Interests

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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 the metaphysical implications of a humanist conception of value. In Joseph Raz's characterization, the humanist explains the goodness or value of something 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.

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—forthcoming 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 book-project turns to questions about excellence. I develop a form of perfectionism according to which we do well in our own lives, and well in our relationships with others, when we think, feel, and behave as the mortal beings we are. In a new article in progress, “A Mortal Excellence,” I recall strands of ancient Greek thought in which mortality is taken to be the mark of humanity. 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. 

In a second article in progress, “The Excellent and the Beneficial,” I take up foundational questions about the concepts of benefit and excellence.  The human good is at once a notion of the good for human beings, and a notion of the good in human beings—it contains the concept of benefit and the concept of virtue or excellence. Theories differ according to their conception of the relationship between these concepts, and in particular, over the question of which concept has explanatory priority. I develop the view that there is an asymmetrical dependence between excellence and the beneficial with the beneficial taking priority. In my view, however, the dependence between these concepts has important epistemological implications, so that we cannot explicate the one except in relation to the other.  In seeking to elucidate benefit we appeal to notions of excellence, and conversely.