On Friday, I submitted my dissertation prospectus (or proposal) to my committee. Hooray! My committee will likely meet for my defense in late January.
It took rather longer to write the prospectus than expected, mostly because I found that I had to develop my views and arguments in some depth to determine whether they actually solved the problem at hand. So now, although the prospectus is somewhat long at 55 pages, I’m extremely clear about what I’ll be doing in the dissertation. Plus, I’ve already done tons of work that otherwise I’d have done in writing the dissertation itself. So I’m quite pleased with what I’ve done so far, and I’m eager to begin work on the dissertation proper.
My dissertation topic is moral responsibility, particularly “the problem of moral luck.” The problem of moral luck challenges, via a series of seemingly compelling cases, our ordinary claims that a person is morally responsible for his choices, for the outcomes of his actions, and for his character. The problem was most powerfully developed by Thomas Nagel in his article entitled “Moral Luck.” (You can download a PDF of that critical article if you wish to read it). The basic goal of my dissertation is to develop a general theory of moral responsibility able to solve the problem of moral luck. In so doing, I’m articulating the nature and limits of a person’s moral responsibility, as well as defending our ordinary moral judgments of praise and blame as just and necessary.
Here’s my brief summary of my thesis from the prospectus:
My thesis, in brief, is that the problem of moral luck stems from a faulty understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility. A person need not solely determine all of that for which he is morally judged, as Nagel supposes. Instead, a person is properly held responsible for his voluntary acts. When a person acts voluntarily, (1) he has the power to act or not and (2) he knows what he’s doing. That Aristotelian understanding of the conditions of moral responsibility is not only consistent with standard intuitions but also grounded in basic facts about human capacities and about the purposes and demands of moral judgment. When developed in sufficient detail and extended to responsibility for a person’s products and qualities, that theory can effectively solve the puzzling cases of moral luck raised by Nagel and others, such that moral responsibility clearly tracks a person’s voluntary actions, products, and qualities.
If you’d like to read the prospectus, you’re welcome to do so. Here’s the PDF file and the Word file. Comments and questions are welcome, of course. They won’t change the prospectus, but they might be of use to me for the dissertation. (If you cite page numbers, please cite those of the PDF file.)
I’ve also decided to post the prospectus slowly on NoodleFood over the next ten days; I’ll post one section per day, starting today. So if you wish to read it that way, that’s all well and good too.
All in all, I’ve very much enjoyed my work on my prospectus. On a day-to-day basis, that’s largely due to my much-improved work habits. More broadly, however, I’m pretty well convinced that what I have to say about moral responsibility is (1) true, (2) interesting, and (3) substantially original. Philosophy work doesn’t get any better than that!
Update: Now that I’ve posted the whole prospectus, here are the links to the ten individual sections: