My research focuses on the ways in which economic and social arrangements inhibit or promote the realization of values such as equality, freedom, and human development. It therefore stands at the intersection of moral, social, and political philosophy.
In approaching these areas, I develop a perspective importantly informed by the work of Karl Marx, whose contributions to philosophy and especially to moral thought are frequently misunderstood or undervalued (often both). I argue, with Marx, that the study of human nature is central to determining what we ought to do and how we ought to live, and take moral theory and the promotion of human flourishing to be intimately tied to the critique of capitalism.
My research program can be understood as an attempt to properly assess Marx’s contributions to philosophy and to apply this historical perspective to contemporary philosophical problems in various areas of value theory such as human rights theory, philosophy of race, and normative ethics generally.
Descriptions of some of my recent and ongoing research projects are provided below.
“The ‘White Privilege’ Concept in Marxism and Critical Race Theory”
In recent years, authors such as Mike Cole and Charles Mills have asked whether a rapprochement between Marxism and Critical Race Theory is possible. I investigate the possibility of such a reconciliation of the two methods by analyzing their distinct approaches to the development of the “White Privilege” concept.
I argue that in this case, rapprochement would require that CRT adopt a concept of “White Privilege” more closely aligned with W. E. B. Du Bois’s original concept of a “public and psychological wage,” and argue that Du Bois’s concept has more in common with Marxist method than it does with CRT’s Roediger-inspired analysis of “White Privilege.”
“Human Nature and the Ethics of Human Enhancement” (Work in Progress)
Can questions about the ethics of human enhancement be answered by appeal to facts about what it is to be a human being? An ongoing debate about this issue has brought renewed attention to a 1986 paper by David Hull, who argued that biology’s critiques of species essentialism showed that human nature did not exist and therefore could not serve as a basis for morality. I argue that Hull and his more recent interlocutors take too much for granted a strictly biological conception of human nature–a conception that diminishes our view of the social aspects of our nature that render us distinctively human.
I argue that by broadening our conception of human nature to include both the biological and the social, we can develop a theory that would give us guidance as to the morality of specific types of enhancement when conceived as conscious interventions into our own ongoing development as a species, with standards of flourishing that are determined by our nature.
“Human Rights and Relativism”
This article is currently under journal review. I argue that in order to develop a moral universalism that explains the value of goods such as freedom, equality, and human development, we must move beyond the language of human rights and turn to the task of developing an accurate ontological account of human nature. Such an ontological picture would explain both the historical emergence and the genuine universality of these values, and of the claims that correspond to them.
Recent theories of human rights, however, attempt to justify human rights and explain their origin and validity without appeal to any particular substantive ontological picture of human nature or the world of which that nature is a part. I argue that this leaves human rights theories, which aspire to objectivity and universality, more vulnerable to the challenges made by cultural and moral relativists than might initially be supposed. Moreover, the abandonment of ontologically grounded explanations and the move toward pragmatic justifications for human rights practice has facilitated its use to justify wars, “humanitarian interventions,” and other actions that demonstrably harm human beings and frustrate the goal of human development.
I further argue that no suitably robust ontological conception of human nature in keeping with modern science could ground pre-social moral claims such as human rights, putting human rights theory between a rock and a hard place. The way out is to leave aside human rights talk in favor of a theory that accounts correctly for essential human nature and for morality and moral requirements as historically emergent and developing social practices.
“‘What Are You Doing Around Here?’: Trayvon Martin and the Logic of Black Guilt”
In 2012, I contributed to an edited collection titled, Pursuing Trayvon Martin, edited by George Yancy and Janine Jones. This volume brought together scholarly reflections on racism in the U.S., “Stand Your Ground” laws, and the killing of Martin. In my chapter, I criticize the notion of an essential criminality in Black people and assess the ways in which Blacks are frequently held responsible for the anti-Black racism targeted against them.
I argue that this victim-blaming on a mass scale occurs not only in mainstream discourses but also in Black politics, couched in the language of “personal responsibility.” I conclude by proposing means of anti-racist struggle that recognize the agency of Black people in opposing racism while resisting a narrative of self-blame.
Marx and Morality (Work in Progress)
I am in the process of revising and expanding my dissertation, “Marx and Morality,” developing it as a book manuscript. My dissertation focused closely on Marx’s own writings or those he coauthored with Friedrich Engels, covering published and unpublished manuscripts, newspaper articles, letters, notebooks, and other texts. In developing this work as a book, I go on to consider Engels’ solo writings, such as Anti-Dühring and The Dialectics of Nature.
Engels’ role in transmitting Marx’s ideas has been a point of controversy. This is especially true with regard to such questions as the appropriateness of conceiving of dialectics as Engels does: as the theory that the totality of Being develops as a historical process, driven forward by its own internal contradictions. Critics have charged that to apply dialectics to nature instead of restricting it to social reality renders Marxism deterministic in such a way as to make human freedom and morality inconceivable, as well as constituting an epistemic overreach, illegitimately claiming knowledge about the workings of the external world. I plan to critically assess Engels’ writings especially as they relate to morality, and evaluate the merit of the above-named criticisms (which I am inclined to believe are off the mark).