UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of June 2016: Ruth Chang

Ruth Chang

Professor of Philosophy

Rutgers University


hsafmovingshotchangAOS: Ethics, Meta-Ethics, Moral Psychology, Normative Ethics, Philosophy of Action, Philosophy of Law, Practical Reason

My current philosophical interests center on the nature of value, practical reasons, normativity and agency. One of my main concerns has been to understand the structure of practical normativity. Take, for instance, value. It is commonly assumed that every value can normatively relate two items in only one of three ways, by one being better than, worse than, or as good as the other. I have argued that this assumption, which underwrites normative work in ethics, rational and social choice theory, politics, law, health care and business studies, and so on, should be rejected. Items can be normatively related not only by being better than, worse than, or as good as one another but also by being on a par. I suggest that thinkers have overlooked parity because they have unreflectively assimilate the normative to the nonnormative: lengths and weights are non-normatively related by ‘more’, ‘less’, and ‘equal’, which are the analogoues of ‘better’, ‘worse’, and ‘equal’. But we shouldn’t assume that value and reasons have the same structure as non-normative considerations like length and weight.

The structure of practical normativity is important because it opens up a novel way of thinking about practical agency. The slogan, ‘recognize and respond to reasons,’ as summarizing the job description of a rational agent, is too impoverished to allow agency itself – that is you, yourself, sometimes called your ‘will’ – to play any significant role in determining what it is rational for you to do. My current work explores alternative views both about the structure of normativity – practical and theoretical – and about what it is to be a rational agent that take seriously the possibility that the normative is fundamentally different in structure from the nonnormative and that we, ourselves, our very agency per se, can play a direct role in determining what we should do.

Other current projects include work on issues in population ethics, the nature of indeterminacy, both semantic and metaphysical, and the philosophy of law, in particular, how the law evolves through legal adjudication. I’ve also worked on issues concerning value pluralism, the incommensurability of values, the nature of practical reasons, social choice, and some issues in metaethics.