My work is in aesthetics and ethics; much of it tackles 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.
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
Philosophy Department Research Day, University of Southampton, 29th Jan, 2018
Seminario de Investigadores, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City | 15th Nov, 2017
‘Is Aesthetic Immoralism Obviously True?’
Higher Seminar in Aesthetics, Uppsala Universitet, Sweden | 24th Jan, 2018
Roundtable on Ethics & Aesthetics, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City | 7th Nov, 2017
‘Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, Or, What’s (Intrinsically) Wrong with Blacking Up?’
Yale-NUS College, Singapore | 13th Oct, 2017
Seminario de Trabajo en Curso, Instituto de Investigaciones Filosóficas, Mexico City | 23rd Feb, 2017
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 will be here, July 2018.
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
Review of Kendall Walton’s ‘In Other Shoes’ in The British Journal of Aesthetics, forthcoming.
Pre-published version will appear here in 2018.
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.
Meriting a Response: Accounting for “Seductive” Artworks
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 what they can show us about aesthetic normativity.
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 (June, 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).
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) and the American Society for Aesthetics (Nov, 2016).
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.
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), and the Work in Progress seminar at Yale-NUS, Singapore (October 2017).
Are there “Univalent” Aesthetic Properties?
Many aestheticians have embraced the idea that there are aesthetic properties that count as pro tanto considerations in favour of the positive (or negative) aesthetic value of any work that possesses them—i.e. that there are some aesthetic properties that contribute a uniform aesthetic valence (either positive or negative) to all works to the extent that they figure in those works. This paper is devoted to questioning this popular view. I begin by considering purportedly “univalent” gustatory properties, and show how their usual valences can flip. I then apply the same arguments to paradigmatically “univalent” aesthetic properties such as gracefulness. The plan is to use these arguments to explore a number of issues: that the arguments (1) put pressure on theories relying on the existence of univalent aesthetic properties (e.g. Berys Gaut’s ethicism); (2) give us reason to prefer a “pragmatic” theory of thick concepts over the alternatives; (3) suggest we should be particularists rather than generalists concerning the relationship between aesthetic properties and aesthetic value; and (4) raise questions about what appreciators are doing when they appeal to aesthetic properties as reasons for evaluations.
Objectification and Personification
This paper concerns the ethical and conceptual relationships between objectification (the treating of people as things) and its converse, personification—particularly as they arise in the male heterosexual use of pornography. Specifically, the paper examines the work of Jennifer Saul who, taking her cue from Rae Langton and Melinda Vadas, argues that those who personify pornography in Vadas’ sense (by treating pornography “as a woman”) are thereby objectifiers of women. Saul’s argument seems to suffer from two problems, one exegetical, one dialectical, which I spell out. I intend to use thinking about this case to motivate an account of pornographic personification according to which to personify x—i.e. treat x as a woman—is to engage in a game of make-believe in which the pornographic depiction acts as a prop. The game’s principle of generation is such that, at minimum, the presence of x makes it true in the game’s fiction that there is a woman.
Mill, Gender, and Sport
In this paper, I employ both political and epistemological principles from John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, as well as an argument by analogy, to examine the prevailing justification for gender-segregation in sport. I argue that this justification fails and so, in the absence of better justifications, we should treat the current segregation as unjust.