My dissertation, The Principle of Fairness and Natural Duties, focuses on the Principle of Fairness (PoF) as a source of obligations, and its relationship to natural duties. In this context, obligations are moral requirements we have because of our actions or relationships while natural duties are moral requirements we have regardless of them. According to the PoF, when some people produce a public good, they have a right against those who benefit that they contribute their fair share to producing the public good. This idea has a broad range of applications, but it has been most often used to explain obligations to obey the law, referred to political obligation. My current research defends the PoF as a source of political obligation and explores an under-researched area of the literature by articulating a theory of political obligation that combines multiple principles. In the short-term, I plan to carry this work forward by preparing several chapters of my dissertation for publication. Two chapters are outlined here.
Nearly all theorists agree that the PoF requires cooperative intentions. This means that those who produce a public good must intend that those who receive it benefit from it, so long as they do their fair share. The objection simply states that relatively few people have cooperative intentions about public goods. If so, the PoF would not apply, and many people would not have political obligations. However, I argue that what matters is not cooperative intentions, but mutually advantageous labor. Rejecting this almost universally endorsed aspect of the PoF allows me to avoid a major objection facing other defenses of political obligation and expands the range of potential applications for the principle.
The PoF can be combined with the natural duty of justice to form a novel, hybrid account of political obligation. Duty-of-justice theories and the PoF are generally seen as competitors in explaining political obligation, but I recast them as allies. The PoF struggles to explain why we have political obligations we haven’t agreed to, but duty-of-justice theories don’t. Similarly, duty-of-justice theories struggle to explain why people have duties specifically to their political institutions, but the PoF doesn’t. Each theory has a gap that the other is well-suited to fill. Thus, by combining the two theories, I defend a novel account of political obligation that captures the strengths of both while eliminating the weaknesses of each.
The PoF is applicable to topics beyond political obligation. In the medium-term, I would like to expand my current research by applying the theories I have developed to other issues, beginning with rainforest protection. Old-growth rainforests are important carbon sinks and maintaining them is essential to fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity. However, many of the countries that house rainforests are attempting to develop their economies and preserving their rainforests can come at a significant opportunity cost. Ecuador, for instance, is home to the Yasuní national rainforest park, and to the oil reserves underneath it. Ecuador has called for support from the international community in preserving its rainforests, arguing that it is unfair for it to bear the costs of leaving these oil reserves tapped because of others’ emissions. Others have argued in responded that Ecuador is illegitimately holding its rainforests ‘hostage’.
My work on beneficence is directly applicable to this case and would allow me to draw in questions of overdemandingness as well as questions about the relationship between natural and artificial agents. Ecuador has not received the help it asked for, so whether it has an obligation to preserve its rainforests depends on how demanding its duties are in relation to climate change. This issue has a layer of complexity not often present in discussions of beneficence since the costs Ecuador takes on will devolve to its citizens, often negatively affecting the least advantaged. The question then arises of what costs they are required to bear as Ecuador, an artificial agent, takes on the costs morally required of it.
In addressing the international community, a country like Ecuador addresses states, regional alliances such as the EU, and other artificial agents. Yet many individual humans are significant contributors to carbon emissions, especially in affluent countries. The distributive relationship, governed by fairness, between individuals around the world to those in Ecuador is therefore filtered through three layers of institutional mediation: the relationship of a polluting individual to her government, the relation of that government to Ecuador, and the relationship of Ecuador to its citizens. Sorting out the moral relationships of these agents to each other in terms of fairness and natural duties promises to be fruitful line of research.
Borders, Land, and Cultural Integrity
Aside from my dissertation research, I have begun developing projects related to borders and immigration that I hope to develop further in the medium- to long-term. In the literature on borders and migration, one of the most prominent arguments against open borders relies on claims about the importance of cultural integrity. The core idea is the importance of having a community to which one belongs, and that existing within a culture one recognizes as one’s own is a central feature of that belonging. Thus, to the extent that immigration might undermine a local culture, some level of immigration restriction will be justified, though to exactly what extent is controversial. At the same time, because the core value is having a community to which one belongs, exile from one’s own culture is impermissible.
More formally, this framework posits a duty to preserve and protect culture as such, with priority given to one’s own culture assuming it is the primary culture from which one benefits. At the same time, it also suggests a theory of migration based on cultural fluency. Those most able to participate in and contribute to a given culture are the ones who should be given priority as potential immigrants. The full consequences of this line of thinking have yet to be worked out and could be quite illiberal. On the face of it, the theory seems to justify varying levels of individual liberty based on one’s ability to contribute to group-level goods. If full theory is sufficiently illiberal, the final conclusion might be that membership in a culture one recognizes as one’s own cannot be counted as primary good in any meaningful sense. Either an affirmation or rejection of the importance of culture would be a significant contribution to the literature.
A separate line of argument examines claims to land. Jeremy Waldron has recently argued that, in a Lockean state of nature, individuals cannot have a claim to the land strong enough to justify driving away newcomers. I believe this argument is insufficiently sensitive to the role that land plays in securing essential goods. Under the right circumstances, the value of securing the goods provided by a piece of land may be sufficiently weighty to justify excluding newcomers. If four people in a hot desert are (efficiently) taking up all the shade from the only tree, and they require this shade continuously to avoid dying of exposure, it seems reasonable to say they have a presumptive right to exclude others who would also like to stand in the shade even if they too need it for survival. I have begun to develop these arguments into a paper on immigration restrictions which was accepted to a conference on migration. My hope is to pursue each of these lines of argumentation for papers in the future.