I approach moral and political philosophy from a nonideal perspective. Rather than attempting to figure out what the morally or politically ideal society would be like, I study how actual societies work and how to improve them. This leads me to confront a number of questions at the intersection of philosophy and social science concerning how moral and political institutions affect social outcomes, how such institutions change across time, and how we as theorists and reformers can best navigate the epistemic and practical challenges that arise when trying to identify and implement social reforms. And it also leads me to ask some more straightforwardly normative questions about which criteria to use when evaluating institutional arrangements as better or worse, how to balance these criteria against each other, and what concrete changes to our society would therefore qualify as improvements.
“Interpersonal Comparisons with Preferences and Desires,” Politics, Philosophy & Economics (forthcoming).
Many argue that interpersonal comparisons of welfare are either conceptually incoherent or hopelessly subjective, at least if one adopts the popular view that an individual's welfare consists in her preference satisfaction. I agree, but argue that such comparisons are much less problematic if welfare is understood in terms of desire rather than preference satisfaction.
“Is Maximin Egalitarian?” Synthese (forthcoming).
According to the Maximin criterion of justice, one society is more just than another if the worst off member in the first society is better off than the worst off member in the second. Maximin is often interpreted as a highly egalitarian criterion that balances a concern with equality against a concern with efficiency. I argue that this interpretation is mistaken: Maximin is not an egalitarian view.
“Laws, Norms, and Public Justification: The Limits of Law as an Instrument of Reform” (with Gerald Gaus) in S. A. Langvatn, W. Sadurski, & M. Kumm (Eds.), Public Reason and The Courts. Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.
We argue that laws are only effective at regulating behavior when they cohere with social norms, and that social norms are only stable when they align with personal moral convictions. And we employ this position to respond to a prominent objection to public reason liberalism—namely, that a commitment to the public justification of law hamstrings the pursuit of social reform.
Dissertation: Social Ideals and Social Reform
Committee: Gerald Gaus (Chair), Allen Buchanan, Tom Christiano, Connie Rosati, David Schmidtz,
What, if anything, does our conception of the ideally just society tell us about how we should improve our own? I argue, against most ideal theorists, that it tells us hardly anything: it provides us neither with a benchmark for evaluating nonideal societies nor with a long-term target for reform. But if the ideal can’t guide us, then should political philosophers instead engage in problem solving—identifying present instances of injustice, diagnosing their causes, and prescribing targeted solutions—as some self-described nonideal theorists have recently suggested? While problem solving has its place, I argue that it is not enough: problem solving is a good way to identify short-term improvements but not long-term ones. So how, then, should we theorize about long-term reform? I argue that we must supplement problem solving with an attempt to work out how to make our society more progressive: better at getting better, or more conducive to further improvements in general though not necessarily to the achievement of any antecedently specified goal. I offer an account of progressiveness emphasizing experimentation, learning (epistemic feedback), and selection (practical feedback). And I explore some concrete ways of improving the progressiveness of existing democratic societies.