Gwen Bradford

Assistant Professor of Philosophy


One focus of my research investigates the nature of achievements, and what makes them valuable.  Achievements are typically acknowledged as significant on “objective list” theories of value, but in spite of such widespread acknowledgement of the importance of achievements, there is virtually no philosophical literature devoted to the rigorous investigation of just what achievements are, or why they are valuable.  I am interested in what makes achievements valuable, and related issues, such as the nature of difficulty and effort.  I develop ideas about these issues in a book, Achievement, with Oxford University Press (2015).

Perfectionist theory of value is a natural choice to account for the value of achievements, and in my new projects I examine this theory.  Just what are the core theses of this view and what are the different ways in which the view can be developed?  What is the relationship between human nature and human good?  What exactly does perfectionism entail is valuable and why?

More generally, my interests are in the following issues in value theory:  the nature of intrinsic value, organic unities, happiness and well-being, pain and ill-being, and perfectionism.  I also have interests in the history of moral philosophy, philosophy of sports, and epistemology.  Other favorite topics to puzzle about are the meaning of life, and the nature and value of games.

Here are abstracts of some papers in print and in progress. If there is no link to a paper, feel free to contact me for a draft. I am always hungry for comments.

The Badness of Pain (in progress) Why is pain bad? The literature abounds with discussion of wellbeing, but there is so little about what is bad for us that you would think we’re in denial about it. Surely if anything is bad, it’s pain. Yet its badness is complicated: there are instances where we do not treat pain as intrinsically bad, but only instrumentally so, or we do not treat it as bad at all. What is the best account to capture the badness of pain? This paper explores several possible accounts, and highlights the merits of what seems to be the most promising account so far.

Uniqueness (in progress)  Uniqueness is thought to enhance intrinsic value. For this reason, it plays a pivotal role in the debate about the nature of intrinsic value. Uniqueness, after all, is an extrinsic property, and if it does indeed enhance intrinsic value, this shows that intrinsic value is not strictly in virtue of intrinsic properties, which had been the orthodox view since G. E. Moore. But just what is uniqueness, and does it really play this role? Snowflakes are unique, but surely it is not the case that each individual snowflake has intrinsic value. I argue that there are (at least) three kinds of uniqueness and that there is a conflation among these kinds of uniqueness, none of which is a good candidate for enhancing intrinsic value.

Uniqueness, Intrinsic Value, and Reasons (in progress) Although it appears that uniqueness can enhance intrinsic value, it’s not at all clear that it does. However, it does seem to reveal something very interesting about reasons. It’s a popular view that we have a pro tanto reason to promote intrinsic value, but uniqueness shows this is not so clear. The most interesting role for uniqueness in value is not how it shapes intrinsic value, but how it shapes our reasons, and the lesson that we learn about reasons and intrinsic value.

Pain and Perfectionism (in progress)  The badness of pain seems obvious, yet it is difficult to explain. Perfectionism has particular difficult accounting for pain and other bads. This paper explores some new resources from which perfectionism might draw to account for bads, such as failure, false beliefs, and dysfunctional relationships. Ultimately, pain remains a problem for perfectionism, but perfectionism has more possibilities than previously acknowledged.

Achievement and the Meaning of Life (in progress) In many discussions of meaning in life, achievement, or something very much like it, is a central element, playing a key role in the account of meaning. But there isn’t a lot of discussion about precisely what amounts to having “objective worth.” I take a stab at describing one of the ways in which achievements can be particularly meaningful, partly inspired by a discussion by Neil Levy. But it turns out that a far wider range of achievements can be meaningful than we might have thought. (A version of this paper was delivered as a talk at the APA Central 2015).

Hard to Know (in progress) Is the epistemic condition for moral responsibility sensitive to difficulty? It’s a natural thought that if discerning some morally relevant factor would be exceptionally difficult, we are not to blame if we fail to recognize it. This paper argues that difficulty per se does not shape the epistemic condition. According to the best account of difficulty, difficulty is a matter of exerting effort. There is no stock set of what we may call effort-requiring features. It turns out that it is not the difficulty per se that mitigates responsibility in cases where it appears to do so, but it is the effort-requiring features. In other cases, difficulty is extrinsically significant, insofar as it shapes the moral valence of the action. In these cases difficulty is not relevant for moral responsibility, but for the rightness or wrongness of the action, and thereby shapes praise- or blameworthiness.

Problems for Perfectionism (Utilitas, forthcoming)  Perfectionism is the view that developing the human essence is good. This paper defends perfectionism against some recent formulations of classic objections. The first objection is that perfectionism counterintuitively undervalues the relevance of (1) pleasure and (2) preferences. The second objection is a sophisticated version of the “wrong properties” objection wherein the intuitive plausibility of the perfectionist ideal is threatened by a lack of theoretical pressure to accept putative wrong properties cases. I argue this objection is unsuccessful, but when pushed further, it leads to a more serious worry – what I call the Deep Problem: perfectionism fails to offer a satisfying foundational justification for why developing the human essence is valuable. In response, I consider a new and surprising direction for perfectionism which suggests a close relationship between perfectionism and value-theoretic pluralism.

Achievement, Well-being, and Value (Blackwell Philosophy Compass, forthcoming) This article surveys possibilities about the nature of achievement and the relationship between achievement and different kinds of value, including well-being, intrinsic value, meaning, and epistemic value.

Perfectionism, in the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being ed. Guy Fletcher (2016). What is perfectionism as a theory of wellbeing? This article gives an overview of perfectionism, putting it in contrast with other related theories, and taking up some of the central issues and worries.

Achievement and Well-being (with Simon Keller), in the Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Well-Being ed. Guy Fletcher (2016). What is achievement, and how might it be relevant to our wellbeing? We discuss and explore these issues in this article.

Knowledge, Achievement, and ManifestationErkenntnis. Virtue epistemology appealingly characterizes knowledge as a kind of achievement, attributable to the exercise of cognitive virtues. But a more thorough understanding of the nature and value of achievement more broadly casts doubt on the view. I argue that the virtue epistemological answer to the Meno question is not as impressive as it purports to be, and that the favored analysis of ability is both problematic and irrelevant. However, considerations about achievements illuminate the best direction for the development of virtue epistemology. The key, I argue, is developing the notion of manifestation as the distinguishing feature of knowledge and achievement.

Evil Achievements and the Principle of Recursion,   Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics vol. 3. Ed. Mark Timmons (2013): 79-97.  This paper investigates the value of achievement by examining the implications of a highly plausible axiological principle, the principle of Recursion, according to which the pursuit of an intrinsic good is itself good, and the pursuit of bad is bad. Evil achievements present a puzzle for Recursion. The value of achievement is at least in part grounded by the positive intrinsic value of the pursuit. This is true even of achievements with evil goals. Yet Recursion entails that the pursuit of an evil is itself evil. Three different contstruals of Recursion are considered, and  it is concluded that Recursion is best construed as an instance of genuine organic unity, which is a return to the original Moorean formulation.

The Value of Achievements,  Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 2013 (94): 204-224.  Achievements are, if any thing is, among the elements that can make a life a good one. Yet for all that, virtually no philosophers have devoted more than a few short passages to discerning what makes achievements valuable.  In this paper, I offer an account of the value of achievements.  Although the natural thought is that achievements are valuable because of the things that are accomplished, such as a cure for cancer or a work of art, I argue that the simple value of the product of an achievement is not sufficient to account for its overall value as an achievement. Rather, I defend the view that achievements are valuable in virtue of their difficulty. I develop a new perfectionist theory of value.  This view acknowledges the will as a characteristic human capacity, and thus holds that the exercise of the will, and therefore difficulty, is intrinsically valuable.

Motive UtilitarianismThe Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Utilitarianism. Ed. James E. Crimmins, London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Evil AchievementsThe Philosophers’ Magazine 2012 (59): 51-56.

Review of What is This Thing Called Happiness? by Fred Feldman, Journal of Value Inquiry 2012 (46): 269-273.

Review of The Best Things in Life by Thomas Hurka, Journal of Value Inquiry 2011 (45): 487-490.

Review of Drawing Morals: Essays in Ethical Theory by Thomas Hurka, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews