Saturday, May 30, 2020

What Makes Your Papers Worth Reading?

Given how many academic papers are out there, it would be useful to have more filtering and discovery mechanisms for helping us to find the ones we might be most interested in.  One thing that could help is if authors themselves offered a concise 'overview' of what they think makes their various papers worth reading (when they are).  Many of us already list our papers on our websites, but (i) standard academic abstracts rarely do a good job of explaining why a paper is worth reading, and (ii) who reads academic websites anyway?  So I'm going to take a stab at doing this in a blog post, and invite others to follow suit (whether on Facebook or wherever you like: feel free to additionally post your response in the comments here, especially if your research interests overlap with mine at all). What lessons from your work do you wish were more widely appreciated?

Ordered by how much I happen to like each paper today:

[Updated to add a new, 'zeroth' entry:]

(0) The Right Wrong-Makers (forthcoming in PPR) argues that the right- and wrong-making features of modern ethical theories needn't be as abstract as everyone tends to assume.  We can thus avoid Stocker's charge of "moral schizophrenia" (or disharmony between our motives and our normative reasons) -- in striking contrast to those who hew to the orthodox consequentialist assumption that criteria of rightness and decision procedures bear no relation to each other. (Down with orthodoxy!)

(1) Value Receptacles (Noûs, 2015) argues that (i) the "separateness of persons" is best understood in terms of fungibility, and (ii) by recognizing each person as being of distinct (yet comparable) intrinsic value, utilitarianism can appropriately avoid treating people fungibly, and hence avoid any "separateness of persons" objection that's worth worrying about.  This is important because the SOP objection is a standard reason for rejecting aggregative consequentialism.  This paper shows (I believe decisively) that such moves are a mistake: contra Voorhoeve and others, respect for the separateness of persons provides no reason whatsoever to incorporate any kind of "non-aggregative perspective" into our moral theories.

(See also my response to Lazar's objections.  I should probably turn that post into a proper follow-up paper someday.)

(2) Deontic Pluralism and the Right Amount of Good (forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism). As previously summarized here, this paper argues that the debate between maximizers, satisficers, and scalar consequentialists can be dissolved: each is instead correct about a different component of the overall moral terrain.  This is another paper that I feel is pretty decisive, and could reshape its corner of the literature if the other participants happen to notice it.

(3) Knowing What Matters (OUP chapter, 2017).  This paper makes the case for a "flat-footed" response to Street's famous debunking arguments against normative realism. Few others seem to like this, but I think it's the way that realists should go, and I show that it's entirely coherent and internally defensible.  What's more, I show that it follows from this that Street's view is self-defeating.  Finally, I offer a diagnosis of when actual (as opposed to merely possible) disagreement matters, which I think undermines Parfit's motivation for seeking convergence amongst actually-existing philosophers and philosophical traditions.  (See also my response to Parfit's response.)

(4) Willpower Satisficing (Noûs, 2019). This paper is more exploratory than decisive, showing how to improve satisficing consequentialism so as to (i) disallow the gratuitous prevention of goodness, and (ii) offer a principled account of where to "draw the line" for being satisfactory.

(5) Fittingness: the sole normative primitive (Phil Quarterly, 2012). This is by far my most cited paper, for all the wrong reasons.  People cite it in passing as a representative of the "fittingness first" view, but the main purpose of the paper is instead to show what normative theorists can learn from taking fittingness seriously: most strikingly, that global consequentialism is an empty view (and, perhaps less surprisingly, that rule consequentialism is a structural mess).  Originally titled 'Fitting Attitudes for Consequentialists', the heart of the paper is an argument for why consequentialists should really all just be Act Consequentialists.

(6) Why Care About Non-Natural Reasons? (APQ, 2019) explains why a common objection -- that non-natural properties aren't the right things to care about -- is not a good objection to non-naturalist normative realism. It's a simple paper.  (At some point I should turn my blog post on ambiguously normative testimony into a follow-up paper, as I think I offer a pretty decisive refutation there of Bedke's latest paper pushing the opposing line.)

(7) Rethinking the Asymmetry (CJP, 2017).  Very exploratory.  Defends the claim that there are (non-instrumental) moral reasons to bring good lives into existence, and that this isn't threatened by the datum that we typically aren't obligated to procreate.  Also explores how best to accommodate our intuitive partiality towards antecedently existing people.  A fun and interesting paper, I think, but unlikely to be "essential reading" for anyone.

(8) Virtue and Salience (co-authored with Helen, AJP, 2016) offers two main contributions: (i) it shows how we can preserve the intuition that letting a child drown is "worse", in a sense, than failing to save lives via charity, compatibly with the core Singerian claim that we've equal moral reason to prevent either harm; (ii) it argues that so-called "virtues of ignorance" (from Driver, Keller, Stroud, etc.) are better understood as virtues of (non-)salience, reducing the putative conflict between moral and epistemic norms.

(9) Fittingness Objections to Consequentialism (OUP chapter, 2019). This paper was reframed to better fit with the volume's theme, but at heart it's about the relation between decision procedures and criteria of rightness. It offers: (i) an account of why consequentialist orthodoxy, including Railton's sophisticated consequentialism, is an inadequate response to character-based objections, and (ii) a more charitable account of what a "subjective" (or fitting) consequentialist agent would look like.  A key idea I defend is that our moral theory provides the morally fitting aims or motivations, whereas the fitting "guiding dispositions" (concerning the role of explicit calculation, etc.) are instead a reflection of instrumental rationality, not moral theory at all.

(10) Mind-Body Meets Metaethics: A Moral Concept Strategy (co-authored with Helen, Phil Studies, 2013). We argue that there are important parallels between the debates over physicalism and metaethical naturalism, that the former are better-developed (due to taking conceivability arguments more seriously), and suggest how the latter could learn from this.

(11) Against "Saving Lives": Equal Concern and Differential Impact (Bioethics, 2016) Addresses the objection that QALYs are objectionably "discriminatory".  Very simple, but people (esp. bioethicists) do tend to make simple mistakes when they don't like the practical implications of an impartial moral principle.

(12) Pandemic Ethics: The Case for Risky Research (co-authored with Peter Singer, forthcoming in Research Ethics). Uses parity principles to argue for the permissibility of conducting risky but promising pandemic research (e.g. human challenge trials, variolation) using human volunteers.  Again, very simple and straightforward.

(13) Incentivizing Patient Choices: The Ethics of Inclusive Shared Savings (Bioethics, 2016). Boring policy paper, only worth reading if you're really into healthcare policy.

* * *

Well, that's all I've got for now.  Over to you: Which of your papers do you regard as most "worth reading", and why?

UPDATE: See here for a list of others' entries in the series!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This is such a great idea. Looking forward to reading more lists in the comments (and your deontic pluralism piece, which I hadn't heard about). I don't have a list, but of my papers, "From Rights to Prerogatives" is probably the most worth reading.

    (Reposted bc of typos.)

  3. This is a wonderful idea! Your post evoked two questions: (i) What is the origin of abstracts (at least in philosophy)? (ii) Why haven't abstracts been written like this in order to be more helpful for potential readers?

    On (i), if we look back at early issues of philosophy journals, none of them include an abstract. There has to be an origin of abstracts and reasons given by editors for their inclusion.


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