Research

My main research interest is free agency and moral responsibility. I am particularly interested in the role they play in non-consequentialist moral theory. My  dissertation project, which is in the tradition in the theory of responsibility started by P.F.'s Strawson's famous "Freedom and Resentment," has metaphysical, normative, and epistemic dimensions. Outside of this project, I have wide-ranging interests in ethics, with a focus on non-consequentialist moral theories. I am particularly interested in their relationship to action theory, their metaethical underpinnings, and their applications. In metaphysics, I work on abilities, and their relationship to dispositions, causation, and the laws of nature. In moral psychology, I am interested in the role our emotions play in interpersonal morality, the phenomenology of moral emotion, and how emotions can help or hinder our agency. I also have a growing interest in the philosophy of religion. In 2019, I was honored to be awarded the University of Arizona William H. Fink Prize for  the Overall Outstanding Graduate Student in Philosophy. Please see below for more information about my dissertation and  publications.

Dissertation:

After Compatibilism: Essays on Freedom and Responsibility

This dissertation is a series of standalone essays. Together, they form a critique of contemporary compatibilist approaches to the problem of free will and determinism, and they offer an alternative methodology for approaching questions about freedom and responsibility. Compatibilist approaches to the free will problem exist on a spectrum from the more normative to the more metaphysical. Views at the metaphysical end of the spectrum understand free will in terms of abilities. In Chapter 1, I argue that these views face a powerful dilemma: they either fail to explain these abilities or fail to show that these abilities are compatible with the thesis of physical determinism. Perhaps a commitment to abilities could be given up, but I argue that takes us too far afield from the intuitive way we understand ourselves as free agents. Compatibilist approaches at the normative end of the spectrum have been largely influenced by P.F. Strawson’s responsibility naturalism. Views of this sort begin by carefully attending to the descriptive facts of our responsibility practices. In Chapter 2, I defend a version of this view from a decisive objection: Strawsonian compatibilism seems to make evildoers exempt from moral responsibility. Nevertheless, in Chapter 3, I argue that Strawson's program cannot properly insulate itself from metaphysical concerns about abilities.  The methodology may actually support a powerful form of incompatibilism about free will and determinism. This casts the entire contemporary project that draws on his work in a suspect light. Drawing lessons from these two failures, in Chapter 4 I offer a practice-based argument for realism about freedom and responsibility—the view that we really are free and responsible— that is neutral with respect to questions about the compatibility of freedom and determinism. The argument does not depend on any particular metaphysical theory of abilities. I argue in Chapter 5 that, given this realist framework, we have reason to think that whatever ends up being true about the abilities that characterize free and responsible agents, they will be compatible with determinism after all.

"On Not Blaming and Victim Blaming" (with Joel Chow)

Forthcoming. Teorema, accepted as finalist for the 2018 Young Scholars Prize.

Abstract: In this paper we  show that being blameworthy for not blaming and being blameworthy for victim blaming are structurally similar. They involve claims around the two traditional contours of moral responsibility: a knowledge condition and a control condition. Sometimes, knowledge and control are interestingly interrelated. Being in a relationship with another person affords us varying degrees of knowledge about them. This knowledge in turn affords agents in  relationships varying degrees of influence over one another. Cases where an agent is especially blameworthy for failing to blame a friend, a close colleague, or a spouse highlight this. The interdependence of these two conditions in interpersonal relationships sheds (partial) light on why victim blaming is morally wrong. We argue that victim blamers suffer from what we term moral myopia by only focusing on what the abused could do, in virtue of their being in a relationship of some sort with their abuser, to avoid abuse. We argue that this sort of problem is caused in many instances by misogynistic and hierarchical gender schema and scripts.

 
 

2018. The  Journal of The American Philosophical Association, 4 (3): 371-389.

Abstract: In large, impersonal moral orders many of us wish to maintain good will towards our fellow citizens only if we are reasonably sure they will maintain good will towards us. The mutual maintaining of good will, then, requires we somehow communicate our intentions to one another. But how do we actually do this? This paper argues that when we engage in moral responsibility practices – that is, when we express our reactive attitudes by blaming, praising, and resenting – we communicate a desire to maintain good will to those in the community we are imbedded in. Participating in such practices alone won’t get the job done, though, for expressions of our reactive attitudes are often what economists call cheap talk. But, when we praise and blame in cases of moral diversity, expressions of our reactive attitudes act as costly signals capable of solving our social dilemma. 
 

2019. Philosophical Studies, 176 (10): 2705-2727.

Abstract: P.F. Strawson’s compatibilism has had considerable influence. However, as Gary Watson has argued in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil” (1987), his view appears to have a disturbing consequence: extreme evil exempts an agent from moral responsibility. This is a reductio of the view.  Moreover, in some cases our emotional reaction to an evildoer’s history clashes with our emotional expressions of blame.  Anyone’s actions can be explained by his or her history, however, and thereby can conflict with our present blame. Additionally, we too might have been evil if our history had been like the unlucky evildoer’s. Thus, our emotional response to the evildoer compromises our standing to blame them. Since Strawsonian views demarcate moral responsibility by moral emotional responses, his view appears to be self-defeating. In this paper, I defend the Strawsonian view from the reductio and self-defeat problems. I argue that  moral disgust is a reactive attitude, but expresses neither blame nor exemption from responsibility. Instead, moral disgust presupposes blameworthiness but is a distinct response to extreme wrongdoing. Secondly, moral disgust involves self-directed attitudes that explain away our apparent lack of standing to blame the evildoer. I highlight a similar puzzles along the positive dimension of responsibility, and solve them by appeal to an emotion that Jonathan Haidt has called “elevation”, a feeling of moral inspiration. I conclude by defending my view from objections about the moral appropriateness of disgust.

Forthcoming. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Symposium on Paul Russell's The Limits of Free Will.

Abstract: Paul Russell’s The Limits of Free Will is more than the sum of its parts. Among other things, Limits offers readers a comprehensive look at Russell’s attack on the problematically idealized assumptions of the contemporary free will debate. This idealization, he argues, distorts the reality of our human predicament. Herein I pose a dilemma for Russell’s position, critical compatibilism. The dilemma illuminates the tension between Russell’s critical and compatibilist commitments. The problem is not obviously insurmountable, and as a compatibilist who is sympathetic to the view, my aim is to spark further discussion.

©2019 by Robert H. Wallace.