Research

My research focuses on the everyday creation of social rules. Individuals collectively create, maintain and alter social rules and norms through innumerable, often mundane acts of enforcement, compliance and monitoring. They thereby constitute all of the institutions that organize human life, shape people’s characters, and frame individual experience and action, from games and laws to languages and genders.

I explore the significance of such constitutive activities for political philosophy, ethics and social science. My ultimate aim is to contribute to accounts of freedom, democracy and social change that apply to the full panoply of formal, informal, political, material and embodied social practices. I draw upon social ontology phenomenology, ordinary language philosophy, critical theory, ethno-methodology and theories of social construction and convention. My projects radiate from these underlying concerns.

Publications:

The pervasive structure of society
2017, Philosophy & Social Criticism Volume 44 Issue 8 (pay-walled link to published version) Post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of this article.

What does it mean to say that the demands of justice are institutional rather than individual? Justice is often thought to be directly concerned only with governmental institutions rather than individuals’ everyday, legally  permissible actions. This approach has been criticized for ignoring the relevance to justice of informal social norms.

This paper defends the idea that justice is distinctively institutional but rejects the primacy of governmental institutions. I argue that the ‘pervasive structure of society’ is the site of justice and injustice. It includes all widely enforced social rules and norms, governmental and otherwise, such as informal norms of gender, language and class, and provides a revisionary foundation for the theoretical elucidation and practical pursuit of justice. It provides a framework for evaluating the ways in which people can and should promote justice in their everyday lives.

Charity vs. revolution: Effective Altruism and the systemic change objection
Forthcoming, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. Post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version.

Effective Altruism (EA) encourages affluent people to make significant donations to charities that improve the wellbeing of the world’s poor and to use quantified and observational methods to identify the most efficient charities. Critics argue that EA is inattentive to the systemic causes of poverty and underestimates the effectiveness of individual contributions to systemic change. EA claims to be open to systemic change but suggests that systemic critiques, such as the socialist critique of capitalism, are unhelpfully vague and serve primarily as hypocritical rationalizations of their proponent’s unwillingness to make significant material sacrifices in the face of the moral emergency of severe poverty.

I reformulate the systemic change objection and rebut the charge of vagueness by outlining rival systemic critiques. I argue that in order to take systemic change seriously, EA must repudiate its current focus on quantified, observational evidence and embrace holistic and interpretive social analysis and that, in order to properly evaluate the chances of achieving systemic change, it must be sensitive to the complex dynamics of collective action for social change. By embracing structural analysis and the study of social movements EA is forced to sacrifice its a-political approach to altruism.

Previous formulations of the systemic change objection have failed to confront the need for extra-political everyday efforts to resist, subvert and reconstruct the social system that could be just as effective and as demanding as charity.

Other projects

Justice, ethics and social construction

My dissertation, which I am revising for publication, provides an account of the practical scope and normative distinctiveness of justice and thus the proper methodological focus of political philosophy. My article, ‘The pervasive structure of society’, lays out the core argument.

I contend that the considerations of justice apply to the existence and organization of the interdependent set of social practices that regulate the activities of any bounded social group, and that conventional political action is not a privileged way for individuals to help bring about a more just society. This proposal reframes a wide range of debates about: cosmopolitanism and global justice; organizational hierarchy and anarchist decentralization; virtual communities; direct action; and pre-figurative politics. Three further projects develop and apply aspects of this framework to issues in applied ethics, social theory and the tension between freedom and equality.

Effective Altruism and systemic change

In addition to my forthcoming, ‘Charity vs. revolution’, paper I also have a paper on the social epistemology of altruism. I argue that an uncritical reliance on the kinds of evidence about individual impact that are currently most readily available is likely to distort altruistic efforts. If the current social system is very harmful it is likely that prevailing epistemic practices contribute to the perpetuation of this harm in two ways. They are likely to lead to the under-estimation of the negative impact of participation in harmful social structures, about which fewer data are available and which lack even a theoretical framework within which such data could be gathered. Epistemic practices are also likely to exaggerate the benefits of charity because of its social meaning as a privileged way of doing good. This could lead the unwary altruist to focus on finding the best charitable donation rather than properly considering non-charitable forms of altruism, like pursuing social change, that might be more efficacious but which lack the pre-existing altruistic imprimatur of charity.

This project contributes to the nascent debate about Effective Altruism and sketches a program of ethically-oriented empirical research into the ways in which individuals impact social systems.

Moral sociology

This project develops a moralized theory of social inquiry that integrates some of the aims and methods of critical, normative and descriptive research. The first paper in this project is a revisionary interpretation of the methodology of John Rawls. I argue that Rawls was an early and important contributor to an influential tradition of Wittgensteinian social theory, developed in both Anglophone and European traditions of philosophy, sociology and critical theory by figures including  J.L Austin, Peter Winch, Michel Foucault and Anthony Giddens.

I argue that Rawls’ argument for justice as fairness relies on a largely implicit, distinctively Wittgensteinian social theory centered on detailed analysis of fundamental social practices, as evidenced by, for example, his accounts of the nature of social rules; the basic structure; and the knowledge of the parties in the original position. I excavate Rawls’ social theory, describe its limitations, and argue that it can serve as the framework for an explicitly formulated moral sociology, according to which all valid social explanations must be compatible with the nature of social practices and the possibility of normative critique and regulation, thus ruling out both individualist and deterministic explanations.

Social permissions

This project investigates the nature and moral significance of social permissions, such as freedoms of speech and economic choice. Permissions highlight the open texture of social practices, due to the permanent possibility that novel actions will require the active re-interpretation and amendment of shared rules. They are also a key site and mechanism of distribution and power, so their regulation is a central concern of justice. Yet permissions are also important to the theorization and realization of human freedom, which can be crudely measured in terms of the range of ways of life that can be permissibly chosen in a society. It is imperative, therefore, to develop a theoretical account of social permission for use in theories of justice.

The first paper concerns liberal-egalitarian conceptions of justice, according to which equality can be secured by institutions, leaving individuals free to pursue other concerns. This standard interpretation, in which governmental institutions secure equality while individuals do whatever they choose within the law, is incompatible with the constitution of institutions by the everyday actions of their participants. Using the example of parental partiality, I re-interpret the moral division of labor so as to resolve the tension between permissiveness and equality.

Parenting decisions are protected from criticism by practices of authority, advice, privacy and criticism that are mostly enacted outside the parenting relationship. What I call ‘none-of-your-business’ norms make it difficult to identify and discourage illegitimate forms of parental partiality. Equality could be promoted by adjusting the relevant social permissions so as to facilitate and encourage egalitarian parenting without intrusive, direct social regulation of parental choices. This redeems a vision of egalitarian justice achieved by institutions alone, although not just by governments.

This focus is, I argue, rendered incoherent by the existence and significance of informal practices whose rules are jointly constructed by their participants, rather than explicitly enacted by a government, such as those of gender and language. I contend that such practices are identical to political institutions in all relevant respects. Furthermore, the ability of governments or any formal authority to regulate social life is itself dependent upon informal practices that sustain and specify that legal authority, such as social norms variously requiring or prohibiting people from alerting the authorities when they witness different kinds of illegal behavior in different contexts, such as illegal drug use and corporate fraud. I contend that the distinctiveness of justice as a normative concept lies in its holistic and existential evaluation of the internal workings, explicit aims and actual consequences of the ‘pervasive structures’ of any group.