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.
You can read my published work here:
“Abortion and Miscarriage” (Philosophical Studies 2017): 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 ideal theory of justice (under review): 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.
A paper on “ought implies can” (under review): For any given moral theory, we must develop ideal and non-ideal versions of that theory. These versions are distinguished on the basis of different senses of “can” in the widely accepted dictum “ought implies can.” When we divide moral theory in this way, it can provide an idealized standard for how to live while simultaneously offering us guidance that takes our limits into account—guidance that can then be used to address practical questions in applied ethics and political philosophy, setting the stage for my work in those areas.
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 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.
A paper on effective altruism: 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.