I work in aesthetics and ethics mostly tackling questions about values, the imagination, and what philosophers call ‘normativity’ in art, art appreciation, and related aesthetic activities. Most of this work intersects other areas, such as feminist philosophy, the philosophy of race, and metaphysics. I have also written on other topics, such as our interest in trivial outcomes of sports and games and whether we literally see the things depicted in photographs. Some of this work has been honoured with prizes (here and here). You can find pre-prints of most of it below.
Please email me if you would like to see drafts of work in progress (or published pieces you can’t access).
Recent and Upcoming Talks
Autonomism and the Evaluative Turn
Department of Philosophy, Universidad de Murcia | October 5 2022
Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, Or, ‘What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?’
Department of Philosophy, UNED, Madrid | October 4 2022
‘Art, Knowledge, and Art Mediation’, Documenta 15, Kassel | August 5-7 2022
Department of Theatre and Film Studies Colloquium, University of Georgia | 24th September 2021
The Ethical Question and the Qua Problem
First Art & Ethics Prague Conference, Institute of Philosophy | April 25-26 2022
American Society for Aesthetics Annual Conference, Montreal | November 2021
On Transparent Photographs
Panel on the work of Kendall Walton, Pacific Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Vancouver | April 13-16 2022
Talk to Graduate Students on Grants and the Academic Job Market
Department of Philosophy, University of Georgia | 24th September 2021
Reflections on Abortion
Public Panel on Abortion, Auburn University | 29th March, 2021
& Robin Zheng, ‘Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, ‘What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?”, Ethics (forthcoming)
What is wrong with the practice of “blacking up” or other comparable acts of imagining? Setting aside “extrinsic” harms, many have pointed to the morally charged attitudes such imaginings invite participants to adopt. Recently, this strict view has been challenged by the lax, who claim imaginings can only be intrinsically ethically flawed by fully endorsing unethical attitudes. This paper carves a space between these two views. While imaginings are not morally objectionable merely in virtue of inviting participants to adopt immoral attitudes in imagination, nor are they morally objectionable just when they endorse these attitudes. We draw on speech act theory, the sociology of oppression, and the history of blackface to articulate a three-part theory of how imaginings can come to be intrinsically ethically flawed. Crucially, our claim is that imaginings are intrinsically ethically flawed when oppressive, where this is understood as depending on the socio-historical context in which an imagining is realized.
Presented at the University of Leeds’ ‘Race & Aesthetics’ conference at the Leeds Art Gallery (May 2015), the Seminario de Trabajo en Curso at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAM (Feb 2017), the Work in Progress seminar at Yale-NUS, Singapore (Oct 2017), and the XII Inter-University Workshop on Mind, Art and Morality: ‘Language and Power’ at the University of Barcelona (May 2018), the annual meetings of the British Society of Aesthetics (2019), the European Society for Aesthetics (2019), the American Society for Aesthetics (2019), Auburn University’s Aesthetics Forum (2021), and the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Georgia. (2021).
‘Immoralism is Obviously True: Towards Progress on the Ethical Question’, The British Journal of Aesthetics (forthcoming)
Suppose a theorist shows an ethical flaw in an artwork that determines its aesthetic value in some way at least. The so-called “qua problem“ is the problem such a theorist faces in showing that it is qua ethical value that this determination happens (rather than in virtue of some more incidental feature of the work). In this paper, I disambiguate the Ethical Question, which asks whether an artwork’s ethical value ever determines its aesthetic value, and connect this disambiguation to the qua problem. I argue that this problem instances a broader phenomenon of explanatory inadequacy discussed in metaphysics and the philosophy of science.
Presented in various forms at UNAM’s Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas for the 50th Anniversary Roundtable on Ethics and Aesthetics (Nov 2017), Uppsala University’s Higher Seminar in Aesthetics (Jan 2018), the annual meeting of the British Society of Aesthetics (Sep 2018), and the Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie (Sep 2018), the University of Sheffield (Nov 2018), the University of Michigan’s Aesthetics Discussion Group (Feb 2019), the University of Kent’s Aesthetics Research Centre (Mar 2019), the University of York (Nov 2019), the University of Reading (Dec 2019), the Scottish Aesthetics Forum (Jan 2020), and the first Prague Art & Ethics Conference at the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy (Apr 2022).
‘Autonomism’, in The Oxford Handbook of Art and Ethics, James Harold (ed.) (New York: OUP, forthcoming).
Encyclopedia article detailing and evaluating various arguments for autonomism, which claims, roughly, that an artwork’s aesthetic value swings free of any ethical value it has.
I consider a number of criticisms of the claim, famously made by Kendall Walton, that photographs are ‘transparent’ (i.e. that we literally see what they depict, not just representations of those things). Specifically, I consider those criticisms that appeal to what I call ‘egocentrism’, according to which (roughly) a visual experience counts as seeing something only if the experience helps locate that thing in one’s ‘egocentric space’. I show how egocentrism fails to undermine photographic transparency.
Presented at the University of Fribourg (Feb 2020)
In this paper, I argue that Berys Gaut’s most important argument for ethicism, the Merited Response Argument, suffers from an ambiguity that renders it invalid. Ethicism is the view (roughly) that intrinsic ethical flaws in artworks can count as aesthetic flaws and ethical virtues as aesthetic merits. The Merited Response Argument claims that works prescribing unmerited responses are flawed and that being unethical is one way responses can be unmerited. Specifically, I argue that Gaut’s notion of ‘prescribing’ a response is ambiguous between merely attempting to elicit a response and endorsing it as appropriate for export to the actual world. The ambiguity is fatal because while attempting to elicit an unethical response may constitute an aesthetic flaw, it doesn’t constitute an ethical one. In contrast, while endorsing an unethical response may constitute an ethical flaw, it doesn’t constitute and aesthetic one. So the grounds for the ethical criticism and the aesthetic criticism are wholly distinct.
Presented at a meeting of the British Society of Aesthetics (Sep 2016), the American Society for Aesthetics (Nov 2016), and at the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, UNAM (Nov 2017).
Winner of the AJP Best Paper Award for 2019.
Many artworks use artistic techniques to elicit responses. In Das Boot’s final scene, for instance, the U96’s crew is strafed into oblivion following several treacherous months at sea. The scene does not merely prescribe that we imagine a U-Boat crew dock and be killed. It also prescribes that we feel despair. According to a principle I call the Merit Principle, roughly, works of art that prescribe unmerited responses fail on their own terms and are thereby aesthetically flawed. A horror film, for instance, that prescribes fear towards something that is not scary is to that extent aesthetically flawed. The Merit Principle is not only intuitive, it can also be gleaned from Aristotle’s and Hume’s discussions of tragedy, and is endorsed by a handful of contemporary figures. In this paper, I show how the principle leads to paradox when applied to an undertheorized class of artworks I call “seductive artworks”. These are works, of which there are many examples, which prescribe an unmerited response, in order to prescribe a second-order repudiation of that response. Importantly, the way these works are structured means that they necessarily prescribe an unmerited response. Thus, according to the Merit Principle, they are necessarily aesthetically flawed, which seems counter-intuitive. I show how a number of potential solutions to this brand new paradox fail, before rejecting the Merit Principle as it stands. I conclude by drawing out what is theoretically challenging about seductive artworks and sketching a defence of an alternative principle that appeals to the general way an artwork’s aesthetic value is conditioned by constraints under which the work operates. This principle not only satisfactorily resolves the paradox, it also neatly explains the competing intuitions behind it.
Presented at a meeting of the Aesthetics Discussion Group at the University of Michigan (Feb 2015), the ‘Aesthetics, Normativity, and Reasons’ conference at the University of Kent (Jun 2015), before the philosophy departments at the Universities of Michigan (Sep 2015) and Southampton (Nov 2015), at the annual meetings of the British Society of Aesthetics at Homerton College, University of Cambridge (Sep 2015) and the American Society for Aesthetics in Savannah, Georgia (Nov 2015), at the ninth Inter-university Workshop: ‘Art and Negative Emotions’ at the University of Murcia (Oct 2015), and the 16th NYU-Columbia graduate conference (Feb 2016).
Recording of me reading the paper here.
The outcomes of sports and competitive games excite intense emotions in many people, even when those same people acknowledge that those outcomes are of trifling importance. I call this incongruity between the judged importance of the outcome and the intense reaction it provokes the Puzzle of Sport. The puzzle bears similarities to a similar puzzle in aesthetics: the Paradox of Fiction, which asks how it is we become emotionally caught up with events and characters we know to be unreal. In this paper, I examine the prospects of understanding our engagement with competitive games on the model of our engagement with works of fiction, thus enabling a common explanation for both puzzles. I show that there are significant obstacles to such an approach and offer an alternative line of explanation, using the work of David Velleman and Thomas Nagel, that appeals to the volatility of our motivational attitudes.
Presented at meetings of the Aesthetics Discussion Group and Graduate Student Working Group at the University of Michigan, the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics, San Diego (Oct 2013), and the ‘How to Make-believe’ conference at the University of Lund (Mar 2012).
Winner of Fab Flock Five award for 2015.
If a work of literary fiction prescribes us to imagine that the Devil made a bet with God and transformed into a poodle, then that claim is true in the fiction and we imagine accordingly. Generally, we cooperate imaginatively with literary fictions, however bizarre, and the things authors write into their stories become true in the fiction. But for some claims, such as moral falsehoods, this seems not to be straightforwardly the case, which raises the question: Why not? The puzzles such cases raise are sometimes grouped under the heading “imaginative resistance”. In this paper, I argue against what I take to be the best attempts to (a) dismiss the puzzles and (b) solve them. I also tease out subtleties not sufficiently addressed in the existing literature and end by defending a unified solution of my own. According to this solution, the puzzling phenomena occur when literary works offer inadequate and exhaustive grounds for claims. The solution’s novelty lies in its giving a normative rather than psychological or alethic explanation for the puzzling phenomena, the relevant norms being those of proper artistic appreciation.
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the British Society of Aesthetics at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford (Sep 2014), to the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan (Sep 2014), the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in San Antonio (Nov 2014), as well as the Eastern meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Philadelphia (Dec 2014). Early ancestors were also presented at a meeting of the University of Michigan’s Aesthetics Discussion Group (November 2009) and at the University of Sheffield’s philosophy graduate seminar (May 2009).
In ‘Rethinking Sadomasochism’, Patrick Hopkins challenges the radical feminist claim that sadomasochism is incompatible with feminism. He does so by appeal to the notion of “simulation”. I argue that Hopkins’s conclusions are generally right, but they cannot be inferred from his simulation argument. Moreover, Hopkins neglects to address one of the central arguments advanced by radical feminists. I replace Hopkins’s simulation account with Kendall Walton’s more sophisticated theory of make-believe. I use this theory to blunt the unaddressed radical feminist criticism and, more generally, to better argue that privately conducted sadomasochism is compatible with feminism.
Other Academic Publications
The Philosopher’s Annual (2013), Vol. 32 (edited with Chloe Armstrong, Patrick Grim, and Patrick Shirreff)
The Philosopher’s Annual is an anthology published once a year. Its hopelessly ambitious mission is to assemble the ten best philosophical articles published during the preceding year.
Work in Progress
To see drafts, please email me.
Beyond Moralism: How Ethics Shapes Aesthetic Value in Art (monograph – under contract with OUP)
This is a book culminating over a decade of work on the relevance of ethical to aesthetic values in artworks. In the book, I distinguish two ways of understanding the debate’s central question, relating to whether we understand ethical value’s contribution to an artwork’s aesthetics value as direct or indirect and show how immoralism (sometimes also called ‘contextualism’) is true on both; that is, ethical merits and flaws in a work can both redound to its aesthetic betterment or detriment. More than this though, the book shows why only the direct version of the question is interesting, why the entire literature has addressed the indirect question, and draws on work in metaphysics and the philosophy of science to determine what makes an ethico-aesthetic determining relation interesting to establish.
Personification and Objectification
If objectifying a person consists, roughly, in treating a person as an object, then one can understand personification as the converse of this: treating an object as a person. Numerous scholars have connected the two notions. The recurring idea is that personification may entail objectification and therefore share in the latter’s ethical difficulties. This idea is defended by various feminist philosophers who focus on how the connection manifests in male, heterosexual consumption of pornography. In this paper, I schematize the only two live arguments for this connection—the ‘ontological argument’ and its successor, the ‘presupposition argument’, as I call them—and show why each fails. Finally, I show how one might try to revive the second of these arguments, before arguing that it and any argument of the same form must fail. I conclude that, absent a wholly novel argument, there is no such connection and so personification as such is ethically okay.
Simple Pleasures (with Nick Wiltsher)
We examine the work of ‘sybarites’ (principally Keren Gorodeisky) and their attempt to put pleasure at the centre of aesthetic appreciation and evaluation.
Gives an historical and thematic overview of the debate about the relevance of ethical to aesthetic value in art and surrounding controversies.