Five questions on the Philosophy of Action

Istvan Zoltan Zardai is conducting mini-interviews with philosophers working on action theory. His current list of interviews is here, my replies here.

What am I going to do with my life? On Ancient and Contemporary Action Theory

Below are five video snippets from an interview with Ludwig Jaskolla, at the occasion of a Masterclass I co-taught in Munich in 2018. The topic of the Masterclass was Actions, Projects, and the Good.

How do you think could modern action theory profit from reading ancient philosophy?
Why is it important that ethics should start from the question “what is the good?”
Why is it most compelling to think that the final, agential good is the good human life?
Why is the Guise of the Good the most compelling theory about our desire to have our lives go well?
How does the desire to have our lives go well relate to short- and mid-term pursuits?

3:AM Magazine

This is an online interview with Richard Marshall on, as he puts it, “ancient inspired alternatives to doing ethics, on Pyrrhonian skepticism, what abstention from dogmata might mean, on how Pyrrhonians can act, on the defects of belief, on not solving Moore’s paradox, on why the Stoic political theory isn’t crazy, on why Stoics aren’t scary, on changing the conversation in ethics by following the lead of Elizabeth Anscombe, on [Vogt’s] own theory of agential action and ethics and on avoiding professional suicide when recommending books from her neck of the philosophical woods! This is one to turn your mind to the ever-urgent question: ‘what’s to be done?’…”.

The interview is also published in Ethics at 3:AM: Questions and Answers on How to Live Well, Oxford (2017).

The Nature of Disagreement: Ancient Relativism and Skepticism

This is a video of a lecture at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies in Hamburg, Germany. Pyrrhonian skepticism has roots in metaphysical discussions relevant to relativism. The lecture reconstructs these discussions in Plato’s Theaetetus, and explores how different versions of Pyrrhonian skepticism—the skepticism of Pyrrho, of Aenesidemus, and of Sextus Empiricus—compare to Protagorean relativism. I begin with a sketch of why Plato interprets Protagoras’ Measure Doctrine as global relativism rather than relativism about a particular domain. Pyrrhonian skepticism, it is argued, inherits this global scope. But Pyrrhonian responses to disagreement differ importantly from the responses Protagorean relativism envisages. Skepticism suggests that, when encountering disagreement, it is rational to step back from one’s view and investigate, rather than simply hold on to one’s view, as presumably the relativist does. The paper defends skepticism’s response to disagreement as construed by Sextus Empiricus as superior to earlier proposals.

Imagination and Agency

Below is a brief presentation of some of my work on decision making and “practical truth” at the 2018 Capstone Conference of the Happiness & Well-Being Project at St. Louis University. Which of several choices will make me happy? When we make up our minds, we want a true answer to this question. While this aim is familiar, it is ill understood and its analysis is fraught with difficulties, not least because we take it that the future is contingent. The notion of “practical truth” comes up in Aristotle’s and Elizabeth Anscombe’s theories of action. My own account, which I summarize here and develop in a series of papers, is inspired by John MacFarlane’s and Aristotle’s ideas on future contingents, claims about the contingent future.

Munich Lecture: Desiring the Good

This is a video of a lecture where I present, in German, some lines of thought from my Desiring the Good: Ancient Proposals and Contemporary Theory (Oxford 2017). I focus on two proposals that I develop in the book: a novel version of the Guise of the Good, according to which the desire to have one’s life go well guides and sustains small- and mid-scale motivations; and a realism about good human lives that is inspired by Plato’s Philebus and Aristotle’s ethics. More generally, I explore the distinctive way in which ancient ethics combines normative theorizing and human psychology. I argue for a contemporary approach that is inspired by this perspective.