New Faculty Profile: Alex King
The Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University extends a warm welcome to Alex King, who joins us as an associate professor this term. Alex, who moved northwards across the US/Canada border in the midst of the current pandemic, notes that although relocating has been extremely hectic and difficult in these unprecedented times she feels extremely lucky. She’s looking forward to working with our excellent MA students as well as with friendly and intellectually stimulating colleagues.
Alex joins us from the Philosophy Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo, and lists her primary areas of interest as ethics, metaethics, and aesthetics.
Ought Implies Can?
“One of my major research interests concerns how our abilities are related to our moral obligations,” she says.
This issue is something that Alex has written extensively about, arguing against the principle that if something can be done then we are morally obligated to do it (commonly called the ‘ought implies can’ principle). Her book, What We Ought and What We Can (Routledge, 2019) points out that since we’re not able to do everything we ought to do the principle is flawed. Even if it can be done by someone, we may not be able to do it, even if we ought to.
For example, someone might make a promise to someone else and then become unable to fulfill that promise. But that doesn’t mean the promise has disappeared. Sometimes, we are sadly unable to do everything that we ought to do, and that is just a real part of life.
Tips from a Philosopher: Any philosophical words of advice for undergrads coping with remote learning this term?
Try to accept that it won't be the same as in-person instruction, but know that your professors are also struggling and trying to make classes as supportive and engaging as possible. Don't be too hard on yourselves, but do as much as you reasonably can. Most importantly, take care of yourselves (go for walks!) and be sure to reach out if you need help.
Another current research direction looks at moral and aesthetic normativity.
“At the moment, I'm thinking a lot about whether there are aesthetic truths or facts, and if so, what that means for our feelings and behavior,” she says.
Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with topics like beauty, art and the nature of aesthetic experiences. Alex explains it as moving beyond the philosophy of art and encompassing our emotional responses and judgment of the experience. With broader scope, it includes our experience of nature, for example, and is more to do with our senses—appreciating our sensory input and feeling pleasure.
When teaching, Alex uses a lot of different artistic styles and media; she likes to talk about things as diverse as painting, food, pop music, and movies to illustrate to discuss the philosophical issues.
“I think that people who don't frequent art museums feel like art is foreign or confusing or difficult, when it shouldn't be,” she explains.
Outreach and Cosplay
Her outreach beyond academic philosophy continues in her blog, Aesthetics for Birds. It features a small group of contributors, publishing under the tagline Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone. The blog regularly includes guest posts from people working in aesthetics and related areas, both in philosophy and in other related disciplines.
The blog tackles topics such as arguing about art on the internet, or Instagram filters, and video game ethics. Alex also writes for the blog. For example, you can read her exploration of the importance of cosplay, where she argues that cosplay is an important form of self-expression, especially for marginalized communities.
“Aesthetics is much more inclusive,” Alex explains. “It’s concerned with experiences. Instead of just thinking about landscape painting, for example, it’s also about considering the landscape itself.” It’s not surprising when Alex pushes this further, saying that it’s important to keep aesthetics in mind even when thinking about issues like climate change.
Aesthetics seems especially relevant for our current situation, where we’ve seen a huge revival in tactile and pleasing projects such as knitting and breadmaking as people seek for ways to get through the pandemic. As Alex proposes, daily life can be constant aesthetic experience and delight.