June 14, 2021

Making up Reasons: Constructivism, Functionalism, and Reasons

Joshua Stein’s dissertation focuses on how the different approaches to reasons in the literature interact with each other in his May 26, 2021 thesis defense.
Joshua Stein

Congratulations to Joshua Stein on the defense of his PhD Thesis, “Making up Reasons: constructivism, functionalism, and Reasons” on May 26, 2021.

His thesis committee included John Baker (supervisor), David Liebesman (supervisor), Erin Gibbs Van Brunschot, David Dick, Ish Haji, Daniel Star.

We asked Joshua to provide us with some insight into his thesis, and his graduate studies experience in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary.

  1. Tell us about your thesis topic.

My dissertation was focused on developing a theory of what it is for some fact to be a reason for action. This is a significant project in the contemporary literature in ethics and epistemology, though my focus was on a theory of reasons that worked across domains. The final result was a theory that satisfied the conditions in the ethics and epistemology literature, but could also be leveraged into the social scientific literature to explain the relations between behavior, social norms, and how individuals try to influence each other.

The goal of the project was to develop a theory of reasons that covered the range of uses such a theory can satisfy. Such a theory should account for how reasons justify action, how reasons explain certain kinds of behavior, and how reasons function in social life including their role in politics and law. Rather than just considering these different roles in isolation, the dissertation focuses on how the different approaches to reasons in the literature interact with each other. For example, while the literature in epistemology often focuses on how it is that some fact justifies the agents action, it often considers this solely in terms of what is rationally justified; my dissertation suggests that we should also use this approach to consider what is socially justified, based on the practices within the community.

The project was, in my view, very successful and will hopefully develop into a series of papers that contribute to developing this interdisciplinary dialogue.

  1. What was the most valuable outcome of the Graduate program for you?

I came to the philosophy department at the University of Calgary because it had a collaborative, supportive culture and because the faculty in the department were actively considering how to teach to produce the best student outcomes. Both of these things have been invaluable in developing my professional abilities, especially as an instructor, and I look forward to applying those skills throughout my career.

I cannot understate how important it is to be in a graduate program where everyone is committed to helping each other succeed, where there’s collegiality and there’s no sense of being in competition with one another. Finishing a dissertation is difficult; teaching courses (whether as instructor or TA) can be difficult. Having the support of your department community while doing those things is so helpful and makes a sometimes challenging and frustrating process much more enjoyable.

  1. What are the next steps/plans for you?

I’m going back to California for a while to see my family; being in a different country during the pandemic has been difficult. As far as the development of the career, that is less clear. I am in the mix for a few jobs at different universities, and so there’s a decent likelihood of an assistant professorship or some other instruction work. If I don’t get any of those, then I’ll look around in the private sector for the short term before hopefully finding a job where I can teach and do research in applied ethics. At this point, the future isn’t quite clear yet.