Much of my writing constitutes an exploration and elaboration of the following two, and related, claims:
- The state’s proper response to the fact of persistent disagreement (even among reasonable and well-intentioned individuals) as to life’s meaning and value, is to aspire to neutrality with respect to competing conceptions of the Good Life.
- The best way for the state to aspire to neutrality with respect to competing conceptions of the Good Life is to generally limit the scope of its authority and activity (particularly its coercive activity).
This exploration and elaboration ranges from the abstract and theoretical (such as identifying the structural (dis)similarities between accounts of value pluralism and moral relativism) to the practical and applied (such as exploring how a neutral state might best treat social institutions like marriage), and much between. Accordingly, my research interests largely intersect with the literature (both classic and contemporary) on classical liberalism, and the contemporary literature on liberal neutrality.
Proceeding under this general banner, I have a number of discrete research projects:
I. Diversity, Modesty, and Liberty:
An outgrowth of my dissertation, wherein I argued that the strongest case for liberal neutrality (or, as I prefer to call it, Neutralism) is one which relies on considerations of ‘epistemic modesty’ with respect to the Good Life. This project includes three works-in-progress, as well as one extant publication, each described below:
- Prolegomena to Any Future Neutralism: I identify and describe several fundamental strategies for defending Neutralism, each of which relies on a distinctive combination of background positions one might take on basic metaphysical and epistemological questions vis-à-vis Theories of the Good. After posing the relevant epistemic and metaphysical questions apropos the Neutralist’s project, and articulating a range of answers to each, I characterize each of five different positions in terms of the answers they provide to these questions. I describe these five strategies – which I term the ‘Skeptical’, ‘Nihilistic’, ‘Monist’, ‘Pluralist’, and ‘Modest’ paths to Neutralism – and briefly identify (from Neutralist’s perspective) some of the salient costs and benefits of each one.
- Diversity and Charity: The anticipated sequel to Prolegomena, this paper defends the ‘Modest’ path to Neutralism, as articulated in ‘Prolegomena’, as the most promising defense of Neutralism on offer. It does so by appeal to a principle of charity with respect to rival worldviews’ adherents – the doxastic diversity of whom increasingly characterizes modern liberal polities. This charitable stance is buttressed by the important and independent consideration that, ceteris paribus, lives lived in accordance with a given Theory of the Good – even if it happens to be the true one – are of most value when the worldview in question is freely endorsed.
- Neutrality and Liberty: In this, the final installment of a three-part series, I argue that a state’s commitment to Neutralism finds its fullest expression in its adopting a policy of Maximum Feasible Accommodation – that is, in restricting (possibly severely) the scope of its authority and activity (particularly its coercive activity).
- Four Strikes for Pluralist Liberalism (and Two Cheers for Classical Liberalism): Here I demonstrate, contra contemporary value pluralists like George Crowder and William Galston, that the ‘Pluralist’ path (as characterized in Prolegomena) likewise leads to Neutralism, and to a classically-liberal vision of a limited state. This paper was awarded the APA’s Rockefeller Prize for 2014, and appeared in the September 2014 issue of Journal of Value Inquiry.
II. Disestablished Marriage: This project represents an application of the abstract, theoretical framework and considerations of my dissertation to a concrete public policy issue of recent and contemporary relevance. This program has generated two publications thus far:
- Same-sex Marriage, Polygamy, and Disestablishment: I argue that the proper position on the same-sex marriage controversy is neither the ‘traditionalist’ stance favoring the retention of marriage in its previous, exclusively heterosexual form, nor the ‘progressive’ stance favoring the legalization of same-sex marriages … nor even the ‘liberal’ stance which favors extending the institution so far as to include polygamous unions. Rather, the most defensible approach is the libertarian stance, which favors the disestablishment of marriage as a legal category. (The ‘disestablishment of marriage’ refers to the state’s principled refusal to endorse, as authoritative for public purposes, any of its citizens’ numerous competing conceptions of marriage – much as the disestablishment of religion entails the same public stance with respect to competing understandings of religious truth.) Specifically, I contend that the parity between arguments favoring the legalization of same-sex unions, and those favoring the legalization of polygamous unions, commends the utter disestablishment of marriage as the state’s proper response to controversies concerning the institution’s nature and scope. This paper was published in the April 2012 issue of Social Theory and Practice.
- Two Models of Disestablished Marriage: I compare the ‘Status Model’ of disestablished marriage – which holds that, while the state ought not traffic in the marital appellation, it still ought to encourage and support certain forms of caregiving domestic partnership via a public legal status of civil union– with the ‘Contract Model’ – which holds that the state’s involvement in domestic partnership should be limited to the recognition and enforcement of contracts for life-partnership (should life partners even choose to formalize their partnerships via contractual means). I also offer the tentative conjecture that the Contract Model is more defensible than its alternative. This paper was published in the January 2014 issue of Public Affairs Quarterly.
I am currently developing a third paper in this series, offering a fuller defense of the Contract Model on grounds that would appeal, not only to Libertarians, but also to Traditionalists, Progressives, and Liberals (as these positions were developed in Same-sex Marriage, Polygamy, and Disestablishment).
III. Value Pluralism vs. Moral Relativism:
This project emerged by consideration of issues raised by, but tangential to, my treatment of value pluralism in the ‘Diversity, Modesty, and Liberty’ project described above. In this paper, currently in progress, I begin with the observation that, while it is commonplace for value pluralists to contrast their view with moral relativism, this impulse is actually rather puzzling. For seemingly, value pluralism and moral relativism are views about different subject matters – roughly, values and moral principles, respectively. Unsympathetic philosophers might conclude that in insisting that theirs is not a relativist doctrine, pluralists reveal that they are oblivious to the important distinction between these two realms.
I diagnose this pervasive pluralist tendency as the natural (though misplaced) impulse to distinguish their view from those (of the nihilist, for example) that deny the objectivity of value. Relativists, though, are typically distinguished from nihilists. So the pluralist campaign is actually misdirected along two fronts. In the first place, this is because – by distinguishing their position from that of the relativists – pluralists are attempting to distinguish their position from those who are actually theorizing about a distinct domain. And in the second place, because – in contrasting themselves with relativists – pluralists actually obscure important similarities between their views: viz., a recognition of, and an appreciation for, certain forms of axiological heterogeneity, and a common commitment to a degree of objectivity regarding their respective axiological domains.
For the sake of clearing some ground, I catalog the various ways in which the pluralist and relativist theses might be formulated – symmetrically characterizing the two positions along the twin dimensions of ‘universality’ and ‘indexicality’.
Finally, I put these formulations to work, by assessing their bearing on an important critique (advanced by John Gray, among others) of pluralist liberalism, to the effect that value pluralists cannot privilege preeminently liberal values (such as liberty and autonomy) consistently with their commitment to value pluralism. I find that this critique rests on the failure to properly distinguish values from moral principles.
IV. Public Goods
The practical implications of Neutralism, as I argue in I(3) above, involve principled limitations with respect to legitimate state authority. But there is another argument relating to the proper scope of state activity. According to proponents of the Public Goods Argument (‘PGA’), we need government activity whenever we have need of providing public goods–for, owing to their non-excludable character, these goods will be under-provided (if provided at all) by the free market. I have drafted a pair of papers, therefore, that dive deeper into the logic of the PGA.
V. Basic Income Guarantees:
This project is the one that is most clearly and directly informed by my first-hand experience (as an analyst with multiple years of experience in both the legislative and executive branches) with the formulation and implementation of U.S. federal policy. I join the ranks of those who favor replacing the current (Byzantine, balkanized) welfare state with a simple, streamlined Basic Income Guarantee – which would provide all citizens, unconditionally, a guaranteed level of annual income (likely effected through the tax code). While I believe there are strong moral reasons in favor of such a policy, my particular contribution to the conversation, with this current project, is to offer a practical argument – one based on administrative (in)efficiency.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has developed a considerable body of work on the fragmentation, duplication, and overlap of services across multiple federal programs and agencies. Various inefficiencies attendant to such fragmentation, duplication, and overlap have been commonly observed and documented, by GAO and others. But one particular type of inefficiency here has not been observed as much as it deserves: inefficiencies resulting from interaction effects. That is, the already-inefficient fragmentation of the public safety net only invites further administrative inefficiency over time, based on the inevitable need for these numerous discrete social-welfare programs to interact and coordinate. In other words: a linear increase in the number of distinct welfare-state programs creates exponential increase in administrative inefficiency. While the theoretical framework for this project is provided by GAO’s work on fragmentation, overlap, and duplication, the argument is illustrated largely by a case study, drawn from my experience at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, involving attempts to coordinate the efforts of several federal, state and local, and private-sector entities to create permanent supportive affordable housing for homeless veterans.
VI. International Development:
A more-or-less freestanding project, this is an outgrowth of my body of research in the MPP program at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. This project – which may generate anywhere between one and three papers – has to do with what I perceive to be the lack of a unifying conceptual and normative framework for evaluating the relationship between economic development and income inequality. I hope to deploy just such a framework in the analysis of contemporary debates in the literature on growth-poverty-inequality linkages. Such an analysis will reveal precisely when increases in inequality should (and should not) raise legitimate concerns in the moral evaluation of development outcomes. Special attention will be paid to the burgeoning literature on “happiness economics” as it applies to economic development – a field where (in my estimation) too many writers embrace a set of too-crudely-consequentialist moral presuppositions. The policy prescriptions made by these authors differ from the conclusions we might draw were we operating with a more sophisticated analytic framework. Among other things, such a framework would distinguish between morally worrisome and morally benign inequality trends, and offer a more nuanced view of the proper relation between social science research and public policy.
VII. Alimentary Philosophy
Pretty much entirely independently of any of the foregoing, I have recently developed an interest in the burgeoning field of the philosophy of food, broadly construed.
[Last updated: May 1, 2020]