Chris Howard: Fitting Philosophy

This month we have Chris Howard here at Legal-Phi. Chris has finished his PhD in Philosophy at University of Arizona in 2017. In the same year, he won the Sanders Prize in Metaethics with his essay The Fundamentality of Fit. Chris is now Research Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

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Why did you decide to become a philosopher?

Chris: I decided to become a philosopher because at some point in my life I realized that a philosopher is the closest thing to a wizard that one could be, and I have always wanted to be a wizard. This is true (awesome or sad?), but it’s not the only reason. I took courses in lots of different subjects early on in college, but the only subject I found myself talking about outside of class, constantly, was philosophy. As I took more philosophy, this only intensified. This was probably a little annoying for my friends and family. And I’m sorry about that. But I loved it. I loved it so much I never wanted to stop. And I haven’t! Talking about philosophy with others similarly gripped by its problems and puzzles continues to be my absolute favorite thing to do. I feel very lucky I get to do it every day (though I could stand to do even more of it, if I’m honest).

When and why did you start to work in metaethics?

Chris: I became interested in metaethics during a course on the subject I took in my last year of college. My instructor was Teresa Celada. At the time, I was interested mostly in normative ethics (Kantian ethics, in particular), but I also loved the courses I took in metaphysics and epistemology. I soon realized that doing metaethics meant doing all three of these things—at the same time! What could be better? Besides that, Teresa was an amazing teacher. Her lectures were infallibly clear and compelling. But even more important (in my view), she never let us get away with anything. She expected clarity and precision in both our written work and our in-class comments. I’m not sure I lived up to this, but the expectation stuck with me. Also, at one point during the semester, Jamie Dreier came to give a guest lecture. What a fascinating guy. Later that year, I went to visit Jamie to ask for advice about applying to graduate school (my college was about thirty minutes away). He was incredibly gracious and encouraging in response to what must have been obvious naiveté. I’m very grateful for that. I’m not sure I’d be doing this interview if it weren’t for that meeting.

Fittingness is the key notion of your essay The Fundamentality of Fit. What is fittingness and does it differ from notions like worthiness or merit?

Chris: Being fitting is a kind of normative status. It’s a status that’s shared by the attitudes of individuals who, for example, fear the fearsome, laud the laudable, admire the admirable, desire the desirable, and believe the credible. In all of these cases, the attitudes or responses in question are fitting with respect to their objects. Fittingness can be paraphrased, but not analyzed, in terms of ‘merit’ or ‘worthiness’. A response is fitting with respect to its object when the object merits, or is worthy of, that response. I say this is paraphrase, and not analysis, since I take it that the relation picked out by the terms ‘merit’ and ‘worthiness’ can’t helpfully be explicated except by appeal to the notion of fittingness. I’m not sure that fittingness can be analyzed in other terms—my current view is that it can’t. Still, we can characterize the relation by pointing to certain of its constitutive features, and to connections it bears to other properties. For example, it seems very plausible that various value properties are each extensionally equivalent to the fittingness of a certain kind of response. Something is valuable simpliciter just in case it’s fitting to value; something is admirable just in case it’s fitting to admire; something is fearsome just in case it’s fitting to fear. Also, it seems that whenever a fact makes a response fitting, that fact provides a (normative) reason for that response. If the fact that you’re empathetic makes you lovable, and so fit to love, then that fact plausibly provides a reason to love you. A final, distinguishing mark worth mentioning is that the fittingness of a response is unaffected by facts about the goodness or badness of making the response. The fact that admiring Cleopatra would get you into her good graces explains why it would be good if you admired her, but this fact is irrelevant to whether Cleo merits—or is worthy of—admiration.

Some philosophers report finding it hard to get a grip on the notion of fittingness. I confess I’ve never really understood why. I think the relation is, under some guise, actually quite familiar in ordinary normative thought.

In one of your papers you hold that a successful account of fittingness must satisfy a particular desideratum. What is this desideratum?

Chris: Ah, yes—the “crucial” desideratum! I propose this desideratum in an opinionated guide to fittingness I recently wrote for Philosophy Compass. As I indicated in my previous answer, it seems very plausible that something’s being valuable is (extensionally) equivalent to its being fitting to value, and that parallel equivalences hold between more specific (dis)value properties and the fittingness of certain, correspondingly specific ways of (dis)valuing. Someone is deplorable just in case he’s fitting to deplore; something is lovable just in case it’s fitting to love; someone is praiseworthy just in case she’s fitting to praise; someone is blameworthy just in case he’s fitting to blame. The crucial desideratum says that any adequate analysis of fittingness needs to guarantee that all of these equivalences (and their kin) come out as true. So it’s a constraint on the extensional adequacy of any would-be account of fittingness; any such account that fails to meet the crucial desideratum will be extensionally incorrect, and so fit to reject.

One might feel tempted to analyze fittingness in terms of reasons. Why do you think this isn’t a good way to go?

Chris: Yes, it’s a popular proposal that what it is for an attitude to be fitting is for there to be sufficient reason for it. One reason I don’t think this is a good way to go is that I don’t think the account can satisfy the crucial desideratum. As I’ve said, it’s very plausible that any fact that makes a response fitting provides a reason for that response. But it’s not similarly plausible that any fact that provides a reason for a response also makes that response fitting. The fact that a strange and terrible dictator will kill me unless I desire a kick in the pants gives me a reason to desire a kick in the pants—it’s a fact that favors this attitude. But this fact doesn’t also make it fitting to desire a kick in the pants—it’s not a fact that makes the kick desirable. So not all facts that provide reasons for attitudes also make those attitudes fitting. So there are possible cases where I have sufficient reason to desire something, even though that thing isn’t desirable (the kick in the pants case is plausibly one such case). So on a reason-based account of fittingness, the claim that something is fitting to desire just in case it’s desirable comes out as false. So a reasons-based account of fittingness doesn’t meet the desideratum.

In The Fundamentality of Fit you argue that fittingness—and not reasons or values—is the fundamental element of the normative domain, and can thus account for all the normative stuff (facts, properties, relations…). Why think that your ‘fittingness-first’ approach is more plausible than rival approaches?

Chris: We need a little background for this one. The main argument is a substantive, normative one. On the ethics of attitudes I like, reasons for attitudes come in two different kinds: fit- and value-related. Fit-related reasons for attitudes are facts that make those attitudes fitting; value-related reasons for attitudes are facts that make those attitudes somehow valuable, or beneficial to have. A view that says that both kinds of reasons are genuine reasons is very plausible. Normally you should have fitting attitudes. But in cases where having an unfitting attitude is necessary to produce a great good or prevent a great evil, it seems you ought to hold the unfitting attitude, all things considered. These claims resonate with common sense.

The main argument for my fittingness-first view over its reasons- and value-first rivals is that it can accommodate the pluralistic ethics of attitudes I favor, while these other views cannot. Reasons-firsters can’t accommodate a view on which both fit- and value-related reasons are genuine reasons, because their reasons-based account of value (what’s often called the ‘buck-passing’ account of value) is incompatible with the existence of value-related reasons. On a reasons-based account of value, what it is for a fact to be a respect in which something is good is for that fact to provide a reason to value that thing. This entails that all reasons to value something are respects in which that thing is good. But some value-related reasons to value things aren’t also respects in which those things are good (think of the kick in the pants case). So a reasons-based account of value is incompatible with the existence of value-related reasons. This is famously known as the ‘wrong kind of reason problem’, because if value-related reasons are genuine reasons for attitudes, they’re of the ‘wrong kind’ to figure in a reasons-based analysis of good.

Value-firsters can’t accommodate a view on which both fit- and value-related reasons are genuine reasons, because their value-based account of reasons is incompatible with the existence of fit-related reasons. This is because a value-based account of reasons (of the kind value-firsters favor) entails that all reasons for attitudes (and actions) are given by facts that make those attitudes somehow valuable, or good to have. But not all facts that make attitudes fitting also make it good to have those attitudes (e.g., not all facts that contribute to a proposition’s credibility make it good to believe that proposition, and not all facts that make people enviable make it good to envy them). So the value-firster’s value-based account of reasons is incompatible with the existence of fit-related reasons.

In contrast to these views, my fittingness-first view’s (fit-based) analyses of value and reasons jointly entail the existence of both fit- and value-related reasons. On its analysis of goodness, what it is for a fact to make something good or desirable is for that fact to make that thing fitting to desire. On its analysis of reasons, for a fact to provide a reason for a response is for that fact to explain either why that response is fitting or why that response is fitting to desire. These analyses jointly entail that a fact gets to be a reason either when it makes a response fitting or when it makes a response good. So they jointly entail that both fit- and value-related reasons are genuine reasons for attitudes.

There’s a lot more to say of course, but that’s at least the very basic gist.

Love is something that can be fitting or unfitting. In your forthcoming paper Fitting Love and Reasons for Loving you hold that what makes love fitting are the qualities of the beloved. Does your view imply that all reasons for love are provided by the beloved’s qualities?

Chris: This paper is a straightforward application of the ethics of attitudes I favor. I argue that the beloved’s lovable qualities are what make love fitting, and that these qualities provide genuine fit-related reasons for love, but that the fit-related reasons for love provided by the beloved’s lovable qualities aren’t the only reasons for love that there are. In addition, there are value-related reasons for love, which derive from the value of valuable, loving relationships. Roughly, your continued love for your beloved is necessary for the continued existence of your valuable, loving relationship, and so the value of your relationship provides you with derivative, value-related reasons for continued love. That’s the picture. One of its major payoffs is that it gives the ‘quality view’ of what makes love fitting the resources it needs to respond to a host of old objections. Take the problem of trading up. The quality view predicts the apparently counterintuitive result that if someone has qualities that make her more lovable than your beloved, then it’s fitting for you to love that person more than, or instead of, your beloved. Or take the problem of inconstancy. If your beloved loses his lovable qualities, the quality view implies that it would be unfitting for you to continue loving him. My response is simply to accept these implications, but to deny that from the fact that it would be fitting (unfitting) for you to love someone, it necessarily follows that you have sufficient reason (not) to do so. This takes the teeth out. What blocks the entailment from ‘fitting to love’ to ‘sufficient reason to love’ is the existence of value-related reasons. For example, in cases where, intuitively, I shouldn’t trade up, what explains this is the presence of value-related reasons, which are provided, ultimately, by the value of my current relationship.

In your In Defense of the Wrong Kind of Reason, you argue that skepticism about the wrong kind of reasons is mistaken. Can you briefly explain what is a Wrong Kind of Reason (WKR)? What do skeptics about WKRs hold?

Chris: ‘Wrong-kind’ reasons for attitudes are reasons for attitudes that aren’t fit-related. Fit-related reasons are the ‘right kind’ of reasons. Value-related reasons are the ‘wrong kind’. The label is unfortunate. It derives from the fact that value-related reasons generate counterexamples to reasons-based accounts of value. They’re the wrong kind of reasons to figure in such accounts. (The right kind of reasons to figure in such accounts are, as I said, fit-related. But reasons-firsters can’t appeal to fit-related reasons in giving their analysis of value without first accounting for what it is to be a fit-related reason in terms of reasons and non-normative properties alone, lest they give up their reasons-firstness. In short, reasons-firsters need to give an analysis of fittingness in terms of reasons. But this poses a problem that’s structurally parallel to the wrong kind of reason problem: value-related reasons generate counterexamples, as I mentioned above.)

The label ‘wrong-kind reason’ is unfortunate, because many people infer from it that wrong-kind reasons are bad reasons, or not really reasons at all. But this view is controversial. For example, I reject it. But many people do accept and argue for it. These are ‘wrong-kind reason skeptics’. The name is due to Jonathan Way. Wrong-kind reason skeptics claim that wrong-kind reasons aren’t reasons, but ‘incentives’, where an incentive for an attitude is a reason to want that attitude or to try to bring it about that you have it. There’s a lot to say about the debate between wrong-kind reason skeptics and defenders. So I’ll mention just one thing I’ve always found odd about wrong-kind reason skepticism. Wrong-kind reason skeptics claim that incentives for attitudes are reasons to want those attitudes (but not reasons to have them). The reasons they have in mind are fit-related. So they think value-related reasons for attitudes are really fit-related reasons to want those attitudes. But why shouldn’t facts that give you fit-related reasons to want an attitude also give you reasons for the attitude? After all, it’s very plausible that something similar holds in the case of reasons to act: Facts that give you fit-related reasons to want to perform an act also give you reason to perform the act (if you can). So: why the asymmetry?

What are you working on at the moment?

Chris: I’m working on a few different projects right now. One connects my ethics of attitudes to the ethics of action. Many contemporary act-consequentialists define facts about what you ought to do in terms of facts about what you ought to prefer to be the case. They claim that you ought to perform an action if and only if (and because) you ought to prefer its outcome to the outcome of any available alternative. Some of these theorists, like Doug Portmore and Michael Smith, claim they can accommodate deontic constraints, such as a constraint against killing the innocent. But I argue they can’t. In a case where you can prevent five killings only by killing one, you ought not kill, but you ought to prefer the outcome in which you do.

This project is neat, in part because it raises a puzzle: How could what you should do come apart from what you should prefer to be the case? In a paper in progress I provide an answer. Roughly (spoiler alert), the distinction between fit- and value-related reasons applies in the case of reasons for action, and fit-related reasons to perform an act aren’t also reasons to prefer the outcome in which you perform it.

A second paper I’m working on defends the view that fit-related reasons are genuine reasons for attitudes. For a long time, this view went uncontested. Nobody liked wrong-kind reasons; everybody liked right-kind reasons. (Personally, I’ve always liked both.) But in any case, the tides have turned. In recent work, Barry Maguire, Susanna Rinard, and others have argued that fit-related reasons for attitudes aren’t really reasons for those attitudes. So I’m writing a paper that defends the normativity of fit.

What was the most challenging aspect of grad school in philosophy?

Chris: Grad school can be challenging in lots of different ways. The most challenging aspect for me was trying to figure out how to make time to do all of the things that a graduate student needs to do: research, teaching, conferencing, and service. Finding the right way to balance all these responsibilities can be difficult (for faculty, too), but once you find a schedule and routine that works for you, it all becomes much more manageable. Balancing research and teaching can still sometimes be challenging (for me), but I can’t complain too much about two things I love fighting for my time.

Any advice to those starting grad school in philosophy?

Chris: It’s difficult to offer advice that would generalize well, since embarking on graduate school can mean lots of different things to different people. But here’s my best shot: be good to yourself and your colleagues. Philosophy is hard. Polished papers in top journals and excellent conference presentations can look simple and effortless, but they almost certainly never are. Good philosophy takes time and lots (and lots) of hard work, no matter who you are. Don’t beat yourself up for taking the time you need. And reward yourself for your successes, large and small. And remember that things are just as hard for your colleagues. Do what you can to make things better for them. We all made an unorthodox life choice going into philosophy, and it’s important that we stick together.

How do you usually work? Do you write a bit every day? Do you always plan every step of your papers before writing up?

Chris: I write a bit every day, but I don’t plan every step of a project before I start it. I figure out what I ultimately want to say by writing what I currently think. I also spend a lot of time reading while I’m writing—I don’t work through all of the literature, and then write. I work through the literature while I write. I’ll often scrap partial drafts and start over. I spend a lot of time thinking about framing, since I think framing the issues in the right way can often be the key to a good paper. I also like to start thinking seriously about future projects while I’m working on a current one. I find writing goes best if I’ve been bouncing the ideas around for weeks or months in advance of actually writing them down. I also like to write first thing in the morning, and sometimes shortly before going to bed. I find if I fall asleep thinking about what I’m working on, I usually wake up with good ideas. I reserve the middle of the day for teaching and admin duties.

How do you usually spend your leisure time? Do you have any hobbies?

Chris: In the last few years I’ve picked up running, which is a hobby I never thought I’d have. I never really enjoyed running just for the sake of running, but recently, my partner and I have gotten pretty seriously into it. We ran several races over the summer and we’re signed up to run another this fall. I’ve found that having a race on the horizon really helps me stick to a training schedule.

I’m also one of those people who grew up playing lots and lots of Dungeons and Dragons. This was not cool when I was doing it (or so I was told), but someone recently told me it’s pretty cool now. Unfortunately I haven’t found anyone to play with since I was a kid, but I’d certainly be interested if the opportunity presented itself!

Can you list two papers in moral philosophy that you think are underrated?

Chris: I’ll mention one paper that was just published, and so probably hasn’t been around long enough to qualify as underrated, and I suspect won’t be underrated once it has been out for a while. Really I just want more people to read it. It’s “The Aptness of Anger” by Amia Srinivasan. The paper tackles a long line of philosophical and political arguments to the effect that victims of injustice shouldn’t get angry on the grounds that their doing so would be counterproductive. Srinivasan observes that even if counterproductive, anger can be apt, or fitting. And, when it is, the question of whether victims of injustice ought to be angry can’t be settled by considerations of prudence alone. Such individuals face a genuine normative conflict. Further, Srinivasan argues, the very existence of this conflict itself constitutes a distinctive kind of injustice: it forces victims of injustice to choose between being aptly angry or acting prudently. The paper is truly excellent, bringing together lots of different areas of philosophy in a highly accessible way to shed light on a phenomenon that’s clearly worthy of serious consideration.

A second paper is “A Suggested Non-Naturalistic Analysis of Good” by A.C. Ewing. This one’s a bit more abstract, but no less wonderful. It also has the virtue (in this context) of actually being underrated. Ewing was among the first to defend a fitting attitudes analysis of value, and this paper is the first place he pitches it, published about ten years prior to The Definition of Good, in which he provides a sustained defense. The paper showcases Ewing’s philosophical ability, but also his personality. The piece is extremely careful and very (very) tentative. In fact, in the first paragraph, Ewing makes clear he doesn’t “positively believe” anything he goes on to say—that’s why it’s a suggested analysis of good. What a striking difference in style compared to some of his contemporaries (think G.E. Moore). Still, the paper reflects the methodology common to many British ethical theorists writing in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. The paper begins with a careful discussion of the ethical terms to be deployed throughout, proceeds to offer some interesting theoretical insights concerning the relations between those terms, and then brings these insights to bear on issues in normative ethics. It’s really a perfect case study of the period’s method. But unfortunately, the paper (and subsequent book) have received relatively little attention. Ewing had the misfortune of publishing some of his most important ideas at the tail end of what Tom Hurka calls the “golden age” of ethics (from Sidgwick to Ross), and never received anywhere near the level of attention that many of his contemporaries did.

Can you name two or three books that have influenced your philosophical views the most?

Chris: The books that have influenced my views the most are easily those from the period I was just discussing—moral theory’s “golden age”. In no particular order: Moore’s Principia, Sidgwick’s Methods, Brentano’s The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Ross’s Foundations and The Right and the Good, Broad’s Five Types of Ethical Theory, and Ewing’s The Definition of Good. I could read these books on repeat. In fact I have. And every time I go back I learn something new. I love the style and method. I’m also highly sympathetic to the metaethical commitments common to almost all of these authors (nonnaturalism and intuitionism). Their work is normative ethics was also clearly groundbreaking, and often interfaced with their metaethics in interesting ways. I wish the “golden age” never ended. Let’s go back.

What are your two favorite books outside philosophy?

Chris: It’s hard to pick two, so I’ll just go with two I read recently and really enjoyed. Both are nonfiction, and related to some of my developing interests in political philosophy and PPE. The first is Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves. The book argues that mainstream discussions of wealth inequality in the US have focused too narrowly on the gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else. Really, the most consequential (and widening) gap is between the upper middle class—the top 20 percent—and everyone else. Upper middle class parents have become more and more adept at passing their status on to their kids, and the result is a significant reduction in social mobility, and an increasingly class-based society. Reeves offers some recommendations for reducing “opportunity hoarding” among the upper middle class, most of which involve reduced partiality on the part of wealthy parents toward their own children. For obvious reasons, it seems like an uphill battle to convince well-off parents not to draw on their connections to land their kids competitive internships, or to stop signing them up for expensive SAT prep courses. But insofar as we care about promoting broader opportunity and a more equitable society, I think Reeves’ ideas are worthy of consideration.

The second book is Black Edge by Sheelah Kolhatkar. The book tells the story of Steven Cohen and the rise and fall of his hedge fund SAC Capital, the target of the largest insider trading investigation in history. The book reads like a thriller and is extremely well-written. It also provides a nice, accessible introduction to the ins and outs of certain parts of our financial system. Insider trading also turns out to be ethically and legally very interesting. For a taste, I’d recommend this long-form piece in The New Yorker by Kolhatkar.

You can find more information about Chris Howard and his work on his website.