UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of August 2016: Manuel Vargas

Manuel Vargas

Professor of Philosophy

University of California, San Diego (starting in Fall 2017)


USF-Law_Ries©2015_3220AOS: Moral Psychology, Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of the Americas

Most of my philosophical work is about the overlap of moral, psychological, and legal issues concerning human agency and freedom. I try to understand how the kinds of creatures we are does or does not ground a wide range of our social practices—especially those that appeal to ideas like culpability, freedom, capacities, moral credit and blame.

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that, despite the many riches of traditional work on these issues, there is an under-appreciated set of puzzles about the significance of our sociality, the content of social norms, and the structural and institutional context of action, as they pertain to and structure our agency. That is, many important forms of agency are structured from the outside in. However, a range of moral, legal, and political practices (and attendant theories) tend to presume that our agency is best understood as a roughly atomistic thing, best characterized in a way abstracted from context. This leaves us with some rich and interesting philosophical puzzles, the general form of which is this: to what extent should our existing practices, built on broadly atomistic presumptions about agency, be abandoned, retained, or transformed once we relinquish an atomistic picture of our agency?

In the face of these kinds of questions, philosophers and scientists of a certain predilection have leapt to headline-grabbing eliminativist conclusions about, for example, free will, moral responsibility, desert, and punishment. Much of my work has tried to urge that this is too quick. There is plausibly a middle ground on at least some of these things: i.e., we might have good reasons to retain various moral, political, and legal practices even if we lack the sorts of agency that are oftentimes taken to have figured in standard justifications of these practices. How such a story goes for moral responsibility (and one notion of free will) is the subject of my book Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility.

Beyond my work on agency, moral psychology, and philosophical issues in the law, I have a deep affection for various strands of philosophy produced in Latin America. I’m particularly interested in the history of Mexican philosophy, especially from the late 19th century to the middle parts of the 20th century. I’ve also found it instructive to reflect on the history of philosophical work on race in Latin America, where there is a very old tradition of seriously engaging with questions about identity and putative human kinds.

I’m inclined to think that everyone doing contemporary philosophy benefits from having a foot placed deeply in something outside of contemporary philosophy—whether it is in some part of the historical tradition, some counter-canonical body of work, or a different field. Besides being good for one’s intellectual biome, as it were, it also helps remind one of the contingency of the social relations that structure contemporary philosophical attention.