Papers & Research Statement
My central research is on big picture questions about method in political philosophy. I focus on the relationship of theory to practice, with special emphasis on the concept of agency and change. I argue that political philosophy is properly oriented to action, and that this is compatible with both the utopian impulse and theoretical ambitions of political philosophy—at least when this theoretical ambition is understood the right way. Articles related to this project have appeared in The Journal of Political Philosophy and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, with another forthcoming in Philosophy Compass. My book from Harvard University Press, Agents of Change: Political Philosophy in Practice is the culmination of this line of thought.
Two new projects out of this line of thought. The first is to provide the first systematic treatment in political philosophy of labor unions. Although some excellent work exists in relation to sub-topics, such as workplace democracy, the right to strike, the theory of exploitation, and the like, there exists no sustained and systematic discussion of the political philosophy of worker’s organizations in contemporary political philosophy. Given the storied tradition of union orgnizing, as well as the present upsurge in labor activism and the support for unions in the United States, this lacuna is both surprising and disconcerting. The recent transformations of the economy and the failure of older modes of labor politics speak to the need for reorientation from new ideas and models, making this project a timely one.
The second new project to emerge from Agents of Change is in the philosophy of human rights. Here I bring my teleological conception of the theory of justice to bear to reorient current foundational debates about human rights. I also use the debates about the periodization of human rights as a way of exploring more fully than I was able to in my book, what it means for political philosophy to historically situate itself, and to probe why those exploring normative questions seems so often pulled towards timeless generality.
I also do serious work on the history of political philosophy, particularly Kant’s philosophy of right. Here I address questions about how Kant thinks right (justice) differs from ethics, and defend a view under which both fall under morality as Kant conceives it. In a new paper, published with Anton Ford, we argue that Plato’s central line of argument about justice has been misunderstood by recent commentators. I view the history of political philosophy as an essential resource for systematic contemporary work. In Agents of Change my understanding of historical figures, including Kant, Aristotle, and Marx, serve as sources of inspiration for various elements of my view.
Associate Instructional Professor, University of Chicago
1. “Justice in Theory and Practice: Debates about Agency, Utopianism, and Political Action”, Forthcoming, Philosophy Compass, View full article
Vibrant debates about the method and aims of political philosophy have emerged over the last two decades, accelerating with the death of John Rawls. These debates are multi-faceted and far reaching, touching on the structure of the theory of justice, the respective roles of ideal and nonideal theory, and the appropriate relationship of the theory of justice to practice. Here I provide an opinionated overview of these debates seen from the perspective of the relationship of theory to practice, highlighting the work of authors who draw conclusions about the method and aims of political philosophy on the basis of views about the appropriate relation of the theory of justice to action. From the fact free utopianism of G.A. Cohen to the gritty systems failure analysis of David Wiens and beyond to alternatives that combine robust normative reflection with action, this article discusses it all!
2. “The Parts and Wholes of Plato’s Republic”, Forthcoming, Practical Reason: Historical and Systematic Perspectives (De Gruyter) View full article
In this paper, we argue that Socrates’ main argument in the Republic has been misunderstood by recent commentators. We argue that Socrates begins with an account of the city and proceeds to an account of the soul, not primarily because he believes that a city and a soul are analogous, but because he believes that a human being is part of a city by nature and because a city, as he conceives it, is a natural, functional whole. Recent commentators have tended to play down this idea (without denying its presence in the dialogue) roughly to the extent that they have defended Plato’s ethical and political teachings. The fallacy famously alleged by David Sachs, and the appearance that Socrates merely assumes that justice is a virtue in a city, do not arise on our reading.
1. “The Question of the Agent of Change”, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 2020. View Full Article
In non-ideal theory, the political philosopher seeks to identify an injustice, synthesize social scientific work to diagnose its underlying causes, and propose morally permissible normatively attractive, and potentially efficacious remedies. This paper explores the role in non-ideal theory of the identification of a plausible agent of change who might bring about the proposed remedies. I argue that the question of the agent of change must be answered to fulfill the core tasks of nonideal theory.
2. “Constructivism, Strict Compliance, and Realistic Utopia” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , 2018. View Full Article
This paper argues that two different, and ultimately incompatible, conceptions of the ideal/nonideal theory dyad figure in Rawls’ work. On the one hand, Rawls originally introduces ideal and nonideal theory as the theories of “strict compliance” and “partial compliance”. On the other hand, Rawls describes ideal theory as articulating an end to be pursued through political action (realistic utopia) and non-ideal theory as transitional reasoning towards this end. I recommend that we jettison the strict compliance/partial compliance conception in favor of what I argue to be the more profound realistic utopian/transitional conception.
3. “Ethical Considerations on Quadratic Voting” with Itai Sher in Public Choice, 2017. View Full Article
In this paper, we explore ethical issues raised by quadratic vote buying as proposed recently by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl. We compare quadratic voting to majority voting from two ethical perspectives: the perspective of utilitarianism and that of democratic theory. From a utilitarian standpoint, the comparison is ambiguous: if voter preferences are independent of wealth, then quadratic voting out-performs majority voting, but if voter preferences are polarized by wealth, then majority voting may be superior. From the standpoint of democratic theory, we argue that in the presence of inequalities of wealth, any vote buying mechanism, including quadratic voting, will have a difficult time meeting the requirements of democratic legitimacy.
4. “Kant on Strict Right” in Philosopher’s Imprint 18 (04) ,2018. View Full Article
In this paper, I argue that for Kant the distinctive character of right flows from the fact that juridical obligation has a different relational structure than ethical obligation. I argue that this relational structure explains the connection of right to coercion, and also explains how a categorical imperative can be known a priori to issue in both a pathological and non-pathological incentive. Since this pathological incentive has a moral basis in the structure of juridical obligations, and so ultimately in a representation of moral laws, I argue that Kant’s discussion of the juridical incentive of coercion is more continuous with his main discussion of moral incentives in the Critique of Practical Reason than it might at first appear.
5. “Juridical Laws as Moral Laws in Kant’s Doctrine of Right” in Practical Normativity: Essays on Reasons and Intentions in Law and Practical Reason, 2014. View Full Article
Following Marcus Willaschek and early Allen Wood, I pose a dilemma for Kant that I call “the paradox of juridical imperatives”, a dilemma that Willaschek and Wood hold Kant can only avoid by giving up his claim that juridical laws are categorical imperatives. I show how a set of interpretative issues concerning juridical incentives, the content of juridical laws, and the idea of an “indirect” ethical obligations, hang together, and must solved simultaneously to address the paradox. I argue, contra Willaschek and Wood, that we can dissolve the paradox, solving the network of issues satisfactorily and affirming the status of juridical laws as categorical imperatives, once we recognize that one can go wrong with respect to a principle while fulfilling the letter of its requirements.
6. “An Anscombean Approach to Collective Action” in Essays on Anscombe’s Intention (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2011). View Full Article
Elizabeth Anscombe develops a non-psychologistic account of intentional individual action. According to her, action is intentional when it is subject to a special sense of the question “Why?”, the answer to which displays certain forms of explanation that are available to the agent. In this paper, I present an Anscombean account of collective action. On this account, an action is collective if it is subject to a certain sense of the question why, and displays a form different from, but related to, that of individual action. Agents act together on my account if and only if their actions can all be straightforwardly instrumentally rationalized by the same action.
1. “The Teleology of Human Rights”. View Full Draft
In this paper, begin to make the case that whatever philosophy of human rights we adopt—orthodox, political, or something else altogether—we ought to adopt a teleological variant in line with the view I defend in Agents of Change. I argue that there is a cross-cutting distinction between teleological theories that conceptualize human rights in relation to international or global justice considered as an end to be pursued, and non-teleological theories that conceptualize human rights as responses to present injustice without reference to such an end. I show that there are teleological and non-teleological variants of both political and orthodox conceptions. Focusing in this essay on political theories, I sharpen a broad unease that is often felt with the way extant non-teleological political theories of human rights defer to the status into a sharp objection. I show that teleological variants of political views can easily avoid this pressing objection by opening up a distance between the political role that human rights would play in a just international community, and the political role they are capable of playing in the present.
2. “Workers as Agents of Change”. [Available on request]
In this paper, I consider two different forms of labor politics that have been stylistically contrasted in the work of critics of recent labor politics of the US. The two strategies differ in the respective roles they give rank and file members and union leaders. The first is a strategy of resistance that places heavy weight on mass participation of rank and file union members through dramatic collective action such as strikes and “open bargaining”. The second is a “back room” strategy led primarily by union officials and consultants that focuses on “corporate campaigns” that leverages connections to the political system to provide employers with carrots and sticks to cooperate with union demands. I show that on certain views about what justice requires in the workplace, even where both strategies are equally effective, there are principled reasons to favor strategies that win gains through worker participation where feasible. This allows me to explore in more concrete ways how ideals and principles of justice affect our understanding of the appropriate agent of change, as well as the way 8in which values, like workplace democracy, can be partially realized not just in the gains that are won but in the very struggle against injustice.
3. “Do Human Rights Have a History?”. [Available on request]
In this paper, I explore the intersection of the history and theory of human rights. One interesting feature of the dispute between orthodox and political theories of human rights is the way in which they diverge on the question of how to periodize human rights. The corresponding historiographic literature about human rights has been especially lively, largely owing to the provocations provided by Sam Moyn’s, The Last Utopia. This presents the possibility of fruitful exchange between the disciplines. In this essay, I use the way in which orthodox theorists like James Griffon and John Tasioulas provide long historical pedigrees for human rights, or even pull towards a timeless generality for human rights, as a springboard for thinking about how to periodize regimes of rights. Drawing on the view presented in Agents of Change, I argue that regimes of rights should be periodized in part through the agents of change they empower and the political projects of transformation to which they give rise.