Research My research interests lie at the intersection of moral and political philosophy, economics, and social psychology. My dissertation, which I wrote under the supervision of David Schmidtz, explored our responses to accidents with an eye towards what they can tell us about the nature of moral responsibility and the foundations of social cooperation. Having explored interpersonal norms in great detail I'm now beginning to turn my attention to issues related to corporate and collective responsibility. Outside of this work, most of my other work is concerned with what empirical and theoretical work in the social sciences can teach us about a range of normative issues of interest to political philosophers. At the moment I'm working on projects that explore how the formal properties of voting rules constrain the authority of democracy, how we can model the costs and benefits of diversity in various domains, and how we can assess the prospects of institutions and regime types that do not presently have a real world analogs.
Dissertation My dissertation, titled Embracing Moral Luck: Accidents, Apologies, and the Foundations of Social Cooperation, was comprised of three papers, each of which explores the place of luck in morality. Drawing especially on our responses to accidents, I argue that the obligations we incur and the moral appraisals we make are often quite appropriately shaped by circumstances beyond our control. In particular, I defend the idea that our responses to accidents reveal a sense in which we can sometimes be morally responsible for things without being culpable, and I show that this sense of responsibility is bound up with the notion of blameworthiness. This idea runs counter to dominant views in the moral responsibility literature. Pulling apart the notions of responsibility and culpability, and distinguishing between various roles that blame plays, however, allows us to resolve a tension in our moral practices that has long bothered commentators in the moral luck literature.
Social Choice Theory, Collective Epistemology, and Democratic Authority Some of our most important social practices involve forms of collective decision-making. Democracy, for instance, is premised on the idea that the judgments of individuals in a society can be aggregated in order to arrive at decisions that, within certain bounds, should be seen as legitimate by all members of society. The study of the formal properties of voting rules and methods for aggregating preferences, though, has cast doubt on the prospects for democracy. For instance, the long refrain of the social choice literature has been that no voting rule satisfies all of the intuitively desirable properties that we would like such rules to obey, and so democracies can't necessarily do everything that we might like (or hope) that they would be able to do. Engaging with one of the formal debates in this area some of my work explores the proposed neutrality conditions for collective choice and preference aggregation. I contend that there is no uniquely reasonable formalization of neutrality, and that one reason for this is that social choice is characterized by a tension between maximizing the use of available information and minimizing the influence of imputed information on the other.
Assessing the Case for Property-Owning Democracy In a pair of papers I explore the idea of property-owning democracy which has recently received attention as an attractive alternative to the welfare state. Drawing on empirical and theoretical work in economics and political science the first paper argues that the prospects for a property-owning democracy would not be as great as its proponents have suggested. In particular I argue that property-owning democracies may problematically constrain economic growth relative to alternative institutional arrangements, while also generating new threats to the self-respect of the least fortunate members of society.
Modeling the Impact of Diversity and Disagreement on Ideal Theory In joint work with Jerry Gaus I have tried to model the costs and benefits that diversity imposes on our ability to identify better states of affairs. We argue that normative theorizing is necessarily constrained by our limited knowledge of alternative worlds, and that as a result diversity is important because it can improve our ability to identify better states of affairs. Diversity has this benefit when it leads us to think about the similarity between worlds differently. Unfortunately, as we show, diversity of this sort also makes it harder for us to productively communicate with one another. In loosely related work I also argue that there is an important role for ideal theory in normative political philosophy beyond the aspirational role that much attention has recently been given to. Rather than playing a role in helping to ensure that ‘we set the normative bar high enough,’ ideal theory also plays an important role in parametrizing normative problems. I illustrate this distinction by discussing the role that social choice theory can play in democratic theory, viz. helping us to place constraints on both what democracy is and what it can be. I argue that these constraints in turn play a crucial role in helping us answer the question of what democracy should be.
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