Selected Conference & Seminar Presentations

Should we Biochemically Enhance Love?

Various authors have raised the possibility of morally enhancing loving relationships via hormonal or genetic manipulation (Savulescu and Sandberg, 2008). The most immediate objection to ‘love drugs’ suggests that even if they promote the kinds of contingent good effects our loving relationships conduce to when we are appropriately disposed towards our loved ones, they will not promote the appropriate disposition itself. Indeed, the mere fact your partner requires biochemical manipulation to promote their provision of loving care would already seem to imply they are not appropriately disposed to love you in the way most of us want to be loved. Thus, a love that requires biochemical intervention to be sustained would seem but a thin simulacrum of the rich good of love we typically desire.

But this is too quick. Few would want their partner’s love for them to be caused or sustained by a love drug, but if the lover’s tendency to bestow loving care robustly is there but impaired by some feature that may be biochemically manipulated into submission, then this objection loses much of its force. The fact is that even otherwise loving partners sometimes lie, and sometimes they cheat. If, as neuroscientific research suggests, the impulsion to lie or cheat is in part biologically determined and we could attenuate it via biochemical manipulation, should we?

I think we should not. Loving someone renders you vulnerable to being hurt by them. Ordinarily, knowing with sufficient certainty that they are appropriately disposed to accord your interests their deliberative due in a way that restricts their choice-sets in relevant situations attenuates such vulnerability. In this paper, I argue that since biochemical intervention would impair your ability to know with sufficient certainty that your enhanced partner acts out of an appropriate disposition (e.g. to be honest and faithful to you) and not because they are biochemically enhanced (irrespective of what the fact of the matter is), a probabilistic reduction in your partner’s propensity to lie or cheat will not entail a corresponding reduction in your vulnerability to being lied to or cheated on. In fact, since folding love drugs into the causal mix will tend to preclude whatever attenuation of vulnerability conventional relationship therapy methods yield, on consequentialist grounds we ought to prefer relationship therapy to relationship therapy plus biochemical enhancement.

Presented at the ‘International Conference on Applied Ethics’ hosted by Hokkaido University, Japan, October 2016.

Reasons, Virtues, and Special Relationships

We take ourselves to have reasons to do things for friends, family members and lovers that we would not do for strangers. Yet, it is puzzling why this should be: why do we have reasons of partiality towards certain people, but not others? Three explanations dominate the philosophical literature: the Relationships Theory says we have special reasons towards certain people in virtue of the intrinsically valuable relationships we share; the Individuals Theory explains our partialities by reference to the unique value of the particular persons we love; and the Projects Theory says our reasons of partiality derive not from our relationships or loved ones, but from our personal projects in which they are implicated.

In this paper I develop an alternative theory on which it is not our relationships, our Others, or our projects we should look to for explanations of partiality, but rather the “rich” good of modally robust special concern we typically enjoy in our relationships. The seedling idea is this: If you are my friend, it would not seem sufficient that you are there for me (are partial towards me) merely as things stand. For you to count as a friend, it must be the case that you would also be there for me even were I/you/circumstances somewhat different. If you are, we may say I enjoy the rich good of your special concern, but only, it seems, on condition that your being there for me robustly is the result of your being virtuously disposed to be.

Presented at the ‘International Ethics Conference on Reasons and Virtues’ hosted by Australian Catholic University, May 2015.

Will you still love me tomorrow? Specifying the Limits of the Robustness of Associative Duties across Change

Special relationships generate associative duties that exhibit robustness across change. It seems insufficient for friendship, for example, if I am only disposed to fulfil associative duties towards you as things stand here and now. Certainly we would scarcely deem me much of a friend if my disposition to fulfil associative duties towards you wanes with the fading of your looks, the dimming of your wit, or the greying of your hair.

However, robustness is not required across all variations. Were you to become monstrously cruel towards me, we might expect that my associative duties towards you would not be robust across that kind of change. The question then is this: is there any principled way of distinguishing those variations across which robustness of the disposition to fulfil associative duties is required, from those across which it isn’t?

In this presentation I propose a way of answering this question that invokes distinctions concerning how we value persons and relationships, and how persons and relationships possess value – distinctions that I contend are central to the project of specifying not only the limits of robustness, but also the source, of reasons and duties of partiality more generally.

Presented as part of the ‘Limits of Duty’ workshop hosted by Newnham College, Cambridge, June 2013. My extended abstract was selected from 80 submissions and was the only paper out of the four invited to feature in the workshop from a postgraduate student. The presentation is available on iTunes U or from the Cambridge University website here.

Is there a genuine and ineliminable tension between associative duties and general duties?

What should you do when faced with a choice between performing either a general duty or an associative duty in situations where you cannot perform both? Can your associative duties towards those with whom you share special relationships ever justifiably take precedence over the general duties you have towards all persons simply in virtue of shared humanity, even if your associate’s need is comparatively much less urgent?

In this paper I argue that, at least sometimes, the answer must be yes, and so we must conclude that the tension between general and associative duties is indeed genuine and ineliminable. The fact is we have at least two independent sources of moral duties that come with no set of priority rules such that could determine which duties should always take precedence over the others. That said, however, the tension is not as thoroughgoing as some would have us believe. Firstly, associative duties (as opposed to mere reasons of partiality) are far less common than the literature tends to suggest; and secondly, the degree of material resource distribution required within special relationships is likewise ordinarily much less than widely assumed. Indeed, I conclude that whilst the tension between general duties and associative duties is genuine and complex, the penchant for most of us in the West to excuse ourselves from fulfilling general duties by appeal to associative duties is, for the most part, morally unsustainable.

Presented at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia, September 2012.

Are duties of citizenship genuinely associative duties?

Some commentators would claim the duties we have towards our countries/compatriots are ‘associative duties’, putatively similar in form to the duties we have in virtue of being parents, children, friends, lovers, etc. For this to be so, it must be true that such relationships constitute the type of association that can not only be valued intrinsically, but also that exhibits the sort of reciprocal normativity required to ground associative duties. In the first section of this paper, I argue we do not intrinsically value our relationships to our countries/compatriots broadly conceived. In the second section I reject the narrower claim that we can have associative duties to nations/co-nationals or patriae/fellow patriots, and in the third I reject the claim that we have associative duties to our polities/co-citizens. Finally, I show that even if all of the preceding arguments failed, the occasions when the further condition of instrumental necessity required to trigger associative duties would obtain would be so limited as to strip the argument of any practical import.

Presented as part of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics Seminar Series, University of Melbourne, Australia, March 2012.