I. Current Work
My work examines the rational principles governing how we form intentions and make choices. By focusing on non-ideal agents under defective cognitive and conative conditions or non-standard agents who form and fulfill intentions in ways different from us, I have defended the following surprising views about practical reason:
1. Instrumental rationality forbids some ends: According to the orthodox Humean view, instrumental rationality only prescribes us to intend the means to our ends, but it doesn’t prescribe or forbid any ends. But I argued against this supposed neutrality of instrumental rationality by examining misinformed and procrastinating agents.
In “Misinformation, Subjectivism, and the Rational Criticizability of Desires”(link), I considered the problem with misinformed intentions (say, the intention to fetch a glass of gin in front of you when it is actually petroleum). These intentions are problematic, I argued, because they are infeasible: There is simply no existing object that corresponds to their misinformed representational element, and, a fortiori, no existing object that can constitute the realization thereof. Importantly, such infeasible intentions dispose us to devote resources to some means that cannot actually realize them. And I contended that any intended ends with this feature is problematic for instrumental rationality.
In “Procrastination and the Instrumental Criticizability of Ends”, I explained our procrastinating tendencies through intentions with a self-undermining character: Our intention to engage in a procrastinating activity (e.g. to check emails) conflicts with our intention to carry out our main project. Yet once we lose the intention for the main project, we would no longer find the procrastinating activity appealing and would cease to intend to engage in it. So our intentions for procrastination undermine, but also depend on, our intentions for the main project. Importantly, such self-undermining intentions dispose us to abandon them when they are actually realized. I contended that any intended ends with this feature is also problematic for instrumental rationality.
2. Instrumental rationality does not strongly supervene on the mind: According to the orthodox Coherentist view, being rational consists in having mental states standing in internally coherent relations, so rationality must supervene on the mind. But I argued against the supervenience of rationality on the mind by examining agents with different psychological mechanisms for intention fulfilment.
In “The Executive Dimension of Instrumental Rationality”, I highlighted one form of basic instrumental incoherence, i.e. [having an intention while lacking the mental states indispensable for an agent’s general intention-fulfillment]. Now, which mental states are indispensable for this can vary for agents with different intention-fulfilment mechanisms, as shaped by their idiosyncratic evolutionary histories. This means that contingent evolutionary history can also determine which combination of attitudes would constitute basic instrumental incoherence. I thus contended that the same combination of attitudes can be coherent and rational for agents in one world, but not so for agents in another world with a different evolutionary history.
3. Practical rationality is not structurally isomorphic to theoretical rationality: According to the Cognitivist view about practical reason, the norms of practical rationality are structurally isomorphic to, and explainable by, those of theoretical rationality. But I argued against this view by examining agents who regulate the strengths of their intentions and beliefs in the same way.
In “Rational Norms for Degree of Intention”, I applied probabilistic norms to both degreed beliefs and intentions, and showed how this yields counter-intuitive results: While these norms plausibly prescribe an agent to self-doubt the conjunction of all propositions that she believes, they also prescribe an agent, implausibly, to self-sabotage the conjunction of all actions that she intends. Through the problems with self-sabotage and other structurally similar agential defects, I explained why the norms of practical and theoretical rationality might diverge once we switch to degreed beliefs and intentions.
II. Future Work
I am currently developing the following two projects:
2. The normativity of normative pre-conditions: The other of my current projects focuses on normative pre-conditions. Just as there are some necessary means that are indispensable for our complying with a normative reason, there are also some normative pre-conditions that are also indispensable for our having a normative reason in the first place. For instance, Sue wouldn’t have a reason to grade Tim’s paper if he weren’t her student, while Maria wouldn’t have a reason to avoid identity check if she weren’t an illegal immigrant. Now, it is widely accepted that a normative reason entails further normative reasons for us to take the necessary means to it. But does it also entail any further normative reasons governing our actions and attitudes toward its pre-conditions?
This question about the normativity of normative pre-conditions will help us ascertain not only the structure of the transmission of normative reasons, but also the extent of our normative power in shaping our normative situation through changing the pre-conditions of normative reasons.
One goal of this project is to examine how we can conceptualize the pre-conditions for normative reasons, and how these pre-conditions can constrain our behaviors (e.g. it seems self-undermining and futile to [comply with a normative reason, while at the same time cancelling the pre-conditions for having this reason]). The other goal is to examine what the normativity of normative pre-conditions might entail in first-order ethics (e.g. many of our normative reasons are pre-conditioned on our contingent relationships, identities, and spatial/temporal locations. To what extent are they normative for us?)