My research lies in the liberal tradition. I am interested in liberal X for almost all familiar X-values. I’m most interested in building defenses of liberal political and economic order and answering important questions about how liberal societies and liberal politics should work. I also have strong interests in liberal political economy and liberal approaches to religion and politics.
Public Reason Liberalism
While I find many variants of liberal political theory attractive, I defend a version of public reason liberalism, which combines a defense of traditional liberal institutions, such as liberal rights, democratic government, constitutional rule, markets, and social insurance, with a requirement that the moral and legal rules to which are subject be justified for each person based on what he or she regards as a sufficient reason to endorse and abide by those rules. The best argument for liberal institutions is that they and they alone can be justified to publics with many different and incompatible worldviews. Only liberal institutions, therefore, can be publicly justified. I have written on public reason at great length in over a dozen articles. My forthcoming book, Must Politics Be War?, is in part a defense of public reason liberalism. I ground public justification in the value of social trust, and then argue that only liberal institutions can be publicly justified. Thus, if we care about having a social order that can sustain social trust between diverse persons, that order must be liberal.
Religion and Politics
I defend a revisionary account of the proper role of religion in the public life of liberal democracies, one that protects a significant role for religious reasoning in politics, and protects extensive religious exemptions. In my view, defenders of the dominant Rawlsian version of public reason liberalism have mistakenly interpreted the ideal of public reason and public justification in ways that are unjustifiably hostile to religion and other non-public ideals and values. For instance, orthodox public reason liberals often emphasize the need for a fund of shared reasons on which everyone endorses principles of justice. However, what matters is that citizens have a shared commitment to the same principles of justice and institutional structures, not that these be endorsed for the same reasons. Many reasons are not shared, especially religious reasons; by barring unshared reasons from entering into public justification, public reason liberals prevent non-public ideals and values from grounding liberal institutions. You can see me talk about my research project in this area here. I have developed these ideas in my recent book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation. I have also co-edited a volume on these matters with Michael Weber, entitled Religious Exemptions. Many of my articles concern this topic.
Liberal Political Economy
I am interested in the new research paradigm of PPE or Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. I believe that the case for liberal order must be grounded in models and data developed in each of these three fields. I not only believe in PPE research, but in teaching PPE courses to students, including as PPE minors and majors (I direct our PPE program at BGSU). I think of PPE as the study of complex social orders, both how they work and how their shared moral and political practices are to be understood and made coherent with themselves. Philosophy helps us to understand such an order’s underlying normative practices, and whether these practices correspond to moral reality. Political science and economics help us to understand how economic, legal, and political institutions work, and when they work well. Consequently, I have written broadly in PPE, from historical work on Mill’s political economy, to a critique of arguments for property-owning democracy, to the relationship between economic rationality and social ontology, and so on.
Part of my defense of liberal order lies in the study and analysis of social trust, the trust held by society and placed in society. I think social trust is incredibly valuable and that liberal institutions have the unique capacity to sustain social trust not merely among reflective persons, but among citizens of real liberal polities. These points figure into my book, Must Politics Be War?, but they will feature in much greater detail into my third book, forthcoming with Oxford University Press, tentatively titled Social Trust in a Polarized Age, where I argue that political polarization and conflict can be managed through rights practices, policies, and political participation that generate social and political trust between diverse persons. I think there is a very deep connection between social trust and liberal order, and this has led me to research social trust itself.
My interests in ethical theory correspond to my interest in social contract theories in political philosophy. I think there is a domain of moral reality that concerns what we owe to each other, and that this system of rights, duties, obligations, and their associated practice of moral responsibility, approbation, and blame is best made sense of in terms of deontological ethics, especially contractualist theories of right action. In future work, I hope to develop a form of contractualism that can not only account for right action, but that can be used to relate social contract theory to the abstract realm of moral value. Public reason liberals tend to be constructivists about justice and moral facts broadly, but my sense is that the profession is moving away from ethical constructivism. Consequently, if we want to preserve the best defense of liberal order, we need a moral realist foundation for the ideal of public justification. This foundation, I hope to show, lies in contractualist moral theory.