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Overview of My Research



The main goal of my research over the next few years will be to develop and defend a general theory of normativity, which I call pluralist-teleology.  My next book will be on this topic.  The basic idea is set out in “Toward a Pluralist and Teleological Theory of Normativity” (2009).  Two of the papers that I am currently writing are applications of the general theory, first to normative epistemology, in “Indirect Epistemic Teleology Explained and Defended,” and second to the theory of self-grounded reason, in “Needs, Values, and Normativity.”  These papers will form the basis of chapters in the book.  The society-centered theory of morality that I developed and defended in my first two books, Morality, Normativity, and Society (1995) and Morality in a Natural World (2007), illustrates the general idea behind pluralist-teleology.  The society-centered theory is a realist and naturalist theory of morality.  Pluralist-teleology is a realist and naturalist theory of normativity in general.  It builds on the basic idea about normative morality that is developed in the society-centered theory and extends and generalizes it in order to provide a theory of other kinds of normative judgment.

Much of my work in meta-ethics has been aimed at defending the viability of moral realism and naturalism – the view, roughly, that there are moral truths that ascribe moral properties to things and that these properties are a kind of natural property.  In “Realist-Expressivism: A Neglected Option for Moral Realism” (2001), I proposed that moral realism could be combined with the view that moral judgments express attitudes, such as moral disapproval.  I took derogatory epithets as a model of how this could work, since, I thought, a derogatory epithet such as “honky” is used both to ascribe a property and to express contempt for those who have the property.  I thought of realist-expressivism as offering a counter to certain arguments by non-cognitivists against moral realism.  This paper has spawned research into “hybrid theories,” theories that combine features of expressivism with features of realism.  I defended my proposal in “Realist-Expressivism and Conventional Implicature” (2008).  I intend to continue to explore realist-expressivism.  More generally I intend to continue to explore the resources of moral naturalism and moral realism.  Most recently I have written a paper exploring Derek Parfit’s arguments against moral naturalism and arguing that they are unsuccessful.  See the list of my papers in meta-ethics.

The society-centered approach to moral theory has informed my work in ethical theory, applied ethics, and political philosophy.  My paper, “Do Animals Have Fundamental Moral Standing?” (2011), applies the society-centered view to ethical issues in our treatment of non-human animals.  In it, I argue that the idea that animals have fundamental moral standing is compatible with the society-centered idea that the requirements of morality depend on the needs of human societies.  My paper, “The Idea of a Legitimate State” (1999), uses the society-centered theory in developing an account of state legitimacy and in exploring the circumstances under which a state would be legitimate.

The papers I have just mentioned are driven in part by my interest in probing the implications of the society-centered theory.  Much of my work in normative theory is, however, methodologically more traditional in that it appeals at crucial points to moral “intuitions.”  For instance, my work on distributive justice explores the intuitive basis of a principle that I call the basic needs principle.  And my work in virtue theory, “Morality and Virtue” (2004), explores the counter-intuitive implications of some recent virtue-based moral theories.  I have a new paper, “Experiments, Intuitions, and Methodology in Moral and Political Theory” (2012), in which I defend the standard intuition-driven methodology against objections from so-called “experimental philosophy.”  For more, see my papers in normative ethics.

I believe that analytic moral and political philosophy needs to take group or collective phenomena more seriously than is typically the case.  I have argued that collective entities such as corporations and states have duties and bear moral responsibility.  It is true of course that a collective entity such as a state cannot act unless relevant individual persons perform actions that, in the circumstances, constitute actions of the collective.  Despite this, I have argued, the duties and responsibilities of collective entities are not adequately accommodated by moral theories that deal exclusively with actions of persons.  My dissertation and several early publications addressed this issue, and I have recently returned to the issue in a series of papers beginning with “On the Agency of Certain Collective Entities” (2006) and “The Collective Moral Autonomy Thesis” (2007).  I am currently writing a paper that defends the collective moral autonomy thesis from objections.  See my papers on collectives and morality.

I have addressed related issues in my papers in political philosophy.  I have been interested in society-like groups, such as the Québecois, that do not have the status of a state but that have political aspirations.  I call such entities “nations,” and in papers published between 1979 and 1998 I explored the circumstances under which a nation would have a right of self-determination.  The members of nations as well as members of other groups, such as religious groups, typically share a kind of “identity” that can distinguish them and set them apart psychologically from their fellow citizens.  This fact is one explanation for the power of secessionist movements, it seems to me, as well as the power of other kinds of political movements, and it presents a challenge to individualistic liberal political philosophy.  I tried to provide an account of the relevant notion of identity, and to look at how liberal political philosophy can be amended to address it, in “Pluralism and Stability in Liberal Theory” (1996) and “Social Unity and the Identity of Persons” (2002).

Turning to a different topic, I have thought that moral and political philosophy, and especially theories of distributive justice, have not taken proper account of the fact that people have certain basic needs.  I have developed this point in two ways.  First, I have contended in several papers as well as my 1995 book that people have reason to seek to meet their basic needs.  These would be “external reasons” that are not preference-based.  If there are such reasons, as I contend, this is an objection to standard preference-based theories of self-grounded reason and to the view of some philosophers that there are no external reasons.  Second, I have proposed and attempted to defend a principle I call the basic needs principle according to which a society in favorable circumstances has a duty of justice to enable its members to meet their basic needs.  This argument is set out in three papers, “The Right to an Adequate Standard of Living” (1992), “Equality, Justice, and the Basic Needs” (1998), and “International Justice and the Basic Needs Principle” (2005).  See the list of my papers in political philosophy and especially papers on justice.

I have published on a variety of topics that I have not yet mentioned, including, in applied ethics and political philosophy, cost-benefit analysis, pornography, nuclear deterrence, corrective justice, slavery, and democracy, and in normative theory and meta-ethics, the principle that ought-implies-can, the principle of alternate possibilities, and judgment internalism.

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