JUSTIN P. MCBRAYER
Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder.
I have never been able to restrict my wonder to just one domain of philosophy and as a result, my research ranges from philosophy of religion to epistemology to ethics. But no matter the field, my goal is to produce clear, non-technical philosophy that helps us to think better about the world in which we find ourselves. In 2018, I was recognized with the Featured Scholar award at Fort Lewis College. Many of my most recent projects have been collaborative, and I am interested in working with academics from other fields to tackle questions on the boundaries of traditional discipline.
Philosophy in the Public Sphere
"What is diversity? And why is it valuable?," Quillette, October 2021.
Higher education continues to talk about diversity in the abstract. But such talk is vacuous. There's no such thing as diversity. I show that there are two good reasons to be conceptually clear about our diversity goals. First, we should specify what kind of diversity we're talking about, and second, we should specify exactly why that sort of diversity if valuable.
"Go with what we know on vaccine, not fear of the unknown," Albuquerque Journal, October 2021.
Many people are hesitant to get the COVID vaccine for fear of unknown side effects. That's irrational because it factors only some of the unknowns into the expected value calculation.
"Even Truth U Cares About Social Justice," Heterodox Academy, May 2021.
Even if the goal of the university is the discovery or transmission of truth, there are just and unjust ways of doing so. Truth is the goal, but justice is a side constraint.
"Why Fact Checking Fails to Change Minds,"Durango Herald, December 2020.
The standard solution to fight fake news is to provide people with better critical thinking tools or better information. This solution is a failure because much of the time we don't really want the truth. We want to belong.
"Varieties of Moral Relativism," Emergence of Relativism Project, University of Vienna, Austria, September 2018
I distinguish three different senses of moral relativism and show that everyone is a relativist in some sense. But that's consistent with endorsing an objective moral standard at the principle level.
"The Case for Preserving Bears Ears," (with Sarah Roberts-Cady) Ethics, Policy & Environment, March 2018
Sarah and I argue that both conservative and liberal views on the federal protection of Bears Ears National Monument are confused. Against the right, President Trump's executive action reduced local control, and against the left, the primary good of Bears Ears is not environmental. Instead, it's the cultural component that is worth preserving.
"The Morality of Getting Divorced," Philosophy Now, June/July 2017
Since marital promises are serious ones, the decision to get divorced is morally fraught. We ought not treat divorce casually. I outline conditions that make for morally permissible divorce and morally wrong divorce.
"Why Should the Line be Drawn at Chemical Weapons?" The Denver Post, April 2017
International law draws a bright line between governments who kill their people or their enemies with conventional weaponry versus those who do so with chemical weaponry. I argue that it's a distinction without a moral difference.
"Why Christians Must Reject Alternative Facts," Dallas News, February 2017
Prominent defenders of President Trump often appeal to "alternative facts" to justify his decisions or actions. I argue that such a tactic is inconsistent with the Christian commitment to objective truth.
"Africa & the Problem of Evil," The Critique, September/October 2016
Belief in God is higher in Africa than just about any other place on earth. And yet people living in Africa are faced with evils the like of which the average Westerner never confronts. So how can belief in God be so high, and is it reasonable in the face of the counterevidence of evil?
"Guns on the Free Market? Sure, if the Penalty for Sellers is Stiff," The Orlando Sentinel, August 2016
A combination of free markets, government sanctions, and personal interest can help us to make progress on gun violence in America. Instead of requiring pre-sale background checks on just some purchases, we should eliminate pre-sale requirements and punish sellers who put guns in the wrong hands.
"This Land is Your Land. Or is it?" New York Times, January 2016
Property disputes in the US like the one at the Malheur National Wildlife in 2016 are based on a flawed view of just property ownership. This view--popular among conservatives--says that someone owns a piece of property just in case it was historically passed down to them in the right way. While John Locke might have been happy with such a view, none of us should be.
"Why Our Children Don't Think there are Moral Facts," New York Times, March 2015 [29th most-read story for 2015]
Teachers across America teach kids that facts are one thing, opinions are another, and that all claims about values are opinions. I argue that this distinction is both conceptually confused and harmful. In particuarl, it sends a clear message to kids that morality is either relative or non-existant.
For more philosophy dished out in bite-sized pieces for a general audience, see my blog, Space to Think.
"Do Plants Feel Pain?" (with Adam Hamilton) Disputatio
Many people are attracted to the idea that plants experience phenomenal conscious states like pain, sensory awareness, or emotions like fear. If true, this would have wide-ranging moral implications for human behavior, including land development, farming, vegetarianism, and more. Determining whether plants have minds relies on the work of both empirical disciplines and philosophy. Epistemology should settle the standards for evidence of other minds, and science should inform our judgment about whether any plants meet those standards. We argue that evidence for other minds comes either from testimony, behavior, physiology, or phylogeny. However, none of these provide evidence that plants have conscious mental states. Therefore, we conclude that there is no evidence that plants have minds in the sense relevant for morality.
"A Value Argument Against Incompatibilism," Philosophical Inquiry
Incompatibilism is the view that free will is incompatible with determinism. Combatibilism is the view that free will is compatible with determinism. The debate between the two positions is seemingly intractable. However, just as elsewhere in philosophy, leveraging assumptions about value can offer progress. A promising value argument against incompatibilism is as follows: given facts about both human psychology and the value of free will, incompatibilism is false. This is because we would want our choices to be free but we also would not want indeterminism anywhere in the process leading up to our choices. Hence freedom can’t require a lack of determinism.
"What Quantum Mechanics Doesn't Show," (with Dugald Owen) Teaching Philosophy
Students often invoke quantum mechanics in class or papers to make philosophical points. This tendency has been encouraged by pop culture influences like the film What the Bleep do We Know? There is little merit to most of these putative implications. However, it is difficult for philosophy teachers who are unfamiliar with quantum mechanics to handle these supposed implications in a clear and careful way. This paper is a philosophy of science version of Myth Busters. We offer a brief primer on the nature of quantum mechanics, enumerate nine of the most common implications associated with quantum mechanics, and finally clarify each implication with the facts. Our goal is to explain what quantum mechanics doesn’t show.
"Everybody Else is Thinking It, So Why Can't We?" Synthese
If other people believe something, that gives you a reason to believe it, too. Since philosophers sometimes refer to popular consensus as ‘common consent’, I shall call the epistemic principle that explains this fact the principle of common consent. PCC: If S knows that others believe that P, then this fact gives S a reason to believe that P. The principle of common consent is widely considered to be false. I argue that it is true. If everbody else is believing it, why can't we? This paper elucidates the principle, explains the principle’s connection both to important arguments in philosophy and to the fallacy of appealing to the majority, argues that the principle of common consent is true, and addresses important objections to the principle.
"A Phenomenal Defense of Reflective Equilibrium," (with Weston Ellis) Journal of Philosophical Research
The method of reflective equilibrium starts with a set of initial judgments about some subject matter and refines that set to arrive at an improved philosophical worldview. However, the method faces two, trenchant objections. The Garbage-In, Garbage-Out Objection argues that reflective equilibrium fails because it has no principled reason to rely on some inputs to the method rather than others and putting garbage-in assures you of getting garbage-out. The Circularity Objection argues that reflective equilibrium fails because it has no principled, non-circular way of sorting whatever is put into the method. The moves required to avoid both objections are instructive. Reflective equilibrium requires a meta-justification, and we offer one that appeals to the epistemic goods that underwrite a view known as phenomenal conservatism. Reflective equilibrium calls on us to start with what seems most likely to be true and to alter that collection of judgments in the ways that seem most likely to get us to the truth. Proceeding in this way is epistemically defensible and unavoidable. Hence, reflective equilibrium is not just good, it’s phenomenal.
"The Epistemology of Genealogies," Explaining Religion: Cognitive Science of Religion and Naturalism
Beliefs have genealogies. Can tracing a belief’s genealogy illuminate the epistemic quality of the belief? This paper sets out a general epistemology of genealogies. As it turns out, genealogies for beliefs come in two sorts: those that trace a belief to some mental event that doubles as evidence for the belief and those that do not. The former have the potential to undercut the belief, rebut the belief, or—importantly—both. The latter have the potential to reinforce the belief or rebut the belief but—importantly—not undercut it. The ultimate conclusion is that there is a role for genealogies in the epistemic appraisal of our beliefs, but this role will be circumscribed by the availability of clear and compelling genealogies.
"Process Reliabilism, Virtue Reliabilism, and the Value of Knowledge," The Southern Journal of Philosophy
The value problem for knowledge is the problem of explaining why knowledge is cognitively more valuable than mere true belief. If an account of the nature of knowledge is unable to solve the value problem for knowledge, this provides a pro tanto reason to reject that account. Recent literature argues that process reliabilism is unable to solve the value problem because it succumbs to an objection known as the swamping problem. Virtue reliabilism (i.e. agent reliabilism), on the other hand, is able to solve the value problem because it can avoid the swamping problem. I argue that virtue reliabilism escapes the swamping problem only by employing what I call an entailment strategy. Furthermore, since an entailment strategy is open to the process reliabilist (in two different forms), I argue that the process reliabilist is also able to escape the swamping objection and thereby solve the value problem for knowledge.
"A Posteriori Moral Knowledge," International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Blackwell) [email for information; copyright prohibits posting]
It is clear that people have moral beliefs. They think that some acts are right while others are wrong and that some states of affairs are good whereas others are bad. But does anyone have moral knowledge? If so, how is such knowledge possible (see epistemology, moral)? Given that all uncontroversial cases of nonmoral knowledge are either a priori or a posteriori, an account of moral knowledge should explain where moral knowledge falls on this divide. This essay explains the difference between a priori and a posteriori knowledge and sketches four different accounts of a posteriori moral knowledge.
"Moral Perception and the Causal Objection," Ratio
One of the primary motivations behind moral anti-realism is a deep-rooted scepticism about moral knowledge. Moral realists attempt counter this worry by sketching a plausible moral epistemology. One of the most radical proposals in the recent literature is that we know moral facts by perception—we can literally see that an action is wrong, etc. A serious objection to moral perception is the causal objection. It is widely conceded that perception requires a causal connection between the perceived and the perceiver. But, the objection continues, we are not in appropriate causal contact with moral properties. Therefore, we cannot perceive moral properties. This papers demonstrates that the causal objection is unsound whether moral properties turn out to be secondary, natural properties; non-secondary, natural properties; or non-natural properties.
"A Limited Defense of Moral Perception," Philosophical Studies
One popular reason for rejecting moral realism is the lack of a plausible epistemology that explains how we come to know moral facts. Recently, a number of philosophers have insisted that it is possible to have moral knowledge in a very straightforward way—by perception. However, there is a significant objection to the possibility of moral perception: it does not seem that we could have a perceptual experience that represents a moral property, but a necessary condition for coming to know that X is F by perception is the ability to have a perceptual experience that represents something as being F. Call this the ‘Representation Objection’ to moral perception. In this paper I argue that the Representation Objection to moral perception fails. Thus I offer a limited defense of moral perception.
PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION
"The X-Claim Argument Against Religion Offers Nothing New," (with Weston Ellis) International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
Belief in the existence of supernatural entities faces a litany of philosophical objections. In a recent paper, Professor Stephen Law argues that it is irrational to believe in the existence of extraordinary beings like those associated with religions (what he calls an X-claim argument). More carefully, Professor Law argues that if one’s belief in these sorts of entities is grounded in quasi-perceptual experiences and/or testimony, the rationality of said belief is defeated once one has considered the X-claim argument. However, the X-claim argument is beset by certain ambiguities that, once resolved, leave the argument undifferentiated from two other common objections to religious belief. The lesson is that the X-claim argument against religious belief offers nothing new in terms of an epistemic challenge to religious beliefs.
“Explanations of Religion” Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy
An annotated bibliography for academic works on the explanation and philosophical implications of explanations for religious belief and practice.
“Ignorance in the Religious Life," The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance
How does ignorance affect the religious life? There is good reason to think that the religious life is shaped as much by what we do not know as by what we do. This paper offers a broad taxonomy of the various roles that ignorance plays in both religious theory and religious practice. It shows that ignorance can be marshalled as evidence both for and against theoretical conceptions of the divine, but it is not decisive in either case. Furthermore, ignorance appears compatible with a life of religious virtue and a life of religious faith. The broad conclusion of the paper is that our current religious ignorance need not paralyze us.
"The Wager Renewed: Believing in God is Good for You,” Science, Religion & Culture
Not all of our reasons for belief are epistemic in nature. Some of our reasons for belief are prudential in the sense that believing a certain thing advances our personal goals. When it comes to belief in God, the most famous formulation of a prudential reason for belief is Pascal’s Wager. And although Pascal’s Wager fails, its failure is instructive. Pascal’s Wager fails because it relies on unjustified assumptions about what happens in the afterlife to those who believe in God verses those who do not. A renewed wager can avoid this difficulty by relying solely on well-documented differences between those who believe in God verses those who do not. Social scientists have put together an impressive set of data that shows that theists do better in terms of happiness, health, longevity, interpersonal relationships, and charitable giving. Hence, most people have a strong reason to believe in God regardless of the evidence.
"Skepticism about the Argument from Divine Hiddenness," (with Philip Swenson) Religious Studies
Some philosophers have argued that the paucity of evidence for theism—along with basic assumptions about God’s nature—is ipso facto evidence for atheism. The resulting argument has come to be known as the argument from divine hiddenness. Theists have challenged both the major and minor premises of the argument by offering defenses. However, all of the major, contemporary defenses are failures. What unites these failures is instructive: each is implausible given other commitments shared by everyone in the debate or by theists in particular. Only challenges which are plausible given both common sense and other theistic commitments will undermine the argument from divine hiddenness. Given that such defenses universally fail, the best hope for a successful challenge to the argument comes from more general skeptical responses. This sort of response is briefly sketched and defended against four independent objections.
“Perceiving God: Epistemic Direct Realism and Religious Belief,” Southwest Philosophy Review
Internalist, direct realist epistemologies have the conceptual wherewithal to both handle the new evil demon problem and explain how actual perceptual beliefs are justified. Despite this initial plausibility, I argue that direct realist accounts of perceptual justification seem to allow more beliefs to be characterized as justified perceptual beliefs than some philosophers would like. In specific, it seems that it is possible for human agents to have justified perceptual beliefs of a religious nature (e.g. that God is present). In this paper I will examine two contemporary versions of direct realism—that of John Pollock (2005) and that of Peter Markie (2006)—and show that each account is amenable to an explanation of why some religious beliefs are both perceptual and justified. Whether or not this is a virtue or vice of direct realism will depend on one’s religious epistemology.
“On ‘A Molinist-Style Response to Schellenberg,’ by Michael Thune,” Southwest Philosophy Review
The argument from divine hiddenness says that the fact that many people have reasonable non-belief in God is evidence that God doesn't exist. Professor Thune argues that a particular formulation of the argument from divine hiddenness is rendered unsound on the assumption that God has middle knowledge (i.e. Molinism is true). Against this, I show that granting the truth of Molinism doesn't undercut the argument from divine hiddenness.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
“The Problem of Evil & Sceptical Theism,” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement
The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of a perfect God with the existence of horrible things in the world. Many take this problem as a convincing reason to be an atheist. But others think that the problem can be solved. One prominent solution is called ‘sceptical theism’. A sceptical theist is someone who believes in God but thinks that the problem of evil is not a real problem since humans are unable to see whether the horrible things in our world are truly pointless or else serve some greater purpose.
The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (edited with Daniel Howard-Snyder) Blackwell
An edited collection of new essays on various arguments from evil to atheism and both thedicies and skeptical responses.
"Counterpart & Appreciation Theodocies," in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil
A theodicy is an explanation for why God allows evil in the world. This essay clarifies and evaluates two popular theodicies. The first says that good can’t exist without evil, and so God must allow evil in order to allow good. Call this the counterpart theodicy. The counterpart theodicy relies on a metaphysical claim about existence—good cannot exist without evil. The second theodicy says that we would be unable to know/recognize/appreciate the good without evil, and so God is forced to allow evil in order to allow for such appreciation. Call this the appreciation theodicy. The appreciation theodicy relies on an epistemological claim about recognition or appreciation—we are unable to know/recognize/appreciate good without evil (even if it is possible for good to exist without evil). Neither theodicy is a success.
“Evidential Arguments from Evil and the ‘Seeability’ of Compensating Goods,” Auslegung
Professor Rowe has offered one of the most simple and convincing evidential arguments from evil by arguing that the existence of gratuitous evil in our world serves as strong evidence against the claim that God exists. Professor Wykstra attempts to defeat this evidential argument from evil by denying the plausibility of Rowe’s claim that there are gratuitous evils in the world. Specifically, this inference is unjustified because compensating goods that would be “connected to” any given evil lack what Wykstra calls ‘seeability.’ Without seeability, it is illicit to infer the nonexistence of an object simply from the fact that we cannot detect it, and thus Rowe is denied justification for his first premise. Wysktra’s principle defense of the non-seeability of compensating goods rests on an analogy comparing children and parents to humans and God. I argue that Wykstra’s conclusion regarding the seeability of compensating goods is unjustified given this analogy.
Skeptical Theism: New Essays (edited with Trent Dougherty) Oxford University Press
An edited collection of new essays on skeptical theistic responses to arguments from evil. For more about the volume, see the OUP blog entry, the Notre Dame Philosophical Review (by Graham Oppy), or the Faith & Philosophy review (by Jeff Snapper).
“Skeptical Theism: An Historical View,” The History of Evil, Volume 6: Evil from the Mid-20th-Century to Today
The existence of evil counts as evidence against the existence of God only if there were no all-things-considered sufficient reason for a God to allow these evils. Some theists claim that we are in no epistemic position to determine whether there are any such all-things-considered sufficient reasons. This view has come to be known as skeptical theism. The core of this skepticism can be found in responses to the problem of evil by many historical philosophers, especially in the modern period with the thought of Descartes, Locke, Hume, and others. This skepticism has evolved into a cluster of views in contemporary philosophy, each differing on the precise nature of the justification for the limited skepticism at issue. The view is also plagued by serious criticisms, most of which have been developed in the last two decades.
"Are Skeptical Theists Really Skeptical? Sometimes Yes, and Sometimes No," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
[email for information as copyright prohibits posting]
Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but, given our cognitive limitations, the fact that we cannot see a compensating good for some instance of evil is not a reason to think that there is no such good. Hence, we are not justified in concluding that any actual instance of evil is gratuitous, thus undercutting the evidential argument from evil for atheism. This paper focuses on the epistemic role of context and contrast classes to advance the debate over skeptical theism in two ways. First, considerations of context and contrast can be invoked to offer a novel defense of skeptical theism. Second, considerations of context can be invoked to undermine the two most serious objections to skeptical theism: the global skepticism objection and the moral objection. The gist of the paper is to defend a connection between context and contrast-driven views in epistemology with skeptical views in philosophy of religion.
"Skeptical Theism," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
An entry on the nature of skeptical theism and arguments for and against it on the widely consulsted, peer-reviewed IEP.
"Skeptical Theism," Philosophy Compass
Most a posteriori arguments against the existence of God take the following form:
(1) If God exists, the world would not be like this (where ‘this’ picks out some feature of the world like the existence of evil, etc.)
(2) But the world is like this.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.
Skeptical theists are theists who are skeptical of our ability to make judgments of the sort expressed by the first premise. According to skeptical theism, if there were a God, it is likely that he would have reasons for acting that are beyond our ken, and thus we are not justified in making all-things-considered judgments about what the world would be like if there were a God. In particular, the fact that we don’t see a good reason for X does not justify the conclusion that there is no good reason for X. Thus, skeptical theism purports to undercut most a posteriori arguments against the existence of God. This essay provides an account of the nature of skeptical theism, an application of skeptical theism to both the argument from evil and the argument from divine hiddenness, and a review of the cases for and against skeptical theism.
"CORNEA and Inductive Evidence," Faith & Philosophy
One of the primary tools in the theist’s defense against “noseeum” arguments from evil is an epistemic principle concerning the Conditions Of ReasoNable Epistemic Access (CORNEA) which places an important restriction on what counts as evidence. However, CORNEA is false because it places too strong a condition on what counts as inductive evidence. If CORNEA is true, we lack evidence for a great many of our inductive beliefs. This is because CORNEA amounts to a sensitivity constraint on evidence, and inductive evidence is often insensitive. So unless a theist is also an inductive skeptic, she must abandon CORNEA in responding to this sort of argument from evil.
Introducing Ethics: A Critical Thinking Approach with Readings (with Peter Markie) Oxford University Press
An edited textbook that includes both new and classic readings in metaethics, normative ethical theory, and various applied ethical topics. The book focuses on imrpoving reading comprehension (by using reading questions, unique editing techniques, etc.) and critical thinking (by using discussion questions, argument reconstruction exercises, etc.).
"Rights, Indirect Harms, and the Non-identity Problem," Bioethics
The non-identity problem is the problem of grounding moral wrongdoing in cases in which an action affects who will exist in the future. Consider a woman who intentionally conceives while on medication that is harmful for a fetus. If the resulting child is disabled as a result of the medication, what makes the woman’s action morally wrong? I argue that an explanation in terms of harmful rights violations fails but that an impersonal duty-based analysis of the wrongdoing in non-identity cases succeeds.
"Foetal Personhood, Vagueness, and Abortion," Australian Journal of Professional & Applied Ethics
Some philosophers argue that the concept of personhood is irrelevant for the abortion debate because the predicate ‘being a person’—hereafter ‘personhood’—is inherently vague. This vagueness, they argue, reduces ‘personhood’ to incoherency and disqualifies the notion from being a useful moral concept. In other words, if ‘personhood’ isn’t a precise notion with well-defined boundaries, then it cannot be of any use in the debate over the permissibility of abortion. This argument is mistaken. Vague predicates abound in moral evaluation, and we can make sense out of them on any of three contemporary solutions to vagueness: degree theory, epistemicism, or supervaluationism.
Review (with Egan Wynne) of Progressive Atheism by J.L. Schellenberg, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
Review (with Theresa O'Hare) of Challenges to Moral and Religious Belief edited by Bergmann and Kain, Analysis
Review of Pragmatic Encroachment, Religious Belief, and Practice by Aaron Rizzieri, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
Review (with Douglas Moore) of Religious Faith & Intellectual Virtue edited by Callahan and O'Connor, Religious Studies
Review (with Caleb Ontiveros) of What's Wrong with Homosexuality? by John Corvino, Social Theory & Practice