Agonizing Decisions and Moral Pluralism

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Conduct and Character, edited by Mark Timmons. Oxford (2011).
Here is a link to paper version.

Side Constraints and the Structure of Commonsense Ethics

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With Shaun Nichols, Theresa Lopez, and Jennifer Zamzow.
Philosophical Perspectives 32.1 (2009): 305-19.
In this paper, we present a series of experiments that investigate how outcomes and rules enter into the deliberations of agents. Our findings point to an important feature of commonsense morality that many normative ethicists have overlooked: people are much more inclined to subject potential violations of moral rules to cost-benefit analyses when doing so will lead to fewer of their own violations (intra-agent scenarios) than when doing so will lead to fewer such violations in general (inter-agent scenarios).

Sentimentalist Pluralism: Moral Psychology and Philosophical Ethics

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With Shaun Nichols. Philosophical Issues 18 (2008): 143-63.
When making moral judgments, people are typically guided by a plurality of moral rules. These rules owe their existence to human emotions but are not simply equivalent to those emotions. And people’s moral judgments ought to be guided by a plurality of emotion-based rules. The view just stated combines three positions on moral judgment: [1] moral sentimentalism, which holds that sentiments play an essential role in moral judgment, [2] descriptive moral pluralism, which holds that commonsense moral judgment is guided by a plurality of moral rules, and [3] prescriptive moral pluralism, which holds that moral judgment ought to be guided by a plurality of moral rules. In what follows, we will argue for all three positions. We will not present a comprehensive case for these positions nor address many of the arguments philosophers have developed against them. What we will try to show is that recent psychological work supports sentimentalist pluralism in both its descriptive and prescriptive forms.

Indeterminacy and Variability in Meta-Ethics

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Philosophical Studies 145.2 (2009): 215-34.
Here is a link to an earlier version. While less polished, it contains a number of points that had to be cut in the published version, due to space limitations.
In the mid-20th century, descriptive meta-ethics addressed a number of central questions, such as whether there is a necessary connection between moral judgment and motivation and whether moral reasons are absolute or relative. I maintain that much of this work in mid-20th century meta-ethics proceeded on an assumption that there is good reason to question. The assumption was that our ordinary discourse is uniform and determinate enough to vindicate one side or the other of these meta-ethical debates. I suggest that ordinary moral discourse may be much less uniform and determinate that 20th century meta-ethics assumed.

Meta-ethical Variability, Incoherence, and Error

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Moral Psychology: The Cognitive Science of Morality, Vol. 2. Ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. MIT Press (2008): 99-113.
Here is a link to paper version.
Moral cognitivists hold that in ordinary thought and language moral terms are used to make factual claims and express propositions. Moral non-cognitivists hold that in ordinary thought and language moral terms are not used to make factual claims or express propositions. What cognitivists and non-cognitivists seem to agree about, however, is that there is something in ordinary thought and language that can vindicate one side of their debate or the other. Don Loeb raises the possibility — which I will call “the variability thesis” — that ordinary moral thought and language contains both cognitivist and non-cognitivist elements, and that there is no principled reason for thinking that either the cognitivist or non-cognitivist elements are conceptually more primary or aberrant than the other. According to the variability thesis, cognitivists accurately capture some aspects of what we think and say when we use moral terms and non-cognitivists capture other aspects, but neither side provides a correct analysis of ordinary moral thought and language as a whole.

Variability and Moral Phenomenology

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Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7.1 (2008): 99-113.
Many moral philosophers in the Western tradition have used phenomenological claims as starting points for philosophical inquiry; aspects of moral phenomenology have often been taken to be anchors to which any adequate account of morality must remain attached. This paper raises doubts about whether moral phenomena are universal and robust enough to serve the purposes to which moral philosophers have traditionally tried to put them. Persons’ experiences of morality may vary in a way that greatly limits the extent to which moral phenomenology can constitute a reason to favor one moral theory over another. Phenomenology may not be able to serve as a pre-theoretic starting point or anchor in the consideration of rival moral theories because moral phenomenology may itself be theory-laden. These doubts are illustrated through an examination of how moral phenomenology is used in the thought of Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke, Joseph Butler, Francis Hutcheson, and Søren Kierkegaard.

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