My research focuses on ethics and moral psychology in ancient philosophy, especially in Plato and Aristotle. In particular, I examine how we come to value certain objects the most and the psychological influence of such core values on our other mental attitudes. How, if at all, can philosophical argument be used to change a person’s core values? Are there any non-circular reasons available that support adopting one set of core values or another? When do people resort to motivated reasoning to defend their values against argumentative pressure, and what exactly is the nature of this motivated reasoning? How can it be overcome? How do a person’s values affect her ability to gain knowledge? How do they influence the way she selects and weighs argumentative evidence? More fundamentally, what does it mean to value something in the first place? Is it reducible to a belief or desire? Does it require certain patterns of attention and activity?
My main project currently is writing a book that investigates Plato’s answers to these questions, in particular as they arise out of his depictions of, and reflections on, Socrates’ project of changing his interlocutors’ core values by means of philosophical argument. In what follows, I summarize the papers that I am currently working on, several of which later will be revamped into parts of the book.
In “The Importance for Plato of What People Care About,” I analyze the notion of caring about in Plato. In the Apology, Plato depicts Socrates repeatedly insisting that his primary goal is to change what people care about or value (epimeleisthai). While this type of attitude is familiar in contemporary philosophy, it is still far from clear what it entails in the ancient context, and thus, among other things, our understanding of Socrates’ project of changing his interlocutors’ values is impoverished. Using material from ancient tragedians, rhetoricians, and philosophers, I argue that Plato inherits the notion of epimeleisthai as a complex unity of three parts: valuing something, and, because of that, taking care of it and devoting attention to it. As we see in the texts, this implies a certain logic, such that we can conclude a person does not value something if she fails to take care of or pay attention to it. But Plato, I argue, revises the notion of epimeleisthai so that, to count as valuing an object, a person must know certain things, too. I show that this criterion is fundamental to Socratic refutation, which reveals an interlocutor not to know what his social role requires him to know, thus allowing Socrates and any bystanders to infer that his values are askew. I conclude by exploring the implications of this understanding of epimeleisthai for Plato’s conception of craft or expertise (technē).
In “Socratic Refutation and Moral Motivation,” I provide a novel account of how Socrates’ method of refutation (or elenchus) contributes to his project of changing his interlocutors’ core values. It is common to think that, by refuting an interlocutor, Socrates intends to motivate him to further philosophical inquiry. On the standard view, however, held by scholars such as Hugh Benson, Dominic Scott, and Vasilis Politis, what is meant to provide this motivation is the interlocutor’s experience of aporia or realization of his own ignorance. I argue that this standard view is false, and I show that instead Socrates intends for refutation to motivate via the experience of shame. In doing so, I introduce an original conception of refutation, as based on Socrates’ description of his “customary way” of conducting it in the Apology. What has gone unnoticed is that this description gives a template for refutation that Socrates follows in a number of core dialogues. Moreover, it makes clear that what Socrates principally examines is whether his interlocutor fulfills his role-based epistemic duty, that is, whether he knows what he ought to know, given his social role. This point, I argue, allows us to provide better explanations of why Socrates considers being refuted shameful, why many interlocutors would indeed feel ashamed at being refuted, and why this experience of shame would often succeed at motivating further philosophical inquiry.
Importantly, and while often unrecognized, refutation is not Socrates’ only method in service to his project of value transformation. In “The Other Socratic Method,” I argue that Socrates possesses a second method, one described in the Apology, distinct in kind from refutation, unified by formal features, and, most notably, far more effective at converting people to the life of philosophy than refutation is ever shown to be. This is Socrates’ method of exhortation. I argue that Socratic exhortation is a type of protreptic discourse that works by convincing an interlocutor that, to acquire the object that he believes is constitutive of happiness (e.g., fame or power), he must gain wisdom, and thus must do philosophy. Socratic exhortation thus incentivizes pursuing wisdom; however, it incentivizes pursuing wisdom only as a means to improving one’s chances of succeeding at some preexisting, non-philosophical goal. What justifies this as a conversion tactic, I argue, is that doing philosophy, even as a means, can be transformative: it can lead to one’s coming to value wisdom more than anything else.
In “On Socrates’ Project of Philosophical Conversion,” I reverse a longstanding scholarly doctrine, namely that Plato thinks philosophical argument to be an ineffective tool of changing a person’s core values, and thus rejects Socrates’ project of using philosophical argument to reform his interlocutors’ ways of life. Three main arguments are typically made for these conclusions: an argument from Socrates’ track record in the dialogues, an argument from Republic 7, and an argument from the influence of erōs. I show that none of these arguments succeed, and I propose a novel account of how Plato thinks philosophical argument can be effective at changing a person’s core values. This account is based on my work on Socratic method. As I argue, Plato intends for us to understand Socrates’ project of philosophical conversion as operating in two stages. In the first, Socrates motivates his interlocutor to pursue wisdom just for its instrumental value. In the second, this instrumental pursuit causes the interlocutor to value wisdom more than anything else, either because of the force of repeated arguments or because of the ability of intellectual pleasure to reshape one’s fundamental evaluative beliefs. I conclude by discussing Socrates’ overall strategy in light of a problem raised by Harry Frankfurt that arises with any attempt to answer on the basis of reasons the question of what one should value fundamentally.
One consequence of my work on Socratic method is that Socrates’ strategy for changing his interlocutors’ core values is surprisingly indirect. In most cases, instead of arguing that his interlocutor should adopt a radically new way of life, he focuses only on motivating the interlocutor to begin some activity that eventually can be transformative. Why not try for more? I take up this question in two papers. The starting point for both papers is Socrates’ remark in the Gorgias that the reason why his arguments fail to persuade Callicles is the influence of his ruling desire, or erōs. In “Plato on Ruling Desires,” I investigate what erōs is for Plato. This paper breaks new ground in three ways. First, it shows that Plato inherits the concept of erōs as an intense, episodic desire but then uses it instead to identify intense, ongoing desire of the sort that, in large part, determines a person’s way of life. Second, it argues that erōs is not Plato’s only word for picking out this sort of desire; in fact, he often refers to it by philo-x compounds, e.g., philosophia or philotimia. It is thus misleading to talk about it only as “erōs,” so I use the term “ruling desire” to pick it out. Third, it argues that what this sort of desire is specifically is the desire for an object qua constitutive of happiness, and so not, as scholars tend to think of erōs, the desire for happiness as such or the desire for objects qua beautiful.
In “Ruling Desires and Bodyguard Beliefs,” I explore how Plato thinks ruling desires influence our processes of reasoning and belief formation. In doing so, I introduce a Platonic theory of motivated reasoning, a topic of increasing interest to contemporary philosophers and psychologists but mostly neglected in scholarship on ancient philosophy. The centerpiece of this theory is Plato’s metaphor in Republic 8 and 9 of “bodyguard beliefs” that protect the ruling desire of a person’s soul from rational opposition, e.g., an argument that the person’s conception of happiness is false. I clarify this metaphor and use it to explain the intransigence of Polus, Callicles, and Thrasymachus in the face of Socrates’ arguments. What I show is that, due to the influence of ruling desires, any argument that a person ought to adopt a radically different way of life is bound to fail. This, I argue, explains why in most cases Socrates avoids contesting his interlocutors’ core values and instead employs a strategy of exploiting their preexisting concerns to motivate an activity, doing philosophy, that eventually can be transformative. In this way, Socrates’ strategy of philosophical conversion is finely tuned to meet the demands of Plato’s moral psychology.
In addition to this line of research, I am in the beginning stages of a research project on the Platonic thesis that virtue is knowledge. Many scholars think that Plato holds this thesis because he thinks philosophical knowledge is necessary and sufficient for virtuous action. Remarkably, however, when Socrates faces a consequential decision about how to act (e.g., in the Crito), he does not fret about his lack of knowledge. He deliberates and trusts the argument. Moreover, certain passages in the Phaedo and Republic suggest that reliably acting virtuously in fact does not require knowledge; it requires only right habits of care and attention. These observations put pressure on the conventional explanation of why virtue is knowledge. I aim to provide an alternative explanation, one that takes the emphasis off acting rightly and places it instead on living rightly. I argue that the knowledge that is virtue is not, as scholars often suppose, some robust knowledge of evaluative concepts or the Forms but rather knowledge that one is ignorant about the most important things. This knowledge guarantees virtuous living insofar as it causes one to adopt the right habits of care, attention, and decision-making.
Outside of ancient philosophy, I am currently working on two papers. In “Beauty and Aesthetic Merit: Two Currencies of Aesthetic Judgment,” I offer a solution to the longstanding tension in aesthetics between the theses that no principles of aesthetic judgment exist (popularly phrased as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’) and that aesthetic judgments are genuine in the sense of being about objects in the external world. If that were true, then we would expect, contrary to the first thesis, there to be some principles that determine whether an aesthetic judgment is true or false. I argue that both theses are equally plausible, but that the tension arises only if we cash out aesthetic value in one currency. In fact, I argue, there is ample reason to think that aesthetic value comes in two forms, aesthetic merit and beauty, and that, if we allow for this, the tension is resolved.
I am also working on a paper on environmental ethics. One of the most promising alternatives to utilitarian-based and deontology-based thinking about animal welfare is found in Cora Diamond’s paper, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” where she argues that our tendency to view animals as fellow creatures is, in some significant sense, inconsistent with our tendency to use them as objects, e.g., to exploit their labor or raise them on factory farms. It is not obvious, however, why we should care about this inconsistency, in part because, and especially in a global economy, a similar inconsistency arises in our dealings with humans: we view them as fellow creatures, but we also participate in systems that exploit their labor and lead to their premature deaths. In “Loving Animals and Eating Meat,” I supplement Diamond’s view with an argument for why this inconsistency should bother us—not because it is a mere inconsistency, I argue, but rather because in many cases it is a sign of willful moral blindness, and thus shows us to be self-deceivers.