My research focuses on cooperation as a point of intersection between value theory and philosophy of language.
My first research program in value theory develops an empirically informed approach to virtue theory. This research takes a bottom-up approach by examining particular virtues individually in order to develop a general understanding of virtues and human flourishing. Understanding particular virtues requires examining both cultural variances in their application and relevant situational complexities, such as existing power structures limiting or necessitating certain virtues. Through this examination, I argue that we gain a fuller conception of how these virtues contribute to human flourishing.
For example, several of my publications focus on the virtue of intellectual humility. My research in this area has been interdisciplinary and collaborative and has produced publications in philosophical and scientific journals. My Logos & Episteme article argues for an account of how to develop intellectual humility based on lessons drawn from Confucian and Daoist philosophers on the paradoxical virtue of wu-wei (trying not to try). My co-authored publication in PLOS ONE uses a philosophical analysis of intellectual humility to develop and validate an empirical measure of the trait.
One way in which intellectual humility contributes to human flourishing is through its connection with other virtues. My co-authors and I argue that humility is necessary for curiosity. To advance this claim, a co-authored chapter in Moral Psychology of Curiosity develops an account of inquisitive curiosity based on comments by Nietzsche and then constructs an empirical measure of this virtue. Humility is also necessary for cooperation. My current research plan is to implement the method of investigation I’ve already developed for examining intellectual humility in order to develop an account for cooperation as a virtue. My co-authored article in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice is a first step in the larger project of arguing for the virtue of cooperation. This article argues that gossip is a burdened virtue, i.e., a virtue for the oppressed because of their oppression. Gossip can be a justified, cooperative response by those with less social power to certain especially harmful non-cooperative behavior (such as sexual assault) by those with significantly more social power. My future research plans include an edited volume (currently under review) on the moral psychology of amusement, which would then serve as a basis for further exploration of a cooperative account of humor as a virtue.
This bottom-up approach to virtue theory—that is, starting not with an overarching concept of human flourishing, but rather with empirically informed accounts of particular virtues rather than—has several advantages. First, it allows us to recognize and conceptualize virtues (such as cooperation or humor) often overlooked in formal accounts or list of virtues. Second, by establishing cooperation as a virtue, a normative conception of cooperation can be applied to other fields, such as philosophy of language. Third, this approach develops an incrementalist approach to motivating virtue inculcation. Instead of working out a full account of human flourishing as a means to motivate being virtuous in general, my research aims to motivate a single virtue at a time by emphasizing how each virtue contributes to human flourishing.
My other research program in philosophy of language has both theoretical and applied dimensions. This research follows a general pattern in philosophy of language and pragmatics that regarded cooperation as the basis of our capacity to convey meaning, and in particular to mean something more or in opposition to what we literally say (i.e., what we implicate). My research takes the further step of arguing that cooperation as the basis for communication should be understood normatively, rather than merely descriptively. We don’t merely happen to cooperate when we communicate; we should cooperate.
On the theoretical side, I argue that how we interpret what a speaker meant is partially filtered through the lens of our moral assessment of the speaker. One outcome of this conclusion is the realization of the role moral norms play in how we interpret what others implicate. Some of my early work on this project includes a co-authored article in Thought that gives an account of the speech act of bragging. My 2016 article in The Monist argued that gossip is a cooperative speech act that allows groups of speakers to cooperatively enforce and promulgate social or moral norms. I currently have two articles in draft form. The first defines lying as intentionally uttering an uncooperative known falsehood. This definition has the advantage of clearly explaining why stating approximations (such as saying the time is 4:00, when it is actually 3:58) only counts as lying if the context requires greater precision. The second article argues for a new, cooperation-based account of ambiguity, based on the claim that ambiguity does not necessarily undermine communicative effectiveness. Noam Chomksy, I argue, misses this point, which in turn leads him to incorrect conclusions on the purpose and evolutionary origin of language. The paper then develops the notion of semantic luck, which occurs when an utterance is ambiguous but fortuitously interpreted correctly by the audience anyway.
On the practical side of this project, my research examines the effectiveness of dialogue at fostering collaboration, particularly among interdisciplinary scientists. This work is undertaken in collaboration with the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative (TDI), a project funded by the US National Science Foundation and recipient of the American Philosophical Foundation’s 2018 Prize for Excellence and Innovation. This research has produced articles in Philosophy of Science (forthcoming) and Clinical and Translational Science. Forthcoming chapters explain how communication promotes interdisciplinary integration and collaboration and empirical evidence that the TDI dialogue method enhances mutual understanding among interdisciplinary researchers.
Uniting these two research projects will be the work of book in progress on virtue semantics. The monograph will argue that philosophy of language is a normative discipline. The primary focus of study should then be communicative agents and communities and the traits they possess that enable them to communicate. Meaning then is that which speakers communicate based on semantic virtues of the speaker and the audience. This theory allows for an account of semantic responsibility in terms of both speakers and the audience. Chief among the semantic virtues is the virtue of cooperation.