“Moral Reasons” and Their Content

“The Context-Undermining of Practical Reasons”, Ethics 124 (2013), pp. 1-27.

Can one fact deprive another of the status of a reason for action – a status the second fact would have had, but for the presence of the first? Claims of this kind are often made, but they face substantial obstacles. This paper sets out those obstacles, but then argues that there are at least three different ways in which this does happen.

“Particularism and Presumptive Reasons”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Volume) 76 (2002), pp. 169-90.

This paper defends the view that the normative valency of some descriptive considerations varies, but others have an invariant normative valency. To defend this view, it is necessary to respond to arguments that a consideration cannot count in favour of any action unless it counts in favour of every action. But this has to be done without resorting to a global holism about reasons, allowing for cases of invariant valency. What emerges from this discussion is a framework for understanding the relationships between practical reasons. A central part of this framework is the idea that there is an important kind of reason which need not be conclusive, but which is neither pro tanto nor prima facie: I call it a “presumptive reason”.

“Sympathy, Discernment, and Reasons”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 68 (2004), pp. 37-62.

According to “the argument from discernment”, sympathetic motivation is morally faulty, because it is morally undiscriminating. Sympathy can incline you to do the right thing, but it can also incline you to do the wrong thing. And if so, it is no better as a reason for doing something than any other morally arbitrary consideration. The only truly morally good form of motivation — because the only morally non-arbitrary one — involves treating an action’s rightness as your reason for performing it. In this paper, I attack this argument and argue for the contrary conclusion. Treating the rightness of an action as your reason for doing it might amount to various things; but each of them involves a kind of pharisaism that makes it morally objectionable.

“Stupid Goodness”, in Karen Jones and Francois Schroeter (eds), The Many Moral Rationalisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 227-46.

In Paradise Lost, Satan’s first sight of Eve in Eden renders him “Stupidly good”: his state is one of admirable yet inarticulate responsiveness to reasons. Turning from fiction to real life, I argue that this is an important moral phenomenon, but one that has limits. The essay examines three questions about the relation between having a reason and saying what it is – between normativity and articulacy. Is it possible to have and respond to morally relevant reasons without being able to articulate them? Can moral inarticulacy be good, and if so, what is the value of moral articulacy? And thirdly, can moral philosophy help us to be good? I argue that morality has an inarticulacy-accepting part, an articulacy-encouraging part, an articulacy-surpassing part and an articulacy-discouraging part. Along the way, an account is proposed of what it is to respond to the reasons that make up the substance of morality.

“The Moral, the Personal and the Political”, in Igor Primoratz (ed.), Politics and Morality (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 54-75.

What is the relation between moral reasons and reasons of “political necessity”? Does the authority of morality extend across political decision-making; or are there “reasons of state” which somehow either stand outside the reach of morality or override it, justifying actions that are morally wrong? In this paper, I argue that attempts to claim a contra-moral justification for political action  typically suffer from a fundamental confusion – a confusion about the nature and expression of practical justification. The author aims to bring two new things to the debate. A first aim is to show how light can be shed on this issue by examining a question that philosophers have discussed in isolation from it: the question of the relationship between moral reasons and reasons pertaining to personal well-being. This gives us a better appreciation of the range of available views about the relation of the moral to the political; more importantly, it helps to explain the fundamental challenge to the idea that there could be contra-moral justification of political action. However, it also provides us with guidance for thinking about the ways in which that challenge might be answered. There is, after all, a case to be made for thinking that some political actions can be justified even though they remain morally wrong. And those actions are of great importance to national and international politics today.

“Demandingness and Arguments from Presupposition”, in Timothy Chappell (ed.), The Problem of Moral Demandingness: New Philosophical Essays (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 8-34.

It might be thought that there is just one problem of demandingness for morality: a problem about the promotion of welfare. But there is more than one problem of demandingness. I illustrate this by discussing a pluralistic moral theory which sees moral requirements as deriving from three different sources: the morality of concern (which generates requirements to promote welfare); the morality of respect (the source of requirements to respect others’ equal entitlements to exercise their autonomy); and the morality of cooperation (which gives us those moral requirements that govern our joint activities). The morality of respect and the morality of cooperation generate problems of demandingness which need to be answered alongside the more familiar problem associated with the morality of concern. The three problems have a parallel form, and they also have a parallel solution. The solution, in each case, comes from what I shall call “an argument from presupposition”.

“Deliberative Restriction and Professional Roles”, in Tim Dare and Christine Swanton (eds), The Ethics of Professional Roles (New York: Routledge, 2019), pp. 173-93.

When we are acting in a professional capacity, that can restrict the considerations that properly feature as reasons in our deliberation. Three different possibilities need to be distinguished. First, there are cases of concealed reasons, where fact F is a reason for action A, but F should not feature in your deliberation about A. Secondly, there are cases of context-undermining, where fact F fails to provide a reason for performing action A in one context, even though F is a reason for A in other contexts. And thirdly, there are cases of exclusionary reasons. When fact F is a reason for action A, another fact E functions as an exclusionary reason when it is a reason not to be guided by F in A-ing. The paper begins by explaining the difference between these three possibilities, and then considers their various applications to the normative ethics of professional roles. Each of these different possibilities turns out to have important professional applications, and the differences between them are instructive.

One prominent approach in ethical theory, strongly influential in medical ethics, has at its foundations competing principles of beneficence and respect for autonomy. In the clinical context, the clinician must balance respect for the patient’s autonomy against concern for that patient’s welfare. In the research context, the researcher must balance respect for the participant’s autonomy against concern for other people’s welfare. While I think this gets some important things right, the focus of this essay is on explaining some of the ways in which approaching these issues as a matter of balancing beneficence against respect for autonomy is too simplistic. In the clinical context, a right of self-determination constrains paternalistic action. In the research ethics context, a right of self-ownership constrains exploitation – the use of others as a means. After explaining the difference between these two rights, the paper focuses on the latter, asking two principal questions. First, what are the boundaries of the right of self-ownership? Who has this right, when and why? And secondly, how should we think about the conditions under which the right may permissibly be infringed?

Concern, Respect and Cooperation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

This book sets out an overall view about the content of morality.


Work in Progress

“Foundations, Derivations, Applications: Replies to Bykvist, Arpaly, Steele, and Tenenbaum”, forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.