Research My research focuses on questions that lie at the intersection of philosophy and the social sciences, with an emphasis on how we deal with our limited understanding of and control over the world around us, the role sympathy plays in our lives, and how diversity impacts groups. While these topics might initially look eclectic, my work on all of them is animated by a common concern: how do individuals navigate the frictions associated with living in community with one another so that they might capture the benefits of social cooperation? Further tying together my work are three methodological dispositions reflected in the approaches I’ve taken to asking and answering this question. The first disposition is an interest in highlighting how overlooked (or sometimes just misunderstood) aspects of work by figures in the history of philosophy can help provide traction on contemporary debates. The second is a commitment to bringing empirical and theoretical work in the social sciences to bear on philosophical problems, and especially to using simple formal models borrowed from those literatures to provide clarity and analytical rigor to the analysis of those problems. And the third is a commitment to doing collaborative work that draws on the differing perspectives and toolkits of myself and my coauthors to generate work that we would have been unlikely or unable to produce on our own.
Abstracts and copies of most of publications can be found below. Summaries of some of my works in progress can be found here, and a summary of my dissertation which explored the place of luck in morality can be found here.
Moral Luck, Sympathy, and Smith 1A - "Adam Smith's Intriguing Solution to the Problem of Moral Luck," Ethics, 126 (3), 2016, 711 – 746
In a brief section of The Theory of Moral Sentiments that has often been overlooked, we find a fascinating discussion of the phenomenon of moral luck. This article argues that Adam Smith’s discussion is important for two reasons: first, for what it tells us about the role our psychology, including some of its more ‘irregular’ features, plays in allowing us to reap the benefits of social cooperation and, second, for the novel solution it suggests to the problem of moral luck.
1B – “Associative Responsibility and the Possibility of Blameworthiness Without Culpability” Forthcoming at Social Theory and Practice
This paper develops and defends at greater length the account of moral responsibility that my previous paper argues is suggested by Smith’s treatment of moral luck. Specifically the paper defends the idea that we can sometimes be blameworthy for things simply in virtue of having played a role in bringing them about (that is, even in cases where the fact of our responsibility does not implicate the quality of our will in any way). To defend this claim I explore how the norms that mediate our responses to accidents are shaped by two important aspects of human social life: 1) the opacity of our intentions and 2) the fact that we live in a world in which our lives are inescapably intertwined and our actions are influenced by myriad things beyond our control. Each of these has important revisionary implications for our concepts blame and responsibility as they have traditionally been understood. While these implications do not require us to give up most of what we have come to know about these concepts, I argue that they shed light on the existence of a distinct and heretofore unexamined kind of moral responsibility that I call associative responsibility. As the paper speculatively concludes, embracing this kind of responsibility has the theoretical virtue of making the concepts of individual and collective responsibility more synonymous.
1C - "Smithian Sympathy and the Emergence of Norms,” with John Thrasher, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 105 (3), 2022, 638 – 656
Adam Smith’s impartial spectator and David Hume’s general point of view have much in common, as do their moral theories more generally. However, this paper argues that a distinctive feature of Smith’s theory—the pleasure of mutual sympathy—allows Smith to better explain a number of important features of norms. In particular, it provides Smith with a more plausible mechanism for explaining how norms emerge, and offers him a richer set of resources for explaining both why we are attracted to norms and why norms are often characterized by local similarity and global diversity. Rather than merely being a matter of historical interest, though, this paper argues that this aspect of Smith’s theory warrants attention from contemporary social scientists interested in the nature of norms, as well as from philosophers interested in how we might look to our sentiments to ground our normative practices.
1D - "Adam Smith and the Creative Role of Imagination,” with Brennan McDavid, in Alberto Burgio (ed.) Adam Smith and Modernity: 1723 - 2023, Routledge, 2023, 109 – 127
That imagination plays a fundamental role in Smith’s accounts of both sympathy and scientific inquiry is well documented. Smith scholars have also long recognized that the accounts of these roles presented in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the History of Astronomy are broadly Humean. In particular, the exercise of imagination in both the social and scientific domains is limited by the extent of our experience. Whether we are “changing places in fancy” with our fellows, thereby giving rise to that all-important sentiment of sympathy, or conjecturing relations between observed phenomena in an effort to quell the sentiments of wonder and surprise, acts of imagination draw on what is already familiar in order to fill in the gaps in our understanding of new phenomena we encounter. Hankins and McDavid extend the traditional analysis of Smith’s conception of imagination in three ways. First, they highlight the heretofore unappreciated role imagination plays in Smith’s account of technological invention. Second, they argue that close scrutiny of Smith’s discussion of invention reveals a distinction between two modes in which imagination is exercised: (i) a mimetic mode in which simple ideas from previously experience are faithfully applied to new circumstances and (ii) a creative mode in which much wider gaps are filled in with complex rearrangements of familiar ideas. Third, they argue that these two modes are operative in each of the domains in which imagination operates, and that exercises of imagination in one domain often help us overcome the limits on our imaginative capacities imposed in other domains.
Diversity 2A - "Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma," with Jerry Gaus, in Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber (eds.), Political Utopias, Oxford University Press, 2017, 175 – 202
Diversity and disagreement have historically been thought to be obstacles that theories of justice must accommodate. Recently, however, many democratic theorists have begun to think of diversity as something to be celebrated. In this paper we argue that the new champions of diversity are right, but only to a point. They are right because certain sorts of diversity, namely diversity of the sort that manifests itself in disagreement over how similar (or far away) various states of affairs are, improve our chances of identifying and moving to better states of affairs. Unfortunately, however, the same considerations that give us reason to think that embracing diversity improves our chances of identifying better states of affairs also give us reason to think that we will inevitably disagree about which states of affairs are best. Diversity is thus both a curse and a blessing.
2B - “Does (mis)communication mitigate the upshot of diversity?“ with Ryan Muldoon and Alex Schaefer, PLoS One, 18(3): e0283248, 2023 This paper contributes to the literature on how diversity impacts groups by exploring how communication mediates the ability of diverse individuals to work together. To do so we incorporate a communication channel into a representative model of problem-solving by teams of diverse agents that provides the foundations for one of the most widely cited analytical results in the literature on diversity and team performance: the “Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem”. We extend the model to account for the fact that communication between agents is a necessary feature of team problem-solving, and we introduce the possibility that this communication occurs with error, and that this error might sometimes be correlated with how different agents are from one another. Accounting for communication does not give us reason to reject the claim associated with the theorem, that functionally diverse teams tend to outperform more homogeneous teams (even when the homogeneous teams are comprised of individuals with more task relevant expertise). However, incorporating communication into our model clarifies the role that four factors play in moderating the extent to which teams capture the benefits of functional diversity: i) the complexity of the problem, ii) the number of available approaches to solving the problem, iii) the ways of encoding or conceptualizing a problem, and iv) institutional characteristics, such as how teams work together. Specifically, we find that whether (and to what extent) teams capture the benefits of functional diversity depends on how these four factors interact with one another. Particularly important is the role institutional dynamics (like search methods) play in moderating or amplifying interpersonal frictions (like miscommunication), and notably we find that institutions that work in one setting can be counterproductive in other settings.
Methodology in Political Philosophy, (In)Equality, and Social Choice 3A – “Hume’s Politics and Four Dimensions of Realism," with John Thrasher, Journal of Politics, 84 (2), 2022 The key puzzle of Hume’s political thought is how his political writing, especially as it appears in his essays and his histories, is related to his larger philosophical project. We argue that the key to resolving this puzzle lies in two of Hume’s more surprising and controversial essays “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” and “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science.” We argue that a coherent political position that we call normative conventionalism can be distilled from those essays. In doing so, we show that Hume’s politics carves out an important space for normative political theorizing. This Humean approach to politics may allow us to rise above (and perhaps resolve) some contemporary debates in political theory, specifically the debate between idealists and realists.
3B - "Game Theory and Ethics," with Peter Vanderschraff, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2021 Encyclopedia entry that provides a substantive overview of several ways game theory is relevant to ethics. We also try to provide explanations of the philosophical and normative upshots of several technical issues in game theory for a non-specialist audience.
3C - "Review of Paul Sagar’s Adam Smith Reconsidered: History, Liberty, and the Foundations of Modern Politics," Independent Review, forthcoming Invited review of Sagar’s book that provides a picture of how we differ with respect to our approaches to reading Smith.
3D - “When Are Cycles Meaningful? Political Realignment, Social Choice, and the Trade-off Between Utilizing and Imputing Information“ Under review Explores a tradeoff that collective choice mechanisms face between maximizing the use of available information, on one hand, and excluding irrelevant information, on the other. While the importance of this tradeoff has long been recognized, and has received lots of attention in the form of debates over what the best way to characterize relevant information is, this paper provides an explanation for why the tradeoff arises that casts the problems it poses in a new light. Specifically, I show that we confront the tradeoff between maximizing the use of available information and minimizing the influence of irrelevant information because rules that utilize more information must also make more assumptions about the nature of that information. This means that the problem we face when making collective decisions is not primarily a matter of insulating our decision procedures from real, but irrelevant information. Rather the real problem concerns how we can insulate our decision procedures from imputed information that may be misleading. To illustrate the practical implications of this problem the paper concludes by exploring the phenomenon of cyclical preferences. In particular, it asks when are cycles meaningful? As I show, this question is shaped by the multidimensional nature of politics, and the answer to the question requires us to distinguish between ties and cycles. Roughly, I propose that cycles are distinct from ties when they reflect the possibility for political realignment.
3E - "When Justice Demands Inequality" with John Thrasher, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 12 (2), 2015, 172 – 194 In Rescuing Justice and Equality G.A. Cohen argues that justice requires an uncompromising commitment to equality. Cohen also argues, however, that justice must be sensitive to other values, including a robust commitment to individual freedom and to the welfare of the community. We ask whether a commitment to these other values means that, despite Cohen’s commitment to equality, his view requires that we make room for inequality in the name of justice? We argue that even on Cohen’s version of egalitarianism equality, freedom, and welfare are not always compatible. Justice will require trade-offs between these values. Sometimes, equality will need to be sacrificed. This is a surprising result and to show it, we use two informal impossibility proofs drawn from examples in Rescuing Justice and Equality.
3F - "Positional Goods and Upstream Agency," with Daniel Halliday, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 98 (2), 2019, 279 – 293 Philosophical discussions of positional goods typically focus on parties competing for shares of such goods and on the inequalities among them that both shape and arise from these competitions. Less has been said about the actions of the various agents who shape the opportunities available to parties competing for positional goods. Such agents include suppliers of the goods in question, as well as those who instil value in these either directly or indirectly. This paper explores the complexity and normative significance of this more causally upstream agency with an emphasis on the role played by such agency in higher education. More specifically, we identify some of the forms taken by upstream agency, how the agents involved are related to each other, how they are related to the agents who actually compete for positional goods, and what sort of moral demands can be made of them. Much of this work will be taxonomic and descriptive. Our aim, however, is to show how the taxonomy that we develop and the dynamics that we describe bear on the questions with which political philosophers have tended to be more preoccupied concerning the moral significance of positional goods and how they ought to be regulated.
3G - "Review of John Tomasi's Free Market Fairness," Journal of Moral Philosophy, 11 (6), 2014, 769 – 772 Invited review of Tomasi’s book that is sympathetic with his thesis, but critical of the methodological approach he takes.