With this interview, the Philosophy Department is pleased to introduce our new assistant professor, Philip Swenson. Professor Swenson received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside and comes to us most recently from Rutgers University, where he held a three-year post-doctoral position. He has also taught at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Professor Swenson's research specializations include moral responsibility, theoretical and applied ethics, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. During the 2017-18 academic year, he will be teaching Philosophy of Law, Environmental Ethics, and a 400-level Seminar on Moral Responsibility and Moral Luck. Professor Swenson graciously agreed to answer some questions about his academic and personal interests.
Could you describe your research interests in layperson’s terms? With what projects are you currently engaged?
I enjoy working on a wide variety of issues, everything from gun control to the existence of God. A lot of my research is focused on questions about the nature of free will and moral responsibility.
One thing I am working on right now is the problem of moral luck. Some people are born in circumstances where it is very easy to act morally. Others are born in circumstances where it is extremely difficult to act morally. It seems unfair if those born in easy circumstances are much less likely to be blameworthy and more likely to be praiseworthy. It looks like those in the difficult circumstances have just had bad luck. The view I develop relies on the idea that “to whom much is given much is required,” or alternatively, “with great power comes great responsibility”. If much more is expected of those in the “easy” circumstances, then it looks like it is not really easier for them to avoid blameworthiness. So it turns out they aren't really luckier when it comes to praise and blame.
What is your favorite course to teach and how do you approach it?
My favorite courses to teach are applied ethics courses such as business ethics and bioethics. These classes involve discussing tricky philosophical puzzles. But it is easy to get students excited about the material, since the practical implications are often quite clear. I'll be teaching environmental ethics for the first time this spring and I'm really excited about that!
I usually begin such courses by spending a bit of time on general questions about morality. Is morality objective? What make an act right or wrong? And then spend most of the course on a variety of more specific topics. For example, how should we understand intellectual property (for business ethics)? Or should people be allowed to sell their kidney (for bioethics)?
Do you have any avocations or hobbies?
I really enjoy sports. I play a lot of tennis and basketball. And my ultimate frisbee team won the intramural championship at the school I was at last year. But I was the worst player on the team.
I also read a good number of fantasy and science-fiction novels.
Would you like to say anything about family or significant others in your life?
My wife Marie and I have a 6 month old son, Ned. Marie has been amazingly supportive of my academic career, moving to four different states with me. But we are really glad to have the opportunity to settle down in Williamsburg.
How does Williamsburg compare (so far) to the place where you've just moved from?
We really like it here. We came from NJ. Williamsburg is very convenient by comparison. Nothing is far away or hard to get to. It also seems like a great place to raise kids.
Is there anything else you'd like the W&M community to know about you?
I am incredibly excited to be here. Let's do some philosophy!