Selected Work

“Smithian Sympathy and the Emergence of Norms.” Forthcoming. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, with Keith Hankins. [Link] Abstract

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.

“Asymmetry and Symmetry of Acts and Omissions in Punishment, Norms, and Judged Causality.” 2021. Judgment and Decision Making 16(4): 796-822 [Link] Abstract

Harmful acts are punished more often and more harshly than harmful omissions. This asymmetry has variously been ascribed to differences in how individuals perceive the causal responsibility of acts versus omissions and to social norms that tend to proscribe acts more frequently than omissions. This paper examines both of these hypotheses, in conjunction with a new hypothesis: that acts are punished more than omissions because it is usually more efficient to do so. In typical settings, harms occur as a result of relatively few harmful actions, but many individuals may have had the opportunity to prevent or rectify the harm. Penalising actors therefore requires relatively few punishment events compared to punishing omitters. We employ a novel group paradigm in which harm occurs only if both actors and omitters contribute to the harm. Subjects play a repeated economic game in fixed groups involving a social dilemma (total N = 580): on each round self-interest favours harmful actions (taking from another) and harmful omissions (failing to repair the victim’s loss), but the group payoff is maximized if individuals refrain from these behaviors. In one treatment harm occurs as a result of one action and two omissions; in the other, it is the result of two actions and one omission. In the second treatment, the more efficient strategy to maximize group benefit is to punish omissions. We find that subjects continue to prefer to punish acts rather than omissions, with two important caveats. There is still a substantial level of punishment of omissions, and there is also evidence of some responsiveness to the opportunity to enforce a more efficient rule. Further analysis addresses whether the omission effect is associated with asymmetric norm-based attitudes: a substantial proportion of subjects regard it as equally fair to punish harmful acts and omissions, while another portion endorse an asymmetry; and punishment behavior correlates with these attitudes in both groups.

“Hume’s Politics and Four Dimensions of Realism” The Journal of Politics [Link] Abstract

Debates between realists and idealists in contemporary political theory have been confused by a tendency to conflate several distinct methodological theses. This paper distinguishes between four dimensions of realism and shows how a novel reading of Hume’s politics can help us make sense of the importance of these theses and the relationships between them. More specifically we argue that a theory we call normative conventionalism can be distilled from two of Hume’s more surprising and controversial essays “The Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” and “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science.” This theory views norms and institutions as conventional solutions to problems of coordination and conflict that are historically contingent, but also provides us with an approach to gaining leverage on our practices so that we can say something about which norms and institutions are worth emulating.

“Agreeing to Disagree: Diversity, Political Contractualism, and the Open Society” The Journal of Politics [Link] Abstract

Political contractualism is important in societies characterized by substantial moral and political disagreement and diversity. The very disagreement that makes the social contract necessary, however, also makes agreement difficult. Call this the paradox of diversity, which is the result of a tension between two necessary conditions of political contractualism: existence and stability. The first involves showing the possibility of some agreement, while the second involves showing that the agreement can persist. To solve both of these problems, I develop a multi-level contract theory that I call the “open society” model of political contractualism that incorporates diversity into the contractual model at different stages solving the existence problem while avoiding fragility in the face of the stability problem. This approach, I argue is able to take advantage of the benefits of institutional diversity while providing a stable framework for productive political disagreement.

“Self-Ownership as Personal Sovereignty” Social Philosophy & Policy [Link] Abstract

Self-ownership has fallen out of favor as a core moral and political concept. I argue that this is because the most popular conception of self-ownership, what I call the property conception, is typically linked to a libertarian (of the left or right) political program. Seeing self-ownership and libertarianism as being necessarily linked leads those who are not inclined towards libertarianism to reject the idea of self-ownership altogether. This, I argue, is mistaken. Self-ownership is a crucial moral and political concept that can earn its keep if we understand it not as a type of property right in the self, but rather as a set of territorial rights one has over one’s body. This territorial conception of self-ownership, which I call the sovereignty conception of self-ownership avoids the traditional arguments raised against the property conception of self-ownership and has other benefits besides. Accepting this conception of self-ownership, I argue, has considerable moral and political benefits without taking on the costs associated with other forms of self-ownership.

“On Minimal Morality” Analytic Philosophy [Link]

“Constructivism, Representation, and Diversity: Path-Dependence in Public Reason Theories of Justice” Synthese [Link] Abstract

Public reason theories are characterized by three conditions: constructivism, representation, and stability. Constructivism holds that justification does not rely on any antecedent moral or political values outside of the procedure of agreement. Representation holds that the reasons for the choice in the model must be rationally explicable to real agents outside the model. Stability holds that the principles chosen in the procedure should be stable upon reflection, especially in the face of diversity in a pluralistic society. Choice procedures that involve at least two-stages with different information, as Rawls’s theory does, will be path-dependent and not meet the condition of representation since it will not be globally coherent. Attempts to solve this problem without eliminating the segmentation of choice in the procedure will run afoul of constructivism or stability. This problem is instructive because it highlights how public reason theories must evolve in the face of increased concerns about diversity.

“Two of a Kind: Are Norms of Honor a Species of Morality?” with Toby Handfield, Biology and Philosophy [Link] Abstract

Should the norms of honor cultures be classified as a variety of morality? In this paper, we address this question by considering various empirical bases on which norms can be taxonomically organized. This question is of interest both as an exercise in the philosophy of social science and for its potential implications in meta-ethical debates. Using recent data from anthropology and evolutionary game theory, we argue that the most productive classification emphasizes the strategic role that moral norms play in generating assurance and stabilizing cooperation. This account entails that honor norms are indeed a variety of moral norm, but also has the resources to explain why they typically occur in a relatively unified, phenotypically distinctive cluster.

“Democracy Unchained: Contractualism, Individualism, and Independence in Buchanan’s Democratic Theory” Homo Oeconomicus [Link] Abstract

Contrary to the claims of some of his critics, James Buchanan was an ardent democrat. I argue that Buchanan’s conception of democratic governance organized by a contractually justified constitution is highly distinctive because of his commitment to a strong conception of individualism. For Buchanan, democracy is neither justified instrumentally—by the goods it generates—nor by reference to some antecedent conception of justice. Instead, democracy is the only political option for a society that takes individualism seriously. One implication of this view is that democracies can only be limited by the rules they collectively give themselves in the form of constitutions. I explicate this conception of democracy and address some of its implications, assumptions, and challenges.

“The Right to Own the Means of Production” Economic Liberties as Human Rights, edited by Jahel Queralt and Bas Van Der Vossen [Link] Abstract

All liberals agree that certain civil and political liberties such as freedom of speech and assembly are “basic liberties”—that is, liberties whose protection takes priority over other political goals. However, liberals disagree about the status of “productive private property,” i.e. property used for economic production. Some liberals argue that the right to privately own the means of productive property ought to be considered a basic human right, yet most liberals remain unconvinced. This paper offers a new defense of the human right to own productive private property. We argue that the right is implied by two other rights that all liberals recognize as basic human rights—the right to dispose of personal property and the right of occupational choice. On our account, the right to productive private property is simply one specification of the rights to personal property and occupational choice in roughly the same way that the right to work as a motivational speaker is one specification of the rights to freedom of speech and occupational choice. We consider the major objections lodged against previous defenses of the basic right to own productive private property and conclude that they are unsuccessful against our own case.

“Evaluating Bad Norms,” Social Philosophy & Policy [Link] Abstract

Some norms are bad. Norms of revenge, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and other norms strike us as destructive, cruel, and wasteful. The puzzle is why so many people see these norms as authoritative and why these norms often resist change. To answer these questions, we need to look at what “bad” norms are and how we can evaluate them. Here I develop an integrative analysis of norms that aims to avoid parochialism in norm evaluation. After examining and rejecting several evaluative standards, I propose what I call a comparative-functional analysis of norms that is both operationalizable/testable and nonparochial, and that can sort better and worse norms. One conclusion of this approach is that norms are not so much “bad” and “good” as “better” and “worse.” This approach should be of interest to theorists and practitioners alike.

“Honor and Violence: An Account of Feuds, Duels, and Honor Killings” with Toby Handfield, Human Nature [Link] Abstract

We present a theory of honor violence as a form of costly signaling. Two types of honor violence are identified: revenge and purification. Both types are amenable to a signaling analysis, whereby the violent behavior is a signal that can be used by out- groups to draw inferences about the nature of the signaling group, and thereby helps to solve perennial problems of social cooperation: the problems of deterrence and assurance. The analysis shows that apparently gratuitous acts of violence can be part of a system of norms that are Pareto superior to alternatives without such signals. For societies that lack mechanisms of governance to deter aggression or to enforce contracts, norms of honor can be a rational means of achieving these functions. The theory also suggests mechanisms, however, by which cultures can become trapped in inefficient equilibria, due to path-dependent phenomena. In other words, costly signals of honor may continue to be sent, even in circumstances where they are no longer providing useful information.

“Political Stability in the Open Society” with Kevin Vallier, American Journal of Political Science [Link] Abstract

We argue that the Rawlsian description of a just liberal society, the well-ordered society, fails to accommodate deep disagreement and is insufficiently dynamic. In response, we formulate an alternative model that we call the open society, organized around a new account of dynamic stability. In the open society, constitutional rules must be stable enough to preserve social conditions that foster experimentation, while leaving room in legal and institutional rules for innovation and change. Systemic robustness and dynamic stability become important for the open society in a way that they are not in the well-ordered society. This model of the open society and the corresponding model of stability has interesting implications for thinking about the goals, norms, and institutions of liberal political systems.

“When Equality Matters” The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy edited by David Boonin [Link] Abstract

Equality is at the heart of liberal democratic political theory. Despite this, there is considerable disagreement about how we should understand equality in the context of liberal politics. Several different conceptions of equality (e.g., equality of opportunity, equality of welfare outcomes, and equality of basic rights) will recommend different and often conflicting policies and institutions. Further, we can expect, in democratic societies, that citizens will disagree on the correct conception of equality. This leads to the diversity problem of equality— there is no one conception of equality that will be acceptable to all citizens. This is compounded by the complexity problem of generating determinate and predictable results in the institutional application of any particular conception of equality. After identifying these problems and looking at G.A. Cohen’s defense of a thoroughly egalitarian conception of politics, I argue in favor of “democratic equality” as a political ideal.

“Green Beards and Signaling: Why Morality is not Indispensable” with Toby Handfield and Julian Garcia, Behavioral and Brain Sciences [Link] Abstract

We argue that although objectivist moral attitudes may facilitate cooperation, they are not necessary for the high levels of cooperation in humans. This is implied by evolutionary models and is also suggested by the ability of merely conventional social norms to explain extreme human behaviors.

“Peer Punishment Promotes Enforcement of Bad Social Norms” with Klaus Abbink, Lata Gangadharan, and Toby Handfield, Nature Communications [LinkAbstract

Social norms are an important element in explaining how humans achieve very high levels of cooperative activity. It is widely observed that, when norms can be enforced by peer punishment, groups are able to resolve social dilemmas in prosocial, cooperative ways. Here we show that punishment can also encourage participation in destructive behaviors that are harmful to group welfare, and that this phenomenon is mediated by a social norm. In a variation of a public goods game, in which the return to investment is negative for both group and individual, we find that the opportunity to punish led to higher levels of contribution, thereby harming collective payoffs. A second experiment confirmed that, independently of whether punishment is available, a majority of subjects regard the efficient behavior of non-contribution as socially inappropriate. The results show that simply providing a punishment opportunity does not guarantee that punishment will be used for socially beneficial ends, because the social norms that influence punishment behaviour may themselves be destructive.

“Social Contractarianism” in The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism [Link] Abstract

I argue that contractarianism provides libertarian theory with a foundation in the rational choice of individuals. By understanding libertarianism contractually, it becomes clear that libertarianism is indeed a form of liberalism, perhaps the most coherent and consistent form of what is, after all, an austere ideology. It is not my intention to argue either that all contractarians must be libertarians or that all libertarians should be contractarians. Instead, I argue that the connection between contractarianism and libertarianism is a natural and fruitful one. The contractarian approach can provide a coherent and plausible explanation of the libertarian emphasis on strong individual rights, voluntary association, and a limited state. Further, the contractarian approach can help to adjudicate between two core disputes in libertarian theory: 1) rights-based vs. consequences-based libertarianism and 2) anarchist vs. non-anarchist libertarianism.

“On the Calculus of Consent,” with Gerald Gaus, The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Contemporary Political Theory  [Link] Abstract

The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy is a groundbreaking work in democratic theory. This chapter argues that it is of continued relevance today, due both to its methodological innovations and its use of those innovative techniques to solve the fundamental problem of democratic justification. In Calculus, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock fuse economic methods, political theory, and the normative project of showing how democratic institutions of a particular sort can be justified contractually, creating a unique form of democratic contractualism that came to be known as “Constitutional Political Economy” and the more general research program of “Public Choice Theory.” Although these pioneering techniques have been integrated into mainstream political theory, the interest of their normative project has not been similarly appreciated.

“The Ethics of Legislative Vote Trading” Political Studies [Link] Abstract

This paper argues that legislative vote trading by representatives is both ethically permissible and may be ethically required in many cases. This conclusion is an implication of a thin, general account of representation that requires representatives to vote on the basis of the perceived preferences or interest of their constituents. These special duties arise from a thin account of representation and create a weak, defeasible duty for representatives to engage in what they believe will be beneficial vote trades. After establishing this claim, I consider two objections to this duty. One based on equating legislative vote-trading with corruption, the other arguing that logrolling violates the “duty of civility.” This paper argues that neither objection undermines the main claim that there is a weak duty to engage in logrolling. Nevertheless, the implications of this duty may be troubling for other reasons.

“The Fragility of Consensus: Public Reason, Stability, and Diversity,” with Kevin Vallier The European Journal of Philosophy [Link] Abstract

John Rawls’s transition from A Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism was driven by his rejection of Theory’s account of stability. The key to his later account of stability is the idea of public reason. We see Rawls’s account of stability as an attempt to solve a mutual assurance problem. We maintain that Rawls’s solution fails because his primary assurance mechanism, in the form of public reason, is fragile. His conception of public reason relies on a condition of consensus that we argue is both unrealistic in modern, pluralistic democracies and fragile. Rejecting his conception of public reason as unable to maintain stability, we offer an “indirect alternative” that we believe is much more robust. We offer experimental evidence to back up this claim.

“When Justice Demands Inequality,” with Keith Hankins, The Journal of Moral Philosophy [Link] Abstract

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 own 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

    • A Polish Translation is available here

“Adam Smith and the Social Contract” The Adam Smith Review [Link] Abstract

Adam Smith is, along with David Hume, typically understood as a critic of the social contract and a precursor to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick. I argue that this interpretation misunderstands something fundamentally important about Smith’s distinctive approach to justice. Smith, I claim, should be understood as a precursor to evolutionary approaches to the social contract. Further, reading Smith as a contractarian not only helps to bring out underappreciated deontological aspects of his account of account of justice but also can help contemporary contract theorists solve several important problems.

“Rational Choice and the Original Position: The (Many) Models of Rawls and Harsanyi,” with Gerald Gaus, The Original Position [Link] Abstract

We argue that what defines the original position arguments of both John Harsanyi and John Rawls is the belief that the justification of principles of justice must be rational from the point of view of some specified set of choosers. We call this the Fundamental Derivation Thesis. For Rawls and Harsanyi, the original position is a model of rational choice, not a form of counter-factual justification or hypothetical consent. The original position is also not a moral epistemological heuristic that identifies true or justified principles. Instead, it is a model that links the rationality of individual choosers with a set of principles evaluated from the moral point of view.

“Uniqueness and Symmetry in Bargaining Theories of Justice,” Philosophical Studies [Link] Abstract

Contractarian theories of justice define justice as the result of a rational bargain. The goal is to show that the rules of justice are consistent with rationality. The two most important bargaining theories of justice are David Gauthier’s and those that use the Nash bargaining solution. I argue that both of these approaches are fatally undermined by their reliance on a symmetry condition. Symmetry is a substantive constraint on reasoning, however, not an implication of rationality. I argue that using symmetry to generate uniqueness undermines the goal of bargaining theories of justice.

“Ordering Anarchy,” Rationality, Markets and Morals [Link] Abstract

Ordered social life requires rules of conduct that help generate and preserve peaceful and cooperative interactions among individuals. The problem is that these social rules impose costs. They prohibit us from doing some things we might see as important and they require us to do other things that we might otherwise not do. The question for the contractarian is whether the costs of these social rules can be rationally justified. I argue that traditional contract theories have tended to underestimate the importance of evaluating the cost of enforcement and compliance in the contract procedure. In addition, the social contract has been understood narrowly as a method of justifying specifically moral or political rules. I defend a broader version of contractarianism as a justificatory model that can be used to evaluate any set of social rules or institutions that impose costs on agents. In so doing, I argue that contractarianism is a general method of evaluating and justifying the rules that order the structure of social life.

“The Virtues of Justice,” with David Schmidtz, Virtues and their Vices [Link] Abstract

Justice is a virtue that has a history. Over that history, there are many different virtues that go by the name “justice.” Justice is a virtue of both persons and institutions. Ancient thinkers tended to overemphasize the personal aspect of justice, modern thinkers the institutional aspect. Both, however, are related and important. Justice as a virtue encourages cooperation and the toleration of diversity. Just people become reciprocators and comfortable with diversity. Just institutions and societies foster reciprocation through peaceful cooperation. Justice, in a pluralistic society, is a pluralistic virtue.

“Reconciling Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism,” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice [Link] Abstract

Epicurean contractarianism is an attempt to reconcile individualistic hedonism with a robust account of justice. The pursuit of pleasure and the requirements of justice, however, have seemed to be incompatible to many commentators, both ancient and modern. It is not clear how it is possible to reconcile hedonism with the demands of justice. Furthermore, it is not clear why, even if Epicurean contractarianism is possible, it would be necessary for Epicureans to endorse a social contract. I argue here that Epicurean contractarianism is both possible and necessary once we understand Epicurean practical rationality in a new way. We are left with an appealing version of teleological, individualistic contractarianism that is significantly different from Hobbesian contractarianism.

“Social Evolution,” with Gerald Gaus, The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy [Link] Abstract

An overview of different approaches to understanding social evolution. We begin by looking at early theories of social evolution from Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. We then look at the debate in the 19th century between those who saw social evolution as cooperative versus those who saw it as a competitive process. When then look at the important pioneering work on social evolution by F.A. Hayek before examining more recent developments in modelling social evolution with evolutionary game-theory and gene-culture co-evolution.