Dr. Scott Kimbrough


"A Critique of Greene's Case for Meta-morality" (manuscript)

Drawing on his research in the neuropsychology of moral judgment, Joshua Greene proposes that we learn to suspend in-group moral thinking when faced with inter-group conflicts, deploying instead a broadly utilitarian “metamorality” that draws on different psychological resources. He uses this model to critique Jonathan Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model of moral judgment. Greene takes Haidt to task for what he regards as an overly pessimistic view of the prospects for correcting intuitive moral judgments by consciously directed moral reasoning. I will use the contrast with Haidt to argue that Greene ultimately fails to defend the distinctness of the metamoral level of analysis. His case for metamorality is ultimately a plea for a broadly liberal first-order morality.

"Humanizing Naturalism," 2013 Presidential Address to the Florida Philosophical Association, forthcoming in Florida Philosophical Review

Against the backdrop of declining support for the humanities in American culture, this presidential address to the Florida Philosophical Association urges the philosophical community to examine itself. Scientific naturalists in particular are invited to apply their theories about the tribal nature of human social groups to their own community. The ultimate goal is to encourage contemporary naturalistic philosophers to reclaim the humanistic appeal of historical naturalists such as William James and David Hume. While the goal of the essay is serious, its tone as a dinnertime address is irreverent, including among other indiscretions an analogy between prominent philosophical naturalists and leaders of the Tea Party.

On Disgust Skepticism (manuscript) Full text pdf

Recent research demonstrates that disgust influences moral judgment. This discovery raises moral questions: should we rely on feelings of disgust as a guide to morality, or should we discount feelings of disgust as a source of bias and irrationality? Philosopher Daniel Kelly calls these two options “disgust advocacy” and “disgust skepticism.” He argues for disgust skepticism, but rejects the theory of disgust endorsed by prominent disgust skeptic Martha Nussbaum. I compare Kelly’s and Nussbaum’s cases for disgust skepticism. Although disgust skepticism does follow from Nussbaum’s theory of the nature of disgust, I agree with Kelly that her theory is implausible. However, Kelly’s own theory of the nature of disgust does not justify skepticism about the norms disgust is psychologically recruited to enforce. Rather than taking the failure of disgust skepticism as evidence in favor of disgust advocacy, I conclude that disgust advocacy and disgust skepticism represent a false choice.

"Rejecting the Excuse of Incapacity" (manuscript) Full text pdf

Accused wrong-doers often seek to get off the hook by pleading that they couldn’t help it – that they are literally incapable of meeting expectations. Although this excuse often succeeds, I argue that evaluation of the excuse doesn’t focus exclusively on the actual capacities of the accused, or the availability of alternate possibilities. Available empirical evidence from “experimental philosophy” studies and legal precedents shows that ordinary people frequently reject the excuse even when the truth of the accused’s incapacity claim is granted. I explain this result by appeal to the role of emotion in normal moral psychology, featuring Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionist model of moral judgment according to which moral reasoning provides post hoc rationalizations of emotion-induced judgments. Finally, despite the role of emotion in moral judgment, I defend the fairness of ordinary standards for evaluating the excuse of incapacity, and explain how we can continue to accept our moral reasoning about the excuse of incapacity even as we admit Haidt’s theory that moral reasoning consists in post hoc rationalization.

"Explaining Compatibilist Intuitions about Moral Responsibility: A Critique of Nichols and Knobe", Florida Philosophical Review, vol.IX, issue 2, Winter 2009, pp.38-55. Full text pdf

Experimental philosophy studies show that ordinary people have conflicting moral intuitions: when asked about events in a deterministic universe, respondents exhibit compatibilist intuitions about vignettes describing concrete actions, but they have incompatibilist intuitions in response to more abstract queries. Nichols and Knobe maintain that concrete compatibilist intuitions should be explained as emotion-induced performance errors in the psychological process of moral judgment. Their theory is criticized in two main ways. First, they fail to establish that the role of emotion in generating compatibilist intuitions justifies the charge of performance error. Second, doubts are raised about the reliability of the psychological processes that generate incompatibilist intuitions.

"Philosophy of Emotion and Ordinary Language", Florida Philosophical Review, vol.VII, issue 1, pp.92-107 (Summer 2007).

Cognitivism in the philosophy of emotion is the view that judgments are essential to any adequate understanding of the emotions. Non-cognitivists attempt to explain emotions independently of judgment. Against non-cognitivism, I deploy Peter Strawson’s distinction between the “participant” and “objective” attitudes to show that the stark distinction non-cognitivists draw between emotions and triggering judgments cannot be maintained. I also counter efforts by non-cognitivists to dismiss cognitivism as mere “folk psychology” or methodologically suspect “conceptual analysis.”

"On Letting It Slide", in Bullshit and Philosophy, Open Court Press, pp.3-18 (2006).

In his groundbreaking essay "On Bullshit," Harry Frankfurt asks why it is that we are more tolerant of bullshit than lying. He poses the question because he is concerned that bullshit erodes respect for truth more than lying does. Using examples ranging from the practice of apology to advertising, I explain that a lot of bullshit is not just tolerable, but an indispensible resource. At the same time, I show why it is that even bullshitters need a lively concern for truth, and point out the particular danger of believing your own bullshit. I also criticize Frankfurt's view that bullshit cannot be produced unintentionally, exploring the connection between unintentional bullshit and self-deception.

"Descartes on Physical Causes of Impaired Judgment", Journal of Philosophical Research, Volume 30 (2005): pp.117-140.

Descartes is typically interpreted as asserting two related theses: 1) that the will is absolutely free in the sense that no bodily state can compel it or restrain its activity; and 2) that error is always avoidable, no matter what the condition of the body. On the basis of Descartes' discussions of insanity and dreaming, I argue that both of these interpretive claims are false. In other words, Descartes acknowledged that a diseased or otherwise out of sorts body can compel the will to affirm obscure and confused perceptions. After marshalling textual evidence for this conclusion, I go on to show how Descartes' acknowledgment of physically induced impaired judgment can be squared with his unqualified assertions of free will, his commitment to the non-deceptiveness of God, and his epistemology.

On the Refusal to Defer (manuscript), presented to the Florida Philosophical Association 11/03

Externalism in the philosophy of mind is frequently criticized for an alleged incompatibility with self-knowledge, the non-inferential, non-empirical knowledge we have of our own beliefs and other intentional states. These critiques typically share the assumption that, if externalism is true, self-knowledge requires knowledge of the environmental features that warrant the attribution of externalistically individuated concepts. I argue that this assumption is already ruled out by the commitments of the thought experiments used to justify externalism. The argument proceeds by examining the role of deference and stipulation in the thought experiments. I show that deference is inessential to the thought experiments, not an element in an explanation of why the protagonists of the thought experiments possess the concepts they are attributed. The argument reveals that externalist thought experiments resist any reductive explanation of concept attribution, and accordingly the assumptions that raise worries about self-knowledge.

"Dreamers and Madmen: Descartes' Reliabilist Response," Southwest Philosophy Review, vol.17, no.1 (2000): pp.61-68.

Descartes overstates his solution to skepticism at the end of the Meditations. Investigation of his theory of mind-body interaction shows that he acknowledges his inability to completely eliminate skeptical doubts arising from the possibilities of dreaming and insanity. Descartes' actual response to the skeptic is a broadly reliabilist one: the possibilities of dreaming and insanity can be legitimately discounted because God's benevolence insures the general reliability of our cognitive capacities. To defend this reading, I show how bodily causes can induce a "spastic will" that renders the mind unable to restrict its judgment to error-proof clear and distinct perceptions. I also explain how my interpretation of Descartes as a reliabilist does not cause him any philosophical problems that he does not already face for independent reasons.

"Logical Proficiency and Rationality," Southwest Philosophical Studies, vol. 21 (Spring 1999), pp.55-62. Full text pdf

Boghossian has claimed that our conception of rationality as a priori conformity to laws of logic cannot be maintained without epistemic transparency, the thesis that sameness and difference of content is detectable upon reflection. In opposition, I exploit the familiar fact that mastery of formal logical systems is not compromised by mistakes in "translating" natural language sentences into logical notation. One can reason correctly given an incorrect "translation", even though the inferences one draws do not follow from any correct translation of the original sentence. Adapting this point to informal contexts, I assimilate rational logical errors attending failures of transparency to mistakes in "translation," arguing that they compromise neither the rationality nor the logical proficiency of the mistaken party. In this way, I am able to meet Boghossian's challenge to distinguish rational from irrational misapplications of logic.

"Anti-individualism and Fregeanism," The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 48 (October 1998), pp.470-482.

Burge embeds his anti-individualistic account of belief content in a Fregean framework. Anti- individualism is the view that the contents of an individual's beliefs may in principle vary with variations in the social and physical environments even as that individual's physical constitution and history are held constant. For the purposes of this paper, Fregeanism is defined as the view that judgments of the form ‘S believes that p but doubts that q' constitute a test for difference of belief content. I argue that the presuppositions of Burge's own anti-individualistic thought experiments preclude acceptance of Fregeanism. Until and unless some other basis is found for anti-individualism, I conclude that anti-individualists should reject Fregeanism and associated views regarding the semantics of belief attributions, the metaphysics of belief, and the notion of understanding.

"Kripke's Puzzle and the Practice of Logical Appraisal," Southwest Philosophical Studies, Volume 20 (Spring 1998), pp.66-74.

Kripke claims that his puzzle reveals an incoherence in our ordinary practices. In opposition, I offer a description of the practice of logical appraisal that vindicates the coherence of our practices by distinguishing between having contradictory beliefs and contradicting oneself. This distinction arises because our practice of logical appraisal focuses upon what the individual accused of inconsistency reasonably takes the logical relations among her beliefs to be, rather than upon what those logical relations in fact are. This distinction collapses, however, under the weight of Kripke's assumption that belief attributions to an individual (at a time, etc.) have the same truth value whenever they attribute beliefs with the same content. Kripke's puzzle is thus a conflict between our ordinary practices and this theoretical assumption. I suggest solving the puzzle at the expense of the theoretical assumption.

"Belief Content and Compositionality," Southwest Philosophy Review, vol.13, no.1, 1997.

This paper questions an important semantic assumption held in common between two of the major camps in semantic theory, Fregeanism and Russellianism. I call this assumption "semanticism" -- the view that belief attributions to a given individual (at a time, etc.) always have the same truth value so long as they differ only by that-clauses which express the same content. I argue that semanticism cannot be justified by reference to the compositionality constraint in semantic theory. To prove the point, I divide accounts of content into two groups: those that do, and those that do not, provide a grip on sameness of content that is independent of checking expressions for inter-substitutability salva veritate in that-clauses. I then argue that no representative of either group can look to the compositionality constraint to justify semanticism. The upshot of the paper is that there is no semantic justification for the conviction, shared by both Fregeans and Russellians, that some notion of content must answer to the semanticist schema. This conclusion provides a long-overdue opportunity to question the close ties usually assumed to obtain between the notion of content and the semantics of belief attributions, and to reconsider both what we want out of the notion of content and what may be expected from it.

Dissertation: Anti-Individualism, Dubitability and Responsibility (1996).

Anti-individualism is the thesis that features of the social and physical environments contribute to determining the contents of our beliefs. In interpreting the thought experiments which Tyler Burge has offered to support anti-individualism, I show that the notion of content implicit therein is tied to explications of how our terms and the concepts they express are correctly applied. Since anti-individualists like Burge should regard these explications as a subject of ongoing dispute, they should claim that sameness and difference of content is not always detectable upon reflection. Many philosophers accordingly worry that anti-individualists cannot accommodate the use of belief attributions to characterize individual points of view. As exemplars of these worries, I consider standard Fregean substitution arguments, Kripke's puzzle about belief, and Loar's influential discussion of commonsense psychological explanation in "Social Content and Psychological Content". After ruling out Burge's own attempt to address these worries within a broadly Fregean framework, I argue that the key to all of these objections is an assumption shared by Burge and his critics: the assumption that belief attributions have the same truth value so long as they attribute beliefs with the same content. When the semantical and metaphysical motivations for this assumption are discredited, anti-individualism's alleged problems with characterizing individual points of view may be solved without following Loar and others in introducing an additional notion of "cognitive" or "psychological" content which tracks differential dubitability judgments. The resulting account of belief requires a new account of understanding that emphasizes participation in and responsibility to ongoing attempts to formulate explications, rather than knowledge of explications.

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