Research

I work in moral and political philosophy and their respective histories.  My current research defends a novel interpretation of Hume's theory of justice on which 1) his theory is neither utilitarian nor contractarian, as the more common interpretations would suggest, and 2) his theory is far more plausible than his commentators think.  I call the view that I attribute to Hume Humean Functionalism.  According to Humean Functionalism, obligations of justice are the result of the social project of successfully solving collective action problems in a way that would be approved from what Hume calls the General Point of View.

 

I am also working to use some of the insights of Humean Functionalism to make progress on debates within moral and political philosophy concerning consent, promising, and political obligation.

Though my central research agenda focuses on the prospects of Humean Functionalism, I have very broad interests across ethics and political philosophy, including within practical ethics, metaethics, and the history of moral and political philosophy.  For example, I have plans for projects on the abortion debate, the prospects of sentimentalist views in metaethics, and Mill's theory of value.

Here are brief abstracts for some of my current papers:

Publications

"Hume's Account of the Scope of Justice" (forthcoming in Hume Studies)

Hume’s account of the scope of justice, many think, is implausibly narrow, applying almost exclusively to respect for property rights.  Such a view would indeed be highly objectionable because it would leave out of the scope of justice altogether requirements to keep our promises, obey the law, and refrain from threats and violence (among many others).  I argue that Hume's theory of justice, properly understood, avoids this objection.  And seeing how is instructive because once we understand his account correctly, we can appreciate its resources for offering attractive explanations of why a number of diverse phenomena fall within the scope of justice.  Overcoming this challenge is a major stepping stone on the way to seeing Hume’s theory of justice as a genuine competitor with the other major theories of justice in the philosophical literature.

 

In Progress or Under Review 

*Title Redacted* (under review)

A paper on Hume's account of the conditions of the applicability of justice

*Title Redacted* (under review)

A paper on Hume's view of the value of justice

*Title Redacted* (under review)

A paper on the abortion debate

“Hume’s Justice and the Problem of the Missing Motive” 

 

In 3.2.1 of the Treatise, Hume offers a detailed argument that justice is an artificial virtue.  Any virtue, he thinks, is constituted by a disposition to act on a particular motive.  Thus, we can delineate the virtues according to their distinctive motives.  In the case of justice, he argues, no natural motive could serve as the consistent motive to acts of justice, so if justice is a virtue it all, it must be constituted by an artificial motive, that is, a motive made possible by a convention.  Hume leaves 3.2.1 having set himself a challenge, namely, to identify the artificial motive that renders justice a virtue.  The problem, though, is that Hume never provides a definitive statement of what this motive is.  Hume's commentators have taken up the task of trying to identify this missing motive, but, I believe, none have succeeded.  This paper offers the first comprehensive accounting of the desiderata that any account of the missing motive must meet, critiques some of the prominent views in the literature, and offers a novel account.  One of my goals throughout is to illustrate the enduring importance of this problem, not only for Hume scholarship, but also for contemporary moral and political philosophy.

"Hume's Theory of Distributive Justice"

 

Hume’s theory of justice is sometimes thought to be incapable of accommodating distributive justice.  In this paper, I show how, contrary to these appearances, the fundamental structure of Hume’s theory makes distributive concerns absolutely central to the justification of conventions of justice.  Hume emerges as a philosopher whose thought is much friendlier to distributive questions than is often realized.

"Consent, Promising, and Publicity"

Hume's functionalist account of justice highlights the value of publicity, that is, the publicly accessible standards and behaviors necessary for conventions to institute justice.  The goal of this paper is to apply these lessons to develop a functionalist account of consent.  The upshot of this paper is a deeper understanding of the relative significance of publicity and intent in both promising and consent.  My view has significant implications for consent in a variety of contexts, including sex and medical practice.

"Mill's Euthyphro Dilemma"

This paper argues that Mill's famous test for distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures--the "competent judges" test--can be interpreted in either of two ways, each corresponding to one side of a Euthyphro dilemma.  In particular, do the competent judges prefer the higher pleasures because they are higher or are the higher pleasures higher because the competent judges prefer them?  According to several prominent interpretations, Mill opts for the first option, but I argue on the basis of textual evidence that Mill is committed to the second.  I go on to argue that this interpretation helps to explain several other seemingly mysterious features of Mill's theory of value.  My conclusion is that Mill's theory of value is both consistent and insightful, though I take no stand here on whether it is ultimately successful.