Dr. Aaron Allen Smuts

Department, Office, or School
Department of Philosophy
  • Associate Professor
  • PHILOSOPHY Chair

Aaron Smuts earned his PhD in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Aaron's interests range across a wide variety of topics in ethics, the philosophy of art, metaphysics, and general value theory. Currently he is working on two projects. The first is on the nature and value of well-being. The other project concerns the normative assessment of emotions. Aaron has published over three dozen articles in a variety of books and academic journals.

Education

University of Wisconsin, Madison (2002-2006)
2006 Ph.D., Department of Philosophy 
Ph.D. minor, Department of Communication, program in film.
Dissertation: Laughing at Art: Humor, Art, and Morality (Chair: Noël Carroll)

University of Texas at Austin
1997-8 Ph.D. student, Department of Philosophy  

University of Houston, TX  
1997 BA Philosophy, Summa cum Laude 
1997 BA History, Summa cum Laude

Selected Publications

A Life Worth Living.

Theories of well-being tell us what makes a life good for the one who lives it. But there is more to what makes a life worth living than just well-being. We care about the worth of our lives, and we are right to do so. I defend an objective list theory of the worth of a life: The most worthwhile lives are those high in various objective goods. These principally include welfare and meaning. By distinguishing between worth and welfare, we can capture the intuitive pull of broad theories of welfare without their liabilities.

Five Theses About Caring.

I defend five theses about caring: Thesis 1: Animals can care. Thesis 2: Care is not an emotion. Thesis 3: To care is to value. Thesis 4: Caring cannot be reduced to belief. Thesis 5: Caring cannot be reduced to desire. These five theses do not amount to a full-fledged theory of care, but they get us much closer to a workable analysis. They help sketch some of the contours of the concept and close off a few false starts. This paper is principally structured as an argument from elimination. I show what care cannot be, leaving in play a restricted set of options. Caring appears to be a sui generis psychological state, common to both humans and some animals, that cannot be reduced to belief, desire, or emotion.

How Much Should We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?

It is widely assumed that we can meaningfully talk about emotional reactions as being appropriate or inappropriate. Much of the discussion has focused on one kind of appropriateness, that of fittingness. An emotional response is appropriate only if it fits its object. For instance, fear only fits dangerous things. There is another dimension of appropriateness that has been relatively ignored — proportionality. For an emotional reaction to be appropriate not only must the object fit, the reaction should be of the appropriate intensity. It should be proportional. The problem for any attempt to develop norms of appropriateness is that proportionality is a factor of how much the person cares about the focus. But, as I argue, it is not clear how we should normatively assess care. I present problems for a few ways to assess the normativity of care and argue that the difficulties are compounded when it comes to fiction.

In Defense of the No-Reasons View of Love.

Although we can try to explain why we love, we can never justify our love. Love is neither based on reasons, nor responsive to reasons, nor can it be assessed for normative reasons. Love can be odd, unfortunate, fortuitous, or even sadly lacking, but it can never be appropriate or inappropriate. We may have reasons to act on our love, but we cannot justify our loving feelings. Shakespeare's Bottom is right: "Reason and love keep little company together now-a-days." Indeed, they keep none and they never kept any: there are no justifying reasons for love.

Pleasurably Regarding the Pain of Fictional Others.

Is it ever bad to take pleasure in the suffering of fictional characters? I think so. I attempt to show when and why. I begin with two powerful objections to my view: (1) engaging with fiction is akin to morally unproblematic autonomous fantasy, and (2) since no one is harmed, it is morally unproblematic. I reply to the objections and defend a Moorean view on the issue: It is intrinsically bad to enjoy evil, actual (past, present, or future) and merely imagined. In support, I offer four examples. Then I argue against Moore's claim that it is equally bad to delight in fictional suffering as it is to enjoy actual suffering. Finally, I argue that even though it is bad to enjoy imagined suffering, the power of fiction is often mitigating. The moral problems are more often with the works of fiction than with the audience.

Love and Free Will.

Many think that love would be a casualty of free will skepticism. I disagree. I argue that love would be largely unaffected if we came to deny free will, not simply because we cannot shake the attitude, but because love is not chosen, nor do we want it to be. Here, I am not alone; others have reached similar conclusions. But a few important distinctions have been overlooked. Even if hard incompatibilism is true, not all love is equal. Although we have only minimal control over love, it can be more or less authentic. I develop my position by considering the fictional trope of love potions and the implications of a futuristic psychotropic, Lovezac—Viagra for the heart. But I am not as optimistic as some. Even though free will skepticism would not jeopardize love-the-feeling, there are reasons to think that loving relationships might not be immune.

Welfare, Meaning, and Worth.The central thesis of this book is that there is more to what makes a life worth living than welfare. I argue that the notion of worth captures matters of importance that no plausible theory of welfare can account for. Worth is best thought of as a higher-level kind of value. I defend an objective list theory (OLT) of worth¬—lives worth living are net high in various objective goods. Not only do I defend an list of some of the goods, I also defend a set of bads, a set of things that detract from the worth of a life.

I defend a theory of worth, a theory of welfare, and a theory of meaning. I devote a chapter to each form of value before exploring the implications for moral theory and the viability of pessimism about the human condition.

Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Love. Oxford University Press. forthcoming. Co-edited by Christopher Grau & Aaron Smuts.

 

Cognitive and Philosophical Approaches to Horror. In Harry Benshoff (ed.), Blackwell Companion to the Horror Film. Blackwell forthcoming.

Four main issues have occupied center stage in the analytic-cognitivist work on horror: (1) What is horror? (2) What is the appeal of horror? (3) How does it frighten audiences? and, (4) is it irrational to be scared of horror fiction?

L'Humor. In Julien Deonna Emma Tieffenbach (ed.), Petite Dictionnaire des Valeurs. forthcoming.

Most everything one might think about humor is in dispute. Only a few negative claims are fairly clear. Does humor always involve feelings of superiority? Probably not. But what properties do objects need in order to be amusing? Most plausibly, humorous objects present non-threatening incongruities. However, not all such incongruities are amusing. So there must be something more. -/- What is the connection between feelings of amusement and laughter? Amusement typically leads to laughter, but not always. And we often laugh simply out of nervousness. Could someone feel intense amusement and not have the slightest urge to laugh? -/- Is amusement an emotion like fear, anger, or embarrassment? Pre-reflectively it seems so, but amusement is curiously different: it lacks concern, something we find in all other standard emotional responses. -/- Many think that we can rationally justify at least some emotional responses. It seems that anger, for instance, can be appropriate or inappropriate. Can the same be said of amusement? Some people do seem to laugh inappropriately, but it's hard to think that they have incorrectly evaluated something as humorous. 

Love and Death: The Problem of Resilience. In Michael Cholbi (ed.), Immortality and the Philosophy of Death. Rowman and Littlefield forthcoming.

The strongly resilient are able to quickly get over the loss of their beloved. This is not an entirely attractive capacity. In this paper, I argue that it is appropriate to be distressed about the fact that we might, quickly or slowly, get over the death of our loved ones. Moller argues that the principal problem with resilience is that it puts us in a defective epistemological position, one where we are no longer able to appreciate the significance of what we have lost. Although I think this is a genuine concern, it does little to capture the source of our dismay at the prospect. The problem is not that not caring will make us blind to our beloved's past importance, but that we simply will no longer care for our beloved. The source of our dismay is captured nicely in a passage from Proust that Moller cites but quickly dismisses in two separate papers. My goal here is to defend something akin to the Proustian view that resilience amounts to a death of self.

Philosophy of Film: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge. forthcoming.

Philosophy of Film: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge) provides a critical overview of the literature on eleven different issues in the philosophy of film, from "What is Film?" to "Can Film Do Philosophy?" It aims to provide an objective overview of the principal arguments on each side of the issues. The set of issues includes all of the most important topics as well as some that are less well represented in the discipline, such as whether the power of cinema derives from its similarity to dreams.

Philosophy of Film: An Introduction. Routledge. forthcoming.

 

The Ethics of Imagination and Fantasy. In Amy Kind (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. forthcoming.

The "ethics of imagination" or the "ethics of fantasy" encompasses the various ways in which we can morally evaluate the imagination. This topic covers a range of different kinds of imagination: (1) fantasizing, (2) engaging with fictions, and (3) dreaming. The clearest, live ethical question concerns the moral value of taking pleasure in undeserved suffering, whether willfully imagined, represented, or dreamed. Much of this entry concerns general theoretical considerations and how they relate to the ethics of fantasy. In the final sections I walk through the three types of imagination and point out some of the open questions concerning each type.

How Not to Defend Response Moralism. Journal of Aesthetic Education 49 (4):19-38. 2015.

The bulk of the literature on the relationship between art and morality is principally concerned with an aesthetic question: Do moral flaws with works of art constitute aesthetic flaws?1 Much less attention has been paid to the ways in which artworks can be morally flawed. There are at least three promising contenders that concern aesthetic education: Artworks can be morally flawed by endorsing immorality, corrupting audiences, and encouraging responses that are bad to have. When it comes to works of fiction, the third suggestion requires what Allan Hazlett calls response moralism—the position that audience reactions to artworks can be morally bad.2 Here, I will put aside issues of aesthetic..

Is It Better to Love Better Things? In Tony Milligan, Christian Maurer & Kamila Pacovská (eds.), Love and Its Objects. 2015.

It seems better to love virtue than vice, pleasure than pain, good than evil. Perhaps it's also better to love virtuous people than vicious people. But at the same time, it's repugnant to suggest that a mother should love her smarter, more athletic, better looking son than his dim, clumsy, ordinary brother. My task is to help sort out the conflicting intuitions about what we should love. In particular, I want to address a problem for the no-reasons view, the theory that love cannot be rationally justified. Since it seems better to love good people rather than evil villains, it appears that there are indeed reasons for (or, at least, against) love. Is it coherent to talk this way and deny that love can be justified? I think so and will explain how.

Cinematic. Nordic Journal of Aesthetics 23 (46):78-95. 2014.

Is cinematicity a virtue in film? Is lack of cinematicity a defect? Berys Gaut thinks so. He claims that cinematicity is a pro tanto virtue in film. I disagree. I argue that the term “cinematic” principally refers to some cluster of characteristics found in films featuring the following: expansive scenery, extreme depth of field, high camera positioning, and elaborate tracking shots. We often use the word as a term of praise. And we are likely right to do so. We are right if we mean that the film does well what movies often do well. We are wrong if we mean that the film is good for doing what is merely distinctive of film. This issue has important implications for understanding the role of the medium in artistic evaluation. I argue that we should reject Gaut’s claim because it entails an implausibly strong medium specificity thesis.

Normative Reasons for Love, Part I. Philosophy Compass 9 (8):507-517. 2014.

Are there normative reasons for love? More specifically, is it possible to rationally justify love? Or can we at best provide explanations for why we love? In Part I of this entry, I discuss the nature of love, theories of emotion, and what it takes to justify an attitude. In Part II, I provide an overview of the various positions one might take on the rational justification of love. I focus on the debate between defenders of the no-reasons view and the reasons view. Along the way, I discuss the significance of falling in love, the problem of trading up, and the notion of irreplaceability. I evaluate attempts to justify love based on the intrinsic and the relational properties of the beloved.

Normative Reasons for Love, Part II. Philosophy Compass 9 (8):518-526. 2014.

Are there normative reasons for love? More specifically, is it possible to rationally justify love? Or can we at best provide explanations for why we love? In Part I of this entry, I discuss the nature of love, theories of emotion, and what it takes to justify an attitude. In Part II, I provide an overview of the various positions one might take on the rational justification of love. I focus on the debate between defenders of the no-reasons view and the reasons view. Along the way, I discuss the significance of falling in love, the problem of trading up, and the notion of irreplaceability. I evaluate attempts to justify love based on the intrinsic and the relational properties of the beloved.

The Ethics of Singing Along: The Case of 'Mind of a Lunatic'. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71 (1):121-129. 2013.

In contrast to film, theater, and literature, audiences typically sing along with popular songs. This can encourage a first-person mode of engagement with the narrative content. Unlike mere spectators, listeners sometimes imagine acting out the content when it is recited in the first-person. This is a common mode of engaging with popular music. And it can be uniquely morally problematic. It is problematic when it involves the enjoyment of imaginatively doing evil. I defend a Moorean view on the issue: It is wrong to enjoy evil whether real or merely fiction. I develop my position through an examination of the controversially song "Mind of a Lunatic" (1990) by the Houston based rap group Geto Boys.

Five Tests for What Makes a Life Worth Living. Journal of Value Inquiry 47 (4):1-21. 2013.

I evaluate four historically precedented tests for what makes a life worth living: (1) The Suicide Test (Camus), (2) The Recurrence Test (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), (3) The Extra Life Test (Cicero and Hume), and (4) The Preferring Not to Have Been Test (Job and Williams). I argue that all four fail and tentatively defend the heuristic value of a fifth, The Pre-Existence Test for what makes a life worth living: (5) A life worth living is one that a benevolent caretaker with foreknowledge would allow. A life worth avoiding is one that a benevolent caretaker would disallow. This test usefully tracks the general extension of the concept of what makes a life worth living. I consider three objections and note that there appears to be an indeterminate middle category of lives worth neither. Ultimately, I argue that any plausible test will risk circularity or will require a theory of worth to be viable.

Painful Art and the Limits of Well-Being. In Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Suffering Art Gladly. Palgrave/ Macmillan 2013.

In this chapter I explore what painful art can tell us about the nature and importance of human welfare. My goal is not so much to defend a new solution to the paradox of tragedy, as it is to explore the implications of the kinds of solutions that I find attractive. Both nonhedonic compensatory theories and constitutive theories explain why people seek out painful art, but they have troublesome implications. On some narrow theories of well-being, they imply that painful art is bad for us. Accordingly, we may rightly wonder if it rational for people to watch melodramas or to listen to love songs. One might think that we should generally avoid unpleasant works of art. This implication flirts with absurdity. I show how it can be avoided by making a distinction between well-beingand worth.

Reply to Elliott: In Defense of the Good Cause Account. Film and Philosophy 17:47-57. 2013.

Jay Elliott raises an important objection to the central claim of my paper "It’s a Wonderful Life: Pottersville and the Meaning of Life.” There I defend the good cause account (GCA) of the meaning of life. GCA holds that one's life is meaningful to the extent that one is causally responsible for objective good. Elliott argues that although GCA correctly implies that George Bailey lives a meaningful life, it might also imply that Potter's life is meaningful. But this is absurd. To avoid this problem, Elliott defends a highly compelling alternative to GCA. He also challenges my interpretation of the most important sequence in the movie, George Bailey's trip to Pottersville. In this short reply, I will focus on his objection to GCA, as the interpretive differences are relatively minor.

To Be or Never to Have Been: Anti-Natalism and a Life Worth Living. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (4):1-19. 2013.

David Benatar argues that being brought into existence is always a net harm and never a benefit. I disagree. I argue that if you bring someone into existence who lives a life worth living (LWL), then you have not all things considered wronged her. Lives are worth living if they are high in various objective goods and low in objective bads. These lives constitute a net benefit. In contrast, lives worth avoiding (LWA) constitute a net harm. Lives worth avoiding are net high in objective bads and low in objective goods. It is the prospect of a LWA that gives us good reason to not bring someone into existence. Happily, many lives are not worth avoiding. Contra Benatar, many are indeed worth living. Even if we grant Benatar his controversial asymmetry thesis, we have no reason to think that coming into existence is always a net harm.

The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life. Southern Journal of Philosophy 51 (4):536-562. 2013.

I defend the theory that one's life is meaningful to the extent that one promotes the good. Call this the good cause account (GCA) of the meaning of life. It holds that the good effects that count towards the meaning of one's life need not be intentional. Nor must one be aware of the effects. Nor does it matter whether the same good would have resulted if one had not existed. What matters is that one is causally responsible for the good. I argue that the best theory of the meaning of life should clearly distinguish between subjective fulfillment and objective meaningfulness. The GCA respects the distinction. And it is superior to its leading rivals in the recent literature, most notably those of Erik Wielenberg and Susan Wolf.

The Salacious and the Satirical: In Defense of Symmetric Comic Moralism. Journal of Aesthetic Education 47 (4):45-62. 2013.

A common view holds that humor and morality are antithetical: Moral flaws enhance amusement, and moral virtues detract. I reject both of these claims. If we distinguish between merely outrageous jokes and immoral jokes, the problems with the common view become apparent. What we find is that genuine morals flaws tend to inhibit amusement. Further, by looking at satire, we can see that moral virtues sometimes enhance amusement. The position I defend is called symmetric comic moralism. It is widely regarded as patently absurd. I hope to correct this mistake.

It's a Wonderful Life: Pottersville and the Meaning of Life. Film and Philosophy 16 (1):15-33. 2012.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) presents a plausible theory of the meaning of life: One's life is meaningful to the extent that it promotes the good. Although this theory is credible, the movie suggests a problematic refinement in the Pottersville sequence. George's waking nightmare asks us to compare the actual world with a world where he did not exist. It tells us that we are only responsible for the good that would not exist had we not existed. I argue that this is a bad test. It fails when there are redundant causes.

Less Good but Not Bad: In Defense of Epicureanism About Death. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 93 (2):197-227. 2012.

In this article I defend innocuousism– a weak form of Epicureanism about the putative badness of death. I argue that if we assume both mental statism about wellbeing and that death is an experiential blank, it follows that death is not bad for the one who dies. I defend innocuousism against the deprivation account of the badness of death. I argue that something is extrinsically bad if and only if it leads to states that are intrinsically bad. On my view, sometimes dying may be less good than living, but it is never bad to die.

Popular Art. In The Continuum Companion to Aesthetics. Continuum 2012.

The common assumption is that works of popular are less serious, less artistically valuable. Popular art is driven by a profit motive; real art, high art, is produced for loftier goals, such as aesthetic appreciation. Further, popular art is formulaic and gravitates toward the lowest common denominator. High art is innovative. It enriches, elevates, and inspires; popular art just entertains. Worse, popular art inculcates cultural biases. It is a corporate tool of ideological indoctrination, making contingent social and economic arrangements seem necessary. Or so the common view holds. In light of these common assumptions, we must ask just what marks the distinction between high art and popular art? Is there really any important difference at all? Is there reason to think that popular is by its very nature aesthetically inferior to high art? In this article, I consider some of the prominent answers to these questions. The discussion is organized around questions concerning two general topics: (1) the nature of popular art, and (2) the putative aesthetic deficiencies of popular art. 

The Power to Make Others Worship. Religious Studies 48 (2):221 - 237. 2012.

Can any being worthy of worship make others worship it? I think not. By way of an analogy to love, I argue that it is perfectly coherent to think that one could be made to worship. However, forcing someone to worship violates their autonomy, not because worship must be freely given, but because forced worship would be inauthentic—much like love earned through potions. For this reason, I argue that one cannot be made to worship properly; forced worship would be unfitting. My principal claim is that no being worthy of worship could exercise the power to make others worship it, since the act of making another worship would necessarily make one unworthy of worship.

Grounding Moralism: Moral Flaws and Aesthetic Properties. Journal of Aesthetic Education 45 (4):34-53. 2011.

My goal in this article is to provide support for the claim that moral flaws can be detrimental to an artwork's aesthetic value. I argue that moral flaws can become aesthetic flaws when they defeat the operation of good-making aesthetic properties. I do not defend a new theory of aesthetic properties or aesthetic value; instead, I attempt to show that on both the response-dependence and the supervenience account of aesthetic properties, moral flaws with an artwork are relevant to what aesthetic properties obtain. I provide a description of the main features of both theories of aesthetic properties, and then explain how moral flaws can become aesthetic flaws on either account. I address several objections to moralism about art including the "moralistic fallacy.".

Immortality and Significance. Philosophy and Literature 35 (1):134-149. 2011.

Although I reject his argument, I defend Bernard Williams’s claim that we would lose reason to go on if we were to live forever. Through a consideration of Borges’s story "The Immortal," I argue that immortality would be motivationally devastating, since our decisions would carry little weight, our achievements would be hollow victories of mere diligence, and the prospect of eternal frustration would haunt our every effort. An immortal life for those of limited ability will inevitably result in endless frustration, since the number of significant projects that one is capable of completing is finite, but the span of time is infinite.

Rubber Ring: Why Do We Listen to Sad Songs? In John Gibson & Noel Carroll (eds.), Narrative, Emotion, and Insight. Penn State UP 131. 2011.

In this essay, I discuss a few ways in which songs are used, ways in which listeners engage with and find meaning in music. I am most interested in sad songs—those that typically feature narratives about lost love, separation, missed opportunity, regret, hardship, and all manner of heartache. Many of us are drawn to sad songs in moments of emotional distress. The problem is that sad songs do not always make us feel better; to the contrary, they often make us feel worse. So, why do we listen to sad songs? I argue that we seek out sad songs, partly, to intensify distress, which helps us reflect on situations of profound personal significance.

The Feels Good Theory of Pleasure. Philosophical Studies 155 (2):241-265. 2011.

Most philosophers since Sidgwick have thought that the various forms of pleasure differ so radically that one cannot find a common, distinctive feeling among them. This is known as the heterogeneity problem. To get around this problem, the motivational theory of pleasure suggests that what makes an experience one of pleasure is our reaction to it, not something internal to the experience. I argue that the motivational theory is wrong, and not only wrong, but backwards. The heterogeneity problem is the principal source of motivation for this, otherwise, highly counterintuitive theory. I intend to show that the heterogeneity problem is not a genuine problem and that a more straightforward theory of pleasure is forthcoming. I argue that the various experiences that we call pleasures all feel good.

'Pickman's Model': Horror and the Objective Purport of Photographs. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 4:487-509. 2010.

It is commonly held, even among non-Bazinians, that photographs are typically perceived as more objective than other forms of depiction. The implications of this putative feature of photographic reception for the fiction film have been relatively ignored. If photos do have an objective purport, it would explain the power of a common device used in horror movies where a monster is selectively revealed through a degraded image, usually an amateur video recording. However, I argue that a better explanation is forthcoming. It is not the objective purport of photographs that accounts for the peculiar power of these scenes, but the power of our imaginations to picture monsters far more terrifying than those that can be readily depicted. This gives us reason to be skeptical of the idea that the objective purport of photographs contributes significantly to the reception of fiction films.

The Ethics of Humor: Can Your Sense of Humor Be Wrong? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13 (3):333-47. 2010.

I distill three somewhat interrelated approaches to the ethical criticism of humor: (1) attitude-based theories, (2) merited-response theories, and (3) emotional responsibility theories. I direct the brunt of my effort at showing the limitations of the attitudinal endorsement theory by presenting new criticisms of Ronald de Sousa’s position. Then, I turn to assess the strengths of the other two approaches, showing that that their major formulations implicitly require the problematic attitudinal endorsement theory. I argue for an effects-mediated responsibility theory , holding that the strongest ethical criticism that can be made of our sense of humor is that it might indicate some omission on our part. This omission could only be culpable in so far as a particular joke could do harm to oneself or others. In response to Ted Cohen’s doubts that such a mechanism of harm is forthcoming, I argue that the primary vehicle of the harmful effects of humor is laughter.

The Ethics of Humor: Can Your Sense of Humor Be Wrong? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13 (3):333-347. 2010.

 

The Ghost is the Thing: Can Fiction Reveal Audience Belief? Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34 (1):219-239. 2010.

Can fictions sometimes reveal important information about what beliefs audience members hold? I argue that a case can be made that emotional responses to some horror fictions can reveal that audiences harbor beliefs in the supernatural, beliefs that audience members might otherwise deny holding. To clarify the terms of the discussion, I begin with an overview of two leading theories of belief: the representational and dispositional accounts. I explore the role of belief in the production of emotional responses by posing a hard question that none of the leading theories answers directly: Why are some fictional scenarios and events so much more effective than others? I argue that the answer has to do with belief, that is, the beliefs about the world that audiences bring to fictions. After laying the groundwork, I argue that cultural differences in audience responses to some horror fictions might be best explained by what supernatural beliefs they hold. After developing the case, I offer several reasons to be skeptical of this conclusion.

Art and Negative Affect. Philosophy Compass 4 (1):39-55. 2009.

Why do people seemingly want to be scared by movies and feel pity for fictional characters when they avoid situations in real life that arouse these same negative emotions? Although the domain of relevant artworks encompasses far more than just tragedy, the general problem is typically called the paradox of tragedy. The paradox boils down to a simple question: If people avoid pain then why do people want to experience art that is painful? I discuss six popular solutions to the paradox: conversion, control, compensatory, meta-response, catharsis, and rich experience theories.

Do Moral Flaws Enhance Amusement? American Philosophical Quarterly 46 (2):151-163. 2009.

I argue that genuine moral flaws never enhance amusement, but they sometimes detract.I argue against comic immoralism--the position that moral flaws can make attempts at humor more amusing.Two common errors have made immoralism look attractive.First, immoralists have confused outrageous content with genuine moral flaws.Second, immoralists have failed to see that it is not sufficient to show that a morally flawed joke is amusing; they need to show that a joke can be more amusing because of the fact that it is morally flawed.I argue that the immoralist lacks a plausible account of how this could be the case.I reject immoralism and argue for comic moralism—the position that moral flaws can make attempts at humor less amusing.

Film as Philosophy: In Defense of a Bold Thesis. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67 (3):409-420. 2009.

I argue for a position close to what Paisley Livingston calls the bold thesis of cinema as philosophy. The bold thesis I defend is that films can make innovative, independent philosophical contributions by paradigmatic cinematic means. I clarify the thesis before presenting what Livingston thinks is a fatal problem for any similar position—the problem of paraphrase. As an example in defense of the bold thesis, I offer the "For God and Country" sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928). I argue that this scene offers an analogical argument similar in form to what some think Nietzsche presents in the Genealogy of Morality. Moreover, I argue that the argument presented in October is independent, could have been innovative, and is presented via the paradigmatic cinematic means of montage.

Story Identity and Story Type. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67 (1):5-14. 2009.

Although it seems plausible to say that the same story can be retold in different media, it is difficult to say exactly what this would entail. The primary difficulty is in coming up with an acceptable theory of story identity. In this article I present several theories of story identity and explore their weaknesses. I argue that in the end we are left with two unattractive options: a strict theory that implies that the same story can almost never be retold and a lenient theory that has trouble differentiating between a general story type and the same story.

The Paradox of Suspense. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2009 (6.1):1-15. 2009.

The ultimate success of Hollywood blockbusters is dependent upon repeat viewings. Fans return to theaters to see films multiple times and buy DVDs so they can watch movies yet again. Although it is something of a received dogma in philosophy and psychology that suspense requires uncertainty, many of the biggest box office successes are action movies that fans claim to find suspenseful on repeated viewings. The conflict between the theory of suspense and the accounts of viewers generates a problem known as the paradox of suspense, which we can boil down to a simple question: If suspense requires uncertainty, how can a viewer who knows the outcome still feel suspense?

What is Interactivity? Journal of Aesthetic Education 43 (4):pp. 53-73. 2009.

I argue that the term "interactive" should be considered a general-purpose term that indicates something about whatever it is applied to, whether that is art, artifact, or nature. I base my definition in the notion of "interacting with" something. First, I look for essential features of this relation, and then using these features, I develop a notion of interactivity that can help distinguish the interactive from non-interactive arts. Although I am skeptical of the benefits interactivity affords, interactive artworks are significant in that they are the first instances of mass art to be truly "concreative." Prior to building a definition of interactivity, I provide a novel reading of Collingwood in order to revive his notion of "concreativity" for contemporary application. In order to develop my theory of interactivity as mutual responsiveness, I analyze four problematic definitions of interactivity: (1) the control theory, (2) the making use theory, (3) the input/output theory, (4) Dominic McIver Lopes' modifiable structure theory, and (5) Janet Murray's procedural/participatory theory. In each case, I reveal a problem that my final notion solves. After presenting a definition of interactivity, I defend the viability of my theory against skeptical remarks that interactivity is a useless concept. To highlight the significance of my analysis, I analyze an argument against the value of concreative art—that interactivity is incompatible with narrative immersion. 

Horror. In Paisley Livingston & Carl Plantinga (eds.), Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. 2008.

Three questions have occupied much of the philosophical literature on cinematic horror: What is horror? How is it able to frighten and disgust? Why do we seek out horror if it horrifies? Although there are numerous other important topics, this entry will focus on these three general questions, since they motivate the overwhelming majority of the philosophical writing on cinematic horror.

The Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 66 (3):281-291. 2008.

What is suspense and how is it created? An answer to this question constitutes a theory of suspense. I propose that any theory of suspense needs to be able to account for three curious features: (1) Suspense is seldom felt in our daily lives, but frequently felt in response to works of fiction and other narrative artworks. [Narrative Imbalance] (2) It is widely thought that suspense requires uncertainty, but we often feel suspense in response to narratives when we have knowledge of the outcome. [Paradox of Suspense] (3) The amount of suspense felt in response to a narrative typically diminishes on repeated encounters. [Diminishing Returns] I offer a theory of suspense that can explain these three features. I argue for a theory called the Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense, which holds that suspense results when our desire to effect the outcome of an imminent event is frustrated.

'The Little People': Power and the Worshipable. In Lester Hunt & Noel Carroll (eds.), The Twilight Zone and Philosophy. Blackwell 2008.

Philosophers and social scientists have explored the ritual practices and the experience of worship, but there has been relatively little discussion of what makes something worthy of worship.However, we find a characteristically sophisticated examination of the issue by Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone episode "The Little People" (3rd Season, March 30, 1962). By considering the example of “The Little People” and a few variations, we can clarify the role power plays in making something worthy of worship. The episode presents a scenario where a relative, although great, advantage in strength is not sufficient to make something worshipable. But what of far greater powers, such as that of creating the universe—is such power sufficient? If not sufficient, is great power necessary for something to be worthy of worship? Does omnipotence impart the bearer with the power to make others properly worship it?

Wings of Desire: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality. Film and Philosophy 13 (1):137-151. 2008.

The question Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) forces us to answer is whether we too would be willing to renounce immortality? Or, to put it conversely, would we be wise to exchange our current mortal existence for immortality? If a state of senseless, inefficacious existence is undesirable, the question of the value of immortality becomes one of the conceivably of an alternative to the angels' form of existence. By contemplating the existence of the angels in Wings of Desire, we can see that they do not simply exemplify one possible eternal existence, but that the negative aspects of their being are perhaps essential features of the immortal. I begin by exploring another argument for the undesirableness of immortality that has taken center stage in the debate, then turn my attention to the film and present a novel argument against the value of immortality.

Review: Hitchcock as Philosopher by Yanal, Robert J. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 (3):339–341. 2007.

In Hitchcock as Philosopher, Robert Yanal argues that not only can we find illustrations of philosophical ideas in Hitchcock's films, but that Hitchcock does philosophy through his movies. This is a bold claim. It would be ambitious to merely assert that there are elements in Hitchcock's movies that can support rich philosophical interpretations. This sets the bar high and forces the interpreter to prove the point by supplying productive readings of the films. But Yanal accepts an even more ambitious challenge -- to present Hitchcock as a philosopher in his own right, doing philosophy through his films. Unfortunately, Yanal fails to realize his project, but his book is nevertheless valuable, albeit for mostly non-philosophical reasons.

The Joke is the Thing: 'In the Company of Men' and the Ethics of Humor. Film and Philosophy 11 (1):49-66. 2007.

Any analysis of "In the Company of Men" is forced to answer three questions of central importance to the ethics of humor: What does it mean to find sexist humor funny? What are the various sources of humor? And, can moral flaws with attempts at humor increase their humorousness? I argued that although merely finding a joke funny in a neutral context cannot tell you anything reliable about a person's beliefs, in context, a joke may reveal a great deal about one’s social attitudes, or feelings of insecurity. Especially in its portrayal of Howard, the film exposes the role of insecurity as a source of humor. Not only can insecurity make one more prone to laugh, but it can also make someone seem funnier in some contexts. I contended that this shows that a strong version of the superiority theory of humor is clearly wrong. Furthermore, the disparate audience reactions to Chad's jokes showed that the morally sensitive who were aware of the purpose of his jokes would see them as ethically flawed. Rather than making the jokes more amusing, the fact that the jokes were considered to be ethically flawed made them less funny. Hence, immoralism is most likely false.

The Paradox of Painful Art. Journal of Aesthetic Education 41 (3):59-77. 2007.

Many of the most popular genres of narrative art are designed to elicit negative emotions: emotions that are experienced as painful or involving some degree of pain, which we generally avoid in our daily lives. Melodramas make us cry. Tragedies bring forth pity and fear. Conspiratorial thrillers arouse feelings of hopelessness and dread, and devotional religious art can make the believer weep in sorrow. Not only do audiences know what these artworks are supposed to do; they seek them out in pursuit of prima facie painful reactions.Traditionally, the question of why people seek out such experiences of painful art has been presented as the paradox of tragedy. Most solutions to the paradox of tragedy assume that the reason we seek out tragedies, horror films, melodramas, and the like is because they afford pleasureful experiences. From there, theorists attempt to account for the source of this pleasure, a pleasure assumed to be had from representations of events from which we do not derive pleasure in real life. I argue that this assumption is suspect: the motive for seeking out devotional religious art, melodrama, tragedy, and some horror is not clearly to find pleasure.

Humor. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006.

According to the standard analysis, humor theories can be classified into three neatly identifiable groups:incongruity, superiority, and relief theories. Incongruity theory is the leading approach and includes historical figures such as Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and perhaps has its origins in comments made by Aristotle in the Rhetoric. Primarily focusing on the object of humor, this school sees humor as a response to an incongruity, a term broadly used to include ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness. The paradigmatic Superiority theorist is Thomas Hobbes, who said that humor arises from a “sudden glory” felt when we recognize our supremacy over others. Plato and Aristotle are generally considered superiority theorists, who emphasize the aggressive feelings that fuel humor. The third group, Relief theory, is typically associated with Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer, who saw humor as fundamentally a way to release or save energy generated by repression. In addition, this article will explore a fourth group of theories of humor: play theory. Play theorists are not so much listing necessary conditions for something’s counting as humor, as they are asking us to look at humor as an extension of animal play.

V. F. Perkins' Functional Credibility and the Problem of Imaginative Resistance. Film and Philosophy 10 (1):85-99. 2006.

Echoing Beardsley's trinity of unity, complexity, and intensity, Perkins develops three interrelated criteria on which to base an evaluation of film: credibility, coherence, and significance. I assess whether Perkins criteria of credibility serves as a useful standard for film criticism. Most of the effort will be devoted to charitably reconstructing the notion of credibility by bringing together some of Perkins' particular comments. Then I will briefly examine whether Perkins has successfully achieved his goal of developing standards of judgment by holding credibility up to his own criteria of successful meta-criticism: "The clarification of standards should help to develop the disciplines of criticism without seeking to lay obligations on the film-maker" (p. 59). Although I argue that Perkins fails to achieve his goal, his criterion of credibility remains a useful mechanism for evaluating artistic attempts to achieve a particular end, namely spectator immersion. A limited domain of application for his criteria might seem to leave us with little more than an idiosyncratic expression of his classicist artistic taste, but Film as Film also contains valuable insights relevant to the so called "problem of imaginative resistance.".

V. F. Perkins' Functional Credibility. Film and Philosophy 10. 2006.

 

Anesthetic Experience. Philosophy and Literature 29 (1):97-113. 2005.

While working to build his aesthetic theory from the qualities of normal, healthy experience, John Dewey diagnoses a rarely recognized experiential ailment -- what might be called the anesthetic malady. This illness generally results when experience is deprived of meaning due to the poverty of the predominant forms of activity available in one's environment. In Dewey's theory of aesthetic experience lies an easily overlooked social/political approach that predates, by almost half a century, recent social theoretical concerns in phenomenology and everyday aesthetics. Dewey takes notice of experience and prompts inquiry into sometimes obviously important, but often dismissed as irrelevant and mundane, paths.

Are Video Games Art? Contemporary Aesthetics 2. 2005.

I argue that by any major definition of art many modern video games should be considered art. Rather than defining art and defending video games based on a single contentious definition, I offer reasons for thinking that video games can be art according to historical, aesthetic, institutional, representational and expressive theories of art. Overall, I argue that while many video games probably should not be considered art, there are good reasons to think that some video games should be classified as art. I also show that the debates over the artistic status of chess and sports offer some insights into the status of video games.

Video Games and the Philosophy of Art. American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter. 2005.

The most cursory look at video games raises several interesting issues that have yet to receive any consideration in the philosophy of art, such as: Are videogames art and, if so, what kind of art are they? Are they more closely related to film, or are they similar to performance arts, such as dance? Perhaps they are more akin to competitive sports and games like diving and chess? Can we even define “video game” or “game”? We often say that video games are interactive, but what is interactivity and what are the effects of interactivity on eliciting emotional responses from players?

Helpless Spectators: Suspense in Videogames and Film. Text Technology 1 (1):13-34. 2004. Co-authored by Aaron Smuts & Jonathan Frome.

The most surprising conclusion of our analysis is that videogames can be most effective in generating suspense not by highlighting their unique ability to be interactive, but, to the contrary, limiting interactivity at key points, thereby turning players into helpless spectators like those that watch films. Discovering this technique in video games allows us to turn our attention back to film, where we are able to highlight a previously ignored feature of viewer film interaction, namely, helplessness.

Film Theory Meets Video Games: An Analysis of the Issues and Methodologies in 'ScreenPlay'. Film-Philosophy 7 (54). 2003.

"ScreenPlay" is the first collection of essays devoted to exploring the relationship between cinema and video games. It attempts to introduce the field of video game studies while also increasing our understanding of the two artforms. Although not all of the essays are models of clear thinking on the subject, the volume will be a valuable resource for those working in film, philosophy, new media, and video game studies. Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska have brought together a diverse collection of essays where the productive approaches stand out clearly. As a result, one of the most important achievements of the volume is that it allows us to compare methodologies in order to see the kinds of research programs that add the most to our understanding of moving pictures.

Haunting the House From Within: Disbelief, Mitigation, and Spatial Experience. In Steven Jay Schneider & Daniel Shaw (eds.), Film-Philosophy. Scarecrow Press 158--173. 2003.

I attempt to explain the lasting effectiveness and critical success of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) by roughly sketching the role that spectator belief might play in a revised version of the so-called “Thought Theory” of emotional response to fiction. I argue that The Haunting engages viewers in a process of “disbelief mitigation”—the sheltering of nontrivial, tenuously held beliefs required for optimal viewer response—that helps make the film work as horror, and prevents it from sliding into comedy. Haunted house films do not have to extend much effort to keep us from walking away, since most viewers come to the theater ready to entertain the idea that haunted houses exist. Using the experiential philosophy of John Dewey, I propose that this willingness has to do with a fundamental aspect of our relationship with space. It is common to speak of places as “charged” or “tense,” to get feelings of dread or nostalgia from certain spots. Some haunted house films make use of this experiential characteristic to fuel the horror, and without it, the subgenre would probably not exist.

Multiple Inheritance and Film Identity: A Reply to Dilworth. Contemporary Aesthetics 1:1-3. 2003.

I argue that Dilworth has not shown the type / token theory of film identity to be non-viable, since there is no reason to think that a single object cannot be a token of two types. Even if we assume a single inheritance view of types, Dilworth's argument runs into other problems. Dilworth does not provide any convincing argument as to why intentions are necessary for identifying film and why production history alone will not suffice for identifying hardly conceivable forgeries. Intention is not necessary for distinguishing between fakes and the real thing, nor is it necessary to differentiate between two artworks with the same token. Moreover, taking the notion of intentions into consideration leads to a splintering problem. I propose that production history, presentation, and non-numerical template identity suffice to identify a film on a multiple inheritance type / token theory.

Review of Simon Critchley, On Humour. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61 (4):414-416. 2003.

The highlight of Simon Critchley's small book On Humor (2002) is the inclusion of seven beautiful prints by Charles Le Brun at the start of each chapter. Le Brun's captivating drawings are zoomorphic studies of the human face, each in relation to a different animal.

Sympathetic Spectators: Roman Polanski's Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976). Kinoeye 2 (3). 2002.

Le Locataire ("The Tenant"), one of Polanski's lesser-known films, uses both an unreliable narrator and manipulates an unreliable audience to achieve its horror effect.

The Metaphorics of Hume's Gendered Skepticism. In Anne Jaap Jacobson (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of David Hume. Penn State UP 2000.

In "Of Scepticism with Regard to the Senses" (Treatise I.IV.II) David Hume begins by saying that he will attempt to trace the causes of our belief in a mind-independent world, "a belief we must take for granted in all our reasonings". Yet the causes arrived at – namely natural inclination or imagination - are presented as so untrustworthy as to cast doubt on the credibility of the inescapable belief itself. However, in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume presents a radically different evaluation of natural inclination, in which Nature is seen as a trustworthy, guiding Supreme Mother. I attempt to explain why Nature earns a disparaging evaluation within "Scepticism," and the significance of these metaphors to different versions of his argument.

Devil Simulation: Why We Couldn'T, Shouldn'T, and Wouldn'T.

In this paper I critically evaluate the Devil Simulation Argument for cognitive immoralism—the position that moral flaws with a work of art can be cognitively virtuous, and thereby artistically valuable. I focus on Matthew Kieran's version of the argument. Kieran holds that by simulating the attitudes of fictional devils we can come to gain important moral insights. In response, I argue that we have no reason to believe that we can effectively adopt immoral attitudes, that any successful narrative artworks ask us to do so, or that it would be an effective means of moral instructions.

 

Courses

Free Will and Moral Responsibility (Fall 2010; Fall 2011) 
Political Philosophy (Fall 2010) 
Bioethics (Fall 2010; Fall 2011) 
Philosophy of Religion (Spring 2011; Spring 2012; Summer I 2012) 
Environmental Ethics (Spring 2011) 
The Good Life (Spring 2011; Fall 2012) 
Meta-ethics (Fall 2011) 
Philosophy of Emotion (Spring 2012) 
Philosophy Internship (Spring 2012) 
Moral Responsibility (Fall 2012) 
Philosophy of Death (Fall 2012) 
Philosophy of Love (Spring 2013) 
Philosophy of Film (Spring 2013)