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
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.