Works In Progress

“Why Assume Full Compliance?”

Abstract: This paper defends a general account of idealization in political philosophy that explains the distinctive role of assumptions of full compliance and shows the basic methodological commonality among competing theories. I argue that normative political theories are best understood as ‘utopian social models,’ which present desirable responses to real human problems. These models must be realistic about the background conditions that generate the targeted problem, but they must idealize full compliance on the part of those whose actions are depicted as providing the desirable response.

I then argue that even prototypical ‘nonideal’ theories obey this same utopian logic and so depend upon full compliance assumptions of their own. Different political theories can address different human problems and/or different agents, but all theories of this type must assume full compliance by the targeted agents. Thus many seemingly methodological debates cast in terms of vague categories such as  ‘realism’ and ‘ideal theory’ can be recast as substantive disagreements about which human problems, and which sets of agents, are worthwhile subjects of normative theory. By uncovering the substantive basis of much of the current ideal theory debate, this framework offers the prospect of resolving some disputes and illuminating those that remain.

“Political Moralists in King Arthur’s Court”

Abstract: When studying historical figures and historical practices that strike us as repugnant or barbaric, we are often warned not to judge the past by present day moral standards. Yet appeals to the past have always played an important role in politics as sources of inspiration, warning, and justification. Political philosophers typically evaluate such appeals by invoking moral principles that are said to be timeless and universal. However, critics such as Bernard Williams have argued that this kind of universalistic “political moralism” fails to take history seriously and thereby impedes our understanding of history and of political philosophy. Williams mocks political moralists for their desire to “inform past societies about their failings,” and in general he thinks such an exercise serves no purpose.

To the contrary, I argue that the practice of making moral judgments about past societies is indispensable. It is necessary insofar as we take the past as a source of warning and inspiration in deciding on what course of action to take in the here and now. It is also necessary to properly evaluate where we are now – the present is a product of the past, and so how things stand morally now depend in part on how things stood morally then. Far from being the idle indulgence of playing ‘Kant in King Arthur’s Court,’ applying our moral judgments to the past is an essential part of taking history seriously in our moral thought.

“What is Feasibility and Why Does It Matter?”

Abstract: Many critics of highly idealized political theories object that such utopian accounts are of little use and argue that we should restrict our attention to theories that represent feasible social and political arrangements. In order to respond to these critics, I argue that we must distinguish two aspects of feasibility: Political Achievability and Counterfactual Workability. Roughly, an arrangement is achievable to a set of agents if it is such that there is something they can do to bring it about. An arrangement is workable if it is such that, were those agents to bring it about, it would solve the problem it is meant to address. Given this distinction, I argue that normative political models must represent workable solutions to problems faced by actual societies. If they do not, they cannot serve as points of comparison to actual ways of responding to those problems. However, it would be a mistake to restrict our attention only to those utopias that seem achievable. First, we may be mistaken about what is achievable. But, more importantly, workable utopias can play an important normative diagnostic role even when they are not achievable.

“Revisiting the Circumstances of Justice”

Abstract: The “circumstances of justice” are the basic conditions of human life that make social cooperation both necessary and possible. It is precisely under these conditions that principles of justice are needed to assign the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. Like much of contemporary political philosophy, the term originates with John Rawls, who credits this substance of this account to David Hume’s account of the conditions that make justice useful.  As I argue, however, Rawls’s Kantian moral psychology and his more capacious concept of ‘justice’ lead him to adopt a list of circumstances that, despite substantial overlap, cannot be justified, or even explained, in Humean terms. In order to resolve this difficulty, I propose a revised formulation of the circumstances of justice. This formulation explains what is right about Rawls’s account while overcoming the limitations associated with its Humean origins. Thus, resolving this interpretive puzzle points the way to a deeper understanding of the nature of justice and its grounding in the general conditions of human life. 

“Modality and (Republican) Freedom”