My research focuses on three inter-related areas: systematic political philosophy, the history of political philosophy, and the philosophy of action, especially collective action.
Systematic Political Philosophy
Since completing my dissertation in 2009, my research has focused on big picture questions about the nature and aims of political philosophy. My central preoccupation has been to understand the sense in which political philosophy is practical, and to tease out the consequences of its practical nature for understanding the relationship of theory to practice. In general, I have tried to illuminate basic concepts of political philosophy by viewing them in relationship to practical character of political philosophy.
Agents of Change: Political Philosophy in Practice [Forthcoming from Harvard University Press]
The promise of political philosophy is that it will help us understand the injustices and political pathologies that confront us in our political life with a view to saying what might make them right. In other words, the naïve appeal of political philosophy is that it is practical. In Agents of Change I fulfill this promise by providing a systematic account of the sense in which political philosophy is practical. On the view I defend, to say that political philosophy is practical is to say that it is an exercise of practical rather than theoretical reason. Political philosophy begins by reflecting on the engaged exercise of our sense of justice in our ordinary political life, as we make piecemeal and fragmentary judgments, issuing and responding to claims on one another to re-order our shared institutions, in light of the injustices that afflict us. This engaged practical thought contains glimpses of a better world, judgments about justice that can be assembled to ascend from practice to a conception of a just society. Such a conception orients us to an end for our political hope and action. Working from this end, political philosophy reasons back to the conditions of action in the situations of injustice that confronts us. As a deployment of practical reason, it does not stop short of action in the circumstances that confront us. When carried to completion, such reasoning comes all the way back to an agent of change and to the question what is to be done. Using this systematic account of political nature of political philosophy, I aspire to dissolve the stalemate between utopians and practicalists, shed light on the relation of theory to practice, and move us out of the shadow of Rawls’ fraught legacy.
“The Question of the Agent of Change”, The Journal of Political Philosophy, December 2020, 28:4 355-377.
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 is connected with the other core tasks of diagnosing injustice and proposing practical remedies. In this connection, I criticize two linked postures that nonideal theorists sometimes adopt: a technocratic mode of neutral policy recommendation, whereby philosophers say what “we” must do to address some problem, without attending to the way agency enters the problem and its possible resolution; and the tendency to treat non-ideal theory as primarily consisting int eh enumeration of duties we are failing to fulfill, and specification of who is under what additional duties in light of this shortfall. My argument is that these tendencies fail to register in a coherent way the practical character of political philosophy.
“Constructivism, Strict Compliance, and Realistic Utopia” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 97:02 (2018), pp. 433-453.
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” respectively. I show that the division between ideal and non-ideal theory marked by these two conceptions are different divisions, and are motivated by different sorts of consideration. I argue that sliding back and forth between these heterogeneous dyads as though they were marking the same distinction is confused and produces indefensible political conclusions. Finally, after exploring nuanced ways of combining them, I ultimately recommend that we jettison the strict compliance/partial compliance conception of the dyad in favor of what I argue to be the more profound realistic utopian/transitional conception.
“Ethical Considerations on Quadratic Voting” with Itai Sher in Public Choice. 172 (1-2) 2017, pp. 195-222.
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 assessments in terms of efficiency are too narrow. Voting institutions and political institutions more generally face a legitimacy requirement. We argue that in the presence of inequalities of wealth, any vote buying mechanism, including quadratic voting, will have a difficult time meeting this requirement.
“Scarcity and Utopia” [DRAFT. Please cite only with permission.]
This paper asks what role material resources play in the idea of a realistic utopia. In this paper, I argue that Hume and Rawls do not properly distinguish three concepts necessary to characterize material resources: scarcity, sufficiency and abundance. One essential feature of these concepts is that they are end relative: scarce resources for one purpose can be sufficient or abundant materials for another end. I discuss a view I call the principle of sufficiency: that for the purposes of ideal theory we ought to suppose that resources are sufficient relative to the end of realizing institutions satisfying the principles of justice. When we explore Rawls’ and Hume’s arguments with this end-relative, tripartite conceptual apparatus, we can see that they do not actually speak against the thesis of sufficiency. I argue that the principle of sufficiency does not obviously presuppose an unrealistic level of material resources, since it is compatible with the idea that the opposing claims of individuals will outstrip the resources available, that difficult choices will have to be made about how to locate what are finite resources, and that institutions may be expected to deviate from strict compliance to various degrees.
The History of Political Philosophy
I belong to the school of philosophical thought that does not view the history of philosophy and philosophy as separate enterprises. The historical figures with whom I am most engaged include Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau, Kant and Marx. Recently I have been writing most about Kant’s Doctrine of Right and its place in his Metaphysics of Morals. I have been interested in his view for two reasons connected to my systematic interest: first, because it is an attempt to understand political philosophy as an exercise of practical reason, and second, because it is an especially profound attempt to explain the sense in which justice (Recht), the basic concept of political philosophy, is a distinctive part of morality. It thus promises to explain the distinctive practical character of political philosophy, and to explain the way it is both distinct from, but related to, the rest of moral philosophy.
“Kant on Strict Right”in Philosopher’s Imprint 18 (04) 2018 , pp. 1- 22.
For Kant right and ethics are two formally distinct departments of a single morality of reason and freedom. Unlike ethics, right involves an authorization to coerce, and this coercion serves as a pathological incentive. 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. Thus the justification of coercion and its special role as incentive are rooted in the relational character of juridical obligations, and so ultimately in categorical imperatives of reason. 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. I illustrate the consequences of this reading by discussing the propensity to injustice, as Kant understands it, and the unique way in which the juridical incentive undermines it.
“Juridical Laws as Moral Laws in Kant’s Doctrine of Right” in Practical Normativity: Essays on Reasons and Intentions in Law and Practical Reason, (Cambridge University Press, 2014), edited by George Pavlakos and Veronica Rodriguez Blanco.
In this paper, I explore Kant’s discussion of juridical and ethical laws in the introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals as a whole. 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 in order 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. The picture that emerges is one on which we can straightforwardly affirm Recht as a moral concept for Kant, while simultaneously representing its distinctive character in his system of morality.
“The Parts and Wholes of Plato’s Republic” with Anton Ford in Practical Reason: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Berlin: De Gruyter Verlag, 2015), edited by James Conant and Sebastian Rödl.
In this paper, we argue that Socrates’ main argument in the Republic has been misunderstood by most 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. It is no secret that Socrates thinks something of the sort. 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. Our own interpretation is justified not only by a close reading of the text, but by the result that many problems now commonly thought to ruin Socrates’ argument disappear, including the fallacy famously alleged by David Sachs, and the appearance that Socrates merely assumes that justice is a virtue in a city.
The Philosophy of Action
I work on collective action, joint intention, group agency, the theory of solidarity, and so on. This topic bears a direct connection with my work on the agent of change,
“An Anscombean Approach to Collective Action” in Essays on Anscombe’s Intention (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2011).
As is well known, 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. In particular, agents act together on my account if and only if their actions can all be straightforwardly instrumentally rationalized by the same action. Since an Anscombean account is non-psychologistic in that it does not presuppose that actions are intentional in virtue of being caused by a mental state, my account dissolves most worries about group minds. If I am right, such concerns arise from a bad picture of individual action that poses special problems when carried over to the collective case.