I work in aesthetics and ethics mostly tackling values and what philosophers call ‘normativity’ in art and art appreciation. For instance, when exactly do the invitations an artwork makes to its audience make the work unethical? How do these ethical flaws affect the work’s aesthetic value, if at all? What kind of relation has to hold between different kinds of artistic values, such as ethical and aesthetic values, to make that relation metaphysically interesting? Some of this work relates to other areas, such as feminist philosophy, the philosophy of race, and metaphysics.
I am currently undertaking a two-year European Commission-funded research project investigating these issues at the University of Southampton.
Please email me if you would like to see drafts of my work in progress (or published pieces you can’t access).
Recent and Upcoming Talks
‘Is Aesthetic Immoralism Obviously True?’
University of Kent | 13th Mar, 2019
University of Sheffield | 30th Nov, 2018
American Society for Aesthetics Annual Meeting, Toronto | 18-20th Oct, 2018
Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie Annual Meeting, Köln | 17th-20th Sep, 2018
University of Illinois at Chicago | 2nd Mar, 2018
Higher Seminar in Aesthetics, Uppsala Universitet, Sweden | 24th Jan, 2018
Roundtable on Ethics & Aesthetics, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City | 7th Nov, 2017
University of Hertfordshire | 10th-11th November, 2018
‘The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance’
Alrewas Arts Festival | 30th Aug, 2018
Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, Or, What’s (intrinsically) Wrong with Blacking Up?
XII Interuniversity Workshop on Mind, Art, and Morality: Language & Power, University of Barcelona | 22/23rd May, 2018
‘Meriting a Response: the Paradox of ‘Seductive’ Artworks‘, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming.
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 Univerity of Murcia (Oct 2015), and the 16th NYU-Columbia graduate conference (Feb 2016).
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).
Pre-published version here.
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.
Honoured in ‘Fab Flock Five’ for 2015 (five best aesthetics papers published in 2015). 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 the University of Sheffield’s graduate seminar (Nov 2009) and at a meeting of the University of Michigan’s Aesthetics Discussion Group (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.
Pre-published version here.
Other Academic Publications
Pre-published version here.
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.
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 inviting a response and endorsing it as appropriate for export to the actual world. The ambiguity is fatal because while inviting an unethical response does constitute an aesthetic flaw, it doesn’t constitute an ethical one. In contrast, while endorsing an unethical response constitutes an ethical flaw, it doesn’t constitute and aesthetic one. So the grounds for the ethical criticism and the aesthetic criticism are not shared.
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).
Is Aesthetic Immoralism Obviously True?
This work explores the metaphysical stories behind claims that ethical values in artworks do or don’t determine their aesthetic values. There are three dominant theories about whether and how ethical properties in artworks ever determine their aesthetic ones: autonomism, moralism, and immoralism. Roughly, autonomism denies any determining relation, moralism affirms it and claims that it is systematic (ethical merits ground aesthetic merits, ethical flaws ground aesthetic flaws), and immoralism affirms it but denies that it is systematic. I argue that the Questions can be read in two distinct ways—the counterfactual and the per se way—which each give rise to a corresponding way to answer it: using counterfactual or per se theories. I argue that per se theories beg the question against their opponents, leaving counterfactual theories. I show that understood counterfactually, answering the Questions under consideration is very easy: ethical properties of artworks do determine their aesthetic ones and do so in an unsystematic fashion. I.e. immoralism is correct.
Presented at the 50th Anniversary Roundtable on Ethics and Aesthetics, UNAM (Sep 2017), Uppsala University (Jan 2018), the University of Illinois at Chicago (Mar 2018), the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics (Oct 2018), and the University of Sheffield (Nov 2018).
Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, ‘What’s (Intrinsically) Wrong with Blacking Up’? (with Robin Zheng)
What is wrong with the practice of “blacking up” or other comparable acts of imagining or fiction-making (AIFMs)? Setting aside “extrinsic” harms, many (e.g. A.W. Eaton, Berys Gaut, Noël Carroll, James Harold) have pointed to the pernicious attitudes such AIFMs invite participants to adopt in imagination. Recently, this view has been challenged; Brandon Cooke argues that only those AIFMs which invite participants to export pernicious attitudes to the actual world exhibit any intrinsic ethical flaw. This paper carves a space between Eaton et al. and Cooke. While AIFMs are not morally objectionable merely in virtue of inviting participants to adopt pernicious attitudes in imagination, nor are they morally objectionable just when they invite participants to export these attitudes. We draw an analogy with J.L. Austin’s speech act theory to characterize potential moral flaws in some AIFMs as located not in the mere content of the imagining (the locution), or its causal upshot (the perlocution), but in the act that is constituted by the imagining itself (the illocution). Crucially, our claim is that the moral contours of the act are conditioned by the socio-political context in which the act is performed. In particular, we argue that such AIFMs constitute an instance of oppression because they express what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images,” whose very existence serves to justify oppressive ideologies.
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).