wasn’t law school to do. I made a deal with him that if I could get into a top ten PhD program in philosophy then he wouldn’t coerce me into going into law school. Shockingly, that worked out.
James: You did a joint PhD with Rutgers and University of Stockholm. How did that come about?
Jimmy: After undergrad I got a research fellowship to go to Sweden to work on population ethics stuff. They basically let me be a visiting graduate student there before I started at Rutgers. They said it would be a shame if they never saw me again. They had the money to enroll me half time so I could come back. It was really nice. I spent a lot of time in Stockholm.
James: What was something distinctively Swedish that you did?
Jimmy: I went to a Swedish Christmas party. There’s a lot of strange traditions at parties. There’s a crawfish boil where everyone wears hats and you sing songs while drinking schnapps. But I never got myself to eat the fermented herring.
James: What are some philosophical topics that you are working on?
Jimmy: One current project involves trying to find the best formulation of “welfarism.” This is a view that comes in stronger and weaker forms. The strong form would be that you can cash out all morality in terms of what is good and bad for people. Utilitarianism is obviously one version of that but it is possible to have non-consequentialist versions of that kind of view. You need to know what the most plausible version of welfarism is. One view I am interested in is the view that welfarism should be best understood as a kind of pluralist value theory rather than a monistic one. The distinct types of value on the picture I am interested in are distinct because the well-being belongs to numerically distinct individuals. So Jimmy wellbeing and James wellbeing are actually distinct types of value. If you believe this kind of pluralistic picture it can end up explaining a lot of other things. This is one sort of view that illustrates part of larger project which is to try to make certain, mostly consequentialist moral theories more palatable. The larger project is to say: let’s not bite bullets, let’s not just try to appeal to instrumentalized rules, or what’s often called consequentialization, where you just take whatever deontological feature you like and re-describe it in consequentialist fashion. Instead the idea is to try to find a better version of some of the constituent parts of standard consequentialist theories. And thereby make the theory more plausible.
James: What are some philosophical works that have influenced you?
Jimmy: This is probably obvious but Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons is a big one. It is one of those works you can re-read and find new stuff in it every single time. It’s a weird book. It’s not as linear as some philosophical books are. It’s separated into four parts. And a picture emerges where (in Derek’s words) ethics should be more impersonal than it first appears. It digs into lots of different complicated issues about rationality and personhood and how these things all combine that support the thesis. But you don’t have an attempt at a clean deductive argument. What I find interesting about that is that the book is so much richer for it. The thesis is so grand and big that it is more instructive to go with these discussions of these different kinds of topics. It’s interesting how he was able to balance really being down there in the trenches with this big picture abductive argument. Probably too hard for most mortals to pull off.
James: I understand you’re interested in the work of the utilitarian William Thompson. Tell me about him and what you find interesting about him.
Jimmy: He wrote between Bentham and Mill, and he was a kind of socialist, sometimes you see him listed among Owenite socialists, but he was inspired by Bentham. He wrote on feminist philosophy (with Anna Doyle Wheeler) before John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill wrote their work. [Thompson’s work on feminism] would strike most readers as more modern, more contemporary than the Mills’ work. Some interesting notes about Thompson are that he influenced Marx’s account of exploitation. And Mill debated Thompson before his famous mental breakdown. Supposedly Thompson wiped the floor with him. Some shifts in J.S. Mill’s later work seem to be due to Thompson’s influence.
James: What have you been enjoying about Madison since you got here?
Jimmy: The lakes—that one is hard to pass up. The breweries per capita. I feel like I tried to make a dent [in sampling the beers] and I am nowhere near. The university itself has been fantastic. It is really interesting how many people have reached out to me. I suspect that at a lot of other places I would have trouble meeting people and filling out a calendar. [At Madison] interesting people are around and seeking you out, instead of you feeling like you have to knock on peoples’ doors. Everyone has been extremely friendly.