Current and Future Research
My research in ethics and political philosophy largely focuses on the form of and relationship
between basic normative concepts. My dissertation explored these issues, and I've published papers on
imperfect duties and on the way teleological theories ground obligations. I'm currently writing about
the recent trend to "consequentialize" moral theories.
I'm also writing about a bundle of issues concerning health. I have written on some issues in the
philosophy of medicine and biology, concerning the concept of health. But my main interests lie in
questions of resource allocation and justice. I'm particularly interested in exploring attempts to
measure health, developed largely by economists, which are playing an increasingly important role in
decision-making by governments, NGOs, and insurance providers. Such measurement systems
face a number of conceptual problems, some on the surface and others much harder to see. There is also the further question of how to use health measurements once we have them. Few people think that straight maximization -- allocating resources so as to achieve the greatest total health benefit -- is the answer. In particular, most people think that considerations like fairness, equality, and personal responsibility may be relevant. But how to incorporate those concerns is not clear.
Several papers I'm working on now investigate the ways in which ethical values are built
into health measurement systems and other economic models. In some cases, I think that ethical values
currently built into economic models should be removed. But in other cases, I think economists need
to insert ethical values into their models, instead of trying to remain ethically neutral.
You Don't Have to Do What's Best! (A problem for consequentialists and other teleologists). Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 1, ed. Mark Timmons, Oxford University Press, 2011; uncorrected draft
Define teleology as the view that requirements
hold in virtue of facts about value or goodness. Teleological views are quite popular,
and in fact some philosophers (e.g. Dreier, Smith) argue that all (plausible) moral theories can be understood
teleologically. I argue, however, that certain well-known cases show that the teleologist must at minimum
assume that there are certain facts that an agent ought to know, and that this means that requirements
can't, in general, hold in virtue of facts about value or goodness. I then show that even if we grant those 'ought's
teleology still runs into problems. A positive justification of teleology looks like it will require an argument
of this form: O(X); if X, then O(Y); therefore O(Y). But this form of argument isn't in general valid. I conclude by
offering two positive suggestions for those attracted to a teleological outlook.
Rethinking Health: Healthy or Healthier Than? British Journal for Philosophy of Science 64(1); uncorrected draft
Some gradable concepts are more naturally
analyzed in terms of their comparative form. Taller than, for example, seems more basic than tall, since we can
define the latter in terms of the former: to be tall is to be taller than a sufficient number of objects in some
comparison class. For other concepts it's the reverse: straight is plausibly more basic than straighter than, since
we can formulate the idea of perfect straightness, which is then the basis for assessing relative straightness.
Without argument, theorists of health have assumed that (or at least acted as if) health should be put in the latter category.
I argue, though, that there is good reason to think that it should be grouped with the former: healthier than is more basic
than healthy. I show that this apparently minor shift in focus has important consequences for debates in the
philosophy of medicine, bioethics, and for the measurement of health.
Incidence, Prevalence, and Hybrid Approaches to Calculating DALYs. Population Health Metrics 10(19), 2012.
When disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) are used to measure the burden of disease on a population in a time interval, they can be calculated in several different ways: from an incidence, pure prevalence, or hybrid perspective. I show that these calculation methods are not equivalent and discuss some of the formal difficulties each method faces. I show that if we don't discount the value of future health, there is a sense in which the choice of calculation method is a mere question of accounting. Such questions can be important, but they don't raise deep theoretical concerns. If we do discount, however, choice of calculation method can change the relative burden attributed to different conditions over time. I conclude by recommending that studies involving disability-adjusted life years be explicit in noting what calculation method is being employed and in explaining why that calculation method has been chosen.
Imperfect Duties as Group Obligations. Journal of Moral Philosophy 11(5); uncorrected draft
There is virtually no philosophical consensus on what, exactly, imperfect duties are. In this paper, I lay out three criteria which I argue any adequate account of imperfect duties should satisfy. Using beneficence as a leading example, I suggest that existing accounts of imperfect duties will have trouble meeting those criteria. I then propose a new approach: thinking of imperfect duties as duties held by groups, rather than individuals. I show, again using the example of beneficence, that this proposal can satisfy the three criteria, explaining how something can both have the necessity characteristic of duty, while also allowing agents the latitude which seems to attach to imperfect duties.
Basic Ethical Principles. Forthcoming in Case Files: Ethics and Professionalism (ed. Cochrane, Toy, and Raines), McGraw-Hill.
In this chapter, the first case in a medical ethics textbook, I introduce a number of core ethical ideas through a case study.
Health, Disability, and Well-Being. Forthcoming in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being (ed. Fletcher); uncorrected draft
Much academic work (in philosophy, economics, law, etc.), as well as common sense, assumes that ill
health reduces well-being. It is bad for a person to become sick, injured, disabled, etc. Empirical
research, however, shows that people living with health problems report surprisingly high levels of
well-being - in some cases as high as the self-reported well-being of healthy people. In this chapter, I explore the relationship between health and well-being. I argue that although we have good reason to believe that
health problems causing pain and death typically do reduce well-being, health problems that
limit capabilities probably don't reduce well-being nearly as much as most people suppose. I then
briefly explore the consequences of this conclusion for political philosophy and ethics. If many
health problems don't significantly reduce well-being, why should governments go to great expense
to prevent or treat them? Why should parents be obliged to ensure the health of their children?
Divorcing the Good and the Right
(advisors: Thomas Scanlon, Christine Korsgaard, Selim Berker)
Our everyday moral discourse recognizes (at
least) two distinct groups of normative concepts. On the one hand are
deontic concepts, like required, forbidden, right, and
wrong. Deontic claims purport to limit our options: to say that
something is required is to claim that in some sense it's the only
available option. To say that something is forbidden is to rule out that
option. Evaluative concepts, on the other hand, don't work that
way. To say that something is good is to recommend it without ruling out
other options. To say that something is bad is to discourage it, but isn't
to say that it's not an option.
typically assumed that deontic and evaluative concepts are related in some
way. Sometimes explicit arguments for the connection are given, for example by
consequentialists, who hold that what makes an action required is that
it's best. Other times the relationship is left implicit, as when
Rawlsians move from the claim that justice demands we maximize the
position of the worst off to the conclusion that each increase in their
welfare is a good thing.
In my dissertation I argue
that this assumption of a connection is mistake: there isn't any close
relationship between deontic and evaluative concepts. I then show that
this conclusion has important consequences for debates in normative ethics
and also gives us insight on how to reconcile moral and non-moral
For a more detailed description of my project, see my dissertation abstract.