Contribution, Replaceability and the Meaning of Our Lives

I explore some surprising results concerning positive individual contributions, focusing on those made in one's job or in the position one holds. The replaceability of most people on the job or in positions of influence threatens our common sense notion of contribution. Two concepts of contribution are distinguished, and help to limit the sense of paradox, but do not completely eliminate it. The ideal of making a contribution that would not be made were one not to make it is seen as both highly threatening and potentially very important for acquiring meaning in one's life. Finally, some hazards of our conclusions are seen to lead to thoughts about the dangers of open disclosure.



Contribution, Replaceability and the Meaning of Our Lives. Theoria.

Black Magic and Respecting Persons - Some Perplexities

Black magic (henceforth BM) is acting in the attempt to harm human beings through supernatural means. Examples include the employment of spells, the use of special curses, the burning of objects related to the purported victim, and the use of pins with voodoo dolls. For the sake of simplicity, we shall focus on attempts to kill through BM. The moral attitude towards BM has not been, as far as we know, significantly discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy. Yet the topic brings up interesting questions and poses challenges, raising perplexities and occasionally even reaching the level of paradoxes. Ideas of respecting persons, in particular, will be seen to be challenged by this form of magic. The notion of respecting persons will be treated here broadly and pluralistically. Indeed part of the interest in the discussion will be the unfolding of the diverse ways in which this term needs to be understood, and the contrasts between its various uses. Often, as we shall see, respect for persons and disrespect for them, in different senses, will co-exist, and the dilemma will be one where avoiding some forms of disrespect will involve us in disrespect in other senses.



(Saul Smilansky and Juha Räikkä) "Black Magic and Respecting Persons - Some Perplexities", Ratio 33 (2020): 173-183.

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.

free will: nonstandard views



The Routledge Companion to Free Will

"Nonstandard Views", in Meghan Griffith, Neil Levy and Kevin Timpe, eds., The Routledge Companion to Free Will. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Gratitude: The Dark Side



Perspectives on Gratitude

"Gratitude: The Dark Side", in David Carr, ed., Perspectives on Gratitude. New York: Routledge, 2016.

External Link

Free Will as a Case of 'Crazy Ethics'

I introduce the term �crazy ethics� (or CE), which I use in a semi-descriptive and non-pejorative way to refer to some views that we ourselves hold, or that we think might be true. I claim that some true ethical views are, in this interesting sense, crazy. After explicating what makes such views crazy, I explore the free will problem and show why viewing it as a case of CE is fruitful. I show that many of the prevailing positions in the debate are "crazy" in this sense, and that the views I hold to be most plausible are also so. I then reflect on what this means, particularly for morality, personal and social integrity, and the role of philosophy.


Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lexington Books

"Free Will as a Case of 'Crazy Ethics'", in Gregg Caruso, ed., Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Lexington Books, 2013.

The Paradox of Moral Complaint

In "The Paradox of Moral Complaint" I took up the question whether a person who has wronged others in certain ways may morally complain if other people then harm him illegitimately in similar ways. I argued that there are strong grounds for saying both 'yes' and 'no' here and, therefore, that our considered moral views are paradoxical. In her reply, Talia Shaham disagrees with the no part of my position. She presents two appealing philosophical arguments, and concludes that there is no 'paradox of moral complaint', seeking in particular to defend the unconditional moral 'right' of wronged wrongdoers to complain, as against my claims. I attempt to defend my position against her arguments.


Utilitas: A Journal of Utilitarian Studies

"The Paradox of Moral Complaint", Utilitas 18 (2006 ): 284-290.

Why Moral Paradoxes Matter: ?Teflon Immorality? and the Perversity of Life

"Teflon immorality'' (or TI) is immorality that goes on unchecked -- the wrongdoing is not stopped and its perpetrators, beyond the reach of punishment or other sanction, often persist in their immoral ways. The idea that the immoral prosper has been recognized as morally (and legally) disturbing presumably for as long as humanity has been reflective, and can be found already in the Bible. The reasons behind a great deal of successful immorality are important practically, but uninteresting philosophically. Sometimes, however, we face events that are more interesting philosophically, and Teflon immorality results from oddities such as moral paradoxes and perversions. These, however, have remained largely unnoticed. I will outline a tentative survey of this topic. After showing its pervasiveness and importance, I will briefly reflect on its relevance to the way we should think about morality and about the means to further it, and confront possible objections.


Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition

"Why Moral Paradoxes Matter: ?Teflon Immorality? and the Perversity of Life", Philosophical Studies, 165 (2013 ): 229-243.

A Problem about the Morality of Some Common Forms of Prayer

At a time of acute danger, people commonly petition God for help for themselves or their loved ones; such as praying that an avalanche heading in one's direction be diverted, or that an organ donor be found for one's dying child. Such prayer seems natural and, indeed, for believers, reasonable and acceptable. It seems perverse to condemn such typical prayer, as wrong. But once we closely examine what is actually happening in such situations, we shall see that frequently prayer of this sort is morally problematic. I argue that such prayer ought to be seen as a form of action (rather than, say, mere hope), thereby needing to meet the higher moral standards that apply to actions; and that the assumption of the benevolence of the deity does not suffice to make such prayer legitimate.


Ratio: An International Journal of Analytic Philosophy

"A Problem about the Morality of Some Common Forms of Prayer", Ratio 25 (2012 ): 207-215.

Free Will and Moral Responsibility: The Trap, the Appreciation of Agency, and the Bubble

In part I, I reflect in some detail upon the free will problem and about the way its understanding has radically changed. First, I outline the four questions that go into making the free will problem. Second, I consider four paradigmatic shifts that have occurred in our understanding of this problem. Then I go on to reflect upon this complex and multilevel situation. In part II of this essay, I explore the major alternative positions, and defend my views, in new ways. Instead of trying to spread over many issues, I present one new argument against compatibilism, which I call "the trap". This tries to explicate the main problem that I find with this position. Then I present an exposition of what we nevertheless need to follow, which I call "the appreciation of agency". This supports a measure of compatibilism in a more modest form, and opposes hard determinism. On this basis, we can confront the philosophical and practical questions, as to what we ought to believe and how we ought to live, with respect to free will and moral responsibility. This leads to what I call "the bubble," which addresses the way in which we deal with the tension between the absence of libertarian free will and "the trap", and the crucial need for the "appreciation of agency". I conclude by reflecting upon three attributes of the free will problem that I consider central, but that have been neglected in the debate: complexity, risk and tragedy.


Journal of Ethics: An International Philosophical Review

"Free Will and Moral Responsibility: The Trap, the Appreciation of Agency, and the Bubble", Journal of Ethics 16 (2012 ): 211-239.

On the Common Lament, That a Person Cannot Make Much Difference in This World

In some ways, virtually every individual can make a difference because even the ?small' differences that we can undoubtedly make do often matter, and sometimes our actions can have wider effects. In the larger scheme of things, however, most individuals will not matter much, if at all. I have sought to offer a broad outline of ways whereby the fact (when it is a fact) that one single person cannot make much difference in this world is significant and, surprisingly, in many ways positive. The illusion that it is otherwise can be conducive to our happiness but here the truth also has its benefits. Frequently, our impotence is a piece of good fortune.


Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy

"On the Common Lament, That a Person Cannot Make Much Difference in This World", Philosophy 87 (2012 ): 109-122.

The Ethics of Alien Attitudes

People do not always really believe what they take themselves to believe. Sometimes a person may report having an attitude which conflicts with his better judgment -- his opinion. In these cases the person?s (evidential) beliefs are not apparent to the person in the normal way, and are not judgment-sensitive in a way that they are supposed to be. Beliefs of this kind can be called alien attitudes, or more narrowly, alien beliefs. They are attitudes or beliefs that fail to be sensitive to the person?s regular processes of introspection and evaluation and are known by him merely through behavioral and psychological evidence that he has noticed about himself, or learned about himself from others. When a person is aware of his beliefs in this way, he is not committed to their truth or overall acceptability; he has not endorsed them. We explore some issues that pertain to the ethics of such attitudes.


Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical Inquiry

"The Ethics of Alien Attitudes", special issue on Nueroethics, Monist 95 (2012): 511-532.