Austen McDougal

I am a PhD candidate in philosophy at Stanford University, specializing in ethics and moral psychology. My work pulls on an ancient thread that says ethics is fundamentally, if not exclusively, about the heart.

In my dissertation, I argue for the view that motives have intrinsic significance independent of outcomes: being for what matters (motives) is just as important as bringing about what matters (outcomes). I also advance the radical thesis that agents directly control their motives as a basic exercise of agency. Many philosophers think that we can control our motives only indirectly by acting on them, but I argue to the contrary that this basic control over motives facilitates control over actions in the first place. My position implies that morality might place daunting demands on motivational capacities, an extreme example being that one ought to love one’s enemies. For such a norm to make sense—somewhat paradoxically—the basis of one’s loving motives must lie elsewhere.

My background plays an important role in my philosophical path and temperament. As a Mexican-American, I have found teaching Latin American philosophy especially rewarding. I suspect that being raised in a bicultural family, with a Mexican mother and an American father, is also partly responsible for my tendency toward compromise and dualism within philosophy. In addition, Christian themes inflect my dissertation and influence related interests in philosophy of religion and metaethics. Lastly, my experience with software development informs reflection on the ethical implications of technology and AI.

When I’m not at work, I’m often (a) playing hidden-information games with family and friends; or (b) enjoying storytelling in one of its many forms, especially music.