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We are all in this world together
Many people find themselves ruminating on the existence of others, and wishing that they had not been born. This may come about innocently enough, as when one is stuck in traffic and laments that there are so many other drivers on the road to where one is intending to go; but also exists in more ominous form, when people wish that whole groups had not been born or, at least, had not been in one’s vicinity: the poor or the rich, immigrants or locals, people of a certain ethnicity or religion. I call these thoughts "preferences for others' nonexistence" (PON). I show that the Nonidentity problem or effect by and large excludes PON thoughts, showing them to be (given plausible assumptions) irrational, and indeed self-defeating. The self is held hostage by the other. We come to exist together, or not at all.
"We Are All in this Life Together", Iyyun 68 (2020): 85-93.
Moral life sometimes involves life-and-death decisions, and philosophers often consider them by examining intuitions about ideal cases. Contemporary philosophical discourse on such matters has been dominated by Trolley-type cases, which typically present us with the need to make decisions on whether to sacrifice one person in order to save a larger number of similar others. Such cases lead to a distinct view of moral dilemmas, and of moral life generally. The case I present here, "Hostage Situation", is quite unlike them, and should generate intuitions that differ greatly from those brought forth by standard Trolley-type cases. The implications are surprising, and suggest that familiar and widely-prevalent perceptions of the normative field are inadequate.
Journal of Philosophy
"A Hostage Situation", Journal of Philosophy 116 (2019): 447-466.
Recent free will denialism (FWD) tends to be optimistic, claiming that not only will the rejection of the belief in free will and moral responsibility not make matters dreadful, but that we are indeed better off without them. I address the denialist claim that FWD has the philosophical resources to effectively safeguard human rights and respect for persons in the context of punishment, even without belief in free will, moral responsibility and desert. I raise seven reasons for doubt concerning the ability of FWD to maintain deontological constraints. Together they present a strong case for doubting the optimism of FWD.
Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society
"Free Will Denial and Deontological Constraints", in Elizabeth Shaw, Derk Pereboom, and Gregg D. Caruso, eds. Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.
Pereboom on Punishment - Funishment, Innocence, Motivation, and Other Difficulties
In 'Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life', Derk Pereboom proposes an optimistic model of life that follows on the rejection of both libertarian and compatibilist beliefs in free will, moral responsibility, and desert. I criticize his views, focusing on punishment. Pereboom responds to my earlier argument that hard determinism must seek to revise the practice of punishment in the direction of 'funishment', whereby the incarcerated are very generously compensated for the deprivations of incarceration. I claimed that funishment is a practical 'reductio' of hard determinism. Pereboom replies, but I claim that he misses a key component of my 'reductio', the idea that moving in the direction of funishment will considerably weaken the deterrence of potential criminals so that hard determinism becomes self-defeating in practice. Beyond the challenge of funishment, I raise various other difficulties with Pereboom's model, concerning its deeply unintuitive implications, the harm it does to the motivation of potential criminals, its weakness in resisting utilitarian-like dangers, and more. Our conclusions should lead to a re-evaluation of the compatibilist interpretation of moral life, as a richer, more plausible, and safer interpretation than hard determinism. This needs to be combined with a true hard determinist acknowledgment of the deep injustice and tragedy involved in punishment in light of the absence of libertarian free will. Such a complex view will come closer to doing justice to notions of justice, morality, and decency.
Criminal Law and Philosophy: An International Journal for Philosophy of Crime, Criminal Law and Punishment
"Pereboom on Punishment - Funishment, Innocence, Motivation, and Other Difficulties", Criminal Law and Philosophy, symposium on Derk Pereboom's Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, 11 (2017): 591-603.
The nonidentity problem (henceforth NIP) is one of the great moral discoveries of the 20th century; and a philosophical classic. It is a single, simple, powerful, philosophical conundrum. It has in many cases a solution, but cannot be dismissed, and retains its paradoxical force. I will aim to present my own take on it, and defend the NIP from the original and challenging attack by Melinda Roberts and David Wasserman in "Dividing and Conquering the Nonidentity Problem" (this volume). In the process, I will reject the positions they offer on each of the two alleged problems into which they divide the NIP, offering some less familiar arguments, particularly about individual contribution and the special role of parenting. I will also explicate why I think that it is in any case a mistake to see the NIP as composed of two distinct problems, showing both its unity and the broadness of its manifestations; illustrate how my recent "historical" exploration of this problem is helpful; and will conclude by defending the idea that the nonidentity problem typically has a solution but is nevertheless a large and significant problem, an "existential paradox".
Current Controversies in Bioethics
"The Nonidentity Problem: United and Unconquered", in S. Matthew Liao and Colin O'Neil, eds., Current Controversies in Bioethics. New York: Routledge, 2017.
"Gratitude: The Dark Side", in David Carr, ed., Perspectives on Gratitude. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Parfit on Free Will, Desert, and the Fairness of Punishment
In his recent monumental book On What Matters, Derek Parfit argues for a hard determinist view that rejects free will-based moral responsibility and desert. This rejection of desert is necessary for his main aim in the book, the overall reconciliation of normative ethics. In Appendix E of his book, however, Parfit claims that it is possible to mete out fair punishment. Parfit?s position on punishment here seems to be inconsistent with his hard determinism. I argue that Parfit is mistaken here, in a way that leads him to unjustified optimism about the possibility of fair penalization. Insofar as we take the free will problem seriously, we cannot reconcile a belief in the absence of desert with a belief in the fairness of penalization.
The Journal of Ethics
"Parfit on Free Will, Desert, and the Fairness of Punishment", Journal of Ethics, special issue on moral responsibility, 20 (2016 ): 139-148.
I consider two difficulties which have been presented to egalitarianism: Parfit?s ?Levelling Down Objection? and my ?Paradox of the Baseline?. I show that making things worse for some people even with no gain to anyone is actually an ordinary and indeed necessary feature of our moral practice, yet nevertheless the LDO maintains its power in the egalitarian context. I claim that what makes the LDO particularly forceful in the case against egalitarianism is not the very idea of making some people worse off with no gain to others, but the disrespect for value inherent in egalitarianism; and similarly that the POB is a reductio of choice -egalitarianism because of its inversion of the intuitively correct attitude to the generation of value. I conclude that in the light of the absurdity and paradox so frequently lurking in moral and social life, and particularly with the complexity of modern life and obliquity of change, we need to be much more modest than egalitarians have been in putting forth ambitious moral and social models.
"Reflections on Equality, Value and Paradox", special issue in honor of Juha Raikka, Res Cogitans 10 (2015 ): 45-60.
We sometimes harm people legitimately, by standing in front of them in the queue at the cinema and buying the last available ticket, for instance, or by acting in self-defense. If we harm them illegitimately, however, we ostensibly have a moral obligation to compensate them for the harm done. And the more we harm them, the greater the compensation that, prima facie, we need to offer. But if the harm increases further, at some point we will need to offer less compensation. Yet more harm, and it is quite likely that no compensation at all will be morally expected. In such situations, the greater the harm, the better off we will be, morally, in one important respect. This is morally absurd but, I claim, true, and it does not appear to have received significant philosophical attention. I explore the issue.
Journal of Moral Philosophy: An International Journal of Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy
"A Difficulty Concerning Compensation", Journal of Moral Philosophy 10 (2013 ): 329-337.