Austen McDougal

I am a postdoctoral research associate with the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. Previously, I received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford with a dissertation on ethics and moral psychology; prior to that, I received an A.B. in Philosophy with a certificate in Computer Science from Princeton.

My research pulls on an age-old thread that says ethics is fundamentally, albeit not exclusively, about the heart. In particular, motives for acting have intrinsic significance independent of outcome: being for what matters (motives) is just as important to ethics as bringing about what matters (outcomes). A major worry for my view is that (as many philosophers think) motives can be controlled only indirectly by managing them. I argue to the contrary that agents enjoy a basic form of control over motives, and it is this that facilitates voluntary control over actions in the first place. I also seek to explain how the sometimes daunting demands on what to care about according to my view might not only be possible but even make sense to live up to. I am especially interested in the grounds for more compassionate ways of being oriented toward others: for showing attention, grace, and love even when these might not be deserved.

My background plays an important role in my philosophical 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 conciliatory frameworks like dualism within philosophy. In addition, Christian themes influence relevant interests in philosophy of religion and metaethics. Lastly, my experience with software development informs reflection on the importance of the heart in the context 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.