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Research overview

My research defends a unified normative theory of prudence, morality, and justice, and associated descriptive neurofunctional theory of how prudential and moral cognition function. I argue that these theories together cohere with and explain a wide variety of normative and empirical phenomena better than alternatives. I also argue that they justify a new approach to solving moral and social-political issues, contending that morality and justice are a matter of creating fair resolutions to disagreements rather than discovering moral truths in the kinds of ways espoused by traditional moral and political theories.

My primary research program grew out of my first book, Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016). Chapter 1 of that book argues that be truth-apt, we should base moral philosophy upon a new methodology: seven principles of theory-selection adapted from the sciences. Chapter 2 then argues that all seven principles support founding moral and political philosophy in instrumental rationality and the science of moral cognition and motivation. Chapter 3 then derives a non-Kantian analogue of Kant's categorical imperative from these foundations: the categorical-instrumental imperative. Chapter 4 then demonstrates that this principle has three unified formulations—formulas that have systemic epistemic and practical advantages over traditional Kantian ethics. Chapter 5 then derives a new test of right or wrong from this principle: a Moral Original Position. Chapter 6 then shows that this test justifies Four Principles of Fairness reconciling several dominant moral frameworks: (1) a deontological principle of “negative fairness” (to govern coercion), (2) a consequentialist principle of “positive fairness” (to govern voluntary cooperation), (3) a contractualist principle of fair negotiation in applying the first two principles, and (4) a virtue-theoretic principle requiring the development of character traits to conform to these principles. I then combine these principles into a single analysis of moral rightness—Rightness as Fairness—showing that the analysis reconciles a variety of competing moral frameworks. Chapter 7 then uses Rightness as Fairness to reconcile three traditionally opposed political frameworks—small-government libertarianism, large-government egalitarianism, and communitarianism—in the form of a new political theory, “Libertarian Egalitarian Communitarianism”, a theory which additionally incorporates feminist and critical race-theoretic insights. Finally, Chapter 8 argues that Rightness as Fairness satisfies all seven principles of theory selection more successfully than leading alternative theories.


My newest book, Neurofunctional Prudence and Morality: A Philosophical Theory (Routledge 2020), outlines a unified theory of prudence, morality, and justice which reduces all moral and political norms to norms of prudence, arguing in turn that a wide variety of recent findings in behavioral neuroscience support the account. The revised version of Rightness as Fairness the book defends also resolves a variety of critical concerns raised to my first book. Finally, in two recent articles, I have also argued that Rightness as Fairness has important implications for reducing group polarization and for solving the 'alignment problem' in programming ethical A.I.: the problem of ensuring that machines behave in ways that align with human values and expectations.


My second major research program stems from my 2008 dissertation, A Non-Ideal Theory of Justice. In two recent articles (Arvan 2019, 2014), I argue that social-political philosophers of diverse backgrounds (not only Rawlsians) should utilize a variant of John Rawls’ original position—a Nonideal Original Position—to determine what justice requires in a non-ideal world. My work contends that the Nonideal Original Position can be adapted to many different domains, such as injustices in modern democracies, illiberal/nondemocratic regimes, and failed states, in order to derive principles of justice for each domain—in ways that can index principles of nonideal justice to different social-political frameworks. In coming years, my aim will be to publish a book, A Theory of Justice for an Unjust World, that will provide a nonideal theory of justice for a variety of different social and political conditions, and unify the account with my deeper theory of prudence and morality.

In addition to these main projects, in two articles I have argued that several longstanding issues regarding human rights—regarding their number, justification, and action-guidance—can be resolved by distinguishing between (A) domestic human rights, which apply within states, and (B) international human rights, which justify international intervention. In future years, my research will use this framework to support systematic changes to international law, reducing human rights justifications for military action and punitive sanctions.


Finally, my research in philosophy of science and metaphysics shows that several promising hypotheses from metaphysics and quantum physics jointly entail a new model of reality, the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Simulation Hypothesis, according to which our reality is functionally identical to a peer-to-peer networked online simulation. Thus far, I have argued that the P2P Hypothesis explains a number of fundamental features of the quantum world that currently lack any known physical explanation, including quantum superposition, indeterminacy, wave-particle duality, entanglement, and quantum collapse. In future work, I will show that the P2P model predicts and explains the Planck length and relativity of simultaneity. I also have unpublished work arguing that (1) any reality whatsoever must be functionally equivalent to a “simulation”, and (2) that insofar as simulations are all fundamentally "dualistic"—comprised of software running on hardware—every possible world is similarly dualistic, containing a software/hardware “explanatory gap” that cannot be bridged in principle. Finally, I use the P2P Hypothesis to defend a new theory of free will—Libertarian Compatibilism—according to which libertarian freedom in a higher reference-frame generates the illusion of causal closure in our reference frame. In coming years, I aim to publish articles detailing new solutions to canonical arguments against libertarian free-will, including the Consequence, Luck, Mind, and Assimilation arguments.

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