My research is concerned with realized, as opposed to abstract, institutions. I am interested in whether and how we can justify the actual institutions we live in on grounds we can all accept. Further, I explore the moral obligations that arise out of, or in response to, the imperfections of realized institutions. I am especially interested in political, legal, and medical institutions. There are interesting and under-theorized structural similarities between these institutions. This has generated three related research projects: (1) the nature of consent and its role in justifying medical and political interventions, (2) the normative significance of the failures of political and legal institutions, and (3) the relationship between institutional goals and the moral obligations attached to the various roles within law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
My experience working as an ethics consultant in a local hospital informed my research in important ways. I witnessed how medical institutions seek consent under non-ideal conditions as well as the informal moral norms that govern medical care. Not only did this motivate some of the work in my dissertation, it helped generate other aspects of my research program, including my work on the failure of political and legal procedures and what morality requires of us in different institutional roles.
Consent in bioethics & political philosophy
In my dissertation I develop a novel scalar theory of consent according to which consent is a moral power that varies in quality and therefore can function to reduce the strength of a moral right in addition to simply waiving it. Standard approaches to consent hold that consent is either morally transformative by waiving a right, or it is not. My scalar theory of consent preempts serious problems associated with standard binary theories of consent. Because many of the validity conditions for consent come in degrees, if consent is binary then threshold problems arise: a tiny amount off information can make the difference between valid and invalid consent. This problem surfaces in many different practical contexts.
I spend three chapters of the dissertation showing that a scalar conception of consent has important implications for liberal justifications of political institutions. In one chapter I argue that the low quality of consent secured by our realized institutions (as opposed to the abstract institutions that are the subject of much philosophical analysis), for example when one is less than fully informed or being unduly influenced, implies that norms of political representation must be sensitive to the possibility that voters are uninformed or exploited. It also has something to say about the structure of political institutions. In another chapter I argue that even if we cannot justify institutions using only consent, the scalar nature of consent gives us moral reasons to increase the quality of consent by reducing their size and decentralizing them. Finally, in a third chapter I explain how my approach to consent cautions against an unfortunately common tendency in political philosophy. Most political philosophers infer from the lack of actual consent to political institutions that normative justifications of institutions ought to abandon consent as central to their justification. But if consent is scalar, we should not remove it from normative justifications of political institutions.
In the future I plan to build on my work on consent by examining justifications of institutional experimentation. The Millian notion of “experiments in living” is crucial to institutions that aim to foster freedom and prosperity, but experimentation often raises important moral concerns. I aim to generate moral guidance for experimentation in political institutions by drawing on and improving existing work on consent to medical experimentation.
Realized institutions & our roles within them
In another ongoing project I argue that much post-Rawlsian political philosophy is insufficiently attentive to the failures of our political procedures. When theorizing about abstract institutions we have a tendency to overlook the way they are likely to fail or be deficient. Even if a political procedure is generally reliable, some of them fail in predictable ways, and their failures fall disproportionately on certain segments of the population. Because our various political and legal procedures interact, this creates a variety of vicious circles, further undermining the justice, legitimacy, or authority of our political institutions. Most normative justification of political institutions lack the resources to accommodate, or even provide a useful framework for thinking about, the normative significance of these problems. I argue that, contra most proceduralists in political philosophy, these problem seriously undermine the possibility that our actual, realized institutions can be democratically justified.
This has important implications for the moral norms that govern our roles in institutions. I have several papers working out what various professional obligations look like given the nature of our institutions. In “The Special Moral Obligations of Law Enforcement,” published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, I defend an account of professional obligation and apply it to law enforcement officers. The conclusion I arrive at in the paper is that members of law enforcement very often fail to satisfy important moral obligations. I have continued exploring this issue in another paper, “On Enforcing Unjust Laws in a Just Society.” There, I consider and reject a variety of arguments for the view that police officers are permitted to enforce unjust laws. Popular justifications for the permissibility of enforcing unjust laws are made in the context of thinking about abstract institutions. The imperfections of our actual institutions cause serious problems for these justifications. This paper draws together my work on procedural failure and law enforcement ethics by arguing that discretion in law enforcement is a crucial part of our political procedures, and is needed to counteract failures in other parts of our institutions.
The ethics of killing & moral status
I am also thinking and writing about moral status. My work here is motivated by a broader interest in the ethics of killing. In a paper published in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, I consider and reject one strategy for defending the view that humans have full moral status merely in virtue of their species membership. One might think that we have special moral obligations to our family members in virtue of a biological or genetic connection, and extend this reasoning to all of our fellow humans. This way of arguing avoids some of the standard objections to accounts of moral status based on species membership (namely that such accounts are arbitrary). My response is that familial obligations are not in fact grounded in biological relations. Thus, biological relations cannot ground special moral obligations to all humans.
My interest in moral status motivates me to think about problems in environmental ethics as well. One of the central problems in environmental ethics is accounting for the moral status of the environment. There are two broad strategies: (biocentric) individualism and holism. Biocentric individualists claim that all organisms have some level of moral status. Holists, on the other hand, claim that ecosystems (or species, or "the land") are the things to which we have obligations, rather than individual organisms. In a paper in the journal Environmental Values I defend biocentric individualism from one of its primary objections (though I do not officially endorse the view).