The driving theme in much of my research involves exploring the ethical importance of leading a life. The basic idea is that many ethical questions are best considered within the context of a whole life, not abstractly in terms of timeless, ageless agents. One aspect of this lies in thinking about how different stages of life—e.g., childhood, early adulthood, middle-age, old age—may be valuable in distinctive ways. A second aspect turns on the thought that the ethical significance of what is happening to a person at one point in time is frequently dependent on its relation to the rest of her life.
Childhood, Adolescence, and Becoming an Adult
In her fine essay “What is a Child?” Tamar Schapiro asks, "What is a child such that it could be appropriate to treat a person like one?" Most philosophers have thought that it has something to do with the child's inferior capacity for autonomous practical reasoning, for which age is only a proxy. In "On Becoming an Adult" I argued, on the contrary, that even when an adolescent's rational capacities are comparable with those of minimally competent adults, it is still permissible to adolescents more paternalistically than adults since interference at the beginning of a life does not really prevent a person from leading a life of her own design. Such paternalism is desirable, I argued, because our aims in education should be higher than raising adults with just the minimal capacities for competence. I am now exploring a similar problem about the bounds of patient autonomy for “mature minors” in the medical context. I have also turned my attention to what is intrinsically valuable (and disvaluable) about being a child and the implications for this in thinking about how we structure children’s lives and their transitions to adulthood.
Dementia, Value Change, and Self-Binding
Deciding when to defer to the choices of children and adolescents has certain analogies with ethical questions about how to care for older adults with dementia. The major difference, of course, is that people in this condition may express desires that conflict with the values that they formerly lived by. In cases like these, should we defer to the person's current outlook or that which they held when still fully competent. Many philosophers have provided arguments for privileging either the past or current perspective. In "Remaining True to Ourselves" (in progress), I claim that both perspectives deserve our consideration and respect, and I explain how we can resolve conflicts between them in a more nuanced way.
Narrative Identity and Narrative Thinking
To what extent do we make sense of who we are and what matters to us by telling stories to ourselves and others about our own lives? Some philosophers have thought such life-narratives are central to our self-understanding, whereas others have expressed skepticism. I am working on staking out a moderate position which affirms the importance, not necessarily of all-encompassing whole-life narratives, but of clusters of partial, often competing narratives. I am also interested in the broader question—also relevant to disciplines like history—about how narratives explain or provide understanding.
OTHER RESEARCH INTERESTS
In "Holding on to the Reasons of the Heart" (forthcoming) my co-author Agnieszka Jaworska and I ask how much an Alzheimer's patient must remember about someone and the nature of their relationship together to retain the capacity to love that person. Recent philosophical accounts that emphasize love's dependence on cognitive appreciation of the reasons for love might make it seem that love really could not survive the loss of this kind of knowledge. We, on the contrary, argue that people can retain certain emotional memories of loved ones that track the reasons for love, even if those reasons are not available to explicit recall; this, we claim, is sufficient for genuine love. In future work, I want to expand upon the more general picture of reasons for emotion that we began to sketch in this paper.
In "Caring, Internality, and the Self" (in progress) I explore the intersection of the philosophy of emotion and the philosophy of action. According to Harry Frankfurt, we can distinguish between desires and passions that we identify with as internal to who we are and those that are external or “outlaw.” But what is it that makes an attitude internal or external? As a partial solution, Agnieszka Jaworska and others propose that what we care about is invariably internal. I question that thesis in the case of lingering feelings that seem to be at odds with our revised judgments of our situation. I conclude that there are at least two different things we might be trying to capture with Frankfurt’s internal/external distinction. While there is an interpretation of that distinction on which caring is always internal, there is another interpretation—critical to understanding self-control and weakness of will—on which that claim is false.
In “Identity, Autonomy, and Neutrality,” I turn to the long-standing debate about whether the liberal state ought to be “neutral” with respect to religion, “conceptions of the good,” and other “comprehensive doctrines.” Rawls reasoned roughly as follows. He held that political power is only legitimate when it is exercised in accordance with principles which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse. Due to the burdens of judgment, however, reasonable people will disagree about comprehensive doctrines and conceptions of the good. Therefore, it follows that the exercise of political power ought to be justifiable without recourse to them. As others have observed, there are problems with this argument. For one thing, if there can be reasonable disagreement about what is good, surely there can also be reasonable disagreement about what is just. Therefore, it seems as if endorsement by all reasonable people sets the bar too high. Moreover, the argument seems itself illiberal, since it expects everyone to accept a highly controversial epistemological thesis about the scope of reasonable disagreement. Still, there seems to be something right about liberal neutrality. We can see what that is if we go back to the original idea that the state ought to be neutral with respect to religion. What is distinctive about religion is not that it is a matter on which people disagree, but that it is deeply tied up with people’s identities. The harm, therefore, of an established religion, even if it does not restrict religious liberty, is that the state embraces as its own the identity of some citizens rather than others. This is what state neutrality, properly understood, strives to avoid, not only with respect to religion, but with respect to other things that are deeply wrapped up with people’s identities as well.