I do research at the intersection of ethics, linguistics, and social philosophy. While my past work focused on abstract meta-normative questions about value judgments and motivation, my more recent projects take on a more applied approach. I draw on literature in psychology and sociology to answer questions like: what functional role does inner speech play in deliberation and action? How has the internet made new ways of using language possible and given rise to new linguistic communities? What is it for one person to derogate another, and what are the ethical implications of different derogatory acts and effects? In several papers recently published and in progress I relate these issues to ongoing puzzles in bioethics, philosophy of technology, and the philosophy of race and gender.
A lot of my work is done in collaboration with my colleague Ralph DiFranco at the University of South Dakota. We are both affiliated members of the Expression, Communication, and the Origins of Meaning Research Group at the University of Connecticut.
Current Work in Progress
A paper on the contributions of racialized rhetoric to discrimination in healthcare.
A paper on disability and the ethics of prenatal testing and selective abortion.
A paper on the notion of institutional and group expression, with moral and political implications.
(Forthcoming) with Ralph DiFranco No harm, still foul: On the Effect-Independent Wrongness of Slurring. in Journal of the American Philosophical Association.
Intuitively, a speaker who uses slurs to refer to people is doing something morally objectionable, even if no one is measurably affected by their speech. Perhaps they are only talking to themselves, or they are speaking with bigots who are already as vicious as they can be. This paper distinguishes slurring as an expressive act from slurring as the act of causing a psychological effect. It then develops an expression-focused ethical account in order to explain the intuition that slurring involves an effect-independent moral wrong. The core idea is that the act of expressing a morally defective attitude is itself pro tanto morally objectionable. Unlike theories that focus only on problematic effects, this view is able to shift the moral burden of proof away from victims of slurring acts and onto speakers. It also offers moral guidance with respect to metalinguistic and pedagogical utterances of slurs.
(Forthcoming) When Doublespeak Goes Viral: A Speech Act Analysis of Internet Trolling. in Erkenntnis.
In this paper I survey a range of trolling behaviors and analyze a particular species that stands out. After a brief discussion of some of the inherent challenges in studying internet speech, I describe a few examples of behaviors commonly described as ‘trolling’ in order to identify what they have in common. I argue that most of these behaviors already have well-researched offline counterparts. In contrast, in the second half of the paper I argue that so-called ‘subcultural trolling’ calls out for further analysis: it cannot be fully explained using standard tools like insincerity or bullshit, or even using new tools like dogwhistling. Instead, I propose a new species of speech act force. I conclude by highlighting some implications for broader issues in pragmatics and ethics.
(2021) with Ralph DiFranco You shouldn’t have laughed! The ethics of derogatory amusement. in The Moral Psychology of Amusement edited by Brian Robinson, London: Rowman & Littlefield.
What makes humor derogatory? Traditionally, discussions of derogation have been confined to the exploration of its psychological effects. Intuitively however, humor can be derogatory without causing any of these effects. Racist jokes told only in the company of racists are still derogatory, even if the target group cannot possibly be lowered any further in their estimation. This paper begins by proposing a form of derogation that is independent of effects, and instead is constituted by a speaker’s expression of derogatory attitudes. Expressive derogation elucidates what makes humor derogatory across a wide variety of contexts regardless of the particular psychological effects caused. The paper then uses the concept of expressive derogation to offer an explanation of why many forms of amusement (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.) are morally problematic independently of their consequences. The paper ends by acknowledging that not all derogatory attitudes are morally objectionable, and therefore not all instances of derogatory expression are blameworthy. Satirizing, ridiculing, and disparaging through jokes and caricatures may be morally valuable activities when the joker is a member of an oppressed group and the target is a majority group that occupies an unjust social position of power. Derogatory humor can prompt the privileged to reflect on their moral failings and foster solidarity among marginalized people.
(2019) Plato’s Revenge: Moral Deliberation as Dialogical Activity. in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
In this paper I offer a fresh approach to moral judgment inspired by Plato’s proposal in the Theaetetus that judgement is ‘speech spoken, not aloud to someone else, but silently to oneself.’ I begin with an overview of theories of public moral speech that assume a strong connection between speech and thought. Because this assumption faces opposition from traditional speech act theories, I argue that recognizing the role of illocutionary conventions enables us to more adequately account for our silent uses of language. I close the paper by sketching the dialogic picture of moral thought that results. Ultimately, the core insights of this paper can be used by anyone with a theory of public moral speech who wishes to translate it into a theory of moral thought, and therefore serves as a defense of that approach. It also serves as step forward for the more general program of using social speech to better understand thought.
(2017) Hybrid Speech Acts: A Theory of Normative Thought and Language That ‘Has It Both Ways’. in European Journal of Philosophy.
In this essay, I propose a novel hybrid metanormative theory. According to this theory, speakers making normative claims express both cognitive and motivational attitudes in virtue of the constitutive norms of the particular speech acts they perform. This view has four principal virtues: (1) it is consistent with traditional semantic theories, (2) it supports a form of motivational judgment internalism that does justice to externalist intuitions, (3) it illuminates the connection between normative language and normative thought, and (4) it explains how speakers can express different conative states when speaking in different normative domains. In the first section, I discuss the theories of Stephen Finlay and David Copp. I show that they each come very close to having it both ways but ultimately fail. Understanding the shortcomings of these views is instrumental to a clear presentation of my own Hybrid Speech Act theory in section two. In the final section, I demonstrate how my view achieves its four advantages.
(2017) Solving the Puzzle of Aesthetic Assertion. in Southwest Philosophy Review.
Most of us think that we can obtain knowledge about the aesthetic properties of objects via testimony – at least sometimes. We can learn that a painting is beautiful by reading a book, or learn that a film is awful by talking to a friend (as long as our sources are reliable). At the same time, if we go on to share this knowledge we have to carefully qualify it as second-hand in order to avoid misleading our audience. Simply stating that a painting is beautiful or that a film is awful is liable to give off the impression that we have experienced it ourselves. In this paper I draw on my other work in the pragmatics of normative language to explain why aesthetic discourse has these distinctive features. Because our aesthetic practices have developed as a way for us to share both our beliefs and our affective states, traditional theories of assertion and testimony fail to capture the full richness of what we are up to in our aesthetic conversations.