Research

Much of my research over the past few years has concerned torture—what it is, how it works, the legal and moral arguments surrounding it, and the political implications of its practice. This research has culminated in several articles and two books.  My aim has been to show that those who defend torture, even if only in exceptional circumstances, misunderstand its nature and its effects. I have further argued (and continue to argue) that the philosophical methods utilized in the torture debate are deeply problematic. Standard ‘ticking-bomb’ thought-experiments are carried out with no regard to the empirical reality of torture, or its history, or its phenomenological effects on both perpetrators and survivors. Moreover, these thought-experiments likely involve deeply sexist and racist assumptions: defenders of torture often invoke masculinist arguments about ‘being a man.’ There is likewise evidence to suggest that when people think about concepts like ‘ticking-bombs,’ their thinking relies on a certain racial profile of the person to be tortured. Indeed, some initial research suggests that people are less likely to think torture is acceptable if the person to be tortured is white. The fact that sexist and racist assumptions seem to infiltrate our thought-experiments has huge implications for the way we approach applied ethics in general, and torture in particular. One of my current projects involves assessing the extent to which some traditional methods in applied ethics are in fact morally problematic.

In addition to my work on torture, I have written occasionally in other areas in applied ethics—most notably in medical ethics. My work in this area has included the ethics of organ donation, including critique of the US organ donation policy, issues involving respect for the dead, and, most recently, the role of sympathy in health care.

My interests in ethical theory are also relatively wide-ranging. In my first book, Wittgenstein and Ethical Inquiry: A Defense of Ethics as Clarification (Continuum, 2007), I argued that ethical theory is and ought to be clarificatory—that is, ethical theory has the function of elucidating and directing our most basic moral commitments.  I tried, in that book, to show that one could read Kant and Mill profitably through a roughly Wittgensteinian lens.

My recent work in ethical theory (and my current primary focus) centers on the role of perception in moral life. Specifically, I defend the view that there is something called ‘moral perception,’ and that we should understand this more-or-less literally. This has proven profitable in thinking through things like moral education, moral judgment, and the role of argument in moral life.  Several of my recent papers try to 1) characterize a model of perception that makes sense of literal moral perception, 2) specify what moral perception is like, and 3) assess the implications of the idea of moral perception for ethical theory more generally (the idea of moral perception, in proper Aristotelian fashion, lends itself to a particularist approach to moral issues,  a view of moral education as involving exercises in imagination rather than rule-construction, and so on).

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