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​Cogley Named Peter White Scholar

Moral responsibility has been defined as accurately placed blame or praise connected to moral obligations. For example, if you determine it is appropriate to be angry with a friend who fails to fulfill her promise of watering your plants while you are out of town, you are holding her morally responsible for that behavior. Zac Cogley (Philosophy) is taking a novel, interdisciplinary approach to researching “reactive attitudes” such as anger. As the new Peter White Scholar at NMU, he will continue work on a book-length monograph titled Anger is a Gift: How Psychology and Ethics Illuminate Moral Responsibility.

“I think anger is underappreciated in the United States,” Cogley said. “A lot of messages point to anger always being bad. For example, if you’ve been treated poorly on the job, you should just suck it up. But anger is often connected to standing up for yourself and doing the right thing. Some of my other work has focused on how to be angry virtuously. This is a longstanding tradition in feminist philosophy and in the philosophy of race—the role of anger in standing up against oppression. My current research focuses on our emotional responses to wrongdoing. Rather than engage in armchair speculation, I incorporate relevant psychological, biological and sociological research on anger. Any adequate theory of moral responsibility must pull from the empirical sciences as well.” 

Cogley has previously shown that the blaming emotions such as anger and resentment play a three-fold role related to moral responsibility: appraising a person’s action as wrong; communicating that appraisal to the person and others; and imposing a sanction on the perceived wrongdoer.

“What’s interesting to me is that those different roles can come apart from each other. For example, when someone feels guilty and apologizes it still make sense to appraise that person’s action as wrong. But it may not make sense to continue communicating the appraisal or sanctioning the wrongdoer,” he said. “Reflecting on those roles also helps to solve theoretical problems in other areas of philosophy. My theory clarifies whether people manipulated into performing actions are morally responsible for what they do and also what makes forgiveness possible and warranted. It also is applicable to practical problems in legal and medical ethics for those with addictions and compulsions.”

The Peter White Scholar award of $17,500 will support adjunct coverage of three classes so Cogley can focus on writing additional chapters of his book, which he also hopes to publish as stand-alone papers, and conference travel. He is a past recipient of three Reassigned Time Awards at NMU. Each resulted in a published paper: two in collections from Oxford University Press and another in the journal, Philosophical Explorations.

“I was ecstatic to learn I was selected as the Peter White Scholar,” said Cogley, who joined the NMU faculty in 2010. “Northern has already been supportive of my work and this is a significant honor. To be recognized with the largest internal grant after being here only five years, I feel like I’m a really lucky person.”