My research concerns how modern social and political institutions shape human agency, and how human agency can in turn shape those institutions for the better. Agents engage with the world from within their own first-person perspective. This perspective is shaped by historical and social conditions. I develop a conception of the first-person perspective and an associated form of self-knowledge that can account for that shaping. I draw on contemporary and historical literatures in philosophy, as well as from law and the social sciences.
My dissertation examines what I call the problem of unfreedom. Can unfree people make themselves freer? Some people are unfree, because of the social and political conditions in which they find themselves. To become freer would require changing those conditions, but changing those conditions requires the exercise of freedom. So it seems like they must already be free in order to be free.
This is not a theoretical question about the definition of “freedom”. It is a practical problem to be resolved by action. Much political philosophy begins from an ideal of freedom and treats unfreedom merely as its lack. But ideals of freedom are contested, and don’t directly help us understand our present state, namely unfreedom. So I begin with what is directly before us: unfreedom. It is before us even if we don’t fully grasp it. But coming to grasp it will help us change it.
The dissertation argues that the unfree can make themselves free. Indeed, only they can. This is because unfreedom involves both external constraints and how those constraints shape people’s agency. Social and political conditions interact with moral psychology. Becoming freer thus involves coming to know, from the inside, how our agency has been shaped. We can then change that shaping and in turn the social conditions. The problem of unfreedom is a vicious cycle. Social conditions constrain agency, which in turn further entrenches the social conditions. A virtuous cycle is possible. Agents can change their conditions, reducing the constraint on their agency, in turn enabling greater change. Conditions are unstable, and agents can use their agency to take advantage of that instability.
I am also working on a project on the moral psychology of ongoing systemic injustices. What role do attitudes like anger, blame, distrust, and hope play in causing and in addressing those injustices? This project includes papers on blaming the system, on the role distrust plays in liberal political institutions, the political possibilities of hope in other agents, and the role appeals to social structures play in explaining individual action.
In various past lives I've been a musician, journalist, lawyer (of sorts), and martial arts instructor.