Meaning in the lives of humans and other animals (2018)

Philosophical Studies (first author, with Nicolas Delon)

This paper argues that contemporary philosophical literature on meaning in life has important implications for the debate about our obligations to non-human animals. If animal lives can be meaningful, then practices including factory farming and animal research might be morally worse than ethicists have thought. We argue for two theses about meaning in life: (1) that the best account of meaningful lives must take intentional action to be necessary for meaning—an individual’s life has meaning if and only if the individual acts intentionally in ways that contribute to finally valuable states of affairs; and (2) that this first thesis does not entail that only human lives are meaningful. Because non-human animals can be intentional agents of a certain sort, our account yields the verdict that many animals’ lives can be meaningful. We conclude by considering the moral implications of these theses for common practices involving animals.

A quiet revolution in organ transplant ethics (Forthcoming)

Journal of Medical Ethics (with Arthur Caplan)

A quiet revolution is occurring in the field of transplantation. Traditionally, transplants have involved solid organs such as the kidney, heart and liver which are transplanted to prevent recipients from dying. Now transplants are being done of the face, hand, uterus, penis and larynx that aim at improving a recipient's quality of life. The shift away from saving lives to seeking to make them better requires a shift in the ethical thinking that has long formed the foundation of organ transplantation. The addition of new forms of transplants requires doctors, patients, regulators and the public to rethink the risk and benefit ratio represented by trade-offs between saving life, extending life and risking the loss of life to achieve improvements in the quality of life.

Desire satisfaction, death, and time (Forthcoming)

Canadian Journal of Philosophy

Desire satisfaction theories of well-being and deprivationism about the badness of death face similar problems: desire satisfaction theories have trouble locating the time when the satisfaction of a future or past-directed desire benefits a person; deprivationism has trouble locating a time when death is bad for a person. I argue that desire satisfaction theorists and deprivation theorists can address their respective timing problems by accepting fusionism, the view that some events benefit or harm individuals only at fusions of moments in time. Fusionism improves on existing solutions to the timing problem for deprivationism because it locates death’s badness at the same time as both the victim of death and death itself, and it accounts for all of the ways that death is bad for a person. Fusionism improves on existing solutions to the problem of temporally locating the benefit of future and past-directed desires because it respects several attractive principles, including the view that the intrinsic value of a time for someone is determined solely by states of affairs that obtain at that time and the view that intrinsically beneficial events benefit a person when they occur.

A dilemma for moral deliberation in AI (2016)

International Journal of Applied Philosophy (with Ryan Jenkins)

Many social trends are conspiring to drive the adoption of greater automation in society, and we will certainly see a greater offloading of human decision making to robots in the future. Many of these decisions are morally salient, including decisions about how benefits and burdens are distributed. Roboticists and ethicists have begun to think carefully about the moral decision making apparatus for machines. Their concerns often center around the plausible claim that robots will lack many of the mental capacities that are indispensable in human moral decision making, such as empathy. To the extent that robots may be robustly artificially intelligent, these concerns subside, but they give way to new worries about creating artificial agents to do our bidding, if those artificial agents have moral standing. We suggest that the question of AI consciousness poses a dilemma. Whether artificially intelligent agents will be conscious or not, we will face serious difficulties in programming them to reliably make moral decisions.

Non-identity for non-humans (2016)

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (first author, with Benjamin Hale)

This article introduces a non-human version of the non-identity problem and suggests that such a variation exposes weaknesses in several proposed person-focused solutions to the classic version of the problem. It suggests first that person-affecting solutions fail when applied to non-human animals and, second, that many common moral arguments against climate change should be called into question. We argue that a more inclusive version of the person-affecting principle, which we call the ‘patient-affecting principle’, captures more accurately the moral challenge posed by the non-identity problem. We argue further that the failure of person-affecting solutions to solve non-human versions of the problem lend support to impersonal solutions to the problem which avoid issues of personhood or species identity. Finally, we conclude that some environmental arguments against climate change that rely on the notion of personal harm should be recast in impersonal terms.

Robots and respect: a reply to Sparrow (2016)

Ethics and International Affairs (with Ryan Jenkins)

Robert Sparrow recently argued in this journal that several initially plausible arguments in favor of the deployment of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) in warfare are in fact flawed, and that the deployment of AWS faces a serious moral objection. Sparrow's argument against AWS relies on the claim that they are distinct from accepted weapons of war in that they either fail to transmit an attitude of respect for enemy combatants or, worse, they transmit an attitude of disrespect. In this reply we argue that this distinction between AWS and widely accepted weapons is illusory, and therefore cannot ground a moral difference between AWS and existing methods of waging war. We also suggest that if deploying conventional soldiers in a given situation would be permissible, but we could expect to cause fewer civilian casualties by instead deploying AWS, then it would be consistent with an intuitive understanding of respect to deploy AWS in this situation.

Accounting for the harm of death (2016)

Pacific Philosophical Quarterly

I defend a theory of the way in which death is a harm to the person who dies that (i) fits into a larger, unified account of harm (so that death is not a special kind of harm but is harmful in the same way that any harmful event is harmful); and (ii) includes an account of the time of death's harmfulness, one that avoids the implications that death is a timeless harm and that people have levels of welfare at times at which they do not exist.

Right intention and the ends of war (2016)

Journal of Military Ethics (first author, with Ryan Jenkins)

The jus ad bellum criterion of right intention (CRI) is a central guiding principle of just war theory. It asserts that a country’s resort to war is just only if that country resorts to war for the right reasons. However, there is significant confusion, and little consensus, about how to specify the CRI. We seek to clear up this confusion by evaluating several distinct ways of understanding the criterion. On one understanding, a state’s resort to war is just only if it plans to adhere to the principles of just war while achieving its just cause. We argue that the first understanding makes the CRI superfluous, because it can be subsumed under the probability of success criterion. On a second understanding, a resort to war is just only if a state’s motives, which explain its resort to war, are of the right kind. We argue that this second understanding of the CRI makes it a significant further obstacle to justifying war. However, this second understanding faces a possible infinite regress problem, which, left unresolved, leaves us without a plausible interpretation of the CRI. This constitutes a significant and novel reason for leaving the CRI out of the international law of armed conflict (LOAC).

The significance of personal identity for death (2015)


I reply to David Shoemaker's recent argument that personal identity is irrelevant for the concept of death. I argue that Shoemaker fails to show that personal identity is irrelevant for the concept of death, and I show that the sense in which personal identity is relevant for death has important practical implications. One important practical upshot of my argument is that physicians Consider a physician who must decide whether to declare a patient’s death for the purposes of organ retrieval. If the patient’s essence is preserved {psychological continuity, mind, biological organism}, then a physician should conclude – assuming that she has arrived at the correct theory of personal identity – that the patient has not died. Notice that the physician must have a theory of personal identity in hand in order to reach this conclusion. In cases where one of the necessary conditions for death, loss of essence, has not been satisfied, organ retrieval is not permitted.

Autonomous machines, moral Judgment, and acting for the right reasons (2015)

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (first author, with Ryan Jenkins and Bradley Strawser)

Despite the strong and widespread sentiments against such weapons, however, proffered philosophical arguments against AWS are often found lacking in substance. We propose that the prevalent moral aversion to AWS is supported by a pair of compelling objections. First, we argue that even a sophisticated robot is not the kind of thing that is capable of replicating human moral judgment. This conclusion follows if human moral judgment is not codifiable, i.e., it cannot be captured by a list of rules. Moral judgment requires either the ability to engage in wide reflective equilibrium, the ability to perceive certain facts as moral considerations, moral imagination, or the ability to have moral experiences with a particular phenomenological character. Robots cannot in principle possess these abilities, so robots cannot in principle replicate human moral judgment. If robots cannot in principle replicate human moral judgment then it is morally problematic to deploy AWS with that aim in mind. Second, we then argue that even if it is possible for a sufficiently sophisticated robot to make ‘moral decisions’ that are extensionally indistinguishable from (or better than) human moral decisions, these ‘decisions’ could not be made for the right reasons. This means that the ‘moral decisions’ made by AWS are bound to be morally deficient in at least one respect even if they are extensionally indistinguishable from human ones.

The harms of death, Cholbi, Michael (ed.) (2015)

Immortality and the Philosophy of Death

In the contemporary debate about the nature of harm, death is often treated as an afterthought. In some cases, little more than a few sentences are devoted to the issue of death, and yet it raises some of the most serious obstacles to a complete analysis of harm. I evaluate the attention given to death by the defenders of several promising and competing analyses of harm. I do this by first describing the features of death that make its harmfulness difficult to capture and then by asking, for each of the analyses, whether these features pose a problem for it. I conclude that the harmfulness of death can be explained only by a counterfactual comparative analysis of harm that evaluates the harmfulness of an event by considering its effect on the value of individuals’ lives taken as wholes, rather than its relationship to the state that the individual is in. This constitutes strong prima facie support for a version of the counterfactual comparative analysis according to which an event is a harm for a subject just in case the subject’s life as a whole would have been more valuable for her had the event not occurred.

Torture and incoherence: a reply to Cyr (2015)

The Journal of Ethics

John Martin Fischer and Anthony L. Brueckner have argued that a person’s death is, in many cases, bad for him, whereas a person’s prenatal non-existence is not bad for him. Their suggestion relies on the idea that death deprives the person of pleasant experiences that it is rational for him to care about, whereas prenatal non-existence only deprives him of pleasant experiences that it is not rational for him to care about. Jens Johansson has objected to this justification of ‘The Asymmetry’ between the badness of death and pre-natal non-existence on the grounds that what it is actually rational for us to care about is irrelevant to the question of whether the event is bad for us. Taylor Cyr has recently argued that Jens Johansson’s objection to Fischer’s and Brueckner’s position relies on an incoherent example, and is thus unsuccessful. I argue that Cyr’s attempt to defend Fischer and Brueckner in fact illustrates that their position is incoherent, and that Johansson’s objection therefore succeeds.

GMOs, future generations, and the limits of the precautionary principle (2015)

Social Philosophy Today

The Precautionary Principle is frequently invoked as a guiding principle in environmental policy. In this article, I raise a couple of problems for the application of the Precautionary Principle when it comes to policies concerning Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). First, I argue that if we accept Stephen Gardiner’s sensible conditions under which it is appropriate to employ the Precautionary Principle for emerging technologies, it is unclear that GMOs meet those conditions. In particular, I contend that GM crops hold the potential to provide more than a mere bonus; they hold the (admittedly uncertain) potential to prevent serious harm to millions of people. This means that, if proponents of the Precautionary Principle take prevention of harm as seriously as avoidance of harm, then precaution may tell in favor of GMOs rather than against them. Second, I observe that the use of GM technology in the developing world is likely to be identity-affecting; it will cause people to exist who otherwise would not have. I argue that this undermines Precautionary Principle-based objections to GM technology that appeal to the potentially harmful effects of GMOs on future generations.

Human hon-human chimeras: enhancement or creation? (2014)

American Journal of Bioethics

I respond to Monika Piotrowska's argument against anthropocentric theories of moral status that they yield disparate moral verdicts about parallel cases of embryonic stem cell transplantation. I argue that anthropocentric theories of moral status may not fall prey to this problem because embryonic stem cell transplantation constitutes the creation of a new individual rather than mere enhancement of a previously existing organism. Piotrowska’s argument mistakenly assumes that procreation is the only sort of creation there is.

Anthropocentric indirect arguments and anthropocentric moral attitudes (2014)

Ethics, Policy, and Environment

Anthropocentric indirect arguments, which call for specific policies or actions because of human benefits that are correlated with but not caused by benefits to the environment, are gaining increasing traction with those who take a pragmatic approach to environmental protection. I contend that nonanthropocentrists might remain justifiably uneasy about anthropocentric indirect arguments because such arguments fail to challenge prevailing speciesist moral attitudes. I close by considering whether Elliott can address this concern of nonanthropocentrists by highlighting the ability of anthropocentric indirect arguments to engender an intrinsic concern for the environment in the people they persuade.

A counterexample to two accounts of harm (2014)

Southwest Philosophy Review

Two alternative accounts have emerged as viable competitors to the forerunning counterfactual comparative account in the recent debate concerning the nature of harm. These are the “non-comparative statebased account of harm” defended by Elizabeth Harman, the “event-based account of harm” defended by Matthew Hanser. I raise one simple but serious counterexample involving “non-regrettable disabilities” that applies to both of these alternative accounts but that is avoided by the counterfactual comparative account. I point out that my counterexample is one instance of a broader problem for alternatives to the counterfactual comparative account. The problem is that each of them divorces the concept of harm from the intuitive idea that we have moral and prudential reasons to avoid it.

Still in hot water: doing, allowing, and Rachels’ bathtub cases (2012)

Southwest Philosophy Review

The aim of this paper is to explain and defend a type of argument common in the doing/allowing literature called a “contrast argument.” I am concerned with defending a particular type of contrast argument that is intended to demonstrate the moral irrelevance of the doing/allowing distinction. This type of argument, referred to in this paper as an “irrelevance argument,” is exemplified by an argument offered by James Rachels (1975) that employs the Smith and Jones bathtub cases. My main contention in this paper is that none of the objections to the use of irrelevance arguments are successful, and that they still pose a genuine challenge to defenders of the moral relevance of the doing/allowing distinction.