My research primarily interprets and responds to historical perspectives concerning the conditions required for people to live good lives, the nature and value of character, and the role of norms and institutions in practical life.
Manuscripts can be requested at josephcm (at) princeton (dot) edu.
"Human Flourishing and Education," in Anders Schinkel (ed.), Wonder, Education, and Human Flourishing (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2020).
This paper first defends and explores one important reason why we should educate people, namely that education can enable people to flourish or live well. According to the account I defend, for someone to flourish is for them to successfully engage in activities which they subjectively value and which are objectively valuable (in the sense of being appropriate objects of subjective valuing). In addition to its many instrumental benefits, education can directly enable people to live well by exposing them to valuable activities, by creating opportunities to engage in and to come to value these activities, and by providing the skills and information necessary to succeed in these activities. Next, I demonstrate how to move from the ‘why?’ of education to the ‘how?’ by arguing that, to fulfill the purpose of enabling flourishing, education should be quite general. That is, a good education will include instruction in a wide variety of activities: diverse academic subjects, but also artistic, athletic, technical, and social ones. Finally, I suggest how to apply the same line of reasoning to the question of the role of wonder in education. If certain assumptions about wonder obtain, then we should also strive to educate in a way that instills wonder in students.
The Ethics of Living Well
In this dissertation, I propose a novel form of eudaimonist normative ethical theory. Eudaimonism holds that living well, or human flourishing, is the ultimate end of ethical action and institutions. I argue that to live well is to successfully engage in valuable activities that one values. And I outline a theory of ethically good actions and institutions that enable living well. In Chapter 1, I argue that traditional virtue-ethical conceptions of living well are at odds with eudaimonism. Character virtues are not plausible ultimate ends because they are instrumentally, rather than finally, beneficial. Intellectual virtues are not reasonable ultimate ends because not everyone can simultaneously develop and exercise these virtues. In Chapter 2, I clarify the concept of living well, distinguishing it from nearby concepts like living morally, living rationally, being subjectively happy, and having well-being. In Chapters 3-6, I explicate and defend the four necessary conditions of the hybrid value conception of living well: activity, valuing, value, and success. I argue that valuing consists in stably identifying with favoring mental states, and I canvass several compatible metaethical and first-order theories of value. In Chapters 7-10, I respond to objections and argue that other potential conditions like positive subjective experience and virtue are not necessary for living well. Finally, in Chapter 11, I outline a eudaimonist normative ethical theory that includes the domains of prudence, morality, and politics. I argue that we should act so as to create robust conditions of security and discretion in order to enable, but not necessarily cause, flourishing. We do so by socially and politically coordinating general compliance with prosocial norms and laws that include familiar duties of aid and non-interference. I compare and contrast this teleological ethical theory with various forms of consequentialism.
UNDER REVIEW OR REVISION
"The Non-Ultimacy Objection Against Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics"
Eudaimonist virtue ethicists from Aristotle to contemporary Neo-Aristotelians hold (1) that human flourishing (eudaimonia) is the ultimate ethically justifying end of action and (2) that human flourishing consists in the exercise of human virtues of character. I object to the conjunction of these two views, eudaimonism and the character virtue conception of flourishing. If we make the eudaimonist assumption that flourishing is the sole ultimate justificatory end of ethical action, then whatever we take to constitute flourishing must be a plausible ultimate end that does not require further justification. But character-virtuous activity is not a plausible ultimate end. The moral and prudential activities that exercise character virtues like justice, courage, and moderation characteristically aim to produce or distribute instrumental benefits which must serve, and be justified by, other ends in turn.
"Norm Relativism: A New Theory of Normativity"
I offer a unified theory of the truth conditions of normative propositions, in a broad sense of “normative” which includes moral and epistemological, but also legal, grammatical, and etiquette- and game-based propositions. Normative propositions are true or false relative to, and partly in virtue of, systems of norms. Norms are plenitudinous, non-propositional rules and standards which require, forbid, permit, recommend, and discourage. Systems of norms are hierarchically structured sets of norms. Normative propositions are propositions with an additional parameter for a system of norms. This “norms-first” theory of “formal” normativity is more inclusive than (but compatible with) extant reasons- or value-first theories of specifically “substantive” normativity. It is also distinct from various other forms of relativism, from contextualism, and from non-cognitivism/quasi-realism.
"Lack of Character Is No Problem for Character Ethics" (with Thomas Lambert)
John Doris and other philosophers argue that “situationist” results in experimental psychology indicate that most people do not possess robust, global character traits like the virtues of courage or compassion. This is supposed to contradict a central, descriptive psychological commitment of character ethics, namely the “Commonplace Thesis” that very many people have and act on the basis of robust character traits. Situationists and even some character ethicists consider denying Commonplace to be dialectically untenable as a realistic moral psychology is supposed to be the chief attraction of character ethics over competing theories. Against this trend, we contend that there are plausible versions of character ethics that are not committed to the Commonplace Thesis but rather endorse the contrary “Rarity Thesis” that relatively few people have and act on the basis of robust character traits. Our argument is an existence proof: we show that Aristotle and Nietzsche, two major character ethicists at nearly opposite ends of the history of Western philosophy, both endorse Rarity. Situationist results therefore actually confirm, rather than falsify, the empirical predictions of Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Nietzsche’s character ethics. We also suggest that commitment to Rarity is not merely the result of objectionable elitism, which contemporary character ethicists should avoid. Rather, this empirical assumption fits well with ordinary expectations about the prevalence of excellence in most domains of human activity.
Moral Worth & Rightness
I argue that the determination of morally right action should be sensitive to agents’ motivations in acting. This view stems from my study of Kant’s moral philosophy, where I find that paying attention to the role of maxims solves well-worn interpretive puzzles about duties and moral worth. Students of Kant frequently puzzle over which descriptions of actions are relevant to determining the deontic status (rightness or wrongness) of those actions via the Categorical Imperative (CI). I argue that this oft-discussed issue has a simple answer: for Kant, the privileged act-description for moral evaluation is the one in the agent’s head, the agent’s maxim. Scholars also disagree about what it takes for an agent to be morally well-motivated and for their action to have moral worth. Should a moral agent be motivated by the right-making features of the act (“de re”) or by the rightness of the act itself (“de dicto”)? I argue that, for Kant, an agent has moral worth when their maxim, their subjective principle of willing, is (or includes) the CI, the objective principle of willing. I argue that this answer crosscuts the de re/de dicto-desire distinction which looms large in the contemporary moral worth debate. Besides establishing this view as thoroughly Kantian, I go on to defend the suggestion that an agent’s maxim, or motivation more generally, should determine the deontic status of the action, a view which is rejected out of hand by most contemporary moral philosophers.
Eudaimonist Political Theory
I develop and defend a eudaimonist political theory to complement the moral and prudential theory advanced in my dissertation. TThe guiding principle of this political theory is that political institutions—governments, laws, economic policies, social programs, etc.—are justified to the extent that they help to realize people’s human flourishing, most notably by creating robust conditions of resource security and freedom of choice. How well particular institutions contribute to enabling flourishing is an empirical question, so the theory calls for significant input from the social sciences for the purposes of identifying and designing successful institutions. This approach dissents from influential views on a variety of issues central to contemporary political philosophy, so my main philosophical task is to engage in ongoing debates, objecting to established positions and defending positions that fit the eudaimonist framework.
One such debate concerns the viability of political perfectionism, the view that political institutions and state actions can be justified by appeal to substantive conceptions of the good or the good life. A eudaimonist political theory is perfectionist. However, there is a long-standing objection to perfectionism that, in advancing a certain, controversial conception of the good life over competing reasonable conceptions, a state disrespects its citizens, violates their autonomy, vitiates their grounds for self-respect, or treats them paternalistically. I seek to defend eudaimonist perfectionism against these charges, building upon the fact that my preferred hybrid value conception of flourishing is a capacious and inclusive conception of the good life. Rather than being illiberal, a eudaimonist political theory can explain the need for familiar liberal freedoms and institutions.
A second central debate in political theory concerns the necessity of specifically democratic institutions. A dominant tradition holds that democratic forms of government are uniquely and necessarily justified in virtue of constitutively realizing a formal good for their citizens like freedom or social equality. Against this tradition, I raise problems for the purported value of such formal goods and for democracy’s unique ability to realize them. Instead, I defend political instrumentalism, the view that governments are justified only contingently by their ability to provide substantive goods such as the security of material resources. Some philosophers argue that democracy is uniquely instrumentally justified for being best able to realize substantive goods, but I contend that this empirical hypothesis must be confirmed by social scientists.
A third and related issue concerns the legitimacy of state coercion and political authority, even when a state’s policies are substantively correct or justified. Again, an influential tradition holds that democratic procedures are necessary for political legitimacy. By contrast, I argue that legitimacy is a measure of a government’s ability to affect the society’s operant social norms, an ability for which democratic procedures are neither necessary nor sufficient.