Mark Alfano is on leave from University of Oregon while he starts a new job as associate professor of philosophy at Delft University of Technology, where he has been treated with remarkable levels of basic decency and humanity.
In 2011, he received his doctorate from the Philosophy Program of the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study and the Princeton University Center for Human Values, as well as assistant professor of philosophy at University of Oregon starting in September 2013. Alfano works on moral psychology, broadly construed to include ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of psychology. He also maintains an interest in Nietzsche, focusing on Nietzsche’s psychological views. Alfano has authored papers for such venues as the Philosophical Quarterly, The Monist, Erkenntnis, Synthese, and the British Journal for the History of Philosophy. His first book, Character as Moral Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2013), argues that the situationist challenge to virtue ethics spearheaded by John Doris and Gilbert Harman should be co-opted, not resisted. He also has two other monographs, three edited volumes, and one books series forthcoming or under contract.
Here is a partial list of my publications:
- Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge. forthcoming.INTRODUCTION Mark Alfano, Distinguished Guest Fellow, Notre Dame Institute for Advanced StudyPART 1: What is a virtue? 1. Liezl van Zyl, Waikato 2. Heather Battaly, California State University Fullerton PART 2: Can people be virtuous? 1. James Montmarquet, Tennessee State University 2. Mark Alfano, University of Oregon PART 3: How are virtues individuated, and what unites them? 1. Daniel Russell, University of Arizona 2. Christian Miller, Wake Forest PART 4: Does virtue contribute to flourishing? 1. Robert Roberts, Baylor 2. Nancy Snow, Marquette PART 5: How are moral and intellectual virtues related? 1. Ernest Sosa, Rutgers 2. Jason Baehr, Loyola Marymount University .
- Can People Be Virtuous? In Mark Alfano (ed.), Current Controversies in Virtue Theory. Routledge. forthcoming.
- How One Becomes What One is Called: On the Relation Between Traits and Trait-Terms in Nietzsche. Journal of Nietzsche Studies. forthcoming.Despite the recent surge of interest in Nietzsche’s moral psychology and his conceptions of character and virtue in particular, little attention has been paid to his treatment of the relation between character traits and the terms that designate them. In this paper, I argue for an interpretation of this relation: Nietzsche thinks there is a looping effect between the psychological disposition named by a character trait-term and the practice of using that term.
- Identifying and Defending the Hard Core of Virtue Ethics. Journal of Philosophical Research. forthcoming.Virtue ethics has been challenged on empirical grounds by philosophical interpreters of situationist social psychology. Challenges are necessarily challenges to something or other, so it’s only possible to understand the situationist challenge to virtue ethics if we have an antecedent grasp on virtue ethics itself. To this end, I first identify the non-negotiable “hard core” of virtue ethics with the conjunction of nine claims, arguing that virtue ethics does make substantive empirical assumptions about human conduct. Next, I rearticulate the situationist challenge in light of these nine claims. I then turn to a discussion of specifications of several responses typically made by defenders of virtue ethics against the situationist challenge, arguing that most of them either are unsound or give up one of the elements in the hard core. A few, however, survive this criticism, and so I conclude by suggesting ways in which the situationist challenge might be not so much resisted as co-opted. Situational influences can be used to help people simulate virtue, a phenomenon I call factitious virtue.
- Knowledge, Right Action, and Virtue. In Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather (eds.), Epistemic Situationism. Oxford University Press. forthcoming.In recent work (Alfano 2012, Alfano forthcoming a, Alfano forthcoming b), I've begun to develop an empirically minded critique of virtue-based accounts of knowledge, justification, and epistemic value. There's an important disanalogy between virtue ethical theories of right action and virtue epistemic theories of knowledge. Most virtue ethicists hold that it's possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason, and hence that right action is possible even for the non-virtuous. Virtue epistemologists, in contrast, almost uniformly claim that knowledge can only be acquired through virtue. Since most people seem to lack motivational and inferential virtues, virtue epistemologists are committed to skepticism about a broad swath of beliefs. Virtue ethicists do not suffer quite as much from the rarity of moral virtue because they can still say that right action is quite common even if most people lack virtue. I spell out several ways for virtue epistemologists to weaken their conditions on knowledge and thus to reconcile their anti-skepticism with empirical evidence for the rarity of intellectual virtue.
- Moral Psychology: An Introduction. Polity. forthcoming.This book provides a rich, systematic, and accessible introduction to moral psychology, aimed at undergraduate philosophy and psychology majors. There are eight chapters, in addition to a short introduction, prospective conclusion, and extensive bibliography. The recipe for each chapter will be: a) to introduce a philosophical topic (e.g., altruism, virtue, preferences, rules) and some prominent positions on it, without assuming prior acquaintance on the part of the reader b) to canvass and explain the relevance of a particular domain of empirical inquiry (e.g., evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, neuroscience) to the topic c) to argue for some tentative conclusions about the topic d) to suggest further avenues for conceptual and empirical research The guiding theme of the book is that moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind. Thus, I advocate a holistic approach that pictures moral psychology as a project of collaborative inquiry into the descriptive and normative aspects of the human condition. Ideally, students will come away from (a course built around) the book with the sense that, though philosophy may not be the queen of the sciences, its role is not merely to interpret scientific results.
- Nietzsche, Naturalism, and the Tenacity of the Intentional. International Studies in Philosophy. forthcoming.In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche demands that “psychology shall be recognized again as the queen of the sciences.” While one might cast a dubious glance at the “again,” many of Nietzsche’s insights were indeed psychological, and many of his arguments invoke psychological premises. In Genealogy, he criticizes the “English psychologists” for the “inherent psychological absurdity” of their theory of the origin of good and bad, pointing out the implausibility of the claim that the utility of unegoistic actions would be forgotten. Tabling whether this criticism is valid, we see Nietzsche’s methodological naturalism here: moral claims should be grounded in empirical psychological claims. Later in Genealogy, Nietzsche advances his own naturalistic account of the origins of good, bad, and evil. Three cheers for methodological naturalism, but it was not Nietzsche’s innovation, and he did not pioneer its application to morality. The list of moral naturalists who appealed to psychology arguably includes Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Bentham, and Mill, among many others. If Nietzsche’s naturalism is to be worth the candle of contemporary scholarship, it must involve more than the methodological naturalism that predated him by centuries and to which he made no serious contribution. Nietzsche’s key contribution to naturalism is not his adherence to its methodology, but his discovery of certain psychological facts. In particular, he realized that mental states are not ordinary dyadic relations between a subject and an intentional content. Nietzsche discovered the tenacity of intentional states: when an intentional state loses its object (because the subject realizes the object does not exist, because the object is forbidden, or because of something else), a new object replaces the original; the state does not disappear entirely. As Nietzsche puts it Genealogy, “Man would rather will the void than be void of will.” Nietzsche relies on the tenacity thesis in his explanation of the origin of bad conscience: “All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward […. They turn] against [their] possessors.” When hostility towards others becomes impossible, hostility does not disappear; instead, its object is replaced.
- Stereotype Threat and Intellectual Virtue. In Owen Flanagan & Abrol Fairweather (eds.), Naturalizing Virtue. Cambridge University Press. forthcoming.
- The Most Agreeable of All Vices: Nietzsche as Virtue Epistemologist. British Journal for the History of Philosophy:1-24. forthcoming.It’s been argued with some justice by commentators from Walter Kaufmann to Thomas Hurka that Nietzsche’s positive ethical position is best understood as a variety of virtue theory – in particular, as a brand of perfectionism. For Nietzsche, value flows from character. Less attention has been paid, however, to the details of the virtues he identifies for himself and his type. This neglect, along with Nietzsche’s frequent irony and non-standard usage, has obscured the fact that almost all the virtues he praises are intellectual rather than moral. The vices he most despises include dogmatism, intellectual partisanship, faith, boredom, the need for certainty, and pity. The virtues he most appreciates include curiosity, honesty, skepticism, creativity, the historical sense, intellectual courage, and intellectual fastidiousness. These tables of values place Nietzsche squarely among so-called responsibilist virtue epistemologists, such as Lorraine Code and Linda Zagzebski, who emphasize that knowledge is infused with desire and affect. I argue that curiosity construed as the specification of the will to power in the domain of epistemology is a cardinal Nietzschean virtue, and that the others – especially intellectual courage and honesty – are presupposed by curiosity. Thus, Nietzsche turns out to accept his own peculiar brand of the thesis of the unity of virtue.
- The Tenacity of the Intentional Prior to the Genealogy. Journal of Nietzsche Studies. forthcoming.I have argued elsewhere that the psychological aspects of Nietzsche’s later works are best understood from a psychodynamic point of view. Nietzsche holds a view I dubbed the tenacity of the intentional (T): when an intentional state loses its object, a new object replaces the original; the state does not disappear entirely. In this essay I amend and clarify (T) to (T``): When an intentional state with a sub-propositional object loses its object, the affective component of the state persists without a corresponding object, and that affect will generally be redeployed in a state with a distinct object. I then trace the development of the tenacity thesis through Nietzsche’s early and middle works. Along the way, I discuss a number of related topics, including the scope of the tenacity thesis (does it apply to all intentional states?), the reflexive turn one often finds in Nietzsche’s examples (why does he so often say the new object is oneself?), and the relations among will to power, drives, and the tenacity of the intentional.
- Virtues. The Monist. forthcoming.Some virtues, like courage and temperance, have been part of the philosophical tradition since its inception. Others, like filial piety and female chastity, have gone out of style. Still others, like curiosity and aesthetic good taste, are upstarts. What, if anything, can be said in general about this motley collection? Are they all dispositions to respond to reasons? Do they share characteristic components, such as affect, emotion, and trust? Are they organized into a cardinal hierarchy, or is it better to investigate them one by one, developing a comprehensive but unstructured catalogue? What would constitute an empirical test of the degree to which a given virtue is realized, and, to the extent that such tests have been conducted, what is their philosophical upshot? Contributions from various perspectives, including perspectives underrepresented in this context (experimental, feminist, Humean, pragmatist, phenomenological, etc.), are invited to address these and related questions.
- Virtues, Intelligences, and Situations. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. forthcoming.
- What Are the Bearers of Virtues? In Hagop Sarkissian & Jennifer Wright (eds.), Advances in Moral Psychology. Continuum. forthcoming.It’s natural to assume that the bearers of virtues are individual agents, which would make virtues monadic dispositional properties. I argue instead that the most attractive theory of virtue treats a virtue as a triadic relation among the agent, the social milieu, and the asocial environment. A given person may or may not be disposed to behave in virtuous ways depending on how her social milieu speaks to and of her, what they expect of her, and how they monitor her. Likewise, asocial environmental factors such as mood elevators, mood depressors, ambient sounds, and ambient smells mediate morally important behavioral dispositions. Many commentators have responded to such intrusions from outside the agent by arguing for the rarity of virtue understood as a monadic property. In contrast, I claim that we need to rethink the very nature of virtue, which would entail that cultivating virtue can be accomplished not only by habituation and other such interventions on the individual agent but also by selecting, modifying, and reinterpreting the social and asocial aspects of the environment.
- Epistemic Situationism. Oxford University Press. forthcoming. Co-edited by Mark Alfano & Abrol Fairweather.INTRODUCTION Abrol Fairweather, San Francisco State UniversityPART 1: The situationist challenge to virtue epistemology 1. Mark Alfano, Princeton University & University of Oregon 2. John Doris & Lauren Olin, Washington University in St. Louis 3. John Turri, University of Waterloo PART 2: Defending virtue epistemology 4. James Montmarquet, Tennessee State University 5. Ernest Sosa, Rutgers 6. Jason Baehr, Loyola Marymount University 7. John Greco, St. Louis University 8. Berit Brogaard, University of Missouri-St. Louis 9. Guy Axtell, Radford University 10. Ram Neta, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill 11. Duncan Pritchard, University of Edinburgh 12. Heidi Grasswick, Middlebury 13. Nicole Smith, Bowling Green State University.
- Character as Moral Fiction. Cambridge University Press. 2013.Everyone wants to be virtuous, but recent psychological investigations suggest that this may not be possible. Mark Alfano challenges this theory and asks, not whether character is empirically adequate, but what characters human beings could have and develop. Although psychology suggests that most people do not have robust character traits such as courage, honesty and open-mindedness, Alfano argues that we have reason to attribute these virtues to people because such attributions function as self-fulfilling prophecies – children become more studious if they are told that they are hard-working and adults become more generous if they are told that they are generous. He argues that we should think of virtue and character as social constructs: there is no such thing as virtue without social reinforcement. His original and provocative book will interest a wide range of readers in contemporary ethics, epistemology, moral psychology and empirically informed philosophy.
- Toni RØNnow-Rasmussen, Personal Value. Social Theory and Practice 39 (1):166-170. 2013.
- Virtue and Vice Attributions in the Business Context: An Experimental Investigation. Journal of Business Ethics. 2013. Co-authored by Brian Robinson, Paul Stey & Mark Alfano.Recent findings in experimental philosophy have revealed that people attribute intentionality, belief, desire, knowledge, and blame asymmetrically to side- effects depending on whether the agent who produces the side-effect violates or adheres to a norm. Although the original (and still common) test for this effect involved a chairman helping or harming the environment, hardly any of these findings have been applied to business ethics. We review what little exploration of the implications for business ethics has been done. Then, we present new experimental results that expand the attribution asymmetry to virtue and vice. We also examine whether it matters to people that an effect was produced as a primary or side- effect, as well as how consumer habits might be affected by this phenomenon. These results lead to the conclusion that it appears to be in a businessperson’s self-interest to be virtuous.
- Wilde Heuristics and Rum Tum Tuggers: Preference Indeterminacy and Instability. Synthese 189 (S1):5-15. 2012.Models in decision theory and game theory assume that preferences are determinate: for any pair of possible outcomes, a and b, an agent either prefers a to b, prefers b to a, or is indifferent as between a and b. Preferences are also assumed to be stable: provided the agent is fully informed, trivial situational inﬂuences will not shift the order of her preferences. Research by behavioral economists suggests, however, that economic and hedonic preferences are to some degree indeterminate and unstable, which in turn suggests that other sorts of preferences may suffer the same problem. Even fully informed agents do not always determinately prefer a to b, prefer b to a, or feel indifferent as between a and b. Seemingly trivial situational inﬂuences rearrange the order of their preferences. One could respond that decision theory and game theory are not meant to describe actual behavior, and that they instead adumbrate an ideal of rationality from which human action diverges in various ways. When the divergences are small and systematic, they help us identify the heuristics that conspire to help people approximate rationality. One such heuristic, dubbed the Wilde heuristic, is explored. However, the divergences documented by behavioral economists threaten to be too large to handle through idealization. The Rum Tum Tugger Model, in which indifference is intransitive, is spelled out as one promising way for decision and game theory to retrench. Preferences may be locally unstable and indeterminate, but when the differences between options are sufﬁciently large, they approximate stability and determinacy.
- The Centrality of Belief and Reflection in Knobe-Effect Cases. The Monist 95 (2):264-289. 2012. Co-authored by Mark Alfano, James Beebe & Brian Robinson.Recent work in experimental philosophy has shown that people are more likely to attribute intentionality, knowledge, and other psychological properties to someone who causes a bad side effect than to someone who causes a good one. We argue that all of these asymmetries can be explained in terms of a single underlying asymmetry involving belief attribution because the belief that one’s action would result in a certain side effect is a necessary component of each of the psychological attitudes in question. We argue further that this belief-attribution asymmetry is rational because it mirrors a belief-formation asymmetry, and that the belief-formation asymmetry is also rational because it is more useful to form some beliefs than others.
- Explaining Away Intuitions About Traits: Why Virtue Ethics Seems Plausible (Even If It Isn'T). Review of Philosophy and Psychology 2 (1):121-136. 2011.This article addresses the question whether we can know on the basis of folk intuitions that we have character traits. I answer in the negative, arguing that on any of the primary theories of knowledge, our intuitions about traits do not amount to knowledge. For instance, because we would attribute traits to one another regardless of whether we actually possessed such metaphysically robust dispositions, Nozickian sensitivity theory disqualifies our intuitions about traits from being knowledge. Yet we do think we know that we have traits, so I am advancing an error theory, which means that I owe an account of why we fall into error. Why do we feel so comfortable navigating the language of traits if we lack knowledge of them? To answer this question, I refer to a slew of heuristics and biases. Some, like the fundamental attribution error, the false consensus effect, and the power of construal, pertain directly to trait attributions. Others are more general cognitive heuristics and biases whose relevance to trait attributions requires explanation and can be classed under the headings of input heuristics and biases and processing heuristics and biases. Input heuristics and biases include selection bias, availability bias, availability cascade, and anchoring. Processing heuristics and biases include disregard of base rates, disregard of regression to the mean, and confirmation bias.
- Expanding The Situationist Challenge To Responsibilist Virtue Epistemology. Philosophical Quarterly 62 (247):223-249. 2011.The last few decades have witnessed the birth and growth of both virtue epistemology and the situationist challenge to virtue ethics. It seems only natural that eventually we would see the situationist challenge to virtue epistemology. This article articulates one aspect of that new challenge by spelling out an argument against the responsibilist brand of virtue epistemology. The trouble can be framed as an inconsistent triad: (non-skepticism) many people know quite a bit; (responsibilism) knowledge is true belief acquired and retained through the exercise of intellectual virtue; (epistemic situationism) most people do not possess the intellectual virtues countenanced by responsibilism. Non-skepticism is a Moorean platitude we should aim to preserve at most if not all costs. I muster evidence from cognitive and social psychology to argue for epistemic situationism. If my argument is correct, responsibilism must be revised or rejected, and reliabilists should avoid incorporating responsibilist components into their theories.
- A Danger of Definition: Polar Predicates in Moral Theory. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 3 (3). 2009.In this paper, I use an example from the history of philosophy to show how independently defining each side of a pair of contrary predicates is apt to lead to contradiction. In the Euthyphro, piety is defined as that which is loved by some of the gods while impiety is defined as that which is hated by some of the gods. Socrates points out that since the gods harbor contrary sentiments, some things are both pious and impious. But “pious” and “impious” are contrary predicates; they cannot simultaneously characterize the same thing. Euthyphro changes his definition, but the problem of recognizing emotional ambivalence is only side-stepped. I go on to show how contemporary philosophers run into a similar problem. According to Prinz, something is good if and only if we harbor positive sentiments towards it and bad if and only if we harbor negative sentiments towards it. Thus, if we are ambivalent towards something (if we harbor both positive and negative sentiments towards it), then it is both good and bad. Like “pious” and “impious”, “good” and “bad” are contraries. Next, according to the fitting-attitude theory first elaborated by Brentano and favored by contemporary meta-ethicists like Blackburn, Brandt, Ewing, Garcia, Gibbard, McDowell, and Wiggins, something is good if and only if it is a fitting (appropriate) object of approbation, and something is bad if and only if it is a fitting (appropriate) object of disapprobation. I argue that moral ambivalence is sometimes appropriate, i.e., that the correct response to some things is to both love and hate them. Hence, according to the fitting-attitudes theory, some things are both good and bad. I conclude by discussing a variety of ways in which the problem of ambivalence may be solved, suggesting that attitudes of approbation and disapprobation be further individuated by the reasons for them.
- Sensitivity Theory and the Individuation of Belief-Formation Methods. Erkenntnis 70 (2):271 - 281. 2009.In this paper it is argued that sensitivity theory suffers from a fatal defect. Sensitivity theory is often glossed as: (1) S knows that p only if S would not believe that p if p were false. As Nozick showed in his pioneering work on sensitivity theory, this formulation needs to be supplemented by a further counterfactual condition: (2) S knows that p only if S would believe p if p were true. Nozick further showed that the theory needs a qualification on the method used to form the belief. However, when these complications are spelled out in detail, it becomes clear that the two counterfactuals are in irresolvable tension. To jibe with the externalist intuitions that motivate sensitivity theory in the first place, (1) needs a fine-grained grouping of belief-formation methods, but (2) needs coarse-grained grouping. It is therefore suggested that sensitivity theory is in dire straits: either its proponents need to provide a workable principle of method individuation or they must retrench and give up their claims to providing sufficient conditions for knowledge.
My research is in the area of moral psychology, broadly conceived. I am currently working on several related projects.
1) An empirically informed theory of virtue and character
In Character as Moral Fiction (Cambridge 2013), I argue that trait attributions tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. Calling someone honest, especially when the attribution is plausible and public, tends to induce honesty. Calling someone stingy, especially then the attribution is plausible and public, tends to induce stinginess. Likewise for intellectual virtues that have a motivational component: calling someone curious tends to induce curiosity, but calling someone a lazy student will make her act as described. When this happens, I call it factitious virtue (or vice).
If the theory of factitious virtue is on the right track, it suggests several ways of rethinking the relation between traits and trait-terms. One option is to argue for a kind of noble lie: even though the evidence from social psychology suggests that most people are not virtuous, we should pretend that they are in order to regulate their behavior in desirable ways. A more palatable option is to apply asymmetric standards of evidence to attributions of virtues and vices. Since falsely attributing a virtue may induce factitious virtue, but falsely attributing a vice may induce factitious vice, we should lower our standards of evidence for permissible attributions of virtue and raise them for permissible attributions of vice. The final option is more revisionary: it might make sense to reconceptualize the metaphysics of character on a social constructionist model. If many people act virtuously only when others call them virtuous or otherwise convey their normative expectations, perhaps these expectations are partially constitutive of virtue. This option can be construed as an application of the extended mind hypothesis in the domain of character.
In addition to my book, I have multiple edited volumes, peer-reviewed papers, and invited articles published or forthcoming on this topic. In more recent work, I’ve started to develop the extended character hypothesis in more detail, and to engage in collaborative empirical work on the nature of specific character traits. For example, I am the principle investigator for a project on intellectual humility; my team recently received $251,745 to conduct several experiments and publish their results in psychology and philosophy journals (most recently a conceptual analysis of the speech act of bragging in Thought).
2) A project that data-mines obituaries to investigate the nature and distribution of values
Different communities are marked by distinct values and moral codes. One way to determine what people value is to ask them directly, but this straightforward method is prone to various biases. I will expand an ongoing research project involving data-mining of obituaries to map the values and moral priorities of the communities that produced them. Obituaries are well-suited to this task because they are explicitly intended to summarize the primary characteristics of their subjects. Using network-mapping techniques, small-scale work to date has indicated differences in the trait descriptors that are most commonly applied to the deceased, both within communities (especially between men and women) and between communities (Flint, MI, a city marked by industrial disinvestment in the recent past, and Eugene, OR, a university town).
Obituaries represent one of the best candidate corpora for mining value-relevant person-descriptors. For instance, Linda Zagzebski proposed in Virtues of the Mind that “one way to express the depth required for a trait to be a virtue or a vice is to think of it as a quality we would ascribe to a person if asked to describe her after her death.” In a similar vein, according to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a popular form of clinical psychiatry, one of the primary interventions employed to help patients clarify and connect their values is to ask them to write their own obituary or eulogy.
Current work compares 13,000 lay-authored obituaries related to the University of Oregon with a sample of 30,000 professionally-written entries from The New York Times, the national paper of record. This research program has the potential not only to contribute substantially to research on moral decision-making but also to lay a foundation for research into predicting value judgments and behaviors based on indirect discourse within a community.
3) A series of edited volumes on the nature and value of the emotions
After a time in the wilderness, the emotions have returned to prominence. Psychology experienced its “affective revolution” decades ago, Philosophers have begun to connect this empirical work with perennial themes in meta-ethics (e.g., cognitivism versus non-cognitivism), normative ethics (e.g., the empirical adequacy of virtue ethics, the sentimental basis of wellbeing, consequentialist versus deontological decision-making), and applied ethics (e.g., disgust and contempt in the context of genocide, mass atrocities, and oppression). Much philosophical terrain remains unexplored, however. For instance, there are obvious but almost entirely unconsidered interfaces with Peter Strawson’s conception of emotions as reactive attitudes, research in embodied, embedded, and extended cognition, and socio-political research on affective contagion and democratic decision-making.
I recently signed a contract to become the editor of a series that aims not merely to connect empirical psychology with philosophy of emotions but to differentiate our analysis and understanding of the emotions. To date, even the more fine-grained analyses in philosophy have tended to distinguish emotions only by their valence and intensity. These distinctions are clearly inadequate. Just to illustrate: the century-old idea that something is morally good (bad) if and only if it’s appropriate to feel some positively- (negatively-)valenced emotion towards it elides more than it captures. Is something morally bad because it would be appropriate to feel annoyance, rage, resentment, or despair at it, without differentiation? Surely not. It makes a moral difference whether a victim of oppression feels annoyance, rage, resentment, or despair. It makes a moral difference whether someone whose romantic partner has just died feels annoyance, rage, resentment, or despair. Some emotions, such as disgust, seem to be especially prone to acquiring new targets; this promiscuity has prompted some philosophers (e.g., Kelly, Nussbaum) to argue that disgust-reactions are unreliable, but that other negatively-valenced emotions with differential power might be reliable (e.g., Alfano).
To some extent, disgust has already been singled out for (mostly unflattering) treatment in philosophical moral psychology. The same level of attention has not been paid to other emotions, and even disgust has not been considered sufficiently. The volumes in this series will rectify this problem. By exploring the moral psychology of particular emotions one at a time, they will help to establish the boundary conditions for different emotions in the moral life. Perhaps disgust is generally unreliable but useful in some contexts. Perhaps anger is generally reliable but tends to lead to potentially debilitating longitudinal effects in the people who (justifiably) experience it (as Lisa Tessman argues). Perhaps contempt encourages exceptional achievement (prodding people to activity so that can feel contempt for others, or avoid being its target) but is associated with immense harm in those who don’t succeed (through skill, luck, or some combination of the two). These evaluative components of particular emotions have not been sufficiently explored; they will be considered in detail in the series. The first four books will be on contempt, anger, disgust, and compassion. Later volumes will include fear, sadness, joy, doubt, pride, guilt, shame, resentment, hope, gratitude, and awe.
4) An experimental investigation of folk psychology
The research I’ve done in this context is a natural extension of my other work in moral psychology. To date, my publications in this field include several peer-reviewed articles, invited papers, and an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on experimental moral philosophy. In ongoing work, I am starting to bring more-sophisticated and better-validated methods to bear in experimental philosophy. For instance, with several collaborators, I’ve begun to apply data-mining techniques to thesauruses and obituaries to extract patterns of evaluative judgments. These patterns inform both conceptual analyses and network-theoretic mappings of concepts.
5) An exploration of the nature and ethics of the placebo effect
While working on the theory of factitious virtue, I came to think that it closely resembled the placebo effect. When someone acquires factitious generosity, fact tracks expectations: he behaves generously, but only because others expect him to. Likewise in placebo analgesia. When someone experiences pain relief after taking a sugar pill, fact tracks expectations: she feels better, but only because she expects to. Just as I argue that it might be permissible to induce factitious virtue in some cases, so I think that it might be permissible to induce the placebo effect in some cases. This thesis runs counter to the current consensus in the bioethics community, which categorically rejects the prescription of placebos in the clinical context, but I am working on a series of papers that aim to overturn this consensus (the first was recently published in the American Journal of Bioethics).
6) An interpretation of Nietzsche’s moral psychology
Many of Nietzsche’s insights are borne out by contemporary social and cognitive psychology. I have published several peer-reviewed and invited papers on this topic. Two of the more recent, in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy and the Journal of Nietzsche Studies, argue that Nietzsche is a virtue theorist for whom curiosity is a cardinal virtue, and that he discovered the phenomenon of factitious virtue. I am now synthesizing this work in a monograph, titled Nietzsche’s Socio-Moral Psychology, which is under contract with Cambridge University Press. In upcoming work, I will collaborate with Elliot Berkman, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, to test some of the theories and models I’ve extracted from Nietzsche’s writings.
PHIL 102 Ethics
PHIL 453/553 Nietzsche