RESEARCH

Most of my research to date has been at the intersection of philosophical aesthetics, moral philosophy, and the philosophy of mind, psychology and cognitive science.

Broadly speaking, a lot of my research is concerned with how the core concepts of philosophical aesthetics—such as beauty, ugliness and sublimity—are connected up to our psychological capacities, and how the resulting picture can help us to make progress in understanding the properties these concepts express.

I am also interested in the links between aesthetics and moral philosophy, the nature of the emotions, and response-dependent accounts of evaluative properties.

Below, you'll find more information about the different streams of my research, along with the papers associated with them.

AESTHETIC PROPERTIES & THE EMOTIONS

In this stream of work, I attempt to offer accounts of what it is for something to be beautiful, ugly and sublime, respectively.

PAPERS LINKED TO THIS STREAM OF WORK

In 'Restorative aesthetic pleasures and restoring the unity of pleasure', I argue that the most prominent recent attempt to understand the distinction between aesthetic and non-aesthetic in terms of a certain kind of pleasure does not succeed. In 'Ugliness is in the Gut of the Beholder', I principally argue that ugliness is constituted by the disposition to disgust. In 'Aesthetic Animism', I provide evidence that appreciation of ugliness gives rise to disgust, and that beauty gives rise to a transformational state that is closely related to elevation, which I call 'ecstasy'. In 'The Thick and the Thin of Moral Beauty' I defend the view that one reason why moral goodness is beautiful is that it has the tendency to give rise to ecstasy.

Restorative aesthetic pleasures & restoring the unity of pleasure Australasian Philosophical Review, (2017), 1, 1: 73-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/24740500.2017.1296399

Abstract: I argue, contra Mohan Matthen, that at least some aesthetic pleasures arising from the appreciation of aesthetic features of artworks are what he calls ‘r-pleasures’ as opposed to ‘f-pleasures’—and moreover, that the paradigm aesthetic pleasure (arising in response to beauty) appears to be an r-pleasure on Matthen’s terms. I then argue that talk of r- and f-pleasures does not distinguish different kinds, but two different features of pleasure; so this supposed distinction (at least) cannot be used to characterize a sui generis aesthetic pleasure.

Ugliness Is in the Gut of the Beholder (Forthcoming, Ergo)

Abstract: I offer the first sustained defence of the claim that ugliness is constituted by the disposition to disgust. I advance three main lines of argument in support of this thesis. First, ugliness and disgustingness tend to lie in the same kinds of things and properties (the argument from ostensions). Second, the thesis is better placed than all existing accounts to accommodate the following facts: ugliness is narrowly and systematically distributed in a heterogenous set of things, ugliness is sometimes enjoyed, and ugliness sits opposed to beauty across a neutral midpoint (the argument from proposed intensions). And third, ugliness and disgustingness function in the same way in both giving rise to representations of contamination (the argument from the law of contagion). In making these arguments, I show why prominent objections to the thesis do not succeed, cast light on some of the artistic functions of ugliness, and, in addition, demonstrate why a dispositional account of disgustingness is correct, and present a novel problem for warrant-based accounts of disgustingness (the ‘too many reasons’ problem).

Aesthetic Animism (Under review, feel free to email me for a copy)

Abstract: I argue that the main existing accounts of the relationship between the beauty of non-animal environmental entities and their moral standing are mistaken. Beauty does not, as has been suggested by optimists about beauty, confer intrinsic moral standing. Nor is it the case, as has been suggested by pessimists about beauty, that beauty at best provides an anthropocentric source of moral standing that is commensurate with other sources of pleasure. I present arguments and evidence that show that the appreciation of beauty tends to cause a transformational state of mind that is more valuable than mere pleasure, but that leads us to falsely represent beautiful entities as being sentient and, in turn, as having intrinsic moral standing. Beauty is not, then, a source of intrinsic moral standing; it’s a source of a more important anthropocentric value than has hitherto been acknowledged.

The Thick and the Thin of Moral Beauty (Under review, feel free to email me for a copy)

Abstract: When is moral goodness not just good, but beautiful? And is moral beauty perception-dependent? Existing answers to the former question have seemed to be incompatible with one another, with formalists arguing that moral goodness is beautiful because it has pleasing good form, and ecstasy-based theorists arguing the moral goodness is beautiful when it tends to give rise to a special emotion which they variously call e.g. ‘elevation’ and ‘ecstasy.’ Existing answers to the latter question are univocal, with all parties agreeing to the (perhaps radical) conclusion that the beauty of moral goodness is not perceptual. In this article, two principal claims are argued for. First, it is argued that the existing accounts of why moral goodness is beautiful are, in fact, mutually consistent, because they target beauty in different senses—beauty-form, and a thicker sense—beauty-ecstasy. This is supported with novel empirical evidence showing that, among other things, being compassionate tends to be judged to be more beautiful than being just, in part because being compassionate tends to give rise to this special emotion to a greater extent. Second, it is then argued, on the basis that emotions are best thought of as evaluative perceptions, that the fact that moral virtues are beautiful does not support the conclusion that the beauty of virtues is not perceptual. On the contrary, the arguments and evidence presented here suggests that moral virtues are partly beautiful to the extent that they tend to give rise to a certain kind of evaluative perception.

AESTHETICS & MORAL PHILOSOPHY

In this stream of work, I attempt to offer an account of some the links between moral philosophy and philosophical aesthetics. To date, I have worked on the issues of whether moral goodness is beautiful and why this is the case, and whether the beauty of entities contributes to their moral standing.

PAPERS LINKED TO THIS STREAM OF WORK

In 'Moral Beauty, Inside and Out,' I defend the view that being morally good and bad both makes one look more formally beautiful and ugly respectively, and are beautiful and ugly in themselves. I have proposed that moral goodness may affect perceptions of appearances in virtue of shared mental representations of moral properties like being hard and aesthetic properties like looking hard. In 'The Thick and the Thin of Moral Beauty' I defend the view that one reason why moral goodness is beautiful is that it has the tendency to give rise to ecstasy. In 'Aesthetic Animism,' I defend the view that, as a result of its tendency to give rise to ecstasy, beauty leads us to falsely believe that beautiful entities are sentient, and a result, that they have intrinsic moral standing. Moreover, I argue that, in giving rise to such a transformational state, beauty is a source of something much more valuable than mere pleasure.

Moral beauty, inside and out (2021, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, https://doi.org/10.1080/00048402.2020.1778757)

Abstract: In this article, robust evidence is provided showing that an individual’s moral character can contribute to the aesthetic quality of their appearance, as well as be beautiful or ugly itself. It is argued that this evidence supports two main conclusions. Firstly, moral beauty and ugliness lie on the inside, and beauty and ugliness are not perception dependent as a result; and second, aesthetic perception is affected by moral information, and thus moral beauty and ugliness lie on the outside too.

Aesthetic Animism (Under review, feel free to email me for a copy)

Abstract: I argue that the main existing accounts of the relationship between the beauty of non-animal environmental entities and their moral standing are mistaken. Beauty does not, as has been suggested by optimists about beauty, confer intrinsic moral standing. Nor is it the case, as has been suggested by pessimists about beauty, that beauty at best provides an anthropocentric source of moral standing that is commensurate with other sources of pleasure. I present arguments and evidence that show that the appreciation of beauty tends to cause a transformational state of mind that is more valuable than mere pleasure, but that leads us to falsely represent beautiful entities as being sentient and, in turn, as having intrinsic moral standing. Beauty is not, then, a source of intrinsic moral standing; it’s a source of a more important anthropocentric value than has hitherto been acknowledged.

The Thick and the Thin of Moral Beauty (Under review, feel free to email me for a copy)

Abstract: When is moral goodness not just good, but beautiful? And is moral beauty perception-dependent? Existing answers to the former question have seemed to be incompatible with one another, with formalists arguing that moral goodness is beautiful because it has pleasing good form, and ecstasy-based theorists arguing the moral goodness is beautiful when it tends to give rise to a special emotion which they variously call e.g. ‘elevation’ and ‘ecstasy.’ Existing answers to the latter question are univocal, with all parties agreeing to the (perhaps radical) conclusion that the beauty of moral goodness is not perceptual. In this article, two principal claims are argued for. First, it is argued that the existing accounts of why moral goodness is beautiful are, in fact, mutually consistent, because they target beauty in different senses—beauty-form, and a thicker sense—beauty-ecstasy. This is supported with novel empirical evidence showing that, among other things, being compassionate tends to be judged to be more beautiful than being just, in part because being compassionate tends to give rise to this special emotion to a greater extent. Second, it is then argued, on the basis that emotions are best thought of as evaluative perceptions, that the fact that moral virtues are beautiful does not support the conclusion that the beauty of virtues is not perceptual. On the contrary, the arguments and evidence presented here suggests that moral virtues are partly beautiful to the extent that they tend to give rise to a certain kind of evaluative perception.

THE NATURE OF THE EMOTIONS & EVALUATIVE PROPERTIES

In this stream of work, I attempt to contribute to our understanding of the nature of the emotions and related evaluative properties, focusing on disgust and disgustingness, and ecstasy and beauty.

PAPERS LINKED TO THIS STREAM OF WORK

In 'Sullying Sights,' I argue that disgust automatically gives rise to representations of contamination that are radically promiscuous in the sense that they can be generated by mere visual contact with disgusting objects. In, 'Ugliness is in the Gut of the Beholder,' I defend the view that disgustingness just is the disposition to disgust by showing how it is superior to second-order accounts, which claim that disgustingness is that which warrants disgust in some manner. In 'The Thick and the Thin of Moral Beauty' I defend the view that one reason why moral goodness is beautiful is that it has the tendency to give rise to ecstasy.

Sullying Sights: Disgust, the cognitive contamination system and the maternal impression theory of teratology (Forthcoming, Philosophical Psychology)

Abstract: In this article, an account of the architecture of the cognitive contamination system is offered, according to which the contamination system can generate contamination representations in circumstances that do not satisfy the norms of contamination, including in cases of mere visual contact with disgusting objects. It is argued that this architecture is important for explaining the content, logic, distribution, and persistence of maternal impression beliefs—according to which foetal defects are caused by the pregnant mother’s experiences and actions—which in turn provide important evidence of the architecture of the cognitive contamination system. 

Ugliness Is in the Gut of the Beholder (Forthcoming, Ergo)

Abstract: I offer the first sustained defence ofthe claimthat ugliness is constituted by the disposition to disgust. I advance three main lines of argument in support of this thesis. First, ugliness and disgustingness tend to lie in the same kinds of things and properties (the argument from ostensions). Second,the thesis is better placed than all existing accounts to accommodate the following facts: ugliness is narrowly and systematically distributed in a heterogenous set of things, ugliness is sometimes enjoyed, and ugliness sits opposed to beauty across a neutral midpoint (the argument from proposed intensions). And third, ugliness and disgustingness function in the same way in both giving rise to representations of contamination (the argument from the law of contagion). In making these arguments, I show why prominent objections to the thesis do not succeed, cast light on some of the artistic functions of ugliness, and, in addition, demonstrate why a dispositional account of disgustingness is correct and present a novel problem for warrant-based accounts of disgustingness (the ‘too many reasons’ problem).

The Thick and the Thin of Moral Beauty (Under review, feel free to email me for a copy)

Abstract: When is moral goodness not just good, but beautiful? And is moral beauty perception-dependent? Existing answers to the former question have seemed to be incompatible with one another, with formalists arguing that moral goodness is beautiful because it has pleasing good form, and ecstasy-based theorists arguing the moral goodness is beautiful when it tends to give rise to a special emotion which they variously call e.g. ‘elevation’ and ‘ecstasy.’ Existing answers to the latter question are univocal, with all parties agreeing to the (perhaps radical) conclusion that the beauty of moral goodness is not perceptual. In this article, two principal claims are argued for. First, it is argued that the existing accounts of why moral goodness is beautiful are, in fact, mutually consistent, because they target beauty in different senses—beauty-form, and a thicker sense—beauty-ecstasy. This is supported with novel empirical evidence showing that, among other things, being compassionate tends to be judged to be more beautiful than being just, in part because being compassionate tends to give rise to this special emotion to a greater extent. Second, it is then argued, on the basis that emotions are best thought of as evaluative perceptions, that the fact that moral virtues are beautiful does not support the conclusion that the beauty of virtues is not perceptual. On the contrary, the arguments and evidence presented here suggests that moral virtues are partly beautiful to the extent that they tend to give rise to a certain kind of evaluative perception.

METHODS

I'm an ardent supporter of interdisciplinary work. In my philosophical work, I try to not only use, and be constrained by, the best evidence from across the cognitive sciences, but also do experimental work myself where necessary. Likewise, in my research in psychology, I try to make use of important philosophical distinctions and tools.

I enjoy collaborating with people from across the cognitive sciences, and have collaborated with Simone Schnall, Luca Barlassina and Nina Strohminger on projects.

I find that philosophy is often best done through dialectical exchanges, and in my role as editor of Debates in Aesthetics, I established a dedicated forum for this. Below are the crticial introductions to the two 'Philosophers & their Critics' issues of the journal I edited (the full issues can be read at www.debatesinaesthetics.org), and a book review for the British Journal of Aesthetics.

Expression, Evolution and Ontology: Debating the Work of Stephen Davies (with Shelby Moser) Debates in Aesthetics, 2017 13, 1: 1-10.

Art and the Emotions: Debating the Work of Jenefer Robinson (with Shelby Moser) Debates in Aesthetics, 2019 14, 1: 1-14.

Beauty and Sublimity: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Literature and the Arts British Journal of Aesthetics, 2020 (author proof, please see published version).