Department of Philosophy
David Shoemaker - About Me and My Work
I came to BGSU in Fall 2004. Prior to that, I taught at a number of other institutions, including California State University-Northridge, University of California-Riverside, and the University of Memphis. I got my Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine in 1996, where my dissertation committee was chaired by the late great Greg Kavka until his untimely death, at which point the not-late-but-still-great Gary Watson took over.
My research to this point has primarily been on two general topics: (a) the relation between personal identity and ethics, and (b) the nature of autonomy and moral responsibility. My dissertation was on the former, and I spent several years after that developing a number of my ideas from there into journal articles. About six years ago, I also began writing about the second set of issues, based on what I thought was an independent interest. As it turns out, though, I have recently begun to see important connections between (a) and (b), providing a rich source of future research and writing.
Regarding (a), I’m interested in what, if any, relation there is between the metaphysics of personal identity and a variety of issues in ethics (broadly construed, which includes both self-regarding and other-regarding practical concerns and reasons). Personal identity is usually taken to consist in something that fills in the following blank: X (a person) at some time is identical to (the same person as) Y at some later time if and only if _________________. Some people like to fill in the blank with a psychological relation, e.g., “X and Y are uniquely psychologically continuous.” Others like to offer a biological relation, e.g., “X and Y have the same biological life.” The point for many who investigate personal identity, though, is to see how the criterion applies to our practical concerns. So, for example, what would make it rational to anticipate surviving the death of my body? Only the possibility of my identity with someone in the afterlife, goes the seeming answer. What makes moral responsibility for some past action possible? Only my identity with the person who performed the action, goes the seeming answer. Why might killing a fetus be wrong? Because it would prevent that fetus from having a future of value, given that it would be identical to an individual like you and me that would otherwise have experienced that valuable future (goes the seeming answer). And so on, for many other questions. In each case, then, it seems all we need to do is figure out the correct criterion of personal identity and then apply it to the practical concern in question.
One of my ongoing projects has been to investigate the nature of this alleged relation between identity and ethics, as well as to critically evaluate the methodology in previous such investigations. Most people have believed that once we find the right criterion of personal identity, we’ll be able to apply it across the board to all of our practical concerns. I have recently criticized this approach, however, advocating instead a kind of pluralism about the alleged relation: there are likely a variety of relations between our practical concerns and the metaphysics of identity, and sometimes there may be no relevant relations at all (see my “Personal Identity and Practical Concerns,” in Mind, 2007). Currently, I have taken up the challenge of my own article to investigate the relation between specific, individual practical concerns and identity. For instance, I am currently exploring the relation between identity and moral responsibility, and I’m also investigating the relation between identity and issues in bioethics, such as abortion, the definition of death, and advance directives.
My work on autonomy and moral responsibility stems from my interest in the Problem of Identification. Our actions are typically caused by our desires, let us say: when I get off the couch and go the refrigerator for a beer, what moves me is my desire for a beer. Many classical accounts of free will and moral responsibility argued that all such actions are free, insofar as nothing external prevents the agent from doing what he wants. As long as I am moved by my desires, on this account, I am free and morally responsible. However, there are cases in which an agent is moved by a desire that is his in one sense, but is nevertheless alien, or external, to him in another sense, such that in acting on this desire he is actually prevented from doing what he genuinely, or most deeply, wants. The classic case here is of the unwilling addict, someone who hates his addiction and wishes he didn’t want to take drugs but acts on his desire for the drug regardless. In analyzing the case, most contemporary theorists agree that the unwilling addict is unfree, that he winds up acting on desires that aren’t his, in the sense needed for freedom, despite their being present in his psychology. The Problem of Identification, then, is about how to make sense of this phenomenon: what is it that makes some motivationally efficacious desires mine, and what renders others external to my true self? In other words, I identify with some psychological elements (they are mine), whereas I do not identify with others. What is the nature of this sort of identification, then?
The Problem of Identification is obviously tied closely to the issues of autonomy and moral responsibility, for many people believe I am morally responsible only for those actions that are authorized or endorsed by my true self (where such self-authorized acts are autonomous), but for an action to be self-authorized, it must be one with whose motivational elements I have identified. My project has been to set out what I take to be the conditions of identification (and thus autonomy). In my “Caring, Identification, and Agency” (Ethics, 2003), I presented and defended a new position, namely, that autonomy consists in one’s will being structured such that one’s motivations depend on desires or judgments that themselves depend ultimately on one’s nexus of cares (which I define in terms of emotional dispositions). One is thus identified with those motivationally efficacious desires that are themselves ultimately dependent on one’s cares. But because one’s cares arise involuntarily—passively—identification is an involuntary, passive process as well, and it consists, ironically enough, in a particular type of necessity (what’s called “volitional necessity”). Being autonomous thus actually requires being necessitated by our cares.
More recently I have been working directly on the issue of moral responsibility, and it is this work that starts to bring together many of the various strands in my earlier research. In one recent paper (“Moral Address, Moral Responsibility, and the Boundaries of the Moral Community,” Ethics, 2007), I argue that what makes one a member of the moral community, eligible for assessments of moral responsibility and eligible for interpersonal relationships, are certain emotional capacities, contrary to most theorists writing on the topic, who believe that it is one’s capacity for a certain kind of reason-based moral exchange. Including these emotional capacities is the only way, for instance, we can account for why psychopaths are excluded from the moral community, whereas adults with high-functioning autism or mild mental retardation are included. Furthermore, this emotional capacity—which is actually the capacity to care—is what enables one to identify with others in the way necessary for one to see and appreciate what the particular demands of morality and moral responsibility consist in. I have been following up and expanding on these ideas in a current project, “Responsibility and Disability.”
I have a book on the relation between identity and ethics coming out in October 2008. It’s called, imaginatively enough, Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction, and it is being published by Broadview Press. In the coming years, given enough energy and time, I hope to write a book on the nature of moral responsibility as well.
I also occasionally work in other areas of philosophy. I have published articles on the justification and range of application of the offense principle in a liberal state, on decision theory and Hobbes’s state of nature, on information technology’s threats to identity, and on why the religious argument against stem cell research—that embryos have souls—is incoherent.
As for future research and graduate seminars, there are several possibilities. I will be doing a graduate seminar soon on moral responsibility and the self, and in the future I would like to explore such topics as bioethics and identity (both numerical and narrative), Hume and free will, and blame, praise, and experimental philosophy.
On a more personal note, I have a number of hobbies and activities I enjoy away from philosophy that help preserve my (partial) sanity. I very much enjoy playing poker, for instance, as well as writing and recording music. I’m also quite the movie addict. And speaking of enjoyments, I’m married and have two grown stepdaughters.