Research

“Freedom, Firearms, and Civil Resistance,” Journal of Ethics (forthcoming).

The claim that guns can safeguard freedom is common in US political
discourse. In light of a broadly republican understanding of freedom, I evaluate
this claim and its implications. The idea is usually that firearms would enable
citizens to engage in revolutionary violence against a tyrannical government. I
argue that some of the most common objections to this argument fail, but that the
argument is fairly weak in light of other objections. I then defend a different
argument for the claim that guns can safeguard freedom. I claim that firearm
ownership among members of oppressed groups can hinder the use of systematic
violence aimed at preventing them from exercising their basic liberties. I show
how a commitment to armed self-defense is compatible with non-violent civil
resistance as a tool of political change, and show how the former facilitated the
latter during the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, I consider the policy
implications of my argument. I don’t think it vindicates lax gun control policies.
However, it may vindicate some individuals acquiring guns and learning how to
use them, and some organizations aiding them in doing so.

“Humans, Elves, and Greenland Sharks: Against Kagan’s Distributive Argument for Hierarchical Moral Status,” Between the Species (forthcoming).

Shelly Kagan argues that “unitarianism,” the claim that animals and
humans have equal moral status, has intuitively implausible distributive
implications. I argue that Kagan’s reasoning can, with certain modifications, be
applied equally well to undermine his own view, and that the responses Kagan
can make to this modified reasoning are also available to the unitarian responding
to Kagan’s original argument. Accordingly, Kagan cannot consistently hold his
own view while also endorsing his main argument against unitarianism.

“Is Abortion the Only Issue?,” Ergo (forthcoming).

The Embryo Rescue Case asks us to consider whether we should save a
fully-developed child or a tray full of many embryos from a fire. Most people
pick the child. This allegedly provides evidence against the view that embryos
have the same moral status as developed humans. Pro-life philosophers usually
grant that you should save the child, but say that this doesn’t undermine the claim
that embryos possess full moral status. There may be reasons besides differing
moral status to save the child. Meanwhile, many ordinary pro-life people think
that stopping abortion is far and away the most morally urgent socio-political
issue. They reason that since abortion (in their view) consists in the unjust killing
of so many human persons, fighting it should be an overwhelming priority. Here I
argue that this way of reasoning about the urgency of combating abortion
conflicts with the usual response to the Embryo Rescue Case. If the fact that you
should save a developed human rather than many more embryos doesn’t imply
that embryos lack personhood, then embryonic personhood doesn’t imply that you
should save embryos rather than many fewer developed humans.

“Prosecutorial Discretion and Republican Non-Domination,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (forthcoming).

This paper is available here.

Prosecutors in the US legal system have great power to interfere at their discretion in the lives of citizens, and face relatively few checks on the exercise of this discretion. The vast scope of the criminal law provides a pretext for prosecuting nearly anyone. Meanwhile, other features of the legal system, such as the way plea bargains are structured and the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity, further increase prosecutorial power. And existing institutional restraints on prosecutorial abuses, such as democratic accountability, the grand jury system, and the possibility of a selective prosecution defense, are mostly ineffectual. I draw on republican political theory, including insights from Philip Pettit and Elizabeth Anderson, to argue that this state of affairs gives prosecutors dominating, and therefore unjust, power over vast swathes of the public. I then survey some potential institutional changes which might help ameliorate the problem.

“MIP Does Not Save the Impairment Argument Against Abortion: A Reply to Blackshaw and Hendricks,” Journal of Medical Ethics (forthcoming).

This paper is available here.

Perry Hendricks’ original “impairment argument” against abortion relied on “the impairment principle” (TIP): “if it is immoral to impair an organism O to the nth degree, then, ceteris paribus, it is immoral to impair O to the n+1 degree.” Since death is a bigger impairment than FAS, Hendricks reasons that, by TIP, if causing FAS is immoral, then, ceteris paribus, abortion is immoral. Several authors have argued that this conclusion is uninteresting, since the ceteris paribus clause isn’t satisfied in actual cases of abortion: women have reasons for wanting abortions which don’t apply to drinking during pregnancy, so all else is not equal, and the conclusion is irrelevant to the morality of actual abortions. In a recent article in this journal, Hendricks and Bruce Blackshaw try to evade this criticism by replacing TIP with the “modified impairment principle” (MIP): “if it is immoral to impair an organism O to the nth degree for reason R, then, provided R continues to hold (or is present), it is immoral to impair O to the n+1 degree.” MIP allows us to derive the ultima facie wrongness of abortion (not just its ceteris paribus wrongness) because MIP lacks a ceteris paribus clause. But I argue that this lack also renders MIP false: MIP faces counterexamples and implausibly produces genuine moral dilemmas. Since the moral principle on which it relies is false, the modified impairment argument fails. I close by considering what a principle would need to do for the impairment argument to succeed.

“The Real Advantages of the Simulation Solution to the Problem of Natural Evil,” Religious Studies (forthcoming).

This paper is available here.

Nick Bostrom has famously defended the credibility of the simulation hypothesis – the hypothesis that we live in a computer simulation. Barry Dainton has recently employed the simulation hypothesis to defend the ‘simulation solution’ to the problem of natural evil. The simulation solution claims that apparently natural evils are in fact the result of wrong actions on the part of the people who create our simulation. In this way, it treats apparently natural evils as actually being moral evils, allowing them to be explained via the free will theodicy. Other theodicies which assimilate apparently natural evils to moral ones include Fall theodicies, which attribute apparently natural evils to the biblical Fall, and diabolical theodicies, which attribute them to the activity of demons. Unfortunately, Dainton fails to give compelling reasons for preferring the simulation solution to Fall or diabolical theodicies. He gives one argument against diabolical theodicies, but it has no force against their best version, and he does not discuss Fall theodicies at all. In this article, I attempt to rectify this. I discuss several problems faced by Fall and diabolical theodicies which the simulation solution avoids. These provide some reason to prefer the simulation solution to these alternatives.

“Gun Control, the Right to Self-Defense, and Reasonable Beneficence to All” (with Philip Swenson), Ergo 6(36): 1035-1056, 2019.

This paper is available here.

One of the strongest arguments against the implementation of gun control measures is that such measures violate the right to self-defense or security against attack. The argument, defended by Michael Huemer and others, claims that even if a particular gun control measure has good results overall, it infringes, in a manner which is prima facie seriously wrong, the rights of those who end up being killed or significantly harmed due to their resultant inability to defend themselves. We claim that uncertainty on the part of the government about who will be harmed by a particular gun control measure underwrites a strong response to this argument. If gun control measures save lives on balance, then they may increase each person’s chance of remaining safe relative to the information available to the government, even if they will cause some people to be harmed who otherwise would not have been. We draw on Caspar Hare’s arguments for the claim that there are no conflicts between morality and reasonable beneficence to contend that this fact would vindicate gun control policies.

“Violinists, Demandingness, and the Impairment Argument Against Abortion,” Bioethics 34(2): 214-220, 2020.

This paper can be read here.

The ‘impairment argument’ against abortion developed by Perry Hendricks aims to derive the wrongness of abortion from the wrongness of causing foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Hendricks endorses an ‘impairment principle’, which states that, if it is wrong to inflict an impairment of a certain degree on an organism, then, ceteris paribus, it is also wrong to inflict a more severe impairment on that organism. Causing FAS is wrong in virtue of the impairment it inflicts. But abortion inflicts an even more severe impairment (death), and so, ceteris paribus, is also wrong. Notably, Hendricks thinks that this argument does not require the claim that the foetus is a person. Here, I respond to Hendricks by arguing that the ceteris paribus clause of the impairment principle is not met in ordinary cases of pregnancy. Carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is much more burdensome than is refraining from excessive drinking for nine months. This provides a pro tanto justification for obtaining an abortion that does not apply to causing FAS. If the foetus is not a person, it seems fairly clear to me that this justification is strong enough to render abortion permissible. Hendricks is therefore incorrect in claiming that the impairment argument can go without claims concerning foetal personhood. If the foetus is a person, then whether burdensomeness justifies abortion depends on certain questions relating to Thomson’s famous violinist argument. I will not attempt to answer those. But anyone who is otherwise sympathetic to Thomson’s argument should not be moved by the impairment argument.

“Equality as a Moral Basis for Progressive Politics,” in Ethics: Left and Right, ed. by Bob Fischer, Oxford University Press, 85-93, 2020.

A (nearly) final draft of this paper can be read here.

My mandate for this chapter was, roughly speaking, to explore some of the major philosophical commitments which underlie leftist thought. In it, I sketch of version of so-called “social egalitarianism” and explore some of its implications. Social egalitarians think that egalitarian justice requires that people enjoy equal social relationships of a certain sort with one another, leading them to be wary of social hierarchies. I explain some of the types of hierarchical oppression which social egalitarians oppose, explain how social egalitarians see these types of oppression as being present in modern American society, and explain how concern for combating these types of oppression helps justify left-wing positions on a range of issues.

“Gun Control, the Right to Self-Defense, and Reasonable Beneficence to All” (with Philip Swenson), Ergo 6(36): 1035-1056, 2019.

This paper is available here.

One of the strongest arguments against the implementation of gun control measures is that such measures violate the right to self-defense or security against attack. The argument, defended by Michael Huemer and others, claims that even if a particular gun control measure has good results overall, it infringes, in a manner which is prima facie seriously wrong, the rights of those who end up being killed or significantly harmed due to their resultant inability to defend themselves. We claim that uncertainty on the part of the government about who will be harmed by a particular gun control measure underwrites a strong response to this argument. If gun control measures save lives on balance, then they may increase each person’s chance of remaining safe relative to the information available to the government, even if they will cause some people to be harmed who otherwise would not have been. We draw on Caspar Hare’s arguments for the claim that there are no conflicts between morality and reasonable beneficence to contend that this fact would vindicate gun control policies.

“Moral Indulgences: When Offsetting is Wrong” (with Rebecca Chan), Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 9, 68-95, 2019.

This paper can be read here.

We introduce the concept and explore the permissibility of moral indulgences. Roughly speaking, an agent is morally indulgent when they do something that, absent a defeater, is wrong, and, in order to offset this, do something that is supererogatory and more good than the bad action was bad. We then seek to explain why and when being morally indulgent is permissible. For some cases, being morally indulgent appears permissible (as when one buys a large carbon offset after polluting more than one’s fair share), while for others, it appears impermissible (as when murdering one but, otherwise unrelatedly, saving two to make up for it). Our explanation for when being indulgent is permissible appeals to universalizability of the sort found in certain forms of Kantianism, contractualism, and rule consequentialism. Finally, we explore the implications of our account for what God should do, and why, if there are no unsurpassable possible worlds.

“Expression and Indication in Ethics and Political Philosophy,” Res Publica 25(3), 387-406, 2019.

This paper can be read here.

We sometimes have reasons to perform actions due to what they would communicate. Those who’ve discussed such reasons have understood what an action “communicates” as what it conventionally expresses. Brennan and Jaworski argue that when a convention ensures that expressing the appropriate thing would be costly, we should change or flout the convention. I argue that what really matters is often what attitudes we indicate rather than conventionally express, using social science to show that indicating our attitudes is often unavoidably costly, and sometimes worth the cost. I use this account to defend communicative arguments for egalitarian distributive policies.

“Eschatology for Creeping Things (And Other Animals),” invited chapter in The Lost Sheep in Philosophy of Religion: New Perspectives on Disability, Gender, Race, and Animals, ed. by Kevin Timpe and Blake Hereth, Routledge, 2019, 141-162.

A draft of this paper can be read here.

This chapter evaluates six arguments for the claim that if theism is true, then animal universalism, the view that all non-human animals with interests will eventually receive eternal, infinitely good afterlives, is also true. One argument is original to me, while the others have been defended elsewhere. I find some of these arguments unsatisfactory, but claim that others are compelling, or can be modified in ways which make them compelling. I conclude that the compelling arguments together provide a very strong case for animal universalism. One recurring theme in the discussion is that the literature on animal universalism must pay more attention to the diversity among non-human animals: some of the arguments I discuss fail to establish animal universalism because they appeal to features which may only be possessed by some non-human animals. This represents an affinity with my earlier work, where I claimed that philosophers of religion working on the problem of evil must likewise pay more attention to the diversity among non-human animals.

“Sufferer-Centered Requirements on Theodicy and All-Things-Considered Harms,” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, 8, 71-95, 2017.

A preprint of this paper can be read here.

Both Marilyn Adams and Eleonore Stump have endorsed requirements on theodicy which, if true, imply that we can never suffer all-things-considered harms.  William Hasker has offered a series of arguments intended to show that this implication is unacceptable.  In this paper, I evaluate Hasker’s arguments and find them lacking.  However, I also argue that Hasker’s arguments can be modified or expanded in ways that make them very powerful.  I close by considering why God might not meet the requirements endorsed by Stump and Adams and show how they can modify their requirements to avoid the untenable implications about harm while still respecting the concerns that motivated their requirements in the first place.

“The Problem of Evil and the Suffering of Creeping Things,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 82(1), 71-88, 2017.

This paper can be read here.

Even philosophers of religion working on the problem of non-human animal suffering have ignored the suffering of creatures like insects. Sensible as this seems, it’s mistaken. I am not sure whether creatures like these can suffer, but it is plausible, on both commonsensical and scientific and philosophical grounds, that many of them can. If they do, their suffering makes the problem of evil much worse: their vast numbers mean the amount of evil in the world will almost certainly be increased by many, many orders of magnitude, the fact that disproportionately many of them live lives which are nasty, brutish, and short means that the proportion of good to evil in the world will be drastically worsened, and their relative lack of cognitive sophistication means that many theodicies, including many specifically designed to address animal suffering, would apply to their suffering only with much greater difficulty, if at all. Philosophers of religion should therefore more seriously investigate whether these beings can suffer and what, if anything, could justify God in allowing as much.

“Wealth, Well-Being, and the Danger of Having too Much,” Religions 8(5), 2017.

This paper can be read here. It was an invited paper for a special issue on economic inequality; a description of the special issue by the editors can be found here.

It’s impossible for an agent who is classically economically rational to have so much wealth that it’s harmful for them, since such an agent would simply give away their excess wealth.  Actual agents, vulnerable to akrasia and lacking full information, are not economically rational, but economists and political philosophers have nonetheless mostly ignored the possibility that having too much might be harmful in some ways.  I survey the major philosophical theories of well-being and draw on ethics and the social sciences to point out several ways in which, on the most plausible of these theories, having too much, relative to other members of one’s society, might be harmful to oneself (for instance, by making it harder for one to have appropriate relationships with others, or by making it more likely that one will develop undesirable character traits.)  I argue that because egalitarian policies prevent these harms and provide the advantaged with other benefits (such as access to public goods which help rich and poor alike,) egalitarian policies are not as harmful to the rich as is commonly supposed, and may even be helpful to them on balance.  I close by discussing the practical implications of this.

“‘We are Here to Help Each Other’: Religious Community, Divine Hiddenness, and the Responsibility Argument,” Faith and Philosophy 32(1), 45-62, 2015.

A preprint of this paper can be read here.

Richard Swinburne and Travis Dumsday have defended what J.L. Schellenberg calls “the responsibility argument” as a response to the problem of divine hiddenness. Schellenberg, meanwhile, has levied various objections against the responsibility argument. In this paper, I develop a version of the responsibility argument and discuss some advantages it has over those defended by either Swinburne or Dumsday. I then show how my version can withstand Schellenberg’s criticisms.