Research

We commonly assume that we have conscious control over our moral actions. Empirical research on implicit attitudes and beliefs increasingly challenges this assumption. In my work, I explore the normative implications of these empirical results.

My research program has two main threads, which will ultimately culminate in a book. In the first thread, I undertake theoretical analysis of good moral judgment and decision-making. This analysis is currently encapsulated in three projects. First, I evaluate the claim that conscious deliberation plays an ineliminable normative role in moral judgment and decision-making. In “Good Moral Judgment and Decision-Making Without Deliberation” (forthcoming, The Southern Journal of Philosophy), I argue that while conscious deliberation can sometimes be useful for moral action, it is not necessary. The second project builds upon this argument to construct a positive account of non-conscious moral decision-making. In “Value-Guided Automaticity” (under review), I present and defend such an account, arguing that we are sometimes morally responsible for acts and judgments guided entirely by implicitly acquired, triggered, and executed values. In this account of value-guided automaticity, I challenge a number of assumptions in traditional ethical theory, inviting a comparison to feminist moral theory. In “Value-Guided Automaticity: Implications for Ethical Theory” (in development), I argue that my account of value-guided automaticity contributes to feminist work that aims to challenge rationalistic paradigms.

In the second thread, I discuss applied normative implications of value-guided automaticity. The following four projects exemplify this work. First, if conscious deliberation is not necessary for moral responsibility, nonhuman animals can plausibly be morally responsible. I argue that this is the case in “Nonhuman Animals Acting Morally” (under review). Second, the idea that we can be responsible for implicit attitudes and values is often rejected because it is difficult to control implicitly acquired and held content. In “The Illusion of the Relevance of Difficulty in Evaluations of Moral Responsibility” (in progress), I argue that difficulty in doing the right or wrong thing ought not affect evaluations of moral responsibility. Difficulty appears relevant, I argue, because it functions as a heuristic for an agent’s quality of will, which is in fact relevant for evaluations of moral responsibility. Third, if deliberation is nonessential for good decision-making, we should reconsider how we teach moral skills to infants, adolescents, and college-students. In “Automaticity and Moral Development” (in progress), I review research on activities that are increasingly understood as fostering moral development—such as playing video games, reading literary fiction, engaging in service-learning, and meditating—and argue that these activities ought to be incorporated into the moral education of children of all ages, including college students. Finally, value-guided automaticity coheres with psychological research on individuals who perform extraordinarily heroic acts. Such individuals commonly make moral decisions in a highly intuitive way—often explaining that they do not reason about their choices and cannot give reasons for their heroic actions. In a paper titled “Obligatory Heroic Action” (in development), I argue that people who perform heroic action(s) should not be seen, as is sometimes suggested, as confused about the moral nature of their actions. I suggest that these individuals inhabit a more humanistic and compassionate worldview than is commonly found in Western societies. The paper will require analysis of cross-cultural and cross-temporal moral frameworks, focusing in particular on the moral practices of small-band societies.

I intend to use the analysis from the work above as the foundation for a book project. I envision the book, in part, as a response to the recent upsurge of philosophical work on the nature and norms of blame. While much insight has been offered in this work, I posit that blame is a largely Western concept and I hope to show that theoretical and empirical work on compassionate attitudes—intended to contrast with reactive attitudes—is the next forefront in moral psychology. I will argue that compassionate responses ought to at least compliment, if not in large part replace, blaming responses. Given that moral decisions are highly dependent upon automatic cognitive processes, evolutionarily developed capacities (indicated by research on nonhuman animals), and appropriate moral upbringing, blame might rarely be an appropriate response to moral failing. Instead, paradigmatic moral attitudes may be anchored in compassion.