Research

My research primarily addresses questions at the intersection of ethics and science. These are the topics I take up most often in my book, articles, reference works, reviews, and work in progress.

One overarching research project is to determine the extent of our moral knowledge and virtue, whether concerning ordinary interactions with others (e.g. lying, stealing) or disputed moral issues (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, genetic enhancement, racial and gender bias). Whether we know right from wrong and act virtuously depends greatly on our moral psychology. Based on an adequate understanding of the sources of our moral beliefs and actions, we can assess whether we are justified in holding particular moral views and properly motivated to do what’s right. Against a rising pessimism, I argue that ordinary moral thought and action are ultimately a rational enterprises and aren’t fundamentally flawed. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement, and I’m also interested in how we can make ourselves more virtuous. My views are thus largely “rationalist” and “anti-skeptical.”

Book

Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind (forthcoming with Oxford University Press)

Abstract: The burgeoning science of ethics has produced a trend toward pessimism. Ordinary moral thought and action, we’re told, are profoundly influenced by arbitrary factors and ultimately driven by unreasoned feelings. This book counters the current orthodoxy on its own terms by carefully engaging with the empirical literature. The result is a cautious optimism grounded in the pervasive role of reason in our moral minds. While the science suggests that moral knowledge and virtue don’t come easily, we needn’t reject ordinary moral psychology as fundamentally flawed or in need of serious repair.

Articles

Note: Article titles link to penultimate drafts (or self-archived finals if open access); journal titles link to final version if available. Both links contain abstracts.

15. May, J. (forthcoming). “The Limits of Emotion in Moral Judgment.” The Many Moral Rationalisms, eds. K. Jones & F. Schroeter, Oxford University Press.

14. May, J. (2017). “Getting Less Cynical about Virtue” (commentary on C. D. Batson), Moral Psychology, Vol. 5: Virtue & Character, W. Sinnott-Armstrong & C. Miller (eds.), MIT Press, pp. 45-52.

13. May, J. (2016). “Emotional Reactions to Human Reproductive Cloning.” Journal of Medical Ethics 42(1):26-30. [Selected as Editor’s Choice with a discussion piece | featured on Bookforum | blog discussion]

12. May, J. (2016). “Repugnance as Performance Error: The Role of Disgust in Bioethical Intuitions.” The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate, Stephen Clarke et al (eds.), Oxford University Press.

11. May, J. (2014). “Does Disgust Influence Moral Judgment?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 92(1): 125–141. [Featured on Bookforum]

10. May, J. (2014). “On the Very Concept of Free Will” Synthese 191(12): 2849-2866. [Blog Discussion | Featured on Bookforum | replication]

9. May, J. (2014). “Moral Judgment and Deontology: Empirical Developments.” Philosophy Compass 9(11): 745-755. [Featured on Bookforum]

8. Shepard, J. & May, J. (2014). “Does Belief in Dualism Protect against Maladaptive Psycho-social Responses to Deep Brain Stimulation?American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 5(4): 40–42.

7. Allen, T. & May, J. (2014). “Does Opacity Undermine Privileged Access?” [Critical Notice] International Journal of Philosophical Studies 22(4): 617–629.

6. May, J. (2013). “Skeptical Hypotheses and Moral Skepticism” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 43(3): 341–359. [Featured on Bookforum]

5. May, J. (2013). “Because I Believe It’s the Right Thing to Do” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 16(4): 791–808.

4. May, J. & Holton, R. (2012). “What in the World Is Weakness of Will?” Philosophical Studies 157(3): 341–360. [Blog discussion | replication]

3. May, J. (2011). “Egoism, Empathy, and Self-Other Merging” Southern Journal of Philosophy 49(S1): 25–39, Spindel Supplement: Empathy & Ethics, R. Debes (ed.). [Emerging Scholar Prize Essay; other contributors include: S. Darwall, J. Deigh, P. Goldie, J. Prinz, M. Slote.]

2. May, J. (2011). “Relational Desires and Empirical Evidence against Psychological Egoism” European Journal of Philosophy 19(1): 39–58.

1. May, J., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Hull, J. G. & Zimmerman, A. (2010). “Practical Interests, Relevant Alternatives, & Knowledge Attributions” Review of Philosophy & Psychology 1(2): 265–273, Special Issue ed. by E. Machery, T. Lombrozo, & J. Knobe. [Blog Discussion]

Reference Works

May, J. & Kumar, V. (forthcoming). “Moral Reasoning and Emotion.” The Routledge Handbook of Moral Epistemology, eds. K. Jones, M. Timmons, & A. Zimmerman, Routledge.

May, J. (2017). “Empathy and Intersubjectivity.” The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy, Heidi Maibom (ed.), Routledge.

May, J. (2017) “Moral Psychology, Empirical Work In.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Updated and expanded on 2012 version.]

May, J. (2011). “Psychological Egoism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Book Reviews

Review of Bound: Essays on Free Will & Responsibility (2015, OUP) by Shaun Nichols, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2 (2016): 416-17. [More detailed thoughts in this blog post.]

Review of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom (2013, Crown), Metapsychology, Vol. 18, No. 33 (2014).

Review of Experimental Philosophy ed. by Knobe & Nichols (2008, OUP), Philosophical Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 5 (2010), pp. 711-715.

Review of Willing, Wanting, Waiting by Richard Holton (2009, OUP), Metapsychology, Vol. 13, No. 23 (2009).

Review of A Very Bad Wizard: Morality behind the Curtain by Tamler Sommers (2009, McSweeney’s), Metapsychology, Vol. 13, No. 53 (2009). [Featured on Arts & Letters Daily.]

In Progress

(If not already provided, drafts may be available upon request.)

“How to Debunk Moral Beliefs” (w/Victor Kumar, under review)

Abstract: Arguments attempting to debunk moral beliefs, by showing they are unjustified, have tended to be global, targeting all moral beliefs or a large set of them (e.g. non-utilitarian ones, those influenced by disgust). Popular debunking arguments point to various factors purportedly influencing moral beliefs, from evolutionary pressures, to automatic and emotionally-driven processes, to framing effects. We show that these sweeping arguments face a debunker’s dilemma: either the relevant factor is not a main basis for belief or it does not render the relevant beliefs unjustified. Empirical debunking arguments in ethics can avoid this predicament, but only if they are refocused on highly selective classes of moral belief. Experimental data can combine with familiar consistency reasoning to reveal that we are not treating like cases alike. These selective debunking arguments are unlikely to yield sweeping skeptical conclusions, but they can lead to moral progress.

Moral Responsibility and Mental Illness: A Call for Nuance.”  (w/Matt King, under review, featured on Bookforum)

 “The Means/Side-Effect Distinction in Moral Cognition: A Meta-Analysis” (w/Adam Feltz, revise and resubmit)

“The Limits of Appealing to Disgust” (drafted for The Moral Psychology of Disgust, eds. Victor Kumar & Nina Strohminger)

“The Burdens of Doris’s Skepticism” (book commentary to appear in Behavioral and Brain Sciences)

“Neuroethics” (in prep for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

A collaborative paper on intuitions about decision-theory puzzles (in progress)

A collaborative brain imaging experiment on moral exemplars (very early stages)

A paper on correcting for implicit bias (very early stages)

Collaborators

In some of my work, I have had the privilege of collaborating with some excellent scientists and philosophers, including: