Research

My research interests are wide-ranging, but I work primarily on issues and figures in moral psychology and ethics, and on the history of these areas.  Topics I focus on include ethical self-knowledge and self-opacity, finitude, and dependency, and the idea of moral repair. In general, I am interested in the limits of first-person authority, in how these limits are experienced from the first-person point of view, and in their ethical significance.

I have published on the role of regulative ideals in Kant and Freud, and am revising a paper now on Kant’s concept of self-conceit and its relation to respect for persons.  I have an essay forthcoming on Cavell and Chinatown, and am now finishing one paper on apology, and another on Freud and second nature.

In terms of new work, I am currently preparing a larger project, grounded in my dissertation, that examines contemporary and historical treatments of the limits of first-person authority. I try to show that the Kantian and existentialist tradition claimed by contemporary authors who advocate for avowal- or commitment-based conceptions of self-knowledge is actually much more fraught, and offers resources for thinking about the limits of self-knowledge and the ways in which those limits are lived.

Dissertation Abstract

In my dissertation, I argue that self-opacity—not knowing why we do what we do—is actually an essential feature of human agency that can contribute to moral development. This often-disorienting experience is familiar from ordinary life and is a frequent theme of literature and film, yet it has not received adequate philosophical attention. I show, first, that the concept and experience of self-opacity should occupy a central place in any sophisticated, realistic theory of moral agency and moral psychology. But, I argue, insofar as self-opacity is relevant to ethics, it must be understood, not as a mere psychological fact of human life that we can know theoretically, but as a practical problem that we encounter first-personally. Thus, while I reject philosophical positions that rely on an overly idealized conception of the agent’s first-personal perspective (for instance, Korsgaard, Moran, Wallace), I maintain that we can only appreciate the practical relevance of self-opacity from within that perspective (and so I reject those who offer third-personal theories of agency and self-opacity; see Arpaly). I propose that we understand self-opacity as essential to human agency thanks to two mutually implicating dimensions of human life: our animality and our sociality. These are those features of our practical lives that are not “up to me,” and that resist comprehension from either the practical or theoretical perspectives. Self-opacity is in this sense the reflexive dimension of our finitude.  Finally, I outline how self-opacity can contribute productively to ethical life, such that it is possible not just to tolerate self-opacity, but to live well with it. Just as our vulnerability makes possible both suffering and flourishing, so too with self-opacity.  My work connects both to contemporary research in moral psychology (for example, Arpaly’s Unprincipled Virtue, Doris’ Talking to Ourselves, and Sher’s Who Knew? Responsibility Without Awareness) and to historical figures who challenge the idea and norm of self-transparency (including Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Murdoch, and Cavell).

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