I work on political philosophy and ethics. Most of my work is on questions of ideal and non-ideal theory. Do we need to know the ideal version of something (the most just society or the best moral theory) in order to make progress in our own non-ideal world? What are ideals good for, and when? In addition to trying to figure out the nature of the ideal/non-ideal distinction, I also apply it to particular moral and political issues.
My most recent research project is on a particular ideal: the well-rounded life. What would it mean to live a well-rounded life? Why is well-roundedness important? If we adopt well-roundedness as an ideal, how does this reshape our attitudes toward well-being and toward morality?
You can read my published work here:
"Incomplete Ideal Theory" - forthcoming in Social Theory and Practice (email me for a preprint): Even ideal theories of justice must take into account a decidedly non-ideal fact about us: that we are inherently imperfect reasoners. This means that insofar as we expect to put ideal theories of justice to practical use, these must be incomplete—we cannot expect to agree on a complete theory that fully answers our questions about justice. I show how work in philosophy of law can help answer these political questions: judges frequently agree on a ruling without fully agreeing on the theory behind that ruling. Reflection on this model reveals how incomplete ideal theory can guide sustained social progress over time.
"Effective Altruism: How Big Should the Tent Be?" - Public Affairs Quarterly 2018 (preprint): As effective altruism gains influence, the movement finds itself at a crossroads. Should it broaden its appeal by being more permissive about what kinds of giving count as effective? I argue that this permissiveness is inconsistent with effective altruism as it currently exists and, more importantly, with the philosophical commitments that set limits on what it can become.
"Ideal Theory and 'Ought Implies Can'" - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 2018 (preprint): When we can’t live up to the ultimate standards of morality, how can moral theory give us guidance? We can distinguish between ideal and non-ideal theory to see that there are different versions of the voluntarist constraint, ‘ought implies can.’ Ideal moral theory identifies the best standard, so its demands are constrained by one version. Non-ideal theory tells us what to do given our psychological and motivational shortcomings and so is constrained by others. Moral theory can now both provide an ultimate standard and give us guidance; this view also gives us new insights into demandingness and blame.
"Abortion and Miscarriage" - Philosophical Studies 2017 (preprint): The prevalence of miscarriage (particularly early miscarriage) poses a dilemma for those who believe fetuses are fully persons from the moment of conception. Either they must advocate for a radical change in our political and medical priorities, or they must revise their views on fetal personhood.
Projects I’m working on right now include:
A paper on non-ideal theory of beneficence (under review): When others are not helping the very poor, it seems like we should do more to prevent suffering and death. On the other hand, if we are obligated to do more in situations of partial compliance, beneficence looks to be overly demanding. I show that deontology provides a better answer than consequentialism to this dilemma. Consequentialist limitations to beneficence prove to be artificial and unstable. But because deontologists accept the existence of multiple sources of duty, they—both intuitionists and Kantians—can accept a moderate rise in our duties in non-ideal situations.
A paper on juvenile justice: While in the ideal world we would be able to determine precise desert on a case-by-case basis, in our non-ideal world case-specific judgments overtax our cognitive, motivational, and financial resources and lead to worse outcomes. The Supreme Court has recently taken account of this by placing categorical restrictions on juvenile sentencing. These restrictions are bound to lead to the underpunishment of juveniles who are mature enough to deserve adult sentences. At the same time, they will prevent injustices caused by overpunishment. I argue that properly balancing these considerations shows that categorical restrictions are necessary even in an ideal criminal justice system. Because ideal theories cannot deliver perfect just deserts to everyone, they are limited in how ideal they can be.
A paper on well-roundedness: I explore what it means to live a well-rounded life, and I argue that well-roundedness is an ideal many of us should aspire to. While well-roundedness runs the risks of making us into dilettantes and of making our lives feel less coherent, it also has profound intrinsic and instrumental benefits. Adding well-roundedness to our conception of the good life has profound consequences: it affects which theories of well-being we should accept and which theories of normative ethics we may find plausible.
A paper on the news: Brookes Brown (Clemson University) and I argue that many justifications for a duty to read the news (appeals to the consequences of being better informed, duties of self-improvement, and so on) fail. And yet it still seems that we ought to read the news. The only appropriately broad justification for this duty is that reading the news is often our only way to instantiate our duty of respect for humanity.
A paper on the structure of the duty of beneficence: It’s common to think that beneficence is a collective duty. But this is not consistent with what it is to be a collective or with what it is to have a collective duty. Instead, because beneficence is an individual duty, it is potentially more demanding than we might have thought.