The Avoidance Approach to Plural Value

Theoria, Vol 66 No 160 (2019)


Value monists and value pluralists disagree deeply. Pluralists want to explain why moral life feels frustrating; monists want clear action guidance. If pluralism is true, our actions may be unable to honour irredeemably clashing values. This possibility could prompt pessimism, but the ‘avoidance approach’ to pluralism holds that although values may conflict inherently, we can take pre-emptive action to avoid situations where they would conflict in practice, rather like a child pirouetting to avoid the cracks on a pavement. Sadly, this view is hostage to epistemic problems and unforeseen consequences and is liable to generate timidity. It rests on the intuition that honouring values in action is more important than doing so in other ways, but this is a premise we have reason to reconsider.

Oppression, Forgiveness, and Ceasing to Blame

Journal for Ethics and Social Philosophy (written with Per-Erik Milam), Vol 14 No 2 (2018), Issue 2


Wrongdoing is inescapable. We all do wrong and are wronged; and in response we often blame one another. But if blame is a defining feature of our social lives, so is ceasing to blame. We might excuse, justify, or forgive an offender; or simply let the offence go. We argue that whether and how we relinquish blame depends on many circumstances only partially within our control. Like any norm-governed practice, one can cease to blame appropriately or inappropriately, successfully or unsuccessfully. Success requires that the action be done for the right reasons and that it secure uptake. We argue that social and material circumstances can compromise one’s ability to successfully cease blaming in the manner one intends. One can fail to relinquish blame and circumstances can also prevent one from doing so. However, uncooperative social and material circumstances do not only arise by chance. Our central argument is that circumstances of oppression can systematically compromise one’s ability and opportunities to forgive. This deprivation is an insidious facet of oppression that has been neglected both by theories of oppression and forgiveness but which has significant implications for how we understand the power and purpose of forgiveness. 

How Complex is Your Love? The Case of Romantic Compromises and Polyamory 

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, (written with Aaron Ben-Ze'ev) 2018, 48: 98-116


This article highlights a somewhat neglected aspect of love (and of emotions in general): their complexity. We suggest distinguishing between three major related types of emotional complexity: emotional diversity, emotional ambivalence, and emotional behavior. The notion of emotional complexity has far-reaching implications for understanding emotions and our wellbeing. This is illustrated by examining the notion of emotional complexity in two common yet complex phenomena in the romantic realm: romantic compromises and polyamory.

Cultivating an Integrated Self

In Ethics and Self Cultivation: Historical Perspectives, edited by Matthew Dennis and Sander Werkhoven for Routledge


This chapter considers two approaches to the idea that, in self-cultivating, people need to integrate the various aspects of their mental life. In section one, I distinguish between integration of mental states with each other, aimed at avoiding conflicts between such states (‘Structural integration’), and the integration of mental states to a person’s mind writ large, aimed at overcoming forms of alienation or impoverishment (‘Mental Integration’). Structural Integration purportedly underpins the ability to act well and avoid suffering. This view is mistaken, however, and the value of such integration is deeply contingent, as I illustrate through a discussion of Michael Smith on the organization of desire. Moreover, such integration is compatible with a deeply defensive form of mental life which most people would reject, as I argue in my discussion of projective identification: a mental defense mechanism observed by psychoanalysts. In building on this psychoanalytic focus, I argue that there is a viable category of Mental Integration ideals of the cultivated self, which aim to overcome the defensiveness that distances someone from aspects of their mental life. 

The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 

The Journal of Applied Philosophy (DOI: 10.1111/japp.12240)


Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy. To render it palatable to critics, activists and theorists often accentuate its similarity to monogamy. I argue that this strategy conceals the distinctive character of polyamorous intimacy. A more discriminating account of polyamory helps me answer objections to the lifestyle whilst noting some of its unique pitfalls. In section two, I define polyamory, and explain why people pursue this lifestyle. Many think polyamory is an inferior form of intimacy and, in section three, I describe four of their main objections. In section four, I explain how commitment to “the polyamorous possibility” prompts one to viscerally experience personal, practical, and social constraints. Unlike monogamous dynamics, these confrontations are mediated by third parties who destabilize the familiar dynamics of coupled life. Polyamory can be emotionally challenging but, as I outline in section five, it is sustained by interpersonal emotional work that helps people feel and understand their emotions, communicate without confrontation, and contain the difficult emotions of others. This work is qualitatively and quantitatively intensified in polyamory. In sections six and seven, I rebut objections to polyamory whilst also acknowledging the ways polyamory has its own pitfalls. 

Reconsidering the Soteriological Significance of Sunyavada 

The Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, 2014, Vol. 15 Issue 2. 


The doctrine of emptiness is of significant soteriological importance for the Madhyamaka Buddhism. Therefore it is a reasonable prima facie demand that interpretations of emptiness must accord with this fact. This hermeneutic consideration has been taken to present particular problems for Mark Siderits’ semantic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. This paper examines Siderits’ attempted reconciliation of his semantic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness with its purported soteriological aspects. I question whether Siderits can successfully respond to these problems in order to adequately incorporate the hermeneutic requirement. I argue that the semantic view is not immune to the problems that it was formulated to avoid. It too can be asserted. What is more, the semantic view can generate its own particular forms of attachment which can obscure soteriological goals. These conclusions lead me to question the general project of trying to develop a soteriologically efficacious interpretation of doctrine of emptiness in the first place.