Photo of Mark Reiff


In the Name of Liberty: The Argument for Universal Unionization

Cambridge University Press (2020) 429

For some time now, union membership has been steadily declining.  As a result, unions may soon lose their ability to adequately protect workers from economic and personal abuse, and may even lose their significance as a political force.  The purpose of this book it to present a new argument for unionization, one that does not merely depend on disputed consequentialist arguments that unionization has good effects, but instead derives a right to universal unionization from concepts of liberty that we already accept.  In short, the book reclaims the argument from liberty from the right, using an argument that will generalize and provide a new basis for defending a wide variety of progressive policies.  The book contains three separate essays, each of which is conceived of as being able to stand on its own, but each of which also establishes an essential part of my overall claim.  In the first essay, I argue that even in libertarian utopia, where liberty is given priority over everything else, unions would arise in both the private and the public sector as a natural result of free market transactions.  These unions would eventually negotiate agreements with the relevant employers requiring new hires to join the union and pay dues, and there is nothing in the relevant principles of liberty in force in such a utopia that would justify denying enforcement to these agreements.  In the second essay, I argue that unions are also a necessary basic institution in the liberal capitalist democracy in which we actually live.  To make this argument, I discuss what being a basic institution means as a matter of political morality, how to tell whether a particular institution is basic, and what flows from this determination once it is made with regard to unions.  In the third essay, I turn my attention to public sector unions, and address the argument that the background circumstances in the public sector are sufficiently different that our attitude toward unionization in this sector should be less accommodating.  What we end up with then, after the third essay is complete, is a society where unionization is required in both the private and public sector as a matter of background justice, where collective bargaining cannot be restricted or eliminated in either sector, and where “right-to-work” laws must be rejected and unoin shop arrangements honored should the parties collectively agree to them.

On Unemployment, Volume 1: A Micro-Theory of Economic Justice

Palgrave Macmillan (2015)

The need for further exploration of the economic injustice of unemployment should be obvious.  Unemployment is currently at historically high rates and these high rates may be becoming structural.  Aside from inequality, unemployment is accordingly the problem that is most likely to put critical pressure on our political institutions, disrupt the social fabric of our way of life, and even threaten the continuation of liberalism itself.  Despite the obvious importance of the problem of unemployment, however, there has been a curious lack of attention paid to this issue by contemporary non-Marxist political philosophers.  Non-Marxists typically view unemployment as a technical matter, and doing something about it a question of means not ends, with the solution to this question depending on the kind of empirical determinations about what causes what that are best left to economists, not political philosophers.  But I think this is a mistake.  Because work is a major part of our social life, as well as something that for a great many people grounds their sense of who they are and provides the basis of their sense of self-respect, those unable to find work are missing out on a great deal of what makes for a meaningful life, and not just the economic benefits that social cooperation has to offer.  Those who are unemployed accordingly have something to complain about, even if we do not let them starve, and the rest of us (or at least the institutions that represent us) may have some sort of moral obligation to take action to increase the number of employment opportunities currently available regardless of any uncertainty surrounding the effects that any actions open to us might have.  The nature and extent of this moral obligation is what On Unemployment is dedicated to exploring.

Volume I gives an overview of the current unemployment problem, discusses how the rate of unemployment is calculated and how the concept of unemployment should be understood, explores why we should treat unemployment, like inequality, as a proper object of moral concern, and develops a moral principle and ten related axioms that can help guide us when deciding which proposals to address unemployment we should reject and which we should pursue.  The volume then devotes some attention to the problem of technological unemployment, the meaning and ramifications of Say’s Law, and the extent to which we should be concerned about the stickiness of wages as a cause of unemployment.  The volume closes with a comparison of the Keynesian approach to addressing unemployment and the neoliberal and neoclassical approach, and argues that the latter are both empirically unsupportable and morally unjust.

On Unemployment, Volume 2: Achieving Economic Justice after the Great Recession

Palgrave Macmillan (2015)

The need for further exploration of the economic injustice of unemployment should be obvious.  Unemployment is currently at historically high rates and these high rates may be becoming structural.  Aside from inequality, unemployment is accordingly the problem that is most likely to put critical pressure on our political institutions, disrupt the social fabric of our way of life, and even threaten the continuation of liberalism itself.  Despite the obvious importance of the problem of unemployment, however, there has been a curious lack of attention paid to this issue by contemporary non-Marxist political philosophers.  Non-Marxists typically view unemployment as a technical matter, and doing something about it a question of means not ends, with the solution to this question depending on the kind of empirical determinations about what causes what that are best left to economists, not political philosophers.  But I think this is a mistake.  Because work is a major part of our social life, as well as something that for a great many people grounds their sense of who they are and provides the basis of their sense of self-respect, those unable to find work are missing out on a great deal of what makes for a meaningful life, and not just the economic benefits that social cooperation has to offer.  Those who are unemployed accordingly have something to complain about, even if we do not let them starve, and the rest of us (or at least the institutions that represent us) may have some sort of moral obligation to take action to increase the number of employment opportunities currently available regardless of any uncertainty surrounding the effects that any actions open to us might have.  The nature and extent of this moral obligation is what On Unemployment is dedicated to exploring.

Volume II applies the more theoretical discussion of volume I to various possible approaches to reducing unemployment.  Issues addressed include: whether austerity is a cause of unemployment or a cure for it; the relation between unemployment and inflation; the importance of limiting foreclosure activity during times of high unemployment and how we might do so; the importance of allowing the unencumbered refinancing of state and local government debt; how using tax and regulatory competition as a tool to attract employers to a region is self-defeating; the viability of using work-sharing to reduce unemployment; the relation between immigration and unemployment; and the need to resist the temptation to impose protectionist trade barriers and tariffs.  Finally, the volume closes with an extended discussion of the politics of unemployment, and why it is so difficult to take effective action to reduce unemployment even though the tools to do so are readily available.

Exploitation and Economic Justice in the Liberal Capitalist State

Oxford University Press (2013)

This book develops the first new, liberal theory of economic justice to appear since John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin proposed their respective theories back in the 1970s and early 1980s. It does this by presenting a new, liberal egalitarian, non-Marxist theory of exploitation that is designed to be a creature of capitalism, not a critique of it. Indeed, the book shows how we can regulate economic inequality using the presuppositions of capitalism and political liberalism that we already accept. In doing this, the book uses two concepts or tools: a re-conceived notion of the ancient doctrine of the just price, and my own concept of intolerable unfairness. The resulting theory can then function as either a supplement to or a replacement for the difference principle and luck egalitarianism, the two most popular liberal egalitarian theories of economic justice of the day. It provides a new, highly-topical specific moral justification not only for raising the minimum wage, but also for imposing a maximum wage, for continuing to impose an estate tax on the wealthiest members of society, and for prohibiting certain kinds of speculative trading, including trading in derivatives such as the now infamous credit default swap and other related exotic financial instruments. Finally, it provides a new specific moral justification for dealing with certain aspects of climate change now regardless of what other nations do. Yet it is still designed to be the object of an overlapping consensus—that is, it is designed to be acceptable to those who embrace a wide range of comprehensive moral and political doctrines, including not only liberal egalitarians, but right and left libertarians too

Punishment, Compensation, and Law: A Theory of Enforceability

Cambridge University Press (2005)

This book is the first comprehensive study of the meaning and measure of enforceability. While we have long debated what restraints should govern the conduct of our social life, we have paid relatively little attention to the question of what it means to make a restraint enforceable, even though it is enforceability that makes social cooperation possible. Focusing on the enforceability of legal rights, but also addressing the enforceability of moral rights and social conventions, Mark Reiff explains how we use punishment and compensation to make restraints operative in the world. After describing the various means by which restraints may be enforced, Reiff explains how the sufficiency of enforcement can be measured, and presents a new, unified theory of deterrence, retribution, and compensation that shows how these aspects of enforceability are interconnected. Reiff then applies his theory of enforceability to illuminate a variety of real-world problem situations


The Liberal Conception of Free Speech and Its Limits

Jurisprudence: An International Journal of Legal and Political Thought (2024) 1-39
Unfortunately, many people today see the regulation of lies, disinformation, hate speech, and fake news as an infringement of free speech, at least when such speech is ‘political,’ despite the damage that such speech can do. But this very protective attitude toward speech rests on a mistaken understanding of the role of free speech in a liberal society. The right to free speech is based on the liberal value of freedom, and as such can be no broader than freedom itself. And freedom has always been subject to reasonable limits in a liberal society. Indeed, while the principles of toleration and neutrality are often cited as supporting a broad interpretation of the right to free speech, they also tell us that certain limits apply to that right. We need not tolerate speech that encourages intolerance, and while government should be neutral between reasonable conceptions of the good, it need not be neutral between reasonable and unreasonable conceptions. These ideas form the framework of liberal society, and as I shall show, also provide a guide for understanding what kind of speech is protected in a liberal society and what it is not.

The Libertarian Argument for Reparations

Journal of Social Philosophy (2024) 1-30
The case for reparations for grievous acts of historical injustice has been getting a lot of attention lately. But I aim to broaden the discussion in two ways. First, I am not only going to talk about reparations as a means of rectifying the injuries inflicted by slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples, the theft of their land, and the ongoing ripple effects of these historic wrongs. I am also going to talk about reparations for a wider variety of historical injustices, including, most importantly, the long-term economic oppression of women, and the historical exploitation of labor. Second, I am not going to base my argument on the principle of equality, as most people currently do, but on the principle of liberty, as it is understood by libertarians on both the right and the left, at least as long as they believe what they say they believe. Not because I think that egalitarian demands for reparations are wrong. Rather, my point is that the principle of liberty, which is often raised as a defense to claims based on the principle of equality, actually leads to exactly the same place. Finally, I will discuss one possible form of reparations that has largely been ignored, but which has a special connection to libertarian principles, and I will show how it can provide some real relief without provoking the opposition that society-wide redistributive remedies usually face.

Left Libertarianism for the Twenty-First Century

Journal of Social and Political Philosophy 2:2 (2023) 191-211

There are many different kinds of libertarianism. The first is right libertarianism, which received its most powerful expression in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), a book that still sets the baseline for discussions of libertarianism today. The second, I will call faux libertarianism. For reasons I will explain in this paper, most ‘man-on-the-street’ libertarians and most politicians who claim to be libertarians are actually this kind of libertarian. And third, there is left libertarianism, which is what I shall spend most of this paper explicating. But I will not simply be surveying the views of those who identify as left libertarians and put this forth as if I were engaged in an exegetical exercise. Instead, what I shall set forth is a kind of manifesto, a statement of why I consider myself a left libertarian, one that takes this approach to political morality well beyond where it was left around the end of the last century by the previous generation of left libertarians. My hope is to provide those who find certain left libertarian ideas attractive a guide by which they can explain and harmonise their own views, recognise left libertarianism as a distinct comprehensive political doctrine, and feel more open to identify themselves as left libertarian too.

Neutrality and Excellence

In Without Trimmings: The Legal, Moral, and Political Philosophy of Matthew Kramer, ed. Mark McBride and Visa AJ Kurki (Oxford University Press) (2022) 271-296

Abstract:  In Liberalism with Excellence, Matthew Kramer makes an argument for how excellence may enter in into liberalism, despite liberalism’s strong commitment to neutrality.  Kramer seeks to challenge not only the uncompromising rejection of this position by liberals such a Jonathan Quong, but also the so-called “blended” approach of “soft-perfectionist” scholars such as Joseph Raz and George Sher.  In this essay, I do not so much challenge Kramer’s approach as offer an alternative for accomplishing the same thing.  Under my proposal, certain forms of excellence and neutrality can both be accommodated as long as state support for the form of excellence at issue is proportional to the support for such a form of excellence within the relevant polity, competing forms of excellence are non-rivalrous, and no one is forced to embrace a form of excellence with which they disagree.  My proposal is therefore not what Ronald Dworkin derogatively characterized as “a checkerboard solution.”  Rather than allowing the state to support contrary moral positions at one and the same time, it is a solution that takes morally compatible but nevertheless competing conceptions of excellence seriously, and exhibits neutrality by giving them proportional rather than full support.  This neither forces anyone to pursue the particular forms of excellence the state supports nor prevents them from pursuing some other form of excellence entirely or, if they wish, no form of excellence at all.

Can Liberal Capitalism Survive?

The GCAS Review Journal (2021) 1-46
Abstract: For a long time, economic growth has been seen as the most promising source of funds to use toward reducing economic inequality, as well as a necessity if we are aiming at achieving full employment. But one of the most troubling aspects of the recent exponential rise in economic inequality is that this rise has occurred despite continued economic growth. Increases in national income have gone almost exclusively to the super-rich, while real wages for almost everybody else have stagnated or even declined. And while the unemployment rate dropped significantly before the coronavirus pandemic hit, good, permanent, high-wage jobs with benefits had by then often been replaced by temporary, part-time, low-wage jobs without benefits, leaving even the employed feeling economically insecure. And now, of course, unemployment is again skyrocketing, and it is unclear how long it might take to come down. As a result, we have now arrived at a point of reckoning: can we continue to believe that liberal capitalism is the most promising combination of economic and political ideologies for securing a prosperous and just future? If not, what might replace it? Is the problem capitalism, or is it liberalism? Are we up against economic forces that we cannot influence or control, or is it our political will and the liberal values we endorse that are being tested? This paper looks at all these questions, and suggests how we might think about the prospects for a liberal future. 

The Unbearable Resilience of Illiberalism: A Preview, Review of Political Thought, No. 1 (2020) (in Chinese)

The Commercial Press (2020) 280-310

The just price, exploitation, and prescription drugs: why free marketeers should object to profiteering by the pharmaceutical industry

Review of Social Economy (2019) 1-36
Many people have been enraged lately by the enormous increases in certain generic prescription drugs. But free marketeers defend these prices by arguing that they simply represent what the market will bear, and in a capitalist society there is accordingly nothing wrong with charging them. This paper argues that such a defense is actually contrary to the very principles that free marketeers claim to embrace. These prices are not only unjust and exploitative, but government interference with them would not render the market less free, at least if what it means for a market to be “free” is properly understood. Everyone, even free marketeers with a libertarian or neoliberal bent, should accordingly be against this kind of profiteering.

Twenty-One Statements about Political Philosophy: An Introduction and Commentary on the State of the Profession

Teaching Philosophy 41:1 (2018) 65-115
While the volume of material inspired by Rawls’s reinvigoration of the discipline back in 1971 has still not begun to subside, its significance has been in serious decline for quite some time. New and important work is appearing less and less frequently, while the scope of the work that is appearing is getting smaller and more internal and its practical applications more difficult to discern. The discipline has reached a point of intellectual stagnation, even as real-world events suggest that the need for what political philosophy can provide could not be more critical. What follows then is a set of statements about how I believe that we, as political philosophers, should approach what we do. It contains my view as to what political philosophy should be about, how political philosophy should be done, and how courses in political philosophy should be taught, interlaced with commentary on the current state of the profession.

Two Theories of Economic Liberalism

The Adam Smith Review 10 (2017) 189-214
Within the Anglo-American world, economic liberalism is generally viewed as having only one progenitor—Adam Smith—and one offspring—neoliberalism. But it actually has two. The work of G. W. F. Hegel was also very influential on the development of economic liberalism, at least in the German-speaking world, and the most powerful contemporary instantiation of economic liberalism within that world is not neoliberlaism, but ordoliberalism, although this is generally unknown and certainly unacknowledged outside of Continental Europe. Accordingly, what I am going to be doing in this piece is trying to bring ordoliberalism more directly into the light—I will argue that by comparing and contrasting the views of Smith and Hegel or at least between how Smith and Hegel tend to be currently (mis)understood, we can better understand both the roots and the nature of these two contemporary incarnations of economic liberalism, and the light this sheds, in turn, brings some interesting and important features of these two contemporary theories into view. From Smith, for example, neoliberals took the idea of the invisible hand, although I am going to argue that contemporary advocates of invisible hand theory have largely misconstrued or at the very least overstated the significance of this metaphor. From Hegel, in contrast, ordoliberals took the idea of the civil society, and I will argue that the civil society is a much better metaphor not only for Hegel's but also for Smith's views. Indeed, I will argue that ordoliberalism, not neoliberalism, is a better and more coherent instantiation of economic liberalism than neoliberalism could ever be.

Punishment in the Executive Suite, Moral Responsibility, Causal Responsibility, and Financial Crime

in Just Financial Markets? Finance in a Just Society, ed. Lisa Herzog, Oxford University Press (2017) 125-153
Despite the enormity of the financial losses flowing from the 2008 financial crisis and the outrageousness of the conduct that led up to it, almost no individual involved has been prosecuted for criminal conduct, much less actually gone to prison.  What this chapter argues is that the failure to punish those in management for their role in this misconduct stems from a misunderstanding of the need to prove that they personally knew of this wrongdoing and harbored an intent to defraud.  But not only would negligence be a sufficient legal and moral basis for imposing terms of imprisonment in these cases, mere causal responsibility would also be enough, for causal responsibility has embed in it all we need to find those causally responsible morally responsible too, and once some basis for moral responsibility is established, the imposition of terms of imprisonment is both legally permitted and morally just. 

Trump and the End of Liberalism

The Critique (January-February) (2017)
Contrary to the conventional view, the election of Donald Trump is not best characterized as a misguided revolt by those who rightly felt that the economy was leaving them behind, for such an explanation is not supported by the facts.  What the election of Donald Trump actually represents is a rejection of the liberal values that America was thought to pre-eminently represent—a rejection of tolerance and neutrality between competing but reasonable conceptions of the good, a rejection of engagement and debate in favor of bullying and bluster, and a denial that all of us are persons of equal moral worth.  It is a choice to give authority priority over liberty and security priority over the rule of law. It is even a rejection of the idea that facts matter in deciding what we should believe and what we should do.  It is, in effect, an abandonment of the principles of liberalism that advanced societies have been moving toward since the Enlightenment in favor of something closer to the perfectionist ideals favored by the Plutocrats of the ancient world. And that, I am afraid, is very bad news indeed.

No Such Thing as Accident: Rethinking the Relation between Causal and Moral Responsibility

Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence (2015) 28: 371-397
According to the conventional view, causal and moral responsibility have a strict hierarchical relationship. Determining causal responsibility comes first; then we sort through the factors to which we have assigned causal responsibility and determine which, if any, should be assigned moral responsibility too. Moral inquiry accordingly stands not only apart but also above causal inquiry. But I am going to argue that this way of looking at causal and moral responsibility is a mistake. Rather than being separate and independent inquires with different purposes and concerns, I am going to argue that finding causal responsibility actually entails finding moral responsibility even when there is no evidence of what we would call traditional fault. Indeed, I am going to argue we cannot find someone causally responsible without finding them morally responsible too.

Incommensurability and Moral Value

Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (2014) 13: 237-268
Some theorists believe that there is a plurality of values, and that in many circumstances these values are incommensurable, or at least incomparable. Others believe that all values are reducible to a single super-value, or that even if there is a plurality of irreducible values these values are commensurable. But I will argue that both sides have got it wrong. Values are neither commensurable nor incommensurable, at least not in the way most people think. We are free to believe in incommensurability or not, depending on what particular conception of morality we want to embrace. Incommensurability is accordingly not a theory about value. It is a presupposition that provides a necessary background condition for a certain kind of value to exist. It is therefore not the kind of view that can be morally true or false. As a presupposition, it can only be accepted or rejected on grounds that do not presuppose that morality already exists. Incommensurability is, like the rejection of hard determinism, one of the presuppositions on which morality as we know it happens to be based.

How to Pay for Public Education

Theory and Research in Education (2014) 12: 4-52
For years now, public education, and especially public higher education has been under attack. Funding has been drastically reduced, fees increased, and the seemingly irresistible political force of ever-tightening austerity budgets threatens to cut it even more. But I am not going to take the standard line that government financial support for public higher education should be increased. I view that battle as already lost. What I am going to propose is that we stop arguing about the allocation or reallocation of ever more scarce public resources and think of another way to fund public higher education. It's time for a new approach, one that satisfies the left's claim that higher education should be affordable for all, yet one that does not involve increasing expenditure of public funds or commit the government to entitlement programs that it cannot now or at least cannot long afford. What we need is a new proposal that is acceptable to both sides if we are to bring public education into the twenty-first century. And this is what this paper is devoted to providing.

The Difference Principle, Rising Inequality, and Supply-Side Economics: How Rawls Got Hijacked by the Right

Revue de Philosophie Économique/Review of Economic Philosophy (2012) 13: 119-173
Rawls intended the difference principle to be a liberal egalitarian principle of justice. By that I mean he intended it to provide a moral justification for a moderate amount of redistribution of income from the most advantaged members of society to the least. But since the difference principle was introduced, economic inequality has increased dramatically, reaching levels now not seen since just before the Great Depression, levels that Rawls surely would have thought perverse. Many blame this increase on the rise of supply-side economics and the dramatic cuts in marginal tax rates enacted by the supply-siders for corporations and those already at the top of the income distribution. But I contend that the difference principle, or at least the ethos that the difference principle embodies and represents, is also partially to blame. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to explain how the difference principle, the ideas and arguments of the supply-siders, and this dramatic rise in inequality are connected, to identify where the difference principle went wrong, and to discuss what those who remain committed to the liberal egalitarian ideals that the difference principle was thought to represent might do about it.

Proportionality, Winner-Take-All, and Distributive Justice

Politics, Philosophy & Economics (2009) 8: 5-42
When faced with multiple claims to a particular good, what does distributive justice require? To answer this question, we need a substantive moral theory that will enable us assign relative moral weights to the parties’ claims. But this is not all we need. Once we have assessed the moral weight of each party’s claim, we still need to decide what method of distribution to employ, for there are two methods open to us. We could take the winner-take-all approach, and award the good to the party with the strongest claim. On the other hand, we could divide the good proportionally, according to the relative strength of each party’s claim. Because the choice between these two methods of distribution can have a dramatic impact on the resulting pattern of distribution, the choice presents a question of justice. But this is a question of justice that is often overlooked. As a result, we currently employ the principle of proportionality far less often than justice actually requires. If we focus on the question of distributive method, however, we are not only better able to understand how certain reasons enter into our all-things-considered moral judgments, we are also able to explain some perplexing but common aspects of our moral beliefs: how rights can be said to have peremptory force, yet still be balanced against other important interests; how justice can sometimes require compromise, yet sometimes require victory; and how a moral theory can avoid being too demanding while still being demanding enough.

Terrorism, Retribution, and Collective Responsibility

Social Theory and Practice (2008) 34: 209-242
Terrorism is commonly viewed as a form of war, making the morality of terrorism turn on the usual arguments regarding the furtherance of political objectives through coercive means. The terrorist argues that his options for armed struggle are limited, and the use of force against civilians is the only way he can advance his cause. But this argument is subject to a powerful response. There is the argument from consequences, which asserts that terrorism is almost always counterproductive, even assuming the terrorist’s political objectives are legitimate. There is the argument from rights, which claims that terrorism violates the basic human rights of (at least) its civilian victims, and is therefore morally objectionable regardless of its consequences. And there is the argument from virtue, which notes that slaughtering civilians requires no skill or courage and therefore generates no honor or glory, making the terrorist not a virtuous warrior but a vicious one. But terrorism is not only a means of political coercion. It is also, in the view of many terrorists, a means of retribution. It is a means of exacting punishment on a political community the terrorist believes is collectively responsible for grievous wrongs certain members of that community have committed. And viewed as a means of retribution, the usual arguments made against terrorism-as-coercion have no moral force. To explain why terrorism-as-retribution is morally wrong, we must attack the notion of collective responsibility on which the terrorist relies.

The Attack on Liberalism

In Law and Philosophy, ed. Michael Freemen and Ross Harrison (Oxford University Press) (2007) 173-210
Liberalism is today under attack on two fronts. Oddly enough, while both attacks seem to be coming from different directions, both are in fact coming from the right. One is coming from radical Islamic fundamentalism, and the other from American neo-conservatism, which in turn unites elements of Christian fundamentalism with elements of neo-Platonic political philosophy and neo-Aristotelian moral theory. Both Islamic fundamentalism and American neo-conservatism are perfectionist views, and while perfectionist attacks on liberalism are nothing new, there is a special danger in the position that liberalism currently finds itself. Although bitterly opposed to each other and divided by utterly incompatible substantive views, the two sources of the current attack share many fundamental similarities on the level of political theory. To varying extents, both reject the idea that the state should be neutral toward and tolerant of competing conceptions of the good, both oppose the strict separation of religious and political authority, both place higher priority on authority and security than on negative liberty and the rule of law, both elevate faith over truth in their pure and practical reasoning, and both view the community not the individual as the fundamental social unit. The special danger of this attack is that each source may use the existence of the other to increase the force of its own denunciation of liberalism, and the voices of those who would defend liberalism may be drowned out in the din of the invective hurled by one of its attackers against the other. The purpose of this paper is to focus our attention on the similarities between these seemingly opposing perfectionist views, and to defend liberalism against the various attacks that both sets of perfectionists make against it.

The Politics of Masochism

Inquiry (2003) 46: 29-63
This essay explores why people sometimes act against their own economic interests, and, more particularly, why people sometimes knowingly and intentionally support economic inequality even though they are disadvantaged by it, a phenomenon I call masochistic inegalitarianism. The essay argues that such behavior is an inherent and widespread feature of human nature, and that this has important though previously overlooked practical and theoretical implications for any conception of distributive justice. On the practical side, masochistic inegalitarianism suggests that any theory of distributive justice with more than the most modest egalitarian aspirations is inherently self-defeating (or at least self-limiting) because it will naturally produce the background conditions necessary to trigger masochistic behavior among the very people it is designed to assist. On the theoretical side, masochistic inegalitarianism suggests that there are serious problems with any theory of distributive justice based on the idea of hypothetical consent. This is because people with masochistic tendencies would be unlikely to consent to the distributive arrangements these theories have presumed, and the arrangements to which they would be likely to consent would allow a far greater degree of economic inequality than we are prepared to acknowledge as intuitively just. Either we must rethink our intuitions, or, as I contend, there is something about masochistic inegalitarianism that robs hypothetical consent of its moral force.


Hope in an Illiberal Age?

Ethics, Policy & Environment (2024) 27: 116-124
In this commentary on Darrel Moellendorf’s Mobilizing Hope: Climate Change & Global Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), I discuss his use of the precautionary principle, whether his hope for climate-friendly ‘green growth’ is realistic given the tendency for inequality to accelerate as it gets higher, and what I call his assumption of a liberal baseline. That is, I worry that the audience to whom the book is addressed are those who already accept the environmental and economic values to which Moellendorf appeals, while those who are blocking effective action on climate change in fact reject those values and are therefore unlikely to be moved by the arguments the book presents.

Trump’s violent rhetoric echoes the fascist commitment to a destructive and bloody rebirth of society

The Conversation (2023)

As shocking as his call for extrajudicial killings is, Trump’s rhetoric is only the tip of the spear aimed at fomenting widespread social disruption and destruction. For it is only in the wake of such events that those on the far right believe a new, white, Christian, illiberal world can arise. 

Why Some People Think Fascism Is the Greatest Expression of Democracy Ever Invented

The Conversation (2022)
Fascism and Democracry both claim to give effect to the will of the people. They just disagree on exactly who those people are.

The Union as a Basic Institution of Society

American Philosophical Association Blog Post (2021)

While unionization is usually evaluated as an aspect of freedom of association—the idea being that workers have the right to associate and form unions if they want and have an equal right not to do so if they don't, I argue that this is a mistake. Instead of merely allowing unions to form or not depending on the preferences of workers, I argue that unions are a basic and therefore necessary institution of a just society. After analyzing and criticizing the schema developed by John Rawls for evaluating what constitutes a basic institution, I introduce a new principle that allows us to determine what should be considered a basic institution in the context of our existing social institutions and practices. I then apply this principle to unionization, and argue that while unions are subject to post-institutional regulation, just like firms are, their existence is demanded by pre-institutional principles of equality and liberty and therefore not optional. Not only are union shops consistent with our deepest moral principles, including our commitment to liberty, that commitment, when properly understood, actually requires that unionization be universal.

How important is white fear?

Aeon (2021)
It’s become a commonplace that demographic anxiety is driving white voters to the far Right. This is dangerously wrong

Universal Unions

Aeon (2020)
Being an employee is a threat to your liberty. But while firms exist, compulsory unions are a basic safeguard of freedom.

For a Living Wage

In Ethics Left and Right: The Moral Issues that Divide Us, ed. Bob Fischer, Oxford University Press, pp, 269-266, 276-277 (2020)

What is a living wage? Although the living wage movement has existed for more than a century, and its roots go back even farther, there is still no clear agreement on what a living wage would be. People do not even agree on whether the living wage, whatever this might be, should determine where we set the minimum wage, the legal floor for what employers may pay their workers, or whether the minimum wage may be lower. In any case, almost everyone concedes that the current minimum wage is in fact far below what a living wage would require. But what does a living wage require? Is it merely the minimum required to keep a single full-time worker alive, with a part-time worker earning the appropriate proportionate share of this? An average family alive? An average family not merely alive, but sufficiently financially secure to actually participate meaningfully in society? In this piece, I shall defend the latter view. First, I shall argue that a living wage is a just wage, one that satisfies the moral principle of reciprocity in exchange, meaning that the wages paid should be equivalent to the value of the labor performed. Next, I shall argue that the value of the labor performed should be determined by reference to the cost of production of that labor, taking into account not merely the worker’s primary basic needs but the worker’s contextual basic needs as well (I shall explain the difference between the two in a moment). Finally, I shall argue that there are no countervailing negative effects of paying such a wage, and that even if there were, this would not be a sufficient reason for failing to make the living wage the minimum.


Why We Need to Set a Maximum Wage

The Rift (2019)
One of the most troubling aspects of the enormous rise in economic inequality over the last thirty years is that while compensation for almost everyone has been stagnating, compensation at the top has been skyrocketing. In 2017, each of the top 200 US CEOs made between $13.8 and $103.2 million. In most cases, this was 300 times what the median worker took home. In some cases, it was more than 1000 times, up from just 50 in 1970.

There are many things that need to be done to correct this, but one of them is to limits how much compensation those at the top can earn . . . 

Setting a maximum wage for CEOs would be good for everyone

Aeon (2018)

Under capitalism, the argument goes, it’s every man for himself. Through the relentless pursuit of self-interest, everyone benefits, as if an invisible hand were guiding each of us toward the common good. Everyone should accordingly try to get as much as they can, not only for their goods but also for their labour. Whatever the market price is is, in turn, what the buyer should pay. Just like the idea that there should be a minimum wage, the idea that there should be a maximum wage seems to undermine the very freedom that the free market is supposed to guarantee.

This view, however, has some dramatic consequences. One is the explosion in economic inequality that almost all liberal capitalist democracies have experienced over the past 30-40 years . . .

Note: Also translated into and published in Italian as “Fissare Uno Stipendio Massimo Per Chi Dirige Un’azienda Sarebbe Meglio Per Tutti,” The Vision (July 5, 2019).

Even if you build it, the poor can’t come: against supply-side

Aeon (2018)

‘If you build it, they will come.’ It’s a Latin saying – Si tu id aeficas, ei venient – but it’s probably more recognisable because it sounds like what that disembodied voice says to Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams (1989). And in the film, Costner does build it (a baseball field) and people do come. In either case, it’s a good way of summing up the case for supply-side economics. 

But to understand that case, we need to break it down into its constituent elements. And the thinking behind it goes like this: if you want to stimulate the economy, then cut taxes on the rich (those who invest in and build things) and they will use this extra money to produce more stuff. Why? Because supply creates its own demand, so if they produce more they will sell more, and the economy will expand. An expanding economy, in turn, benefits everybody. There will be more jobs, wages will be higher, and government budget deficits will shrink. This latter effect, of course, might seem counterintuitive. But the argument is that even though tax rates go down, the amount of economic activity these cuts unleash will grow everyone’s income to such an extent that the total tax collected by the government, even at these lower rates, will actually go up. That’s what the supply-siders contend.

A philosopher argues why no one has the right to refuse services to LGBT people

The Conversation (2017)

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that gay people have the right to marry, those upset by this ruling have shifted their strategy from denying the right to limiting its enforcement.

Even if gay people have a right to marry, they argue, people also have the liberty to practice their religion as they wish. Accordingly, they claim, they cannot be forced to “aid or abet” those seeking to marry partners of the same sex.

This argument obviously has some persuasive power, for statutes that claim to protect religious liberty in this sense have recently been proposed in 26 states. Some have even been enacted. And just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) that brings this supposed conflict between marriage equality and religious liberty to the fore.

In my view, however, characterizing what is going on here as presenting a conflict between marriage equality and religious liberty is incorrect.


The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy, ed. Fred D'Agastino and Gerald Gaus (Routledge) (2012) 765--776
A surprisingly large number of questions arise under the heading “the philosophy of
punishment.” Here, in what roughly conforms to the intellectual order in which these
questions might be addressed, although not necessarily in their order of importance, are
some of them . . .

Collective Responsibility

Encyclopedia of Political Theory, ed. Mark Bevir (Sage) (2010) 226-227
There are two related but nevertheless distinct types of problems typically referred to under the heading collective responsibility.  One is the set of issues that arise when we try to hold a nation, corporation, association, or other collective morally responsible for the wrongdoing of one or more of its members.  In this case, the issues raised are metaphysical—what we need to explain is how an entity that is not a single, conscious, self-aware, decision-making human being can be morally responsible for anything.  The other sense in which the term collective responsibility is used is to refer to the issues that arise when we try to hold one individual morally responsible for the acts of another merely because they are members of the same collective.  In this case, the issues raised are normative—what we need to explain is what the individual has done wrong when the wrongful acts in question were actually committed by some other member of the collective . . .