Action and Responsibility:

My primary research interests, broadly construed, are situated at the crossroads of philosophy of mind and moral and legal philosophy. For instance, the main goal of my dissertation (which was directed by my friend and mentor Alfred Mele was to analyze and contrast the folk (or everyday) concept of intentional action with the mens rea concepts (e.g., negligently, recklessly, knowingly, and purposely) that play an essential role in criminal law.

One of the central issues I addressed is the extent to which people’s ordinary judgments about intentional action, foresight, and responsibility are subject to biases that may undermine the reliability of these judgments when it comes to legal decision-making. Given that this is partly an empirical question, I paid close attention to the relevant data on folk psychology and jury deliberation. Moreover, when I found that I needed more evidence to shed light on the particular issues I was exploring, I ran controlled and systematic studies to get at the data I wanted.

My goal when doing this kind of so-called “experimental philosophy” is not to somehow supplant traditional approaches to doing philosophy (let a million meta-philosophical blossoms bloom!) but rather to try to contribute to the ongoing debates in philosophy, psychology, and related fields that happen to have captured my attention. Just because my own work requires me to get out of the philosophical armchair from time to time and get my empirical hands dirty, it doesn’t mean I begrudge other philosophers for working in areas that are more amenable to a priori theorizing.

Neuroscience, Free Will, and Responsibility:

In addition to my work on experimental action theory and its relevance to applied ethical issues such as jury biasing, I am also interested in the relationship between neuroscience, free will, and legal responsibility. For instance, some philosophers, psychologists, and jurists believe that there is already a revolution under foot: As scientists continue to demystify the mind by uncovering the neural mechanisms that undergird human thought and behavior, we will see a fundamental shift in the way people think about agency and responsibility. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Others believe that while discoveries in neuroscience reveal illuminating facts about the nature of the human mind, these discoveries will and should leave our traditional views about moral and legal responsibility largely intact.

I worked on these and related issues as part of a grant funded by The Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions in Free Will Project (2011-2013). For this project, I worked with Kathleen Vohs, Eddy Nahmias, and Jonathan Schooler on a series of studies that focused on people’s intuitions, attitudes, and behaviors when it comes to free will, determinism, dualism, and related concepts. This is an area of research that I think will continue to garner attention in both the academic literature and the popular press as more scientists see themselves as challenging our traditional beliefs about agency and responsibility.  

Philosophy of Psychiatry:

In addition to continuing to work on the moral and legal implications of people’s beliefs about free will (and related concepts), I also have an active interest in the related field of psychopathy research. I recently wrote about the legal implications of this research in a series of papers and book chapters that I co-authored with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

One topic we addressed is whether psychopathy is a distinct mental disorder rather than merely co-extensive with antisocial personality disorder and, if so, what implications this has for criminal law. In addressing this issue, we surveyed the most prominent recent philosophical and clinical models of mental disorder, explored the growing behavioral and neuroscientific work on psychopathy, and examined the various legal standards for insanity (especially the role played by mental disorders in these standards). In another paper that I am presently working on, I discuss the relevance of psychopathy research to the philosophy of punishment—specifically the issue of retributive justice and criminal law.

My research on the philosophy of psychopathy also ties directly into my work on so-called “neuropredictions of future dangerousness.” One especially pressing issue is whether the potential prejudicial nature of neuropredictions of violence outweighs whatever probative value they may have. This is a topic I recently explored along with Kent Kieh, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Michael Gazzaniga, and others as part of The MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project. In a paper that we recently published in Neuroethics, we first explore the role that predictions of future dangerousness currently play in the law. We then consider some recent advances when it comes to our understanding of the genetic and neurological causes of certain kinds of physical violence and aggression, such as psychopathy. We conclude that given the current statutory framework in the United States, neuropredictions of violence are legally admissible. Our focus in this paper is on the descriptive question of whether neuropredictions of violence are admissible under current law.  We try to remain agnostic when it comes to the prescriptive question of whether, in principle, these kinds of predictions should be admissible (and if so, when).

Cognitive Enhancement:

I have more recently taken an interest in the moral and legal implications of cognitive enhancement—that is, using advances in biotechnology to make people “better than well.” This is not only an issue that I cover in my neuroethics course, but it is also something I have been exploring with psychologist Jen Cole Wright and some undergraduates at the College of Charleston. We have collected several rounds of data—which have yielded some interesting results.

For instance, we have found that people are less tolerant of the enhancement of individuals who are below average than they are of the enhancement of individuals who are above average, especially when it comes to contexts involving competition. Whether the issue is enhancing intelligence, athletic performance, or creativity, we find that people are uneasy when it comes to using biotechnologies to make people better than average. So, while people don’t seem to mind therapeutic interventions for those who are below average, they balk when it comes to enhancing these individuals above the normal baseline.

Our interest in these issues is partly psychological and partly philosophical. On the one hand, we want to contribute to the growing empirical literature concerning how people think about the moral permissibility of both therapeutic and cosmetic enhancement. On the other hand, we are interested in exploring some of the interesting philosophical issues that arise in the context of enhancement, issues that range over the philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, and public policy. Our overarching interdisciplinary goal is to shed some new light on how people think about the complex relationship between the mind, the body, and the self—and the ever increasing technological power to alter, repair, and even enhance the mind, the body, and the self.