Tuesday, June 02, 2009

What should I be reading?

It's time for me to start preparing for my pre-dissertation "generals exam". Probably the trickiest thing here is pinning down an appropriate topic and reading list for the exam to be based on. So I figure I may as well try appealing to the collective wisdom of the Internets (that's you) for advice. My (tentative) topic is 'evaluating non-ideal agents', insofar as this suggests questions like the following:
  • In light of our fallibility, should we have less credence than would be ideally warranted [arguably: 1] in logical and purely normative truths?

  • Is there a difference between rationality and reasonableness? (Might we fruitfully analyze the former as an 'ideal' notion and the latter as a kind of normativity more tailored to 'non-ideal' agents?)

  • Can purely normative ignorance affect what's rational? Praise/blameworthy?

  • If it is rational to commit to a policy, is it thereby rational to act on the policy in each instance? Is it praiseworthy?

  • What is the relation between (ir)rationality, virtue (vice), and (blame/)praiseworthiness?

  • Are the above (e.g. rationality or virtue) types of evaluation in conflict with ordinary consequentialist evaluations of character?

  • Is consequentialism self-effacing? Is the pluralistic motivational structure of "indirect" or "sophisticated consequentialism" coherent/possible, or does it collapse into crude subjective consequentialism (with its single ultimate aim)?

  • Does virtue consist in concern for the ultimate right-making feature [viz., maximizing utility], or just the surface [prima facie] right-making features possessed by typically utility-promoting acts [e.g. promise-keeping, respecting rights and autonomy, helping others in need, etc.]?

Follow the original link for further explanation, and for my first pass at a list of relevant readings. (Some I haven't read yet, so may be removed if they turn out not to be so relevant after all.) Please leave a comment here or email me if you have any further suggestions for readings I should add to my list!

(I'm also open to suggestions for tweaking my topic questions, though I'm less likely to change them in the absence of compelling reasons.)


  1. You definitely should read Hurka; I'm not sure offhand whether _Perfectionism_ or _Virtue, Value, and Vice_ would be better for your purposes. I tend to say the latter, but that may just be familiarity: I've read the latter all the way through, and had a seminar with Hurka on it, but I've only read bits and pieces of the former. So I don't have equal acquaintance with them.

  2. I believe some stuff Nomy says in her second book would also be quite relevant to the questions about blame. Also, Scanlon pretty clearly makes a distinction between rationality and reasonableness in What We Owe to Each Other. I haven't read it yet, but I think Scanlon's new book would be relevant to the blame questions as well. I'm not sure exactly why you are interested in the Kolodny/MacFarlane, but Steve Finlay and Gunnar Bjornsson have a paper responding to the K&M papers. I think they are distributing it now if asked. Finally, I've recently been reading Michael Zimmerman's new book Living with Uncertainty. It's about how ignorance effects obligation. As far as I can tell, it would also be very relevant to your project (Krister Bykvist has a response to some of Zimmerman's arguments that he's been giving lately; a draft of that paper can be found here: http://ethics-etc.com/2009/05/08/bykvist-on-objective-versus-subjective-moral-oughts/).

    I hope we can talk about these issues in the next few years. I've been thinking about these kind of things for a while now, and am even thinking of writing my dissertation on ignorance and obligation.


  3. Thanks, that's all helpful.

    (And Errol - yes, it'll be great to have you in town!)

  4. I've got some more for you. Mark Schroeder's 'Means-End Coherence, Stringency, and Subjective Reasons,' 'Having Reasons,' and 'What Does it Take to 'Have' a Reason' (those papers are especially relevant if you're interested in Parfit's account of rationality). Also, Jake Ross's dissertation is very relevant to most of your questions (you can find it on his website). Andrew Sepielli's 'What To Do When You Don't Know What To Do' is also relevant (I assume his whole dissertation is relevant).

  5. Hey Richard,

    -I have a normative uncertainty bibliography that I've sent around to various people; I can pass it along to you if you'd like. It's almost all old-time Catholic moral theology and stuff written in the 2000s.

    -As Errol mentioned, my dissertation is all about normative uncertainty. You'd probably be most intereted in Chapter 1 -- the enormous setup/taxonomical chapter. This is the chapter where I touch on the stuff that I think you and I disagree about. I also have a paper about subjective norms and action guidance that I'd be willing to send you, if only to get some more comments on it. ;-)

    -Re: bullet point 4 -- I found working through Ned McClennen's Rationality and Dynamic choice to be very useful.

  6. Oh yeah, and what about that Fred Feldman, Holly Smith, Frank Jackson stuff on whether your reasons at t depend on the degree to which you act in accodance with your reasons at t+n? Might that be relevant to your project? (I forget the names of the papers now, unfortunately.)

  7. Thanks Andrew - and yes, please send your stuff my way (your bibliography and background stuff could be helpful; and the paper on action guidance sounds especially interesting, since I know we disagree there)!

    I take it your second comment is referencing the possibilism/actualism debate? Fun stuff; though I'll probably have to narrow my topic down shortly.

  8. Andrew,

    I would also love to have a look at your stuff, if you're willing to share (erroldotlordatgmaildotcom). Thanks!


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