Jake Davis – PhD

I work primarily in metaethics, normative ethics, and empirically grounded moral psychology, as well as in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. My research program aims to advance current debates in these areas by drawing both from recent empirical research and also from my expertise in Buddhist philosophy, in the way that other contemporary systematic philosophers find inspiration in Hume or Kant or Aristotle. My studies in the early Buddhist texts and Buddhist philosophical psychology were complemented by long periods of intensive meditation practice, years of training as a monk in the Theravāda Buddhist tradition of Burma (Myanmar), and a decade of work interpreting between Burmese and English for meditation masters. I hold a doctorate in Philosophy from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, with an Interdisciplinary Concentration in Cognitive Science, and a master’s in Philosophy from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

jhdavis2With Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia Philosophy Department, I have been developing a series of theoretical articles integrating ideas from early Buddhist accounts of cognition with recent work in cognitive science, focusing on how such a cross-cultural approach can refine our understanding of the role of mindfulness practice and its effects on attention and consciousness. In parallel to this philosophical exploration, with Judson Brewer of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, I have collaborated on theoretical articles investigating the therapeutic function and developmental trajectory of mindfulness practice, as well as on an experimental study using a novel fMRI neurofeedback paradigm to probe neural correlates of experienced meditators’ subjective reports. With Willoughby Britton of the Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Research Lab at Brown University, I am a collaborator on several projects investigating the trajectory of contemplative development, and serve as a consultant and mindfulness instructor for an NIH-funded investigation of the efficacy of separate components of mindfulness-based therapies. More recently, with of Fiery Cushman of the Moral Psychology Research Lab at Brown University, I have been developing a research program investigating the ethical judgments people make of others’ emotional motivations, and how these judgments might be shifted by increases in emotional awareness.

In my doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Jesse Prinz at the CUNY Graduate Center, I applied this background to issues in moral psychology and moral philosophy, developing an empirically grounded proposal inspired by Buddhist suggestions that we can know how to live wisely by being more fully aware of our own emotional motivations. In cases where two human cultures disagree over fundamental ethical values, metaethical questions about what could make one or the other position correct arise with great force. Philosophers committed to naturalistically plausible accounts of ethics have offered little hope of adjudicating such conflicts, leading some to embrace moral relativism. In my dissertation, I develop an empirically grounded response to moral relativism by turning away from debates over which action types are right and wrong and focusing instead on shared features of human emotional motivation. On my account, being motivated by ill-will is ethically bad (if it is), just because human beings who are fully and accurately aware of how unpleasant it is to be motivated in this way will agree that we ought not to act out of ill-will. Conversely, good-will is ethically good (if it is) just because we ourselves would judge it to be so, if we were fully and accurately aware of how much more ease is present in being motivated in this way. More generally, by appealing to ethical judgments that all members of our human moral community would make if they were alert and unbiased, we can make sense of the idea that individuals and groups sometimes get the normative truth wrong, and that we sometimes get it right. In this way, the experiential ease and unease that is characteristic of various emotional motivations in virtue of our shared human neurobiology can ground a circumscribed set of universal claims about which motivations we ought to act out of, while leaving many other aspects of how we ought to live open to cultural determination.

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