I am interested in the history of ethical thought, and in contemporary ethical theory with a particular focus on the nature of value. Much of my work explores what Joseph Raz has called a humanist conception of value. For the humanist, when we explain the goodness or value of something, we do so in terms of its contribution to human life and its quality. While I believe that the view should be broadened to encompass other forms of life, I think it gets right that goodness is relational in the sense that it is always goodness for someone. Some relational value theorists contend that there is no such thing as being good, only being good for someone, or being good in a way. According to the version of the view that I develop, by contrast, being relationally valuable is a way of being valuable: it is an explanation of something's status as generally practically significant. While I think we should approach questions about goodness in terms of the relation of benefit, I do not think this approach renders interest in the good ill-conceived. Indeed, I regard the good as the starting point for ethics.
Questions about the nature of value tend to go together with questions about what is of value and why. One moves back and forth between thinking about what value is and what things are of value. A central question for me has been how to explain our value—the value of humanity. I am interested in the implications of a humanist conception of value for the value of people themselves. Some argue that the existence of what is indirectly and directly good for people entails that people are non-relationally valuable. I have come to doubt the model of relational value—a “borrowing” model—that drives this form of argument, and I have explored alternatives to terminating a regress in non-relational value. This has led me to investigate (as part of a book-length project—under contract with Oxford University Press) the prospects for explaining the value of people in fully relational terms. Questions about the value of humanity led me to Kant. What it means to be a Kantian in ethics has been a central topic for me, as well as what commitments might lead one away from Kantianism. This has led me to think more generally about rationalism in ethics, and how better to understand the role of reason in ethical theory, especially in relation to value.
My next project emerges naturally from these lines of inquiry. The human good is at once a notion of the good of human beings, and a notion of the good in human beings—it contains the concept of benefit and the concept of excellence. In my view these are reciprocal concepts, so that we cannot understand the one except in relation to the other, but in my next project I turn more explicitly to excellence. A new article, tentatively titled “A Mortal Excellence,” considers the prospects for the idea that we do well in our own lives, and well in our interactions with others, to the extent that we fully come to terms with our capacities and limitations as mortal beings. That mortality is the mark of humanity is a preoccupation in strands of ancient Greek thought, and in ancient culture the idea of mortality finds its point in contrast with immortality, so that we are mortal as opposed to godly. My question is how to understand (and strive for) a mortal excellence. The article will form the basis for my second book project on perfectionism in ethics.