My research focuses on questions that sit on the boundary between moral and political philosophy, especially questions about rights. Below I lay out a few different strands of my larger research program and discuss where I’m headed next. To find out more about the work I have published, see my publications page.
Natural Rights Theory
My research is motivated by questions about the moral foundations of politics: What kinds of moral requirements govern politics? How are these norms related to morality more generally? Much of my work concerns one particular approach to these questions: natural rights theory. According to natural rights theory, both individual actions and political institutions must respect people’s natural rights—those rights that belong to people in virtue of what they are (human beings or persons), not in virtue of their particular social or political circumstances. In my dissertation, I developed a form of natural rights theory on which the precise requirements of our natural rights are spelled out by conventions. In fact, I argue, our natural rights morally require that we create conventions that spell out the fine-grained details of what we owe one another. This form of natural rights theory overcomes what I call the “Conventionalist Challenge”—the objection that natural rights theory cannot account for the way our moral rights depend on conventions. The arguments from the dissertation now comprise a series of papers. The first paper, “The Conventionalist Challenge to Natural Rights Theory,” (Social Theory and Practice) tries to present as clearly as possible the challenge that conventions present for natural rights theory. The second, “Conventionalist Natural Rights Theory,” develops a form of natural rights theory that overcomes the challenge. The third, “Backing Away from the Edge of Anarchy: State Legitimacy without Political Obligation,” develops a theory of state legitimacy that rests on what I call the “duty to fill in the gaps”—a duty to establish and follow social practices that spell out the precise requirements of our abstract natural rights.
What Rights Do We Have?
In addition to defending and developing natural rights theory at a more general level, my work also deals with first-order questions about what rights people have. For example, in “Rights Forfeiture Theorists Should Embrace the Duty View of Punishment” (Australasian Journal of Philosophy) I bring into conversation two rights-based theories of punishment—the rights forfeiture view and the duty view—and argue that proponents of the former should accept the latter. In “Duty-Sensitive Self-Ownership” (forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy), I develop a new conception of the right of self-ownership that is designed to capture what is attractive about self-ownership theories without the implausible stringency usually associated with them.
Natural Rights Theory and its Competitors
The next major stage in my primary stream of research is to consider how the brand of natural rights theory I defend stacks up against its competitors. I intend, for instance, to grapple with Kant’s view that only laws backed by state coercion can generate non-provisional rights over external objects. There are, I believe, resources within the framework of Kant’s theory of the right to argue that certain kinds of informal conventions and social norms can also help settle what rights people have (which would amount to a serious revision of a central aspect of Kant’s political philosophy).
Applied Questions About New Technologies
While much of my work deals with more abstract questions about rights, I’ve also recently begun to consider a number of applied questions about new technologies and the rules that govern their use. I have a paper under review that considers how self-driving cars should be programmed for situations where collisions are inevitable. I’m also interested in a variety of other questions about emerging technologies: are there conditions under which manual driving should be banned because of the risks it imposes compared to self-driving cars? What kinds of rules should we create to govern the use of aerial drones? Who should be entitled to use what airspace? What is the best way to assign liability for harms done by and to drones? Over the next few years, I hope to take up some of these particular questions, as well as to begin thinking about whether there is anything general to be said about the ways that we should revise our social and legal arrangements about rights in light of new technologies that upset them.