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Papers

"Good Intentions and the Road to Hell," forthcoming in Philosophical Explorations

G.E.M. Anscombe famously remarked that an adequate philosophy of psychology was needed before we could do ethics.  Fifty years have passed, and we should now ask what significance our best theories of the psychology of agency have for moral philosophy.  The focus will be on non-moral conceptions of autonomy and self-governance that emphasize the limits of deliberation -- the way in which one's cares render certain options unthinkable, one's intentions and policies filter out what is inconsistent with them, and one's resolutions function to block further reflection.  I argue that we can expect this deliberative "silencing" to lead to moral failures that occur because the morally correct option was filtered out of the agent's deliberation.  I think it follows from these conceptions of self-governance that we should be considered culpable for unwitting acts and omissions, even if they express no ill will, moral indifference, or blameworthy evaluative judgments.  The question is whether this consequence is acceptable.  Either way, the potential tradeoff between self-governance and moral attentiveness is a source of doubt about recent attempts to ground the normativity of rationality in our concern for self-governance. 


"The Courage of Conviction," Canadian Journal of Philosophy

Is there a sense in which we exercise direct volitional control over our beliefs? Most agree that there is not, but discussions tend to focus on control in forming a belief. The focus here is on sustaining a belief over time in the face of ‘epistemic temptation’ to abandon it. It is argued that we do have a capacity for ‘doxastic self-control’ over time that is partly volitional in nature, and that its exercise is rationally permissible


"Doxastic Self-Control," American Philosophical Quarterly

This paper discusses the possibility of autonomy in our epistemic lives, and the importance of the concept of the first person in weathering fluctuations in our epistemic perspective over time.


"The Transparency of Intention," Philosophical Studies

The attitude of intention is not usually the primary focus in philosophical work on self-knowledge. A recent exception is the so-called “Transparency” theory of self-knowledge, which attempts to explain how we know our own minds by appeal to reflection on non-mental facts. Transparency theories are attractive in light of their relative psychological economy compared to views that must posit a dedicated mechanism of ‘inner sense’. However, it is argued here, focusing on proposals by Richard Moran and Alex Byrne, that the Transparency approach to explaining knowledge of our intentions fails. Considerations of economy therefore recommend an alternative approach: the Rylean Theory Theory. The particular view defended here is that one way of coming to know what we intend is to self-ascribe an intention on the basis of making a conscious decision about what to do. This view requires that there are such things as conscious decisions, and so the existence of conscious decisions is defended against skeptical worries raised by Peter Carruthers. The conclusion is that we know of our intentions by theorizing about ourselves, but that this knowledge can still be first-personally privileged, authoritative, and non-alienated.

 

"The Transparency of Mind," Philosophy Compass

In philosophical inquiry into the mind, the metaphor of ‘transparency’ has been attractive to many who are otherwise in deep disagreement. It has thereby come to have a variety of different and mutually incompatible connotations. The mind is said to be transparent to itself, our perceptual experiences are said to be transparent to the world, and our beliefs are said to be transparent to – a great many different things. The first goal of this essay is to sort out the different uses of the notion of transparency in the context of the philosophy of mind. The remainder of the essay will then be devoted to examining so-called Transparency theories of self-knowledge, or how we know our own minds. This type of theory has attracted a great deal of interest in recent years, but its prospects hinge on answers to unresolved questions concerning the epistemological details of the account and the scope of its ambitions.

 

"Diachronic Incontinence is a Problem in Moral Philosophy," Inquiry.

Is there a rational requirement enjoining continence over time in the intentions one has formed, such that anyone going in for a certain form of agency has standing reason to conform to such a requirement? This paper suggests that there is not. I argue that Michael Bratman’s defense of such a requirement (‘Time, Rationality, and Self-Governance’. Philosophical Issues 22 [2012]: 73–88) succeeds in showing that many agents have a reason favoring default intention continence much of the time, but does not establish that all planning agents have such a reason in every case of intending. I then defend an account on which such a reason is grounded in the need to maintain the capacity to commit oneself to a practical option. But although I think this applies more widely than Bratman’s account, it is also not a reason that any planning agent has in every case. I tentatively conclude that although we have many good reasons to stick with our intentions once we have formed them, it is not required by rationality.

 

"Of Reasons and Recognition," with Jennifer Morton, Analysis.

A critical discussion of the T.M. Scanlon Festschrift Reasons and Recognition, co-authored with Jennifer Morton.

 

"The Conclusion of Practical Reasoning: The Shadow Between Idea and Act," The Canadian Journal of Philosophy

There is a puzzle about how to understand the conclusion of a successful instance of practical reasoning.  Do the considerations adduced in reasoning rationalize the particular doing of an action, as Aristotle is sometimes interpreted as claiming?  Or does reasoning conclude in the formation of an attitude – an intention, say – that has an action-type as its content?  This paper attempts to clarify what is at stake in that debate and defends the latter view against some of its critics. 

 

"Embarking on a Crime," Law and the Philosophy of Action,Enrique Villanueva V, ed.

When we define something as a crime, we generally thereby criminalize the attempt to commit that crime.  However, it is a vexing puzzle to specify what must be the case in order for a criminal attempt to have occurred, given that the results element of the crime fails to come about.  I argue that the philosophy of action can assist the criminal law in clarifying what kinds of events are properly categorized as criminal attempts.  A natural thought is that this project should take the form of specifying what it is in general to attempt or try to perform an action, and then to define criminal attempts as attempts to commit crimes.  Focusing on Gideon Yaffe's resourceful work in Attempts (Oxford University Press, 2010) as an example of this strategy, I argue that it results in a view that is overly inclusive:  one will count as trying to commit a crime even in the far remote preparatory stages that we in fact have good reason not to criminalize.  I offer an alternative proposal to distinguish between mere preparations and genuine attempts that has its basis not in trying, but doing:  a criminal attempt is underway once what the agent is doing is a crime.  Working out the details of this schema turns out to have important implications for action theory.  A recently burgeoning view known as Naive Action Theory holds that all action can be explained by appeal to some further thing that the agent is doing, and that that the same explanatory nexus is at work even when we appeal to what the agent is intending, trying, or preparing to do -- these notions do explanatory work because they too refer to actions that are in progress, albeit in their infancy.  If this is right, than the notion of 'doing' will also be too inclusive for the purposes of the criminal law.  I argue that we should draw the reverse conclusion:  the distinctions between pure intending, trying, preparing, and doing serve an important purpose in the criminal law, and this fact lends support to the view that they are genuine metaphysical and explanatory distinctions.

 

"How We Know What We Intend," Philosophical Studies 161, 2012

 How do we know what our intentions are?  It is argued that work on self-knowledge has tended to neglect the attitude of intention, and that an epistemological account is needed that is attuned to the specific features of that state.  Richard Moran's "Authorship" view, on which we can acquire self-knowledge by making up our minds, offers a promising insight for such an account:  we do not normally discover what we intend through introspection.  However, his formulation of the Authorship view, developed primarily with the attitude of belief in mind, is found wanting when applied to intention.  An alternative account is proposed for knowledge of one's own intentions that gives a central role to the mental act of deciding what to do.  It is argued that we can come to know what we intend by making a decision about what to do and self-ascribing the content of that decision as our intended action.

 

"Deviant Formal Causation," Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, v.5, no.3.

What is the role of practical thought in determining the intentional action that is performed? Donald Davidson’s influential answer to this question is that thought plays an efficient-causal role: intentional actions are those events that have the correct causal pedigree in the agent's beliefs and desires. But the Causal Theory of Action has always been plagued with the problem of “deviant causal chains,” in which the right action is caused by the right mental state but in the wrong way. This paper addresses an alternative approach to understanding intentional action inspired by G.E.M. Anscombe, interpreting that view as casting practical thought in the role of formal rather than efficient cause of action and thereby avoiding the problem of deviant (efficient) causal chains. Specifically, on the neo-Anscombean view, it is the agent’s “practical knowledge” – non-observational, non-inferential knowledge of what one is doing – that confers the form of intentional action on an event and is the contribution of thought to determining what is intentionally done. This paper argues that the Anscombean view is subject to its own problematic type of deviance: deviant formal causation. What we know non-observationally about what we are doing often includes more than what we intend to be doing; we also know that we are bringing about the foreseen side effects of acting in the intended way. It is argued that the neo-Anscombean view faces difficulty in excluding the expected side effects from the specification of what is intentionally done, whereas the Causal Theory has no such difficulty. Thus, the discussion amounts to an argument in favor of the Causal Theory of Action.


"How We Know What We're Doing," Philosophers' Imprint vol. 9, no. 11, October 2009

G.E.M. Anscombe famously claimed that acting intentionally entails knowing "without observation" what one is doing. Among those that have taken her claim seriously, an influential response has been to suppose that in order to explain this fact, we should conclude that intentions are a species of belief. This paper argues that there are good reasons to reject this "cognitivist" view of intention in favor of the view that intentions are distinctively practical attitudes that are not beliefs and do not constitutively involve the belief that one will do what one intends. A theory is then proposed on behalf of Distinctive Practical Attitude views of intention to explain Anscombe's non-observational knowledge phenomenon. It is argued that intentions do not embody non-observational knowledge, but they do provide the evidential basis for it: we know without observation what we are doing by inferring from our intentions.


"Intention, Belief, and Wishful Thinking:  Setiya on 'Practical Knowledge'," Ethics 118(3), April 2009

A critical discussion of Kieran Setiya's fascinating paper "Practical Knowledge."

 

BOOK REVIEWS

Alan Goldman, Reasons from Within:  Desires and Values.  Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, July 2011

 

Richard Holton, Willing, Wanting, Waiting, Mind vol. 120 (479), 2011


Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe, Rational and Social Agency:  The Philosophy of Michael Bratman.  Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2015.

 

ENCYCLOPEDIA ENTRIES

"Intention," in the International Encyclopedia of Ethics, Wiley-Blackwell