My research lies primarily in the liberal tradition. 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 function. I have strong interests in liberal political economy and liberal approaches to religion and politics. I also have research interests in the study of social and political trust and contractualist ethics. My research projects can be broken down as follows.
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 one regards as a sufficient reason to endorse and abide by those rules. The best argument for liberal institutions is that liberal institutions alone can be justified to publics with many diverse and incompatible worldviews. Only liberal institutions, therefore, can be publicly justified. I have written about public reason in over a dozen articles. Further, my book Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society (OUP 2018) defends a form 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 Liberal 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 robust 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 justice and constitutional rules, not that these be endorsed for the same reasons. Many reasons are not shared, especially religious reasons; so by barring unshared reasons from entering into public justification, public reason liberals prevent non-public ideals and values from grounding liberal institutions. I developed these ideas in Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation (Routledge 2014). I have also co-edited a volume on these matters with Michael Weber, Religious Exemptions (OUP 2018). 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 found 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.
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 Must Politics Be War? They will be even more central in my third book, forthcoming with Oxford University Press, tentatively titled Social Trust in a Polarized Age. There I argue that political polarization and conflict can be managed through liberal 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 truth that concerns what we owe to each other, and that this system of rights, duties, obligations, and their associated practices of moral responsibility is best explained by and grounded in contractualist theories of right action. In future work, I hope to develop a form of contractualism that can relate social contract theory to the realm of response-independent moral truth. Public reason liberals tend to be constructivists about justice and moral facts broadly, but I reject metaethical constructivism and embrace moral realism. Consequently, if I hope to preserve a contractarian defense of liberal order, I must develop a realist foundation for the ideal of public justification.
Public Reason is not Self-Refuting (email me for a draft)
Published in American Philosophical Quarterly, forthcoming.
Abstract: Steven Wall has argued that public reason liberals are committed to a reflexivity requirement (RR), which applies public justification requirements to themselves. But given that many reasonable people reject public justification requirements, these requirements are defeated by public reason liberals’ own lights. This renders public reason self-defeating. When RR is properly formulated, however, it becomes clear that self-defeat is rare. Citizens seldom employ public justification requirements as reasons and, when they do, such requirements are rarely their sole reason for supporting political coercion. The self-defeat objection fails, motivating an ecumenical account of the processes that generate public justification.
Second Person Rules: An Alternative Approach to Second-Personal Normativity (email me for a draft)
Published in Res Publica, forthcoming.
Abstract: Stephen Darwall’s moral theory explains moral obligation by appealing to a “second-person” standpoint where they use second-person reasons to hold one another accountable for their moral behavior. However, Darwall claims obligations obtain if and only if hypothetical persons endorse them, despite tying the second-person standpoint to our real-world moral practices. The focus on the hypothetical renders critical elements of his account obscure. I solve this problem by distinguishing two ideas quietly working in tandem, (i) the hypothetical endorsement of moral norms and (ii) the hypothetical recognition of these norms. Hypothetical endorsement is a plausible source of normativity; hypothetical recognition is not. A more plausible account must combine hypothetical endorsement with actual recognition. I term these alternative conceptions justification and easy publication. To combine justification and easy publication in an account of moral obligation, second-person normativity should be applied first to rules. Following other moral philosophers, I introduce the concept of a “social-moral” rule into an account of moral obligation. Social-moral rules acquire normative force when they are justified for and easily published by the relevant moral community. A rule-centric account of second-personality is superior to Darwall’s reason-centric account.
Published in Minds and Machines, 25: 339-360.
Abstract: Many economic theorists hold that social institutions can lead otherwise irrational agents to approximate the predictions of traditional rational choice theory. But there is little consensus on how institutions do so. I defend an economic internalist account of the institution-actor relationship by explaining economic rationality as a feature of individuals whose decision-making is aided by institutional structures. This approach, known as the subjective transaction costs theory, represents apparently irrational behavior as a rational response to high subjective transaction costs of thinking and deciding. The theory has two attractive features. First, it reconciles rational choice theory with the increasing body of evidence cataloguing putative errors in economic decision-making. Second, it vindicates the explanatory power of individual choice against externalist challenges; the subjective transaction costs theory keeps economic rationality in the head.
Published in Philosophical Quarterly, forthcoming.
Abstract: Mainstream political liberalism holds that legal coercion is permissible only if it is based on reasons that all can share, access or accept. But these requirements are subject to well-known problems. I articulate and defend an intelligible reasons requirement as an alternative. An intelligible reason is a reason that all suitably idealized members of the public can see as a reason for the person who offers it according to that person’s own evaluative standards. It thereby permits reasons into public justification that all cannot share, access, or accept, and so contrasts with standard approaches to public justification. The intelligible reasons requirement has two striking implications. First, it severs the connection between public justification and principles of deliberative restraint. Second, it pushes political liberals to appeal to other political processes to publicly justify law, specifically bargaining, adjudication, and social evolution.
Published in Law and Philosophy, forthcoming in print.
Abstract: Justifying religious exemptions is a complicated matter. Citizens ask to not be subject to laws that everyone else must follow, raising worries about equal treatment. They ask to be exempted on a religious basis, a basis that secular citizens do not share, raising worries about the equal treatment of secular and religious citizens. And they ask governmental structures to create exceptions in the government’s own laws, raising worries about procedural fairness and stability. We nonetheless think some religious exemptions are appropriate, and in some cases, that exemptions are morally required. So how are we to determine when religious exemptions are justified? This article employs a public reason framework to provide an answer. I show how to publicly justify religious exemptions. My thesis is that a citizen merits a religious exemption under four conditions: if she has sufficient intelligible reason to oppose the law, if the law imposes unique and substantial burdens on the integrity of those exempted that are not off-set by comparable benefits, if the large majority of citizens have sufficient reason to endorse the law, and if the exempted group does not impose significant costs on other parties that require redress. If these conditions are met, then legislative and/or judicial bodies should carve out an exemption for those requesting them.
Public Justification vs Public Deliberation: The Case for Divorce (link) (PDF)
Published in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 45(2): 139-158.
Abstract: I drive a wedge between public deliberation and public justification, concepts tightly associated in public reason liberalism. Properly understood, the ideal of public justification imposes no restraint on citizen deliberation but requires that those who have a substantial impact on the use of coercive power, political officials, advance proposals each person has sufficient reason to accept. I formulate this idea as the Principle of Convergent Restraint and apply it to legislators to illustrate the general reorientation I propose for the public reason project.
Published in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, forthcoming in print.
Abstract: This piece defends the asymmetric convergence model of public justification in response to James Boettcher’s critique. I maintain both that Boettcher’s critique of asymmetric convergence fails and that his alternative view, Weak Public Justification, faces a number of serious challenges.
On Distinguishing Publicly Justified Polities from Modus Vivendi Regimes (link) (PDF)
Published in Social Theory and Practice, 41(2): 207-229.
Abstract: This essay develops a novel account of the distinction between a publicly justified polity and modus vivendi regimes by appealing to the ideal of congruence in public reason liberalism. A fully publicly justified polity is one whose laws are supported by congruent “first-personal” and “second-personal” moral reasons to internalize laws as personally binding on those subject to them. Regimes approach modus vivendi status to the extent that their laws fail to be justified by either type of reason, or where first-personal and second-personal reasons fail to justify internalization.
The Origin and Future of Political Liberalism (link) (PDF)
Published in Journal of Moral Philosophy, 11: 1-18.
Abstract: This essay reviews Paul Weithman’s new work – Why Political Liberalism? On John Rawls’s Political Turn. Weithman’s book has two aims, first to explain why Rawls recast his political theory and second, to defend a particular interpretation of political liberalism. In contrast to other reviews, this essay addresses the latter aim. I challenge Weithman’s defense of political liberalism on two grounds: (1) that it fails to adequately grapple with pluralism about justice and (2) that it does not provide an adequate model of stability for the right reasons. I conclude that these two weaknesses in an otherwise excellent book suggest a promising future for the political liberal tradition, one that is more comfortable with indeterminacy and less comfortable with deliberative restraint.
Published in Philosophical Studies, 172(2): 283-304.
Abstract: Property-owning democracies combine the regulative and redistributive functions of the welfare state with the governmental aim of ensuring that wealth and capital are widely dispersed. John Rawls, political philosophy’s most famous property-owning democrat, argued that property-owning democracy was one of two regime types that best realized his two principles of justice, though he was notoriously vague about how a property-owning democracy’s institutions are meant to realize his principles. To compensate for this deficiency, a number of Rawlsian political philosophers have tried to add institutional and policy content to the idea. While their efforts have advanced the discussion, few have criticized the soundness of these attempts. This article attempts to fill the void. I claim that, in comparison to welfare-state capitalism, property-owning democracy is both prohibitively impractical and unjust on Rawlsian grounds. I first argue that property-owning democracy is economically ineffective. Even granting the assumptions of Rawlsian ideal theory, property-owning democracies generate bad incentives and face severe information problems in comparison to more market-friendly welfare states. Further, in nonideal theory the motivations of political officials and citizens will likely be corrupted by the temptation to abuse the awesome state power at their disposal. Second, I argue that property-owning democracy is unjust relative to welfare-state capitalism. The three principles used to defend property-owning democracy—the difference principle, the principle of fair equality of opportunity and the “political liberty” proviso—do not vindicate property-owning democracy and may even prohibit it. Welfare-state capitalism does much better.
Forthcoming in The European Journal of Philosophy, 21(2): forthcoming in print.
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 unrealistic in modern, pluralistic democracies. After rejecting Rawls’s conception of public reason, we offer an ‘indirect alternative’ that we believe is much more robust. We cite experimental evidence to back up this claim.
Published in Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 6(3): 1-12, 2013.
Abstract: Despite the increasing amount of literature on the legal and political questions triggered by a commitment to liberty of conscience, an explanation of the normative significance of conscience remains elusive. We argue that the few attempts to address this fail to capture the reasons people have to respect the consciences of others. We offer an alternative account that utilizes the resources of the contractualist tradition in moral philosophy to explain why conscience matters.
Published in Philosophical Studies, 162(3): 645-664, 2012.
Abstract: Toleration is perhaps the core commitment of liberalism, but this seemingly simple feature of liberal societies creates tension for liberal perfectionists, who are committed to justifying religious toleration primarily in terms of the goods and flourishing it promotes. Perfectionists, so it seems, should recommend restricting harmful religious practices when feasible. If such restrictions would promote liberal perfectionist values like autonomy, it is unclear how the perfectionist can object. A contemporary liberal perfectionist, Steven Wall, has advanced defense of religious toleration that grounds perfectionist toleration in an innovative account of reasons of respect. He thus defends perfectionist toleration on two grounds: (i) the appropriate manner of responding to perfectionist goods like autonomy and membership is to respect the religious choices of others; (ii) citizens can acquire reasons to respect the religious choices of others through internalizing a value-promoting moral and political code. I argue that both defenses fail. The cornerstone of both arguments is the connection Wall draws between reasons to promote value and reasons to respect it. I claim that Wall’s conception of the relationship between promoting and respecting value is inadequate. I conclude that the failure of Wall’s defense of perfectionist toleration should motivate liberal perfectionists to develop more sophisticated accounts of normative reasons. The viability of a truly liberal perfectionism depends upon such developments.
Published in Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 90(1): 149-165, 2012.
Abstract: It is a commonplace that liberalism and religious belief conflict. Liberalism, its proponents and critics maintain, requires the privatization of religious belief since liberals often argue that citizens of faith must repress their fundamental commitments when participating in public life. Critics of liberalism complain that privatization is objectionable because it requires citizens of faith to violate their integrity. The liberal political tradition has always sought to carve out social space for individuals to live by their own lights. If liberalism requires citizens to violate their integrity, liberals have cause for concern. In this paper, I seek to rebut this integrity objection to liberalism. I focus on the dominant form of philosophical liberalism: public reason liberalism. I argue that the integrity objection undermines the mainstream conception of public reason liberalism, but not public reason liberalism itself. The paper opens by outlining the structure of public reason liberalism and the integrity objection (§§2 and 3). It then analyses two versions of the objection and argues that the second version is successful against the mainstream conception of public reason (§4). I argue in response that public reason liberalism need not endorse principles of restraint—the civic restrictions on religious expression typically associated with it. I then sketch a conception of public reason liberalism that eschews principles of restraint (§5). This alternative promises to reconcile public reason liberals and their faith friendly critics by putting the integrity objection to rest.
Published in Public Affairs Quarterly, 25(4): 261-279, 2011.
Abstract: I argue that the convergence conception of public reasons, despite its minority status, is truest to the ideal of public reason. In contrast to the more common consensus conception, convergence provides greater respect for reasonable pluralism, as it permits the full diversity of citizens’ reasons to play a justificatory role.I also maintain that convergence is truer to ideal of self-legislation at the heart of public reason. Selves are constituted by the totality of their reasons for action; for each person to self-legislate coercion on herself, she must therefore be able to appeal to her reasons as a whole. By restricting justificatory reasons to a subset, consensus theorists depart from this ideal. I address a number of objections to convergence as well, including on based on a Rawlsian model of public justification and two recent criticisms from Christopher Eberle and Stephen Macedo.
Published in The Journal of Moral Philosophy, 8(3): 366-389, 2011.
Abstract: Public reason liberals typically defend an accessibility requirement for reasons offered in public political dialog. The accessibility requirement holds that public reasons must be amenable to criticism, evaluable by reasonable persons, and the like. Public reason liberals are therefore hostile to the public use of reasons that appear inaccessible, especially religious reasons. This hostility has provoked strong reactions from public reason liberalism’s religion-friendly critics. But public reason liberals and their religion-friendly critics need not be at odds because the accessibility requirement is implausible. In fact, the accessibility requirement is ambiguous between two interpretations, one of which is too stringent and the other too loose. Depending upon the interpretation, accessibility either restricts the use of too many secular reasons or permits appeal to a wide range of religious reasons. The accessibility requirement should therefore be rejected.
Published in Utilitas, 22(2): 103-125, 2010.
Abstract: I argue that J.S. Mill’s role as a transition figure between classical and egalitarian liberalism can be partly explained by developments in his economic views. I focus on an unappreciated feature of Mill’s economic thought: his separation of production and distribution. This separation, I argue, helps to explain why Mill is a transition figure. While the primary aim of this article is to outline the nature and origins of Mill’s distinction and its effects on his political theory, his innovation may also have contributed to a fundamental change in how many intellectual figures have thought about the task of the theory of justice and social policy. Understanding Mill’s economic views helps illustrate a broader point as well: contemporary political philosophers often ignore the deep connections between the political and economic theories of the great historical political philosophers, many of whom were also important economists. Paying insufficient attention to political philosophers’ economic ideas obscures important motivations for their political views.
Published in Philosophy and Social Criticism, 35(1): 51-76, 2009.
Abstract: We discuss whether religious reasons may be appealed to in justification and political debate in a polity whose laws must be justified to those subject to them in terms of reasons that are accessible to one and all. We argue that, properly understood, a commitment to public justification provides no grounds for the exclusion of religious reasons from politics. We trace the view that religious reasons are excluded from public reason to three basic errors: (1) the error of supposing that public justification must be based on shared reasons; (2) the error of supposing that in public justification the same constraints apply to reasons to impose coercion and reasons to resist coercion; and (3) the error of supposing that generating publicly justified laws must occur through public deliberations in which all aim at such laws.