My work lies in the intersection of metaphysics and normativity. The core of it focuses on the relationship between metaphysics and normative facts (which I take to be, roughly, facts about value and what we ought to do). Part of my work focuses on spelling out exactly what this relationship is. The rest of it explores implications of that relationship. Right now, I’m especially interested in the implications that surround persons, and and these projects interact with issues in practical reason, free will, and metaphysical nature. I also have some projects in philosophy of law, philosophy of religion, and applied ethics.
Below are some of my projects, old and new. Feel free to email me for select drafts or a longer statement of my research interests at rebecca.s.chan [at] sjsu [dot] edu.
“Punishing the Wrong Person“, Public Affairs Quarterly 34)2: 124-141, (2020).
In this paper, I argue that we ought not to punish those who have undergone significant mental transformation as a result of conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia. While there are those who defend this position on the basis of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, I argue that we ought not to punish in these cases because the person being punished is not the same personas the one who committed the crime. On my account, the relevant sense of “sameness” is not “metaphysical”—rather, it looks at whether the past and present persons are the same practical agents. This account also enjoys some support in the legal context and can be found in laws about corporations, juvenile records, and treatment of dementia patients. Finally, focusing on sameness of persons rather than 8th Amendment grounds has interesting implications for other policies regarding punishment.
“Transformed by Faith“, Faith and Philosophy, 36(1): 4-32 (2019).
Appealing to self-interest is a common way of justifying the rationality of religious faith. For instance, Pascal’s wager relies upon the expected value of choosing the life of faith being infinite. Similarly, many contemporary arguments for the rationality of faith turn on whether it is better for an agent to have faith rather than lack it. In this paper, I argue contra Pascal and others that considerations of self-interest do not make choosing faith rational because it fails to take into account the way the self is transformed by faith.
“Moral Indulgences” (with Dustin Crummett), Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, 9: 68-95.
We introduce the concept and explore the permissibility of moral indulgences. Roughly speaking, an agent is morally indulgent when they do something that, absent a defeater, is wrong, and, in order to offset this, do something that is supererogatory and more good than the bad action was bad. We then seek to explain why and when being morally indulgent is permissible. For some cases, being morally indulgent appears permissible (as when one buys a large carbon offset after polluting more than one’s fair share), while for others, it appears impermissible (as when murdering one but, otherwise unrelatedly, saving two to make up for it). Our explanation for when being indulgent is permissible appeals to universalizability of the sort found in forms of Kantianism, contractualism, and rule consequentialism. Finally, we explore the implications of our account for what God should do, and why, if there are no unsurpassable possible worlds.
“Religious Experience, Voluntarist Reasons, and the Transformative Experience Puzzle“, Res Philosophica, 93.1: 269-287 (2016).
Transformative experiences are epistemically and personally transformative: prior to having the experience, agents cannot predict the value of the experience and cannot anticipate how it will change their core values and preferences. Paul (2014, 2015) argues that these experiences pose a puzzle for standard decision-making procedures because values cannot be assigned to outcomes involving transformative experience. Responding philosophers are quick to point out that decision procedures are built to handle uncertainty, including the uncertainty generated by transformative experience. My paper enters here and contributes two points. First, religious experiences are transformative experiences that are especially resistant to these responses. Second, a procedure that appeals to voluntarist reasons—reasons arising from an act of the will—can allow an agent to rationally decide to undergo or avoid an outcome involving transformative experience. Combining these two points results in some interesting implications with respect to practical aspects of religion.
This paper presents and defends an ethics-first metaphysics, a methodology on which normative data provide epistemic guidance for making progress on metaphysical disputes. Normative data, roughly, are facts about value and what we ought to do. Besides informing our actions, they also can inform us about the way the world is—or so I argue. This methodology is significant because it provides a positive response to epistemic dismissivism, the worry that metaphysical disputes are deeply misguided because we lack the evidence to sufficiently justify believing either side of the dispute. This methodology also provides a way of responding to existential dismissivism, the worry that engaging in metaphysical disputes is deeply misguided because practically speaking, the disputes do not matter.
“Choosing Ourselves: A Neo-Sartrean Account of Freedom”
In this paper, I argue that who we are is indeterminate, and that by exercising our normative powers, we can make who we are determinate. This view is Sartrean in sprit: we exist, but who we are essentially is indeterminate until we begin making decisions that determine who we are. Importantly, this account locates the sources of indeterminacy required for libertarian freedom in who the agent is rather than in the decision making process, which allows it to avoid the most common objections to other libertarian accounts. Furthermore, this type of indeterminacy is necessarily compatible with our best sciences.
“What’s Wrong with Telling Someone Else’s Story?”
This paper explores whether it is permissible to tell someone else’s story. Specifically, it’s interested in works—such as those in literature and art—that attempt to convey the experiences of a group of which the author or artist is not a part. Telling someone else’s story requires robust ‘what it’s like’ knowledge, and there is a strong presumption that authors either lack this knowledge. Without this knowledge, these works are epistemically defective in the same way that fabricated or misappropriated research is in, e.g., the sciences. Finally, the paper notes that the epistemic wrongness of telling someone else’s story connects with an account of wrongness grounded in social injustice: membership in a group of a socially unjust society is sufficient (though not necessary) for lacking the relevant knowledge of ‘what it’s like’ to be a member of a different group.
“Legal Answers to Metaphysical Questions”
It turns out that a surprising number of legal questions are closely related to metaphysical debates: Is a death row inmate with severe dementia the same agent who committed a heinous murder? When two buildings collapse in a terror attack, is that one event or two? Do the disassembled parts of a firearm constitute an illegal weapon? Recently, some have argued that the answers to these questions are merely a matter of metalinguistic negotiation, or settling on a what terms like ‘same person’, ‘event’ and ‘firearm’ mean. Though I’m largely sympathetic to this position, I argue that the answers to these questions are not merely a matter of metalinguistic negotiation, and that getting clear on when metalinguistic negotiation comes into play is important both in developing the law (as well as metaphysics).
“The Problem of Self-Transformation”
From the standpoint of self-interest, is it rational for me to prefer to become someone who is radically different from my current self rather than someone who feels connected to who I currently am? Should my answer to this question depend on value considerations associated with the potential ways my life might go? These questions—which constitute what I call the problem of self-transformation—are the focus of my paper. In attempting to answer these questions, I hope to show (i) that value considerations underdetermine what preferences agents ought to have in decisions involving self-transformation, (ii) that considerations grounded in the will of an agent are needed to determine rational preferences in these decisions, and (iii) that there is a distinction between who agents are practically and who they are metaphysically with the former being what matters for self-interest.
I argue for the surprising conclusion that a person’s essence includes properties that are essential to who they are as agents. First, I point out that persons are like statues—at least insofar as thinking about the constitution of persons (like thinking about the material constitution of statues) forces us to consider whether there is an abundance of coincident persons (or statues) differing in the properties they have essentially. For instance, just as there might be a statue that has a particular shape property essentially coinciding with the matter making up the statue which does not have that shape property essentially, there might be a person who has the property of being a philosopher essentially coinciding with a person who does not have that property essentially. Now let a candidate essence be the sum of the essential properties of one of these coinciding persons or objects. I argue that metaphysically, there are no reasons for preferring one of these candidates over another, but that practically, we ought to privilege candidate essences that take as essential properties that are central to who the person is as an agent.
“Reviving the Modal Account of Essence”
In “Essence and Modality,” Kit Fine presents counterexamples to the modal account of essence that are now widely regarded as successful. As a result, the modal account has fallen out of favor, and the trend in metaphysics is to move towards a definitional account of essence on which only some of a thing’s necessary properties—those that “define what it is”—qualify as essential properties. This paper argues that abandoning the modal account for the definitional one is too hasty. The modal account can be repaired by adding two modifications based on determinacy and sparseness. These modifications result in a revised modal account that avoids Fine’s counterexamples. Furthermore, unlike other attempts in the literature to modify the modal account, these modifications can be analyzed in purely modal terms. The revised account proposed in this paper is thus fully reductive and preserves the main virtue of the original modal account.