Research Projects


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Dissertation Abstract

A number of persistent questions surround akrasia (acting intentionally against one’s own better judgment). Among these are whether akrasia is possible, and if it is, how to explain akrasia in a way consistent with acceptable theories of normative motivation. To begin the dissertation, I argue that akrasia is possible—in fact, akrasia is actual. Research in experimental psychology on cognitive and attentional bias, suitably interpreted, contains an empirically informed account of akrasia that is consistent with the traditional philosophical concept of akrasia as notably explored by Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume, Hare, and Davidson.

I argue that the accounts of the possibility of akrasia provided by Aristotle and Davidson are essentially correct, though incomplete.  Aristotle sees akrasia as having but not attending to knowledge of the good, while Davidson draws a distinction between normative judgments that consider all factors and normative judgments that consider only some factors.  My account of akrasia appeals to our best current research in cognitive bias in order to develop an account of how someone could have knowledge of the good without attending to that knowledge, or could make normative judgments that motivate, but that do not include all of the factors at play in a more complete normative judgment (i.e. better judgment) that would motivate the agent differently.

Adopting this empirically informed account of akrasia requires abandoning positions that are incompatible with its existence. One such view is the view that normative judgments are necessarily connected to motivation (often called normative judgment internalism, or NJI). Drawing on some works by Sarah Stroud and Ralph Wedgwood, I demonstrate that NJI can be amended to allow akrasia, long thought to be a straightforward counterexample to NJI, while preserving what is plausible about NJI.

My account of akrasia is termed ‘cognitive akrasia’ because I appeal to cognitive states playing a more central role in identifying and understanding akrasia. Preserving an amended NJI by means of a strongly cognitive understanding of akrasia means arguing against an opponent of NJI, which is normative judgment externalism (NJE).  The most common form of NJE is Humean in character, and explains akrasia in terms of conative or affective states.  That is, one is akratic when one judges that A is better than B but has less desire to do A than B.

My response to NJE as a view that explains akrasia is also empirically informed.  I make use of clinical research into addiction and addiction treatment, because addiction has long been a fruitful source of examples of akrasia. Many addicts judge it better not to be addicts and yet occasionally or repeatedly fail to reform their addictive behavior. In this analysis, I provide a plausible family of everyday accounts of persons changing their behavior without changing their desires.  I also point out that recent research indicates that specifically cognitive bias modification provides better clinical outcomes among addicts than approaches that attempt to change the addicts’ desires. One important consequence of cognitive akrasia, then,  is that it represents support for theories that hold that motivation can be a product of cognitive and not only affective states.

Papers under review:

“An Empirically Informed Account of Akrasia

Proposes that an examination of literature in psychology reveals traditional philosophical akrasia contained in research about cognitive and attentional bias. This substantively addresses the long-disputed possibility of akrasia by establishing that akrasia is actual.

Papers in Progress:

Advanced Draft Stage:

“Freedom, Autonomy, and the Ethics of Advertising”

Akrasia is vital in developing a distinction between persuasion and manipulation. I employ this distinction to argue that social practices that are broadly designed to take advantage of cognitive weaknesses, that is to encourage akrasia (e.g. much contemporary advertising) are unethical.

“Akrasia and Normative Motivation”

Akrasia is often viewed as a straightforward counterexample to normative judgment internalism, and akrasia is often explained by appealing to one or another version of normative judgment externalism.  I argue that akrasia fits best with modified normative judgment internalism, and provides a counterexample to corresponding externalist views.

Early Draft Stage:

“On Snitching”

This project was inspired by a pair of events in sports, and my experiences listening to sports radio on my commute to classes. The first event concerned Alex Rodriguez testifying to authorities who were investigating a laboratory supplying performance enhancing drugs to professional athletes.  Rodriguez reportedly named the names of other players who were connected with the laboratory.  This provoked a rather hostile reaction toward Rodriguez, condemning him for “snitching”, or being a “rat”.  The second event concerned professional football players Johnathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito (if that really is his name).  Incognito reportedly went overboard hazing teammate Martin, and Martin left the team, releasing his grievances to the media, claiming that the internal team administration was unresponsive.  Again, though few defended Incognito’s actions and word choice, there was a strong current of opinion that chastized Martin for violating the “sanctity of the locker room” and “tattling”.  It’s plausible that there are some duties of confidentiality, and that our duties to some are more binding than our duties to others. It is also plausible to some extent to praise honor even among thieves. However, I aim to show that there can be no plausible moral disapprobation for snitching.

“Computability as a Criterion for Normative Ethical Theories in Engineering Ethics”

As new technology becomes more autonomous, it is necessary to anticipate the ethical impact of such autonomous systems. In addition to traditional criteria employed by philosophers to evaluate normative ethical theories, I argue, along with Wallach and Allen, that computability must be an additional criterion.

“Exceptions for Self-Defense in Accounts of the Wrongness of Killing”

It is generally taken for granted that killing in self-defense is morally permissible, while killing in general is not morally permissible.  I argue that our most plausible accounts of the wrongness of killing do not readily admit of an exception in the case of self-defense, which indicates that either self-defense is not as clearly permissible as is often assumed, or that our most plausible accounts of the wrongness of killing are not so plausible as assumed.

“Artificial Moral Agents: Moral Agents that are not Moral Subjects”

Animals are a common example of beings that are moral subjects but not moral agents. Artificial Moral Agents as discussed by Johnson, Wallach, Allen, et al. would be moral agents but not moral subjects.  I argue that no moral agent could fail to be a moral subject and that accounts of AMA’s must be adjusted accordingly.

Research Stage:

“’Vendor-Locking’ as a morally (un)acceptable business practice”

It is becoming increasingly common for customers of an online product or service (e.g. purchasers of digital music) to be able to easily utilize other online products or services of the same vendor.  For example, it is convenient when purchasing music through the Apple store to use the Apple itunes music player, and the Apple music cloud storage, while similar services are duplicated by Amazon, Google, and others.  The effect is that if, for example, Amazon offered a special price for some digital music, a person who most often used the Apple family of related services might be dissuaded from taking advantage of the better price because it would mean dealing with the different and incompatible set of services associated with the different vendor.  Is this anti-competitive?  If so, is it permissibly anti-competitive?

“Mobile Computing Devices as Moral Decision Support Tools”

Much has been made in the literature in the field of computing ethics and medical ethics concerning computerized decision support tools for use in medical contexts (e.g. APACHE). Much of this literature did not anticipate the proliferation of extremely mobile computing devices (smartphones and tablets) of sufficient power to run or access DSTs for use in medical or other contexts.  This is an open-ended and broad ranging research project that includes such considerations as suitably programming a smartphone to aid in habituating virtues or estimating expected utilities.  Could mobile computing devices be used to correct morally relevant cognitive biases, or are there features of these devices that make them more apt to encourage morally relevant cognitive biases?  To what extent do people already rely on things like internet quizzes or crowd-sourced information accessed from mobile devices to make everyday decisions?