Faculty Interview

Manuel Vargas

Written by Marie Shier

manuel vargas 2

Manuel Vargas is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco. His principal research concerns moral agency and moral psychology, including free will and moral responsibility. He also writes about and teaches courses on Latin American philosophy, and has interests in philosophical methodology and the sociology of philosophy. Vargas's publications include articles on free will and moral responsibility, practical reason, evil, psychopaths, the value of philosophy, and the undead. He co-authored Four Views on Free Will (Blackwell, 2007) with John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, and Derk Pereboom. He recently completed a book manuscript on moral responsibility.

As I walked into his office, Professor Vargas welcomed me to sit down in the bigger of two chairs. After a few minutes of chatting, a joke about him being a ‘mystery’ professor, and a chuckle, I was able to ask him a few questions about himself and what he teaches at USF.

MS: What do you teach and why?

MV: Well, let’s see, I teach a lot of different things. I teach in the Honors Program in the Humanities, Those courses are on 19th and 20th Century Intellectual History. In philosophy, I’ve tended to teach introduction to philosophy courses, with ‘Mind Freedom Knowledge,’ probably the course I most consistently teach. I’ve also taught Ethics and Philosophy of Action (that’s mainly the free-will problem, at least as I teach it). Philosophy of Law is what I’m teaching right now. I also regularly team teach Moral Psychology with a psychologist, Prof. Saera Khan. Finally, I teach Latin American Philosophy—that's my connection to Latin American Studies. Those are the main things I’ve taught in recent years.

MS: How did you end up at USF?

MV: Well, I got a job offer and decided to take it! [laughs] I went to graduate school here in the Bay Area, and my wife and I really like living in the Bay Area. We’ve got some family here, so when we had the opportunity to stay, we happily took it. USF has been absolutely terrific to me. I am very, very happy to be here.

MS: So you just won the Dean's Scholar award, we wanted to know what the research was about and it cumulated in a book, correct?

MV: The Dean's Scholar Award was an award for a project recently brought to conclusion, a book out later this year called Building Better Beings. This is a book about moral responsibility and the basis on which we rightly praise and blame one another. It’s an attempt to answer doubts about whether we can be morally responsible for our actions. Some of the main concerns are driven by work coming out of the sciences, including neuroscience, which suggests that we aren’t in control of what we do. The book is an attempt to explain why there remains good justification for holding one another responsible, in spite of philosophical and scientific pressures to think otherwise.

MS: Okay, just one more question, do you have another project in the works?

MV: At this point I’ve got two other projects I’m thinking about. One is a project in Latin American philosophy. What I’d like to do over the next couple of years is write something that tries to answer the question 'why bother studying Latin American philosophy?' Latin American philosophy, as a field of study, is in a unique position. Most philosophy departments in the United States typically don’t have anyone who works in this area. It’s not very visible in the profession at large. Given this fact, I sometimes hear people ask, why bother with this stuff, what’s interesting about it? The idea is to write a book that answers these questions. The hope is to do it partly by way of saying what I take Latin American philosophy to be (as a field of study), and then to talk about some of the historically interesting developments in it, including why these things are worth reading, knowing and teaching. So, that’s one project. The other project (or perhaps projects) has to do with Philosophy of Law. There, I am interested in trying to understand what it is to give a good theory of the law, and what are the types of things that help us decide what is a good or bad theory of law. It is comparatively clear what it is to give a good theory in many other domains. For example, in physics or chemistry there is a clear set of phenomena and we want to explain that stuff. For a theory of the law, for complicated reasons I think it is less clear exactly what the phenomena is for which we are trying to generate an account. There is potentially a third but related project lurking here, and that concerns the relationship between moral responsibility and legal responsibility.