Various Research Interests
My research is currently focused on two areas: well-being and the normative assessment of emotion. But much of my work does not fit neatly into any one or two areas of specialization. I am interested a variety of topics in general value theory. I've written papers on pleasure, art and morality, well-being, love, the badness of death, the paradox of tragedy, suspense, aesthetic value, humor, immortality, and free will.
Recently, I've been thinking about the nature and importance of well-being. Much of the disagreement about the nature of well-being is a due to a lack of clarity about what we should expect the concept to do. There is a lack of clarity about the normative adequacy of the concept. If we begin by assuming welfarism—the view that welfare is the ultimate ground for all moral obligations—then we will be disposed to develop a broad theory of welfare. However, if we think that there are other, morally significant kinds of value, we will be more inclined to accept a narrow theory of welfare. I reject welfarism and defend a narrow, mental statist theory of well-being. There are a variety of ways in which we can evaluate lives. We can assess them in terms of welfare—how good they are for the one who lives them. We can assess them in terms of meaning. And we can assess them in terms of worth. In a paper forthcoming in the Southern Journal of Philosophy, I defending a consequentialist theory of the meaning of life. And I'm working on a defense of an objective list theory of what makes a life worth living. These essays form the skeleton of a book called Welfare, Meaning, and Worth [ToC and Introduction].
Free Will and Moral Responsibility
I am principally interested in the extent to which we can appropriately evaluate people for largely involuntary reactions, such as amusement and love. We often punish children for inappropriate laughter. I am not convinced that our punishment is merely a form of conditioning. I think that humor provides a good example of a kind of involuntary sin. It provides limited support for a minimal attributionism about moral responsibility, at least for the emotions. I recently finished a paper on the implications of free will skepticism for love. Although I am partial to agent causal theories, I argue that the value of love the feeling would be largely unaffected if we were to accept free will skepticism. I am also interested in another putative implication of free will skepticism. Many think that free will skepticism would threaten the value of artistic achievement. I disagree. The reason that cats can't paint has is not because they lack free will; it is because they lack the ability to create objects that are about anything of significance.
I've been interested in the ethics of humor for some time. It was the focus of the last third of my dissertation. In a paper published in The American Philosophical Quarterly, I argue against “comic immoralism”—the claim that ethical flaws can make jokes more humorous. I also published a paper in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice on the difficult question "When is it wrong to find something funny?" And I recently published a paper defending symmetric comic moralism—the view that moral flaws can detract from and moral virtues can enhance amusement.
Apart from concerns about free will, I am interested in the nature and value of romantic love. I'm particularly interested in the question of whether we can rationally justify our love for another. I recently finished a paper defending the no-reasons view, the claim that there are no justifying reasons for love. One worry about this theory is that it makes it difficult to account for the intuition that love earned through spells or potions is somehow deficient. In a recent paper in Religious Studies, I develop a similar problem for worship. I argue that no entity worthy of worship could exercise the power to compel another's worship. My basic claim is that the threat to autonomy from forced worship could never be justified.
Art and Emotion
I've published several articles that explore problems arising from our emotional responses to art. In an article in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, I explore the role of beliefs in imaginative engagement. A couple of years ago, I published an article on the relevance of artistic conventions to audience immersion and the problem of imaginative resistance. In addition, I published a paper in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism that develops a new theory of suspense. I try to explain why fictions are typically much more suspenseful than real life. And I wrote the entry on the “Paradox of Suspense” for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Art and Negative Affect
My research on the paradox of emotional response has led to an interest in the philosophy of horror. I've written articles on several problems in the area and contributed the entry on horror to the Routledge Companion to Film and Philosophy. In my paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, I argue that differences in audience responses to some horror movies give us good reason to think that some audience members harbor beliefs in the supernatural. In addition, in recent work I generalized the paradox of tragedy and related paradox of horror into what I call “The Paradox of Painful Art.” The paradox is essentially a conflict between motivational hedonism and our apparent desire to undergo painful experiences in response to art. My initial investigations into this problem were recently published in the Journal of Aesthetic Education. And I wrote an entry on art and negative affect for Philosophy Compass. My latest contribution to the issue concerns sad songs. In addition, I use the paradox of tragedy as an example in a recent paper published in Philosophical Studies. There I defend a “hedonic tone” theory of pleasure in opposition to what has become the dominant view of pleasure since Sidgwick.
Philosophy of Film
My initial interest in aesthetics came via the philosophy of film. I have a long-standing passion for cinema and pursued a graduate minor in film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison while working on my PhD in philosophy. I've published several articles in the philosophy of film, including some on issues arising from recent technological advancements, such as the nature of interactivity. In a recent paper in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, I argue that film can be a first-rate vehicle for doing philosophy. [I edit the Philosophy of Film category on Phil Papers.]
Art and Morality
Much of my dissertation-related research is focused on the relationship between art and morality—a long-standing topic that at the center of analytic aesthetics and directly relevant to core issues in meta-ethics. In a series of independent papers I engage the current literature on the topic and develop several new arguments in support of moralism about art—the view that moral flaws in an artwork can be detrimental to its aesthetic value. My most recent work on the issue argues for moralism based on the nature of aesthetic properties. I am now interested in the problem of whether our emotional reactions to works of fiction can be culpably wrong. This line of inquiry furthers my recent work on humor and moral responsibility. In a forth coming article in the JAAC, I argue that the imaginative engagement with songs can be morally bad. I am working on two related papers. I recently completed a draft of a paper defending the claim that it is wrong to enjoy fictional suffering. [I edit the Aesthetics and Ethics category on Phil Papers.]
My interests in welfare extend to theories of the meaning of life and some issues in the philosophy of death. In a recent paper in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, I defend a moderate Epicureanism about the badness of death. I plan to develop an argument against the possibility of posthumous harms. I have also written on the desirability of immortality. In a paper in Philosophy and Literature, I argue that immortality would sap our lives of significance. Immortality would be a prison of eternal frustration for those of just a little ambition, since the range of projects we are capable of completing is finite, but the life of an immoral is infinite.