Research Program

I work in Meta-Ethics, Ethics, and Epistemology. I'm especially interested in philosophical questions regarding normativity, rationality, and agency, such as: Where does the force of our normative reasons come from? What does it mean to be rational, or to be a morally responsible agent? How do we come to know what morality requires of us?

My dissertation, Groups Have Aims & That Gives Us Reasons (2018), proposed a novel relativist theory of the origins of our different kinds of normative reasons - including moral reasons, self-interested practical reasons, epistemic reasons, and reasons of additional kinds as well. (Click here for a two-page dissertation summary.)

This view is motivated in large part by two classic meta-ethical lines of argument that generally attract philosophers to antirealist views of normativity (and especially to moral antirealism and moral relativism). These are (1) epistemological considerations regarding the possibility of moral knowledge and (2) the observable diversity of value systems and ways of life across cultures, which is often taken to suggest (though it does not directly entail) genuine intercultural differences in fundamental moral norms.

So why do we need a new form of normative antirealism? 

1. I think there are genuine normative facts. My view is not a form of non-cognitivism or error theory. I consider it a form of relativism.

2. I think it's an under-appreciated point that epistemological arguments against moral realism generalize very naturally to the cases of all normative beliefs; the problem is not just moral beliefs in particular. So I sought to develop a unified meta-normative theory of the various kinds of normative reasons we commonly recognize, including self-interested practical reasons and epistemic reasons.

3. I think that well-known forms of relativism involve some problematic commitments about the nature of moral reasons that are worth trying to avoid. I describe these in detail in the dissertation.

What makes my work most distinctive is its appeal to the notion of group agency. On my view, the many distinct kinds of normative reasons we possess are determined in connection with the aims held by the many different sorts of agents of which we are a part. 

How does this work? It is a familiar idea from Subjectivist views that an agent’s reasons for acting arise in connection with her existing desires, or sum of evaluative attitudes more broadly. I suggest that the different kinds of reasons we recognize intuitively - such as moral and practical reasons - are distinguished by the fact that they apply directly to different sorts of agents in light of their different sets of aims. Practical reasons? They're fixed by individual attitudes and vary from person to person. Moral reasons? They apply directly to societies in light of aims held collectively by the society, where societies are understood as agents in their own right. These moral reasons apply derivatively to each member of that society. Epistemic reasons apply directly to groups, too. I think there are many other kinds of reasons as well. If any group like a corporation, or a philosophy department, can be an agent with aims of its own, then it has its own distinctive kind of normative reasons. 

I defend this view, with a focus on moral and practical reasons, in "Group Agency Meets Meta-Ethics: How to Craft a More Compelling Form of Normative Relativism," forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Vol. 15 (2020).

Much of my most recent work builds upon the ideas and commitments I first explored in my dissertation. My work with group agency for the dissertation project has led me to think more about what it means to be an agent in the first place, and about how exactly status as an agent is tied to responsibility. I also have a serious ongoing interest in the epistemology of moral beliefs.


Papers by Topic...

Arguments for Normative Antirealism and Relativism (esp. Moral Relativism):

- "Bad bootstrapping: the problem with third-factor replies to the Darwinian Dilemma for moral realism" (Philosophical Studies, Online First 08 May 2019)

I defend Street’s (2006) 'Darwinian Dilemma' against the third-factor replies popularized by Enoch (2010, 2011), Skarsaune (2011) and Wielenberg (2010, 2014). I argue that such replies are question-begging. I do so by drawing upon the epistemic literature on bootstrapping, which is an intuitively illegitimate form of reasoning.

- Title suppressed (Under review)

I argue that forms of moral relativism are best equipped to explain and justify a distinctive pattern in our epistemic responses to moral disagreement.

- “Ethical Intuitionism and the Comparison to Visual Perception: In Good Company or Guilty by Association?” 

I am currently at work on a paper in which I argue that we may grant the intuitionist that moral intuitions provide prima facie justification for moral beliefs and yet this does nothing to vindicate meta-ethical moral realism over a variety of rival antirealist and relativist views.

My Own Meta-Normative View:

- “Group Agency Meets Meta-Ethics: How to Craft a More Compelling Form of Normative Relativism” (Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Vol. 15, Ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, forthcoming 2020)

I show how we can draw upon the claim that societies are agents in their own right in order to formulate a novel version of relativism about moral reasons and reasons of practical rationality that avoids key problems faced by well-known version of relativism while still answering to the same meta-ethical motivations (such as epistemological arguments) that typically attract philosophers to those views.

- “Could Epistemic Reasons be Collective Practical Reasons?” (most recently presented at the 4th Southampton-Humboldt Normativity Conference in June 2019)

In this work in progress, I show that by drawing upon the idea of epistemic communities with investigative goals, we can account for epistemic reasons in an instrumental manner that avoids epistemic analogues of typical meta-ethical objections to realism as well as the main objections to epistemic instrumentalism emphasized by Thomas Kelly (2003).

On the Requirements of Agency (esp. Group Agency), What's Involved in Responding to Reasons, and the (Un)Importance of Explicit Deliberation:

- Title suppressed (Under review)

In this paper, I argue that human beings typically respond successfully to their normative reasons with little or no explicit deliberation. I argue that this realization dramatically weakens some influential objections to group agency.

- Title suppressed (Under review)

I offer a general characterization of the constitutive requirements of agency. The view seeks to recognize group agents without overgeneralizing. I draw upon the functionalist approach introduced by List & Pettit (2011) but introduce a more demanding further requirement, which I suggest can also be understood in functional terms. I argue that the resulting view gets the extension right when it comes to identifying agents and also better respects the intuitive links between status as an agent and possession of normative reasons (or requirements, duties, etc.) I also discuss how the proposed view differs from the claims that agents have free will or engage in intentional action.

- "Ought Implies Can and the Analogy Between Epistemic and Moral Reasons"

In this new work in progress, I argue that epistemologists' greater willingness to give up a strict reading of 'ought implies can' in the case of what we ought to believe in order to be rational can teach ethicists potentially useful lessons about the kind of freedom or control over one's behavior that is (or is not) required for moral responsibility.


©2016 by Michelle M. Dyke