesthetic appreciation. Further, popular art is formulaic and gravitates toward the lowest common denominator. High art is innovative. It enriches, elevates, and inspires; popular art just entertains. Worse, popular art inculcates cultural biases. It is a corporate tool of ideological indoctrination, making contingent social and economic arrangements seem necessary. Or so the common view holds. In light of these common assumptions, we must ask just what marks the distinction between high art and popular art? Is there really any important difference at all? Is there reason to think that popular is by its very nature aesthetically inferior to high art? In what follows, I will consider some of the prominent answers to these questions. The discussion is organized around questions concerning two general topics: (1) the nature of popular art, and (2) the putative aesthetic deficiencies of popular art.
"Film as Philosophy: In Defense of a Bold Thesis"
(Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2009)
I defend what Paisley Livingston calls the “bold thesis” of cinema as philosophy. As described by Livingston, the bold thesis is that some films can make innovative, independent philosophical contributions by cinematic means. In the abstract, the idea is simply that film can do philosophy in an interesting way. And it is certainly not interesting to point out that a film could be philosophical by simply presenting a philosopher reading a paper. If the film as philosophy thesis has any significance, it must hold that film can do philosophy in a way more “cinematic” than merely recording a talk. In addition, if film can be said to do philosophy, it must be able to make original contributions to the field. The central problem with the bold thesis is that it runs into what Livingston calls the problem of paraphrase. I expand the bold thesis, explain the problem of paraphrase, and proceed to explain how the problem can be solved. Although there may have never been a film that has made an innovative and independent philosophical contribution, and it is certain that few have, there is no reason to think that films cannot do philosophy. By way of the example of October, I argued that films can offer analogical arguments that could be innovative an independent. There is ample reason to think that the film is able to do philosophy independent of linguistic means, and, further, that the means employed, namely the means of montage, are as cinematic as can be.
“The Ethics of Humor: Can Your Sense of Humor be Wrong?”
(Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)
Although few people have focused exclusively on the humor response, we can distill three somewhat interrelated approaches to the ethical criticisms of humor: (1) attitude-based theories, (2) merited-response theories, and (3) emotional responsibility theories. I direct the brunt of my effort at showing the limitations of the attitudinal endorsement theory by presenting new criticisms of Ronald de Sousa's position. I then assess the strengths of the other two approaches, showing that their major formulations implicitly require the problematic attitudinal endorsement theory. In this article, I argue for an effects-mediated responsibility theory, holding that the strongest ethical criticism that can be made of our sense of humor is that it might indicate some omission on our part. This omission could only be culpable in so far as a particular joke could do harm to one's self or others. In contrast to Ted Cohen's doubts that such a mechanism of harm is forthcoming, I argue that the primary vehicle of the harmful effects of humor is laughter.
"Do Moral Flaws Enhance Amusement?"
(American Philosophical Quarterly, 2009)
In this paper I argue that genuine moral flaws never enhance amusement, but they sometimes detract.I argue against comic immoralism--the position that moral flaws can make attempts at humor more amusing.Two common errors have made immoralism look attractive.First, immoralists have confused outrageous content with genuine moral flaws.Second, immoralists have failed to see that it is not sufficient to show that a morally flawed joke is amusing; they need to show that a joke can be more amusing because of the fact that it is morally flawed.I argue that the immoralist lacks a plausible account of how this could be the case.I reject immoralism and argue for comic moralism—the position that moral flaws can make attempts at humor less amusing.
“Story Identity, Story Type”
A foundational assumption, perhaps the initial discovery, of narrative theory is that a distinction can be made between story and discourse—between the plot and how it is told. It seems clear that the Wooster Group's production of “Hamlet” tells the same story as Laurence Olivier's production. When we say that these two productions have the same story, we mean to say that the stories are identical. However, our meaning is not so clear in other contexts. Critics claims that “Pretty Woman” is a Pygmalion story and that “Maid in Manhattan” is a Cinderella story, but we should not understand such comments as expressing identity claims. Instead, the critics are assigning a property to the movie, or perhaps classifying the story type—that is, they are using the “is” of predication rather than the “is” of identity. If pressed, surely, we would not want to say that “Maid in Manhattan” and Disney's animated Cinderella have identical stories, or are tellings of the same story.
Although it seems plausible to say that the same story can be retold in different media, it is difficult to say exactly what this would entail. The primary difficulty is in coming up with an acceptable theory of story identity. In this article I present several theories of story identity and explore their weaknesses. I argue that in the end we are left with two unattractive options: a strict theory that implies that the same story can almost never be retold and a lenient theory that has trouble differentiating between a general story type and the same story.
"The Paradox of Suspense"
(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009)
The ultimate success of Hollywood blockbusters is dependent upon repeat viewings. Fans return to theaters to see films multiple times and buy DVDs so they can watch movies yet again. Although it is something of a received dogma in philosophy and psychology that suspense requires uncertainty, many of the biggest box office successes are action movies that fans claim to find suspenseful on repeated viewings. The conflict between the theory of suspense and the accounts of viewers generates a problem known as the paradox of suspense, which we can boil down to a simple question: If suspense requires uncertainty, how can a viewer who knows the outcome still feel suspense?
"Art and Negative Affect"
(Philosophy Compass, 2009)
Why do people seemingly want to be scared by movies and feel pity for fictional characters when they avoid situations in real life that arouse these same negative emotions? Although the domain of relevant artworks encompasses far more than just tragedy, the general problem is typically called the paradox of tragedy. The paradox boils down to a simple question: If people avoid pain then why do people want to experience art that is painful? I discuss six popular solutions to the paradox: conversion, control, compensatory, meta-response, catharsis, and rich experience theories.
"Wings of Desire: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality"
(Film and Philosophy)
The question Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) forces us to answer is whether we too would be willing to renounce immortality? Or, to put it conversely, would we be wise to exchange our current mortal existence for immortality? If a state of senseless, inefficacious existence is undesirable, the question of the value of immortality becomes one of the conceivably of an alternative to the angels' form of existence. By contemplating the existence of the angels in Wings of Desire, we can see that they do not simply exemplify one possible eternal existence, but that the negative aspects of their being are perhaps essential features of the immortal. I begin by exploring another argument for the undesirableness of immortality that has taken center stage in the debate, then turn my attention to the film and present a novel argument against the value of immortality.
"'The Little People': Power and the Worshipable"
Philosophers and social scientists have explored the ritual practices and the experience of worship, but there has been relatively little discussion of what makes something worthy of worship.However, we find a characteristically sophisticated examination of the issue by Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone episode "The Little People" (3rd Season, March 30, 1962). By considering the example of “The Little People” and a few variations, we can clarify the role power plays in making something worthy of worship. The episode presents a scenario where a relative, although great, advantage in strength is not sufficient to make something worshipable. But what of far greater powers, such as that of creating the universe—is such power sufficient? If not sufficient, is great power necessary for something to be worthy of worship? Does omnipotence impart the bearer with the power to make others properly worship it?
“What is Interactivity?”
(Journal of Aesthetic Education, 2009)
I argue that the term "interactive" should be considered a general purpose term that indicates something about whatever it is applied to, whether that is art, artifact, or nature. I base my definition in the notion of "interacting with" something. First, I look for essential features of this relation, and then using these features I develop a notion of interactivity that can help distinguish the interactive from non-interactive arts. Although I am skeptical of the benefits interactivity affords, interactive artworks are significant in that they are the first instances of mass art to be truly "concreative." Prior to building a definition of interactivity, I provide a novel reading of Collingwood in order to revive his notion of "concreativity" for contemporary application. In order to develop my theory of interactivity as mutual responsiveness, I analyze four problematic definitions of interactivity: (1) the control theory, (2) the making use theory, (3) the input/output theory, and (4) the procedural/participatory theory. In each case, I reveal a problem that my final notion solves. After presenting a definition of interactivity, I defend the viability of my theory against skeptical remarks that interactivity is a useless concept.
"The Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense"
(Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism)
What is suspense and how is it created? An answer to this question constitutes a theory of suspense. I propose that any theory of suspense needs to be able to account for three curious features:
In this paper I offer a theory of suspense that can explain these three features. I argue for a theory called the Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense, which holds that suspense results when our desire to effect the outcome of an imminent event is frustrated.
(Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, 2008)
Three questions have occupied much of the philosophical literature on cinematic horror: What is horror? How is it able to frighten and disgust? Why do we seek out horror if it horrifies? Although there are numerous other important topics, this entry will focus on these three general questions, since they motivate the overwhelming majority of the philosophical writing on cinematic horror.
"The Paradox of Painful Art"
(Journal of Aesthetic Education, 2007)
Many of the most popular genres of narrative art are designed to elicit negative emotions: emotions that are experienced as painful or involving some degree of pain, which we generally avoid in our daily lives. Melodramas make us cry. Tragedies bring forth pity and fear. Conspiratorial thrillers arouse feelings of hopelessness and dread, and devotional religious art can make the believer weep in sorrow: not only do audiences know what these artworks are supposed to do, they seek them out in pursuit of prima facie painful reactions. Traditionally, the question of why people seek out such experiences of painful art has been presented as the paradox of tragedy. Most solutions to the paradox of tragedy assume that the reason we seek out tragedies, horror films, melodramas, and the like is because they afford pleasureful experiences. From there, theorists attempt to account for the source of this pleasure, a pleasure assumed to be had from representations of events from which we do not derive pleasure in real life. I argue that this assumption is suspect: the motive for seeking out devotional religious art, melodrama, tragedy, and some horror is not clearly to find pleasure.
“The Joke is the Thing: 'In the Company of Men' and the Ethics of Humor”
(Film and Philosophy, 2007)
Any analysis of In the Company of Men is forced to answer three questions of central importance to the ethics of humor: (1) What does it mean to find sexist humor funny? (2) What are the various sources of humor? And, (3) can moral flaws with attempts at humor increase their humorousness? Although In the Company of Men may get at the conscience of the audience through humor, the mechanism is not the content but the purpose to which the jokes are put. By examining the way in which humor is used in the film, I hope to reveal what the film has to tell us about the ethics of humor. This paper argues that the film exposes a source of humor, namely, insecurity, which has been largely unaccounted for and is at radical variance with the superiority theory of humor. In addition, I argue that the film shows that comic immoralism lacks clear support, since it demonstrates how certain kinds of jokes fail to work in truly immoral contexts.
“Are Video Games Art?”
(Contemporary Aesthetics, 2005)
Typically, one advances the art status of a particular artform in a deductive fashion: by first picking a favored definition of art, demonstrating that the candidate meets all the criteria for sufficiency according to that definition, and then concluding that the artform in question is art. Rather than defining art and defending video games based on a contentious definition, I offer reasons for thinking video games can be art on institutional, historical, representational, and expressivist grounds. If we can agree that all of these definitions generally track our intuitions about what should be considered art, when they are all in agreement we have good reason to think that we have successfully picked out an artform.
“V. F. Perkins Functional Credibility and the Problem of Imaginative Resistance”
(Film and Philosophy, 2006)
I identify three seemingly incompatible notions of credibility and show how Perkins trades on an ambiguity between them. I attempt to bring the three notions together into an idea of functional credibility, but find that this notion has a limited scope. Not only is the concept difficult to apply, seemingly amounting to anything but a clarification of standards, but the application blindly rules out cases of acknowledged excellence. Perkins leaves the value of spectator immersion, and why it should be, relatively unsupported. As a result, the composite notion works against Perkins' statement of intent. Rather than criteria of evaluation, Perkins has presented us with a rough analysis of the power of convention, and how it relates to a vague notion of belief required for spectator immersion. Nevertheless, Film as Film exposes the complexity of the problem of imaginative resistance in regard to the art of the moving image.
“Helpless Spectators: Suspense in Film and Video Games”
(Text Technology, 2004)
The most surprising conclusion of our analysis is that videogames can be most effective in generating suspense not by highlighting their unique ability to be interactive, but, to the contrary, limiting interactivity at key points, thereby turning players into helpless spectators like those that watch films. Discovering this technique in video games allows us to turn our attention back to film, where we are able to highlight a previously ignored feature of viewer film interaction, namely, helplessness.
(Philosophy and Literature, 2005)
While working to build his aesthetic theory from the qualities of normal, healthy experience, John Dewey diagnoses a rarely recognized experiential ailment -- what might be called the anesthetic malady. This illness generally results when experience is deprived of meaning due to the poverty of the predominant forms of activity available in one's environment. In Dewey's theory of aesthetic experience lies an easily overlooked social/political approach that predates, by almost half a century, recent social theoretical concerns in phenomenology and everyday aesthetics. Dewey takes notice of experience and prompts inquiry into sometimes obviously important, but often dismissed as irrelevant and mundane, paths.
(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006)
According to the standard analysis, humor theories can be classified into three neatly identifiable groups:incongruity, superiority, and relief theories. Incongruity theory is the leading approach and includes historical figures such as Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and perhaps has its origins in comments made by Aristotle in the Rhetoric. Primarily focusing on the object of humor, this school sees humor as a response to an incongruity, a term broadly used to include ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness. The paradigmatic Superiority theorist is Thomas Hobbes, who said that humor arises from a “sudden glory” felt when we recognize our supremacy over others. Plato and Aristotle are generally considered superiority theorists, who emphasize the aggressive feelings that fuel humor. The third group, Relief theory, is typically associated with Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer, who saw humor as fundamentally a way to release or save energy generated by repression. In addition, this article will explore a fourth group of theories of humor: play theory. Play theorists are not so much listing necessary conditions for something’s counting as humor, as they are asking us to look at humor as an extension of animal play.
“Haunting the House from Within”
(Dark Thoughts, 2003)
In this article I attempt to explain the lasting effectiveness and critical success of The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) by roughly sketching the role that 'belief' might play in a revised version of the 'Thought Theory' of emotional response. I argue that The Haunting engages the viewer in a process of "disbelief mitigation" -- the sheltering of non-trivial, tenuously held beliefs required for optimal viewer response -- that helps make the film work as horror, and prevents it from sliding into comedy. Haunted house films do not have to extend much effort to keep us from walking away, since viewers come to the theater ready to entertain the idea that haunted houses exist. Using the experiential philosophy of John Dewey, I propose that this willingness has to do with a fundamental aspect of our relationship with space. It is common to speak of places as charged or tense, to get feelings of dread or nostalgia from certain spots. Some haunted house films make use of this experiential characteristic to fuel the horror, and without it the subgenre would probably not exist.
"The Metaphorics of Hume's Gendered Skepticism"
(Feminist Interpretations of David Hume, 2003)
In "Of Scepticism with Regard to the Senses" (Treatise I.IV.II) David Hume begins by saying that he will attempt to trace the causes of our belief in a mind-independent world, "a belief we must take for granted in all our reasonings". Yet the causes arrived at – namely natural inclination or imagination - are presented as so untrustworthy as to cast doubt on the credibility of the inescapable belief itself. However, in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume presents a radically different evaluation of natural inclination, in which Nature is seen as a trustworthy, guiding Supreme Mother. I attempt to explain why Nature earns a disparaging evaluation within "Scepticism," and the significance of these metaphors to different versions of his argument.