My research focuses on central issues in normativity and rationality. One such issue revolves around the normative status of rational requirements. Rational failure is an important kind of failure. Prima facie, insofar as you are irrational, you are not how you ought to be. But while there is an intuition that rational failure is a kind of normative failure, there is an apparent insolubility in providing categorical and universal reasons to be rational. Indeed, some philosophers have argued on conceptual grounds that there cannot be such reasons. My dissertation aimed to show that much of this literature rests on a mistake. This mistake is thinking that in order to address the rational skeptic, one must provide external sanctions for rational compliance. But I argue that this is not necessary. Just as there are moral reasons to be moral, there are reasons of rationality—rational reasons—to be rational. I have since developed the main argument for this claim in a paper entitled “Rational reasons”.
One important issue left unaddressed in my dissertation was the status of akrasia. Under one conception of the term, one is akratic when one fails to intend to do what one believes one ought to do. But while many philosophers take akratic behaviour to be paradigmatically irrational, my vindication of the normativity of rationality appears to be incompatible with the idea that we have reason to intend to do what we believe we ought to do. A dilemma looms: either akratic behaviour is not irrational, or akratic behaviour is irrational, but we do not have any reason to avoid it. My current research, then, aims to find a way out of this looming dilemma. By investigating into the nature of akrasia, I aim to show that, while akratic behaviour is not irrational, it does nevertheless exhibit a substantive normative failure. As such, we do have reasons to avoid it.
On the picture of the normative status of akrasia that I am developing, the notion of a reason plays a fundamental explanatory role. The view that reasons occupy this fundamental explanatory role rests on a more general idea that I recently developed in a paper called “Sources, reasons, and requirements”, published in Philosophical Studies. This paper argues that what it is for a requirement to be normative is for it to be a statement about what there is conclusive reason to do. As such, much of my work lends itself to a broader and more programmatic project in the philosophy of normativity, which attempts to explain all normative phenomena in terms of normative reasons.
One of my on-going research projects seeks to determine whether this kind of fundamentalism about reasons can make good on its claim. One reason to hope that it can is grounded in considerations of explanatory power. It is commonly believed that greater insight into the nature of normativity can be expected if it turns out that everything normative trades in a common currency. This would be nothing short of significant. Contemporary ethical philosophy has shown just how difficult it is to explain the nature of normativity in general, and the nature of morality more specifically. Yet, if everything normative trades in normative reasons, then the study of everything normative, including the study of morality, would necessarily involve the study of normative reasons.