My research interests are at the intersection of political philosophy, applied ethics and the philosophy of social science. My dissertation focused on the ontological and ethical significance of the social construction of authoritative rules, norms and institutions.

Effective Altruism and the problem of structural harm

Effective Altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that advocates evidence-based efforts to do as much good as possible, paradigmatically by giving to charities fighting global poverty. EA is criticized for its inattention to the structural causes of poverty and the need for systemic change to address it. I develop this objection in EA’s own terms, appealing only to considerations of urgent harm and epistemic virtue.

One draft paper explores the practical options and challenges for effective altruists in the context of a harmful social system. EA has hitherto focused primarily on the most efficient way to use money altruistically, paradigmatically by giving to effective charities. In order to acquire and control significant wealth, however, individuals have little choice but to participate in prevailing economic and political practices, such as by working for a rich corporation or investing money in a lucrative stock-market. But these economic practices are themselves likely to be very significant causes of poverty, potentially outweighing the benefits of the charitable donation that participation in them makes possible. I argue that effective altruists should seek to measure the structural harm individuals do in the course of earning and controlling wealth. I also argue that, when weighing up the relative benefits of systemic change and direct charity, they should attend to efforts at social change that go beyond conventional political advocacy and seek to directly reduce structural harms through subversion, resistance and the creation of alternative practices.

Another draft considers the social epistemology of altruism. EA aims to combat cognitive biases and practical irrationality in altruism through the use of experimental evidence about the effectiveness of different efforts. I argue that an uncritical reliance on the strongest and most readily available evidence is likely to under-estimate the directly harmful impact of participation in harmful social structures, about which fewer data may be available, and exaggerating the benefits of charity, when this is assumed to be a privileged way of doing good. The relative availability of evidence about the impact of individual actions depends upon the quality of prevailing practices of knowledge creation and dissemination, which in a harmful social system are likely to themselves be harmfully distorted. I contend that in order to be more reliably effective, altruists ought to consider a wider range of non-experimental evidence about the consequences of individual action, such as critical analyses of the quotidian mechanisms of structural harm.

Social construction and liberal egalitarianism

Liberal egalitarian conceptions of justice, such as those of John Rawls, Thomas Nagel and Sam Scheffler, contend that equality can be secured by institutions alone, leaving individuals free to pursue a range of other concerns. This ideal of a ‘moral division of labor’ between individuals and institutions is often understood in terms of distinctively liberal claims about the ability of governmental institutions to secure equality on their own. I explore the plausibility of this ideal in light of the existence and significance of informal, socially constructed norms and practices.

I have an outline of a paper clarifying the nature of the challenge to liberal egalitarianism through an analysis of Rawls’ implicit social theory. I defend the interpretive claim that Rawls’ method and conclusions should be understood against the background of a theory of social order as being performatively constructed by its participants, whose identities are shaped by their iterated social performances. Rawls’ commitment to this social theory is clearest in his early paper ‘Two Concepts of Rules’ but, I argue, it also plays a significant, largely implicit role throughout his later work. I argue that Rawls’ liberal focus on governmental institutions is incompatible with his own social theory, which implies that the ‘basic structure of society’ is as much the product of quotidian social construction as of a political constitution.

This suggests that the fact of social construction may ultimately be fatal to a distinctively liberal form of egalitarianism. The effectively coercive nature of some informal social rules means that equality cannot be realized when people are left free to pursue any values they like within the confines of the law.

Another early draft paper outlines a new interpretation of the moral division of labor that is sensitive to the fact of social construction. While virtually all individual actions contribute to social construction and are thus potentially subject to the demands of justice in some sense, I argue that some types of action have a greater impact on the existence and character of prevailing practices. I focus on social permissions and the problem of parental partiality.

I argue that social permissions allow people to make important personal choices, like how to raise their children, but are not themselves maintained primarily by those choices. Parenting choices themselves tend to merely comply with and occur within permissive norms of parental authority, familial privacy and social criticism that are largely monitored and enforced outside of the parenting relationship itself. These ‘none of your business’ norms make it very difficult to identify and discourage forms of parental partiality, such as private education, that might be incompatible with equality.

Equality could be promoted by adjusting the norms that create and constrain parental authority so as to facilitate and encourage egalitarian parenting rather than by intrusive rules that seek to directly regulate parental choices. This redeems a form of the institutional division of labor and suggests the possibility of a pluralist, if not a traditionally liberal, conception of egalitarian justice.