My work currently divides into two main research programs.
Much of my recent work examines social, political, and ethical dimensions of policing and punishment, with an emphasis on issues related to systematic bias (e.g., racial injustice) in criminal justice. Drawing on the work of historians, social scientists, and legal scholars who highlight non-ideal aspects of American criminal justice, I locate problematic aspects of common ways that philosophers and many of the folk think about crime and punishment. Rather than understanding policing and punishment primarily as responses to actual or possible injustice, we should think of them primarily as exercises of social and political power that, like other exercises of power, often constitute or create the very injustices that non-ideal theory must address. I contend that less idealized frameworks can be useful for answering some pressing theoretical and normative questions about punishment as we know it.
The second program, based in my dissertation, Doing Without Desiring, lies in the areas of metaethics, moral psychology, and the philosophy of action. This project explores the nature of desire, and defends an anti-Humean conception of motivation, according to which certain cognitive states (including, but not limited to moral judgments) are similar to desires in that they are capable of playing a direct, but defeasible, motivational role.
*Expected to appear in M. Gardner & M. Weber (eds.), The Ethics of Policing and Prisons*
Abstract: Criminal offenders in the United States frequently lose important political rights, at least temporarily. This paper examines penal disenfranchisement as a case study in the non-ideal nature of criminal justice and its relationship to political and social power. I begin by offering a general argument against penal disenfranchisement that begins with the common observation that citizens of color lose their political rights at disproportionately high rates. This is problematic because, by further diminishing the political power of marginalized groups, disenfranchisement threatens to reproduce patterns of domination and subordination, when they occur. While this conclusion is itself important, the main argument also brings into focus pervasive idealizations within the standard philosophical discourse on punishment, and shows why such idealizations are not benign. For the example of penal disenfranchisement illustrates how these idealizations can systematically obscure normatively significant aspects of our standard penal practices.
Abstract: Humean externalism is the view that moral motivation must be explained in terms of desires that are “external” to an agent’s motivationally-inert moral judgments. A standard argument in favor of Humean externalism appeals to the possibility of amoral or morally cynical agents—agents for whom moral considerations gain no motivational traction. The possibility of such agents seems to provide evidence for both the claim that moral judgments are themselves motivationally inert, and the claim that moral motivation has its source in desires external to those judgments. This essay makes the case that, rather than providing a compelling argument in favor of Humean externalism, the argument from amoralism can be recast to set up an important challenge to this view. On one hand, it appears that the central methodological considerations and types of evidence that undergird the externalist argument from amoralism are in tension with a central Humean commitment: namely, that desires can be sources of motivation. While it is possible for Humeans to escape this horn of the dilemma, the most plausible strategies for doing so can be co-opted by internalists to resist the argument’s externalist conclusion.
Humean Externalism and the Argument from Depression. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 9(2): 1-16. (2015)
Abstract: Several prominent philosophers have argued that the fact that depressed agents sometimes make moral judgments without being appropriately motivated supports Humean externalism – the view that moral motivation must be explained in terms of desires that are distinct from or “external” to an agent’s motivationally inert moral judgments. This essay argues that such motivational failures do not, in fact, provide evidence for this view. I argue that, if the externalist argument from depression is to undermine a philo-sophically important version of internalism, it must make use of a general assumption about motivational states. However, at a reasonable level of abstraction, the needed assumption also implies that even desires could not be effective sources of motivation. For, just as depressed agents might sometimes lack motivation to act consistently with their moral judgments, they also sometimes lack motivation to pursue their desires. Moreover, the most plausible responses that Humeans can give to this general argument undermine the externalist case against internalism. Thus, there is a deep tension between the argument from depression for externalism and a fundamental Humean commitment.
Appetitive Besires and the Fuss About Fit. Philosophical Studies 165(3): 975-988. (2013)
Abstract: Some motivational cognitivists believe that there are besires—cognitive mental states (typically moral beliefs) that share the key feature of desire (typically desire’s ‘direction of ﬁt’) in virtue of which they are capable of being directly motivational. Besires have been criticized by Humeans and cognitivists alike as philosophically extravagant, incoherent, ad hoc, and incompatible with folk psychology. I provide a response to these standard objections to besires—one motivated independently of common anti-Humean intuitions about the motivational efﬁcacy of moral judgments. I proceed by examining a hypothesis about the nature of appetitive desires—that these paradigmatic motivational attitudes are a mode of perceptual experience—and argue that this hypothesis is committed to the existence of besires. However, despite its commitment to besires, this hypothesis is not extravagant, incoherent, ad hoc, or incompatible with folk psychology. In other words, the standard complaints about besires all fail. The upshot is that there is nothing bizarre about besires, and motivational cognitivism takes on no additional costs by positing them.
Review of Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver, Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. Ethics 126 (3): 840-845. (2016)
Selected Manuscripts Under Review and In Progress
The Slurring Function of (American) Punishment (draft available by request)
Abstract: This paper examines American criminal justice from the perspective of a non-idealized version of the communicative or expressive theory of punishment. In contrast to idealized discussions of the communicative function of punishment, the discussion I offer emphasizes injustices within the US criminal justice system and the non-ideal context in which it is embedded. Given pervasive racial injustice within American criminal justice, I contend that, understood as a form of communicative behavior, American punishment functions much like a racial slur. I will argue that American criminal justice expresses many of the same negative attitudes that slurs express, communicates many of the same negative stereotypes that slurs communicate, and is experienced by people of color in many of the same ways that slurs are experienced. In short, expressive punishment shares what are typically thought to be slurs’ central features.
How to Be a Dispositionalist About Desire (draft available by request)
Abstract: This essay highlights an underappreciated aspect of the analogy between desires and ordinary dispositions. By drawing attention to the way in which desires and commonplace dispositions vary in strength, I argue that dispositionalists must reevaluate the way they typically think about competing desires. When faced with the fact that when desires compete some will remain unmanifested, dispositionalists frequently point to “masking”—a phenomenon that occurs with respect to many commonplace dispositions. However, given a compelling story about the gradability of both desires and commonplace dispositions, I argue that this appeal to masking cannot provide a fully general explanation of unmanifested desires. I then offer a supplemental explanation suggested by the analogy with commonplace dispositions and discuss implications of this supplemented dispositionalist picture. First, this model draws attention to the fact that the commonsense standards for desire attribution are vague and context-sensitive. Second, this model provides a novel argument for rejecting the standard philosophical account of desire in favor of a picture that includes more than productive behaviors as desires’ characteristic manifestations.