Kyla Ebels-Duggan Associate Professor

I work on contemporary issues in moral and political philosophy, and on the history of these fields, within a broadly Kantian tradition.  I treat a wide range of topics, but nearly all of my work concerns the nature, scope and limits of individual autonomy.  I am interested in how to understand our entitlement to, and responsibility for, acting on our own normative judgments on the one hand, and our dependence on, and reasons for deferring to, others’ judgments on the other.  In past work I have addressed these questions as they arise in political contexts and in interpersonal relationships of love. 

Recently, much of my work has clustered around related issues about moral education.  I am considering several aspects of this topic, including how to understand individual responsibility in the face of failed moral education, the proper role of the state in moral education, the sense in which educators ought to aim to foster autonomy, and the place of moral testimony in moral development. I am a fellow at the Center for Ethics and Education.

Selected Publications

  • “Dealing With the Past: Responsibility and Personal History,” forthcoming inPhilosophical Studies.  
    I argue that unfortunate formative circumstances do not undermine the warrant for either responsibility or blame.  I then diagnose the tendency to think that formative circumstances do matter in this way, arguing that knowledge of these circumstances can play an essential epistemic role in our interpersonal interactions. 
  • "Kant’s Political Theory,” forthcoming in Philosophy Compass.
    Kant’s political theory stands in the social contract tradition, but departs significantly from earlier versions of social contract theory.  Most importantly Kant holds, against Hobbes and Locke, that we have not merely a pragmatic reason but an obligation to exit the state of nature and found a state.  Kant holds that each person has an innate right to freedom, but it is possible to simultaneously honor everyone’s right only under the rule of law.  Since we are obligated to respect each person’s right to freedom, and can do so only in a state, we are obligated to submit to the authority of the state if we have one, and to establish one if we do not.  In the first half of the essay I reconstruct this argument in more detail.  In the second half I survey four points of controversy: (1) What is the relationship between Kant’s political philosophy and his moral philosophy?  (2) How does the innate right to freedom support the postulate that we are permitted to acquire property and other private rights?  (3) How does the postulate support an obligation to found the state?  (4) How should we understand Kant’s views about political revolutions?
  •  “Critical Notice of Arthur Ripstein’s Force and Freedom” Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol 41:4, December 2011, 549-573.
    I reconstruct Ripstein’s Kantian argument for the authority of the legal institutions that comprise the state.  This argument treats the task of justification as that of showing that state authority is a necessary condition of each individual’s freedom. I then raise the objection that Ripstein does not adequately distinguish between standards of legitimacy and standards of ideal justice.  I end by arguing for the superiority of an alternative way of understanding the notion of freedom that is so central to Kant’s approach.
  •  “Kantian Ethics,” in Christian Miller, ed. The Continuum Companion to Ethics, (Continuum 2012). 
    I articulate and defend the most central claims of contemporary Kantian moral theory.  I also explain some of the most important internal disagreements in the field.  I begin by trying to dispel common misinterpretations of the Kantian program, arising largely from misreadings of Kant’s Groundwork I.  Then I contrast two approaches to Kantian ethics: Kantian Constructivism and Kantian Realism.  I connect the former to Kant’s Formula of Universal Law and the latter to his Formula of Humanity.  I end by discussing applications of the Formula of Humanity in normative ethics.  I outline some normative commitments that most Kantians share and then discuss differences between Constructivists and Realists over how the formula ought to be applied.
  • “Awarding Custody: Children’s Interests and the Fathers’ Rights Movement,” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol 24:4, October 2010, 257-278.
    Child custody cases in the United States are usually settled by appeal to what is taken to be in the children’s best interests.  A growing movement for fathers’ rights asserts that an explicit recognition of parental rights should replace this practice, and further that this should lead us to favor split custody arrangements.  I argue for the first part of the claim, appealing to the fundamental commitments of political liberalism.  But I argue against the idea that this should make a 50/50 split the default custody arrangement.  I explain how this proposal would license ongoing, intrusive state intervention, and so undermine the very parental rights it aims to recognize.
  • "Moral Community: Escaping the Ethical State of Nature", Philosophers’ Imprint vol. 9:8, August 2009.
    I explain how one person can have the authority to make choices that create reasons for another by developing Kant's argument, found in Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, that we have an obligation to leave what he calls the Ethical State of Nature and join together in the Moral Community. This argument parallels the political argument of the Doctrine of Right.
  • "The Beginning of Community: Politics in the Face of Disagreement", The Philosophical Quarterly vol 60:238, January 2010, 50-71.
    I argue that we have strong reasons to conduct our political inquiry within the guidelines of Rawls' political liberalism, but deny that we have an obligation always to do so.
  • "Against Beneficence: A Normative Account of Love", Ethics vol 119:1, October 2008 
    I argue that rather than aiming at the well-being of those whom we love, we should aim to share in their ends, and defend an interpretation of the latter requirement.

Work in Progress

  • Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue
    Many thinkers agree that facilitating the development of students’ autonomy is a proper aim of education generally and higher education in particular.  I defend a version of the autonomy view, but not as I think its other advocates imagine it.  I suggest that an important aim of education is the facilitation of intellectual virtues.  What is right about the idea that education should facilitate students’ autonomy is best captured in virtue terms as intellectual charity and humility.
  • Moral Education in the Liberal State
    Educating a child is in part a matter of transmitting information, but it is also a matter of shaping character.  Those who play a large role in a child's education will inevitably influence not only her intellectual but also her moral development.  Yet it seems impossible to provide moral education without relying on a particular worldview to provide an account of what counts as a reason for acting.  Our pedagogy and public policy will benefit from acknowledging that we thus cannot avoid imposing a worldview.  This presents a problem for education within a liberal state, which is supposed to maintain neutrality among competing worldviews.  This paper develops the contours of this problem and suggests a solution.
  • Kant on Freedom and Moral Education” 
    I consider the possibility of moral education in light of two apparent problems:  First, moral education seems to require that we have a causal influence on another’s will, but such influence seems incompatible with the very idea of a will.  Second, the influence to which moral education subjects people risks being objectionably coercive.  I argue that we can simultaneously resolve both issues by understanding the influence of moral education as rational rather than causal. I also argue that our need and ability to appreciate reasons, and the obstacles that we face in doing so, provide a crucial bridge between a conception of ourselves as radically free and as susceptible to empirical influence.
  •  “Kant on Morality, Religion, and Purpose in Life
    Kant rejects all of the standard accounts of the dependence of morality on religious claims or commitment.  He nevertheless thinks that morality “leads to” religion.  I defend an account of this “leading to” relationship, arguing that it is the result of his struggle to characterize the normative import of happiness.
  • Anselmian Moral Skepticism” 
    Many contemporary moral philosophers think that it is a mistake to take moral skepticism seriously.  I argue that there are many different skeptical challenges to morality that one might raise, and some are worth engaging.  In fact, an acknowledged inability to answer a certain kind of moral skepticism is a serious problem for moral theory.
  • Inner Freedom and Required Ends
    I argue for a more robust role for required positive ends within a Kantian moral theory than others have acknowledged.  Reason must give us a task to work towards, not merely limit our actions, if we are to be free in Kant’s own sense.  I explicate the relevant sense of freedom, give some reasons for supposing that Kant endorses the claim, and finally reconstruct his arguments for it.
  • "Talking us Through It: Moral Testimony and Moral Development” 
    Reliance on moral testimony can seem both as if it must and as if it could not be problematic.  I offer a view about moral testimony that explains both.  The view depends on a distinction between moral, or more generally ethical, knowledge on the one hand, and moral, or more generally ethical, appreciation on the other.  Moral or ethical appreciation is a matter of seeing the world in a certain way, and so outstrips propositional knowledge.  Moral testimony can convey knowledge, but not appreciation.  Moreover, since appreciation is an important aspect of moral maturity, testimony alone is inadequate for moral education, though it standardly plays a central role.