My Academic Research: Past and Present

My philosophical research interests are primarily concentrated in applied ethics, normative ethics, and epistemology. Although I have been drawn to a variety of issues in different subfields in applied ethics, the dominant focus of my recent work has been intergenerational ethics, particularly the intersection between environmental ethics and procreative ethics. My main interests in epistemology are the ethics of belief and peer disagreement. At the moment, I am especially interested in determining what impact peer disagreement may have regarding our evaluation of complex philosophical arguments that contain controversial premises.

Below are descriptions of topics that I am currently researching. My Papers and Vitae also provide some insight into research I have conducted in the past.

Overpopulation

If you visit a webpage with a world population clock, you'll quickly notice two things: global human population is greater than 7.3 billion, and it is still steadily growing. Until recently, the dominant thought with respect to global population was that it would peak at about 9 billion in 2050 and stabilize or perhaps begin to decline, but recent projections from the United Nations and some other studies suggest that population stabilization may not occur this century at all. We could have a global population of greater than 11 billion by 2100 if current trends continue.

It's easy to be skeptical of concerns about population because those who predicted population catastrophes in the past, most notably Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich, overestimated the impacts of population growth. Nevertheless, it is foolish to ignore one of the variables in the IPAT Equation: environmental impact is a result of the multiplicative contribution of population, affluence, and technology. Even if we assume that technological innovation will reduce per capita ecological footprint, these reductions will not result in an overall decrease in environmental impact if population growth outpaces them.

Of course, discussions of population policy bring to mind worries about forced abortions and mandatory sterilizations – severe infringements on reproductive freedom that are generally regarded as morally abhorrent. There is no doubt that taking population seriously requires directly addressing the conflict between promoting a sustainable population and promotive procreative liberties, and given the severity of the problems to which population growth contributes (such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and resource depletion), it's quite possible that no tidy resolution to this conflict will be forthcoming. But that's hardly an excuse to ignore the problem or act as if the carrying capacity of the Earth is infinite. Some recent contributions to academic philosophy, such as the collection Life on the Brink and Sarah Conly's One Child, indicate that philosophers are starting to share this sentiment.

My dissertation, titled Population, Consumption, and Procreation, addresses the difficult moral question of what we ought to do (both collectively and as individuals) in response to rising global population. Although I do engage with some of the traditional issues in population ethics, such as the repugnant conclusion and the non-identity problem, my main aim is to craft moral principles that can help us respond appropriately to our actual population problem in light of the empirical facts about it. One of the dissertation's guiding themes is that responding adequately to overpopulation requires a long-term focus: we must take seriously the equal moral status of those who will not be born for centuries or even millenia. Taking the moral status of future people seriously means, among other things, that we should pursue lasting solutions to these problems rather than those that will only prove satisfactory for the next few generations. Unfortunately, as my work on the project thus far has indicated, developing such a long-lasting solution to the population problem without compromising other crucial moral values is no easy task.

I anticipate completing and defending my dissertation in January 2017. Afterward, it will be uploaded to the University of Tennessee's Trace Repository and made available here.

What We Owe the Victims of Climate Change

Preventing global climate change is no longer possible. Our collective actions have guaranteed that global climate change will cause widespread suffering and death to future people for (at least) hundreds of years. Beyond human suffering, global climate change will also cause tremendous losses in biodiversity and dessimate irreplaceable natural environments (e.g., coral reefs, rainforests). Regardless of what policies we adopt to lessen the effects of climate change or adapt societies to the rising sea levels, altering temperatures, etc., we are still left with a significant moral question: what do we owe the future generations who are affected by our actions? And if we owe them something significant, how would we present it to them? The temporal gap and unpredictable changes in societal values create some tricky problems in determining how we might give future generations anything that they would value. Part of my research focuses on what particular goods we might provide to them that could serve as adequate compensation for the wrongful harms of climate change. As my Master's Thesis suggests, my main focus is whether certain epistemic goods might play a role in compensating future people for the adverse effects of climate change.

Peer Disagreement

When we encounter another person who knows just as much about an issue as we do and holds a different belief about this issue than we do, we often worry that our belief may be mistaken. After all, if my peer has the same expertise on the subject matter as I do and the same access to information, doesn't her reaching a different conclusion about it suggest that my process of reasoning could have been mistaken? One of my current research agendas is to consider how we ought to answer this question. What impact (if any) should peer disagreement have on the beliefs I hold? In particular, I am exploring ways in which beliefs about peer disagreement might conform to our ordinary ways of conducting our intellectual lives, such as our conviction that appealing to the consensus of experts can be sufficient to justify one's belief about a topic, even if one knows little about the topic in question.

Skepticism about Complex Philosophical Arguments

Some philosophical arguments are simple and require affirming only a few premises to support their conclusion. Others are much more complicated. A common line of thought about arguments is that simpler arguments are better, other things equal. (See the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry on Simplicity for an overview of this position.) While I agree with this view, I worry that its significance is not taken seriously enough among philosophers. Based on straightforward principles of probabilistic reasoning and the prevalence of peer disagreement with respect to so many of the crucial premises in philosophical arguments, I suspect that (prima facie) the appropriate attitude to take toward any complex philosophical argument is skepticism about the truth of its conclusion, even if all the premises seem reasonable.

I am still in the process of formulating a formal version of this argument and determining what the implications of this view would be. There is a significant worry, for instance, that such an attitude would lead to a deep skepticism about many philosophical positions, since developing simple arguments for certain views may not be possible. My hope is that this implication can be avoided or at least mitigated, but we will have to see where the argument leads.

Biography

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I am currently a graduate teaching associate in the philosophy department at the University of Tennessee. My primary research interests include applied ethics, normative ethics, and epistemology. I am currently finishing my doctoral dissertation, which addresses the ethics of procreation in light of the environmental impacts of overpopulation.

Contact

Office: 818 McClung Tower
Office Phone: 865-974-7198
E-mail: thedberg@vols.utk.edu

Mailing Address:
    University of Tennessee
    Philosophy Department
    801 McClung Tower
    Knoxville TN 37996-0480