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. My forthcoming book from Harvard University Press, Agents of Change: Political Philosophy in Practice is the culmination of this line of thought. I also do work on the history of 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. I draw on this historical line of thought about justice in my systematic contemporary work.
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 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.
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 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. 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. “Do Human Rights Have a History?”. View Full Article
In this paper I explore the vexed role that the history of human rights plays in orthodox conceptions of human rights, for example, in the work of James Griffin and John Tasioulas. Such views both historically situate the phenomenon of human rights, while simultaneously denying that human rights have a history. While their views are not contradictory, I argue that they do display a resistance of political philosophers to conceive of their subject matter in historical terms. I undermine some of their motivations for this ahistorical approach, and suggest a theory of rights that might allow us to see different regimes of rights as subjects with real histories.
2. “Scarcity and Utopia”. View Full Article
This paper asks what role material resources play in the idea of a realistic utopia. Rawls and Hume famously argue that scarcity is a circumstance of justice. I argue that Hume and Rawls do not properly distinguish three concepts necessary to characterize material resources: scarcity, sufficiency and abundance. 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 that sufficiency is the proper assumption for a realistic utopia. I also 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.
3. “Workers as Agents of Change". View Full Article
In this essay I consider a debate in labor politics in the United States that is motivated by conflicting views about the role of rank and file workers as agents of change. Although participants represent the question largely as a strategic debate hinging on the effectiveness of achieving neutrally definable goals, using the framework presented in my book, Agents of Change, I unearth a principled dimension to the debate that is animated by views about the injustices faced by workers and the proper role of unions in remedying them through struggle.