Dr. Neil Sinhababu (Department of Philosophy) recently received the Faculty Award for Promising Researcher. This award is presented to researchers who have produced research that shows potential impact and promise.
Neil has been with FASS since 2008 and his research focuses on metaethics, philosophy of action, and Nietzsche.
We caught up with Dr. Sinhababu to congratulate him on the award...
Neil, congratulations on the Award for Promising Researcher. Please can you tell us a little about what drew you to analytic philosophy?
Thanks, Victoria! For me it all started in high school when I was reading Friedrich Nietzsche, who isn't usually considered an analytic philosopher. He made me wonder if we could believe in good and evil after the death of God -- or to put it less colorfully, whether there was evidence for the existence of objective moral facts. That question is addressed in meta-ethics, which is a central area of analytic philosophy. I accept the utilitarian view that it's right to create as much pleasure (and avert as much pain) as possible for everyone. I think we can know about the objective goodness of pleasure (and badness of pain) simply by knowing how they feel. Even if people are bad at discovering moral facts in general, they can know what their experiences are like, and this provides the evidence for utilitarianism.
Your nomination for this award was largely due to the paper you published in the Philosophical Review (the world's leading philosophy journal) and its subsequent impact. Please could you share with us the crux of the argument presented in your paper "The Humean Theory of Motivation Reformulated and Defended"?
A - I defend David Hume's view that desire drives all of our actions, and all of our deliberation about what to do. Many followers of Immanuel Kant disagree, claiming that we can be motivated to do something simply by believing that we're obligated to do it, even without desire. Humeans sometimes respond that this must involve a desire to fulfill the obligation, but Kantians can reasonably ask why the feeling of obligation is so different from the feeling of acting out of desire. Part of my response in the paper was that the emotions of obligation -- anxiety about whether one can fulfill an obligation, and relief when one sees a way to fulfill it or is released from it -- are much like the emotions of simple fear. One feels anxious that something bad will happen, and relieved when the risk is gone. So we're often motivated to fulfill our obligations by fear. This need not just be fear of punishment, but fear of disappointing others or fear of doing wrong. And since I classify fear as a kind of desire, this explains the feeling of obligation in terms of desire. The paper was all about understanding how desire feels, and using that to explain the experiences of decision-making, especially in cases that seem the most challenging for Hume's theory.
Your forthcoming article in Noûs (the #2 ranked journal in Philosophy), “The Desire-Belief Account of Intention Explains Everything” is also forthcoming. Does this article build on your previous argument or take us down a different avenue?
This extends the arguments of the previous paper to the topic of intention. My opponents often claim that aspects of intention can't be explained in terms of desire. For example, intending to go to the library might get you to plan out how to get there and how to get back. They don't think desire can explain this kind of planning. I respond that desire directs our attention at things relevant to its object, as we can see in a number of cases. Bored students in class may think about food if they're hungry, their attractive fellow students if they have strong sexual desires, or Chewbacca if they really like Star Wars. When a desire to visit the library directs your attention, you think about things related to visiting the library, like how to get there and when you want to get back. This thinking is planning.
Please could you share what you are currently working on?
Since philosophers seem to be interested in my project of explaining lots of psychological phenomena using desire, I'm working on a book that's all about that. It responds to more objections to the Humean theory of motivation than I could in the papers. I'm happy to say that some people in the NUS psychology department (in addition to my philosophy colleagues both at NUS and Yale-NUS) have been interested in helping me with these issues. I'm also working on a paper arguing for utilitarianism on grounds that we can know that pleasure is good and pain is bad through our direct access to our own experiential states, but that we don't have good access to other moral facts. I also still do some historical work on Nietzsche, particularly on trying to understand Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I think my younger self from high school would be happy
that I'm still doing that.
Thank you Neil. We wish you well with your book, forthcoming papers and historical work.