My primary research revolves around a few themes – rationality, language, and virtue – and their importance for accounts of human excellence and achievement. These central concerns manifest themselves in particular interests in social and political philosophy, ethics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and metaphysics.
- Formal epistemologists often claim that our credences should be representable by a probability function. Complete probabilistic coherence, however, is only possible for ideal agents, raising the question of how this requirement relates to our everyday judgments concerning rationality. One possible answer is that being rational is a contextual matter, that the standards for rationality change along with the situation. Just like who counts as tall changes depending on whether we are considering toddlers or basketball players, perhaps what counts as rational shifts according to whether we are considering ideal agents or creatures more like ourselves. Even though a number of formal epistemologists have endorsed this type of solution, I will argue that there is no way to spell out this contextual account that can make sense of our everyday judgments about rationality. Those who defend probabilistic coherence requirements will need an alternative account of the relationship between real and ideal rationality.
- Against the maximizing conception of practical rationality, Michael Slote has argued that rationality does not always require choosing what is most rational. Instead, it can sometimes be rational to do something that is less than fully rational. In this paper, I will argue that maximizers have a ready response to Slote’s position. Roy Sorensen has argued that ‘rational’ is an absolute term, suggesting that it is not possible to be rational without being completely rational. Sorensen’s view is confirmed by the fact that, by the lights of contemporary linguistics, ‘rational’ is an absolute gradable adjective. Because ‘rational’ is an absolute gradable adjective, being rational requires being at the top of the scale of rationality, making anyone who is not fully rational positively irrational. Contra Slote, the only way to be rational enough is to be maximally rational.
A number of authors have defended permissivism by appealing to rational supererogation, the thought that some doxastic states might be rationally permissible even though there are other, more rational beliefs available. If this is correct, then there are situations that allow for multiple rational doxastic responses, even if some of those responses are rationally suboptimal. In this paper, I will argue that this is the wrong approach to defending permissivism – there are no doxastic states that are rationally supererogatory. By the lights of contemporary linguistics, ‘rational’ is an absolute gradable adjective, and as such, can only be applied to things that satisfy the top of the scale of rationality. For this reason, it is not possible to believe what is rational while also failing to believe what is rationally optimal.
Traditional rationalist approaches to a priori epistemology have long been looked upon with suspicion for positing a faculty of rational intuition capable of knowing truths about the world apart from experience. Conceptualists have tried to fill this void with something more empirically tractable, arguing that we know a priori truths due to our understanding of concepts. All of this theorizing, however, has carried on while neglecting an entire cross section of such truths, the grounding claims that we know a priori. Taking a priori grounding into account poses a significant challenge to conceptualist accounts of a priori knowledge, as it is unclear how merely understanding conceptual connections can account for knowledge of grounding. The fact that we do know some grounding truths a priori then is a significant mark in traditional rationalism's favor, and the next frontier for those who aim to eliminate the mystery surrounding a priori knowledge.
James Joyce’s article “A Nonpragmatic Vindication of Probabilism” introduced an approach to arguing for credal norms by appealing to the epistemic value of accuracy. The central thought was that credences ought to accurately represent the world, a guiding thought that has gone on to generate an entire research paradigm on the rationality of credences. Recently, a number of epistemologists have begun to apply this same thought to full beliefs, attempting to explain and argue for norms of belief in terms of epistemic value. This paper examines these recent attempts, showing how they interact with work on the accuracy of credences. It then examines how differing judgments about epistemic value give rise to distinct rational requirements for belief, concluding by considering some of the fundamental questions and issues yet to be fully explored.
Starting with the slogan that understanding is a “knowledge of causes,” Stephen Grimm and John Greco have argued that understanding comes from a knowledge of dependence relations. Grounding is the trendiest dependence relation on the market, and if Grimm and Greco are correct, then instances of grounding should also give rise to understanding. In this paper, I will show that this prediction is correct – grounding does indeed generate understanding in just the way that Grimm and Greco anticipate. However, grounding examples of understanding also show that Grimm and Greco are not telling the full story when it comes to understanding. Understanding can only be generated by a particular subset of dependence relations — those dependence relations that are also explanatory. Grimm and Greco should thus appeal to a privileged class of dependence relations, relations like grounding that can give rise to explanation as well.
If political decision-making aims at getting a particular result, like identifying just laws or policies that truly promote the common good, then political institutions can also be evaluated in terms of how often they achieve these results. Epistemic defenses of democracy argue that democracies have the upper hand when it comes to truth, identifying the laws and policies that are truly just or conducive to the common good. A number of epistemic democrats claim that democracies have this beneficial connection to truth because of the type of deliberative environment created by democratic political institutions. Democratic political cultures make it easier to exchange and give reasons, ultimately improving the justification that citizens have for their political beliefs. With this improved justification comes a better chance at truth, or so the story goes. In this paper, I show that attempts to forge a connection between justification and truth in epistemology have encountered numerous difficulties, making the case that this causes trouble for deliberative epistemic defenses of democracy as well. If there is no well-defined connection between truth and justification, then increasing the justification that citizens have for their beliefs may not also increase the likelihood that those beliefs are true, revealing a serious flaw in charting a connection between political justification and political truth.
- It is clear that beliefs can be assessed both as to their justiﬁcation and their rationality. What is not as clear, however, is how the rationality and justiﬁcation of belief relate to one another. Stewart Cohen has stumped for the popular proposal that rationality and justiﬁcation come to the same thing, that rational beliefs just are justiﬁed beliefs, supporting his view by arguing that ‘justiﬁed belief’ and ‘rational belief’ are synonymous. In this paper, I will give reason to think that Cohen’s argument is spurious. I will show that ‘rational’ and ‘justiﬁed’ occupy two distinct semantic categories – ‘rational’ is an absolute gradable adjective and ‘justiﬁed’ is a relative gradable adjective – telling against the thought that ‘rational belief’ and ‘justiﬁed belief’ are synonymous. I will then argue that the burden of proof is on those who would equate rationality and justiﬁcation, making the case that those who hold this prominent position face the difﬁculty of explaining how rationality and justiﬁcation come to the same thing even though ‘rational’ and ‘justiﬁed’ are not synonymous.
Externalists about epistemic justiﬁcation have long emphasized the connection between truth and justiﬁcation, with this coupling ﬁnding explicit expression in process reliabilism. Process reliabilism, however, faces a number of severe diﬃculties, leading disenchanted process reliabilists to ﬁnd a new theoretical home. The conceptual ﬂag under which such epistemologists have preferred to gather is that of dispositions. Just as reliabilism is determined by the frequency of a particular outcome, making it possible to characterize justiﬁcation in terms of a particular relationship to truth, dispositions are accompanied by concrete, worldly manifestations. By taking true beliefs as the result, not of certain processes but of particular dispositions, these epistemologists have attempted to respond to the numerous obstacles to reliablism. Yet all this work has proceeded without regard to the wealth of contemporary work on the metaphysics of dispositions, making the new hope premature at best, ill-founded at worst. Combining contemporary dispositional accounts of justiﬁcation with extant analyses of dispositions reveals that the latter is the case. The structural diﬀerences between epistemic justiﬁcation and dispositions make it clear that not only should process reliabilism be abandoned, but the subsequent appeal to dispositions along with it.
The Stoic understanding of virtue is often taken to be a non-starter. Many of the Stoic claims about virtue – that a virtuous requires moral perfection and that all who are not fully virtuous are vicious – are thought to be completely out of step with our commonsense notion of virtue, making the Stoic account more of an historical oddity than a seriously defended view. Despite many voices to the contrary, I will argue that there is a way of making sense of these Stoic claims. Recent work in linguistics has shown that there is a distinction between relative and absolute gradable adjectives, with the absolute variety only applying to perfect exemplars. I will argue that taking virtue terms to be absolute gradable adjectives – and thus that they apply only to those who are fully virtuous – is one way to make sense of the Stoic view. I will also show how interpreting virtue-theoretic adjectives as absolute gradable adjectives makes it possible to defend Stoicism against its most common objections, demonstrating how the Stoic account of virtue might once again be a player in the contemporary landscape of virtue theorizing.
How demanding is the virtuous life? Can virtue exist alongside hints of vice? Is it possible to be virtuous within a vicious society? A line of thinking running through Diogenes and the Stoics is that even a hint of corruption is inimical to virtue, that participating in a vicious society makes it impossible for a person to be virtuous. One response to this diﬃculty is to claim that virtue is a threshold concept, that context sets a threshold for what is considered virtuous. On this way of thinking, what counts as virtuous in one society may be more demanding than what passes for virtuous in another. This response seems plausible when considering that virtue-theoretic terms like ‘honest’ are gradable adjectives. Many gradable adjectives, like ‘long’ and ‘expensive,’ have contextual thresholds that shift depending on the situation, and so it is tenable that virtue-theoretic adjectives might function with contextual thresholds as well. A major difﬁculty for this response, however, is that many virtue terms are absolute gradable adjectives, a variety of gradable adjectives that do not require a contextual threshold. These absolute gradable adjectives instead draw their truth conditions from their maximal degree, suggesting that Diogenes and the Stoics were correct to think that a number of the virtues are incompatible with even a small degree of vice.
"Incoherent but Reasonable: A Defense of Truth-Abstinence in Political Liberalism," with Alex Schaefer, Social Theory and Practice (2020) 46: pp. 573–603
A strength of liberal political institutions is their ability to accommodate pluralism, both allowing divergent comprehensive doctrines as well as constructing the common ground necessary for diverse people to live together. A pressing question is how far such pluralism extends. Which comprehensive doctrines are simply beyond the pale and need not be accommodated by a political consensus? Rawls attempted to keep the boundaries of reasonable disagreement quite broad by infamously denying that political liberalism need make reference to the concept of truth, a claim that has been criticized by Joseph Raz, Joshua Cohen, and David Estlund. In this paper, we argue that these criticisms fail due to the fact that political liberalism can remain non-committal on the nature of truth, leaving the concept of truth in the domain of comprehensive doctrines, while still avoiding the issues raised by Raz, Cohen, and Estlund. Further substantiating this point is the fact that Rawls would, and should, include parties in the overlapping consensus whose views on truth may be incoherent. Once it is seen that political liberalism allows such incoherence to reasonable parties, it is clear that the inclusion of truth and the requirement of coherence urged by Raz,Cohen, and Estlund requires more of reasonable people than is necessary for a political consensus.