Research: Ethics and Moral Psychology

My research in ethics and moral psychology is focused on the role that relationships play in the character and development of responsible agency, and in related notions such as forgiveness.

Consider the following: You are at a busy restaurant, and your young child is yelling at the top of his lungs because he is bored. Normally, you will hold him responsible for his behavior. You might do this by telling him he needs to stop yelling, mentioning the use of “inside voices,” or by telling him that if he behaves himself, you’ll be leaving soon. And normally, no one else in the room will hold him responsible for his behavior – though they might hold you responsible. How should we characterize this situation: Who is really responsible for the disturbance – you, your child, or both? And if both, why is it only appropriate for you to hold your child responsible, and appropriate for everyone else to hold you responsible?

Though this is a hypothetical example, it is a familiar situation in everyday life. Parents hold their children responsible for behaving themselves from early on. Yet standard philosophical views about responsible agency identify responsibility with capacities like rationality and self-control, in which many agents who participate in our responsibility practices, including children, are deficient. The existing literature has remarkably little to say about these cases involving so-called “marginal agents” (i.e., agents with deficits in the cognitive and volitional capacities typically associated with responsibility), and what is said underestimates the extent to which these agents can be responsible. I argue that careful attention to the ways that we hold marginal agents responsible in ordinary life illuminates the nature of responsibility more generally.

I claim that the parent holds her child responsible in virtue of what I call a relationship-based norm. These norms are expectations that arise out of a particular relationship (e.g., between this parent and child), and hold only between members of that relationship. The child in this example is accountable to his parent in ways that he is not yet accountable to the wider community for, say, keeping his voice down when he is in a public space, as one might expect a mature agent to do. Others in the restaurant may rightly hold the parent responsible in this situation because there is a norm that holds generally in the wider community that parents are accountable (to others) for ensuring that their children behave in socially acceptable ways in public places.

On my view, relationship-based norms do not apply only to marginal agents. Rather, responsibility is always responsibility to someone for something, and we are often responsible to others in virtue of the relationships we bear to them. Sometimes, relationship-based norms concern matters that are strictly internal to a particular relationship (e.g., who takes out the trash, what fidelity requires of you and your romantic partner). Other relationship-based norms concern matters in the wider community.

I argue that our ability to be responsible agents arises from our ability to be in relationships with others and to regard those relationships as sources of norms. Therefore, relationships have a much more central role in the character and development of responsible agency than has previously been recognized. Appreciating this allows us to understand our responsibility practices more fully, and to see how “marginal agents” are not marginal with respect to responsibility at all.


“Weakness of Will” (with Sarah Stroud), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Responsibility and the Problem of So-Called Marginal Agents,” 2020, Journal of the American Philosophical Association

Philosophical views of responsibility often identify responsible agency with capacities like rationality and self-control. Yet in ordinary life, we frequently hold individuals responsible who are deficient in these capacities, such as children or people with mental illness. The existing literature that addresses these cases has suggested that we merely pretend to hold these agents responsible, or that they are responsible to a diminished degree. In this paper, I demonstrate that neither of these approaches is satisfactory, and offer an alternative focused on the role relationships play in determining whether it is appropriate to hold someone responsible. I argue that relationships are sources of normative expectations about how parties in that relationship ought to behave, and that we can be responsible in virtue of being subject to these norms. This is so, not only for those who are impaired or immature, but for all of us.

Holding Responsible Reconsidered,” 2020, Public Affairs Quarterly

Following Strawson, many philosophers have claimed that holding someone responsible necessitates its being appropriate to feel or express the negative reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment) towards her. This view, while compelling, is unable to capture the full range of cases in which we hold others responsible in ordinary life. Consider the parent who holds her five-year-old responsible for not teasing his sister, or the therapist who holds her patient responsible for avoiding self-injurious behavior. Holding responsible in such cases requires enforcing normative expectations, but these norms can (and typically should) be enforced without involving the negative reactive attitudes. To demonstrate this, I consider how responsibility attributions function in psychotherapy, as well as in other contexts where the negative reactive attitudes do not have a natural home.

Responsibility and the Prospect of Punishing Children,” 2023, Pedagogies of Punishment: The Ethics of Discipline in Education (eds. Winston C. Thompson and John Tillson, Bloomsbury)

It is relatively clear, though not entirely uncontroversial, that those entrusted with the moral education of children should hold them responsible for their conduct at least some of the time. By this, I mean that part of raising and teaching children is holding them to normative expectations, and sometimes imposing negative consequences should they fail to meet those expectations. It is plausible, however, that not all instances of imposing such consequences on children are forms of punishment, and that there may be special moral concerns associated with punishing children as such. This paper investigates two main questions: 1) What is distinctive about punishment, in contrast with the imposition of disincentives or other negative consequences? 2) With this view of punishment in hand, is it appropriate to punish children? My view is that punishment is a response to wrongdoing, though imposing negative consequences or disincentivizing behavior need not take this form. To be clear that children are engaged in wrongdoing in turn requires that the norms they are being held to are reasonable given their maturity, and that those holding them accountable for adhering to those norms have the appropriate authority to do so. However, it is often difficult to know whether one or both of these conditions obtain. This suggests that we should be substantially more cautious about punishing children than holding them responsible more generally.

Forgiving for One’s Own Sake (available upon request)

The concept of forgiveness is often tied to reconciliation, or the repair of one’s relationship with the wrongdoer. One dominant account of forgiveness holds that this reconciliation is achieved through the overcoming of resentment for moral reasons. My aim is to explore cases where reconciliation is off the table as an appropriate end for the one forgiving, and yet nonetheless the victim forgives. More specifically, I will be interested in cases where the victim has been traumatized by the wrongdoing in such a way that it would be unreasonable to believe that she could carry on a healthy relationship with the wrongdoer. Considering these cases, I will argue, raises questions both about the notion that forgiveness requires the overcoming of resentment, and that it must be done for moral reasons. It also allows us to rehabilitate a piece of received wisdom about forgiveness, namely that forgiveness can be both sincere and ethically important even if one is forgiving primarily for one’s own sake.

The Second-Personal Significance of Trauma (available upon request)

There is a substantial literature about whether trauma or other “poor formative circumstances” interfere with the development or exercise of the capacities required to be responsible. In this paper, I focus on the ways in which trauma may affect responsibility attributions in the context of close interpersonal relationships. I will argue for two claims: first, that the question of whether trauma diminishes responsibility should be addressed in this second-personal context, and second, that in interpersonal relationships, it matters not only what hardships those close to us have experienced, but how they want us to respond to their history when holding them responsible. In order to illustrate these claims, I will consider an extended literary example drawn from the novel A Little Life. I take this example to offer clear and decisive reasons for why it is important as a general rule to consider people’s views about what those close to them do with their history (e.g., whether they regard that history as excusing them from blame).