I am associate professor of philosophy at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minnesota. I received my PhD from Stanford and my BA from Swarthmore. I grew up in Portland, Oregon.
I am currently Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Community and Global Health Concentration. I serve on the steering committees of the concentrations in Cognitive Science and Legal Studies, and I am affiliated faculty with Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. I regularly teach courses ethics, bioethics, metaethics, epistemology, the philosophy of race and gender, introduction to philosophy, and our senior capstone seminar.
I specialize in ethics, metaethics, and action theory. I am currently working on two research projects. One is a book on morality, agency, and reasons for action. The other is a series of essays on intention and intentional action.
Speaking very generally, I'm interested in the question of whether anything in life is genuinely valuable, or genuinely worth doing--whether anything really matters, at the end of the day. And I'm interested in the question of what (if anything!) distinguishes those creatures and entities that are purposive agents from the things in the world that are not. I'm inclined to think that some things really do matter, and that there is an interesting and significant distinction between agents and non-agents, but, to be frank, I'm not entirely sure.
My other philosophical interests are very broad (too broad?), and include bioethics, decision theory, epistemology, feminist philosophy, free will, Jeremy Bentham, philosophy of gender, philosophy of law, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, philosophy of psychiatry, and philosophy of race.
Outside of philosophy, you can find me cooking, baking, running, cycling, paddling, skiing, and playing and listening to música Brasileira. I live in Minneapolis with my partner, Rebecca, and our dog, Maiana.
E-mail? sasarnow [at] macalester [dot] edu
Asarnow? uh-SAR-no (/ʌˈsɑr noʊ/)
Pronouns? he/him or they/them
Fig. 1: With Maiana
The Reasoning View: Morality, Agency, and Reasons for Action
under contract with Oxford University Press
Debates about reasons seem, to many, stale and scholastic. I explain why you ought to care about them anyway: there are powerful arguments which appear to lead from anodyne assumptions about reasons to troubling conclusions about morality and agency. The good news that my theory of reasons (the "Reasoning View") lets us avoid those conclusions. This frees us to use the concept of a reason in commonsense ways, without having to swallow anything too ridiculous.
Tl;dr: if you buy into my theory of reasons, you can stop worrying about this stuff and get on with your life.
8. Judgment Internalism (w/David E. Taylor) [draft]
The Oxford Handbook of Moral Psychology (2022)
Manuel Vargas and John Doris, eds.
This is an opinionated survey article about the moral psychological thesis of judgment internalism (also known as "motivational internalism"), according to which there is some kind of necessary link between normative judgment and motivation.
7. Action and Rationalization
Australasian Journal of Philosophy (2021, vol. and pages TBD) [final; draft]
According to Davidson, intentional actions are "caused and rationalized" by the agent's mental states. All proponents of the causal theory of action accept Davidson's causal condition (duh). But should they also accept the rationalization condition? I argue that they should: without a rationalization condition, the theory faces two serious but overlooked problems. I develop a theory of rationalization that allows the causal theory to avoid those problems, and I use that theory to develop a Reasoning View about motivating reasons.
6. Noncognitivism in Metaethics and the Philosophy of Action
Erkenntnis (2020, vol. and pages TBD) [final; draft]
I argue that broadly Anscombean versions of the planning theory of intention face an analogue of the Frege-Geach problem, which famously afflicts metaethical noncognitivism. However, I argue that a broadly Gricean version pf the planning theory can avoid the problem. The Gricean version has numerous other virtues, including that it allows the theory to respond to an influential criticism due to Marušić and Schwenkler.
5. Shared Agency without Shared Intention
The Philosophical Quarterly 70, 281: 665-68 (2020) [final; draft]
I argue that creatures who lack plan-laden intentions, and whose agency is thus not temporally extended, may enjoy forms of social interaction that can creditably be called "shared agency." My framework for modeling these agents leads naturally to a formula for producing novel hypotheses about the social capacities of great apes and other sophisticated non-human agents.
4. Internal Reasons and the Boy Who Cried Wolf
Ethics 130, 1: 32-58 (2019) [final]
This is my attempt to explain why you shouldn't be a reasons internalist (or a subjectivist about normative reasons, for that matter). In brief: seemingly powerful sources of appeal for that view evaporate once you get clear about the distinction between objective and subjective reasons.
You can find a critical precis and discussion of this paper on the Pea Soup blog.
3. On Not Getting Out of Bed
Philosophical Studies 176, 6: 1639-1666 (2019) [final; draft]
[Published online in March 2018]
How does intention lead to action? I have no idea. This paper tries to capture my confusion about that question by describing a new puzzle about intentions. Please let me know if you think of a solution!
2. The Reasoning View and Defeasible Practical Reasoning
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 95, 3: 614-636 (2017) [final; draft]
This paper presents my favorite version of the Reasoning View about normative reasons, responds to an objection, and argues that the norms of practical reasoning are defeasible or non-monotonic (just like the norms of theoretical reasoning).
1. Rational Internalism
Ethics 127, 1: 147-178 (2016) [final]
This is my attempt to explain why you shouldn't accept an objectivist ("value based") theory of normative reasons. In brief: you should accept the Reasoning View instead, as the Reasoning View is compatible with the standard motivations for objectivism while being far more plausible from an action-theoretic perspective.
2. Review of Tim Henning, From a Rational Point of View
Ethics 130, 1: 113-118 (2019) [final]
1. Review of David Sobel, From Valuing to Value
The Philosophical Review 128, 2 (246-249) (2019) [final; draft]
Work in Progress
If you're looking for a visiting speaker or referee, this should give you a sense of what I'm working on. In some cases drafts are available upon request.
What's at bat
The aforementioned book about the Reasoning View.
A paper about why intentions don't come in degrees.
A paper about indeterminacy in ethics.
An encyclopedia entry on intention.
What's on deck
A plea for everyone to stop spending so much time reading Anscombe.
A book about why I am not a consequentialist. (Or am I????)
An essay on Jeremy Bentham's philosophy of action.
A catalogue of my minor vices.
Fig. 2: Winter in St. Paul, Minnesota
Fig. 3: Winter in São Paulo, Brasil
Fig. 4: A "universally quantified" bagel
Fig. 5: A sourdough loaf
keywords: samuel asarnow, sam asarnow, asarnow