Hi! I'm Nate, a Research Fellow at Goethe Universität Frankfurt in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. I am a member of the Justitia Amplificata Centre for Advanced Studies, an interdisciplinary research center in political theory and philosophy directed by Prof. Dr. Rainer Forst and Prof. Dr. Stefan Gosepath. I work primarily in political philosophy and philosophy of law, focusing on the legitimacy of institutions and the nature of the practical authority that they claim over us. I have papers forthcoming in these areas in The Journal of Political Philosophy, Law and Philosophy, Legal Theory, and Res Publica, which you can find drafts and summaries of here. On this site you will find more detail about me, my research, my teaching, and how to contact me.
My three-year postdoctoral fellowship started in the summer of 2015 and runs through the summer of 2018. I am currently looking for a tenure-track position starting in the fall of 2018. Prior to my current position, I was a visiting postdoctoral research fellow with the Chair of International Political Theory at Goethe Universität for Sommersemester 2014 and during the 2014-15 academic year I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech. I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis (2014), an M.A. in Philosophy from Virginia Tech (2008), and a B.A. in Biochemistry from Spring Arbor University (2004). I've ended up a long way from biochemistry! Everything else you'll find here is about philosophy but if you're interested: for my senior thesis, I investigated the reported efficacy of chaulmoogra oil for treating leprosy by separating out various chemical components of the natural oil and testing their properties.
I'm originally from the USA, though not from any particular place. I was born in New Jersey and have lived in New York City, rural Kentucky, Michigan, suburban Illinois, upstate New York, Virginia, Missouri, Egypt, China, and Germany. I've gleaned a lot from my migratory ways. We can't take the view from everywhere or the view from nowhere, but I hope that having had the view from many-wheres helps my understanding of morality, political institutions, and justice. I enjoy games in a huge variety and I enjoy following professional sports of various sorts, although it's harder six or more time zones away, especially with baseball. Occasionally I attempt to write fiction and I return to an extremely unfinished novel in fits and starts, all of which is a nice outlet for the kind of explosive purple prose that is most often counterproductive in a philosophy article aiming for clarity and precision.
Here's a link to my C.V., if you're into that sort of thing (updated February 2018).
DETAILED RESEARCH SUMMARY
My research is focused on issues of political authority and legitimacy. I am curious about how political institutions concentrate and exercise power and what that means for those of us subject to those institutions (i.e. all of us). My research into authority is fundamentally motivated by anti-authoritarian impulses: I want to understand authority because I want to know exactly where its rightful limits lie. Power motivates its own expansion and so the project of pushing back against power is necessary and unending. I think it helps to reframe these issues in terms of the paired ideas of vulnerability and trustworthiness, in part by drawing on resources from normative ethics and epistemology. In our orientation towards reform, I am also interested in civil disobedience as a contestatory practice, and my thinking in that regard has been keenly shaped in conversation with graduate students in two seminars I have taught on the subject in Frankfurt.
The main thrust of my primary research project is that I think that political philosophy needs to more intentionally and carefully extend itself in the following two ways. First, institutions come in a huge variety. We--political philosophers--have focused mainly on the state. The state is a worthy object of study, in part because it is the primary locus of political authority and power, in part because for now it is the main determinant of whether individuals are likely to secure the preconditions on a decent life. Focusing on the state has meant, for example, that political obligation is one of the main preoccupations of 20th century political philosophy. But, in an increasingly globalized world, we need to expand the scope of our inquiries. The problem is that the state is in many ways sui generis, and so when we consider how we relate to institutions like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, our theories developed to characterize our relation to the state are inadequate. We don't owe political obligation to these institutions, for example, but what do we owe them?
Second, even with respect to the state, we need to consider a variety of relations beyond political obligation. Philosophers mention further possibilities; do we owe the state loyalty? Should our nationality be an important part of our identity? I think that it is also important to consider deontological relations beyond political obligation. This is especially relevant in circumstances where we do not owe political obligation--circumstances that I believe obtain for almost everyone in the world, importantly including in my home state of the USA. Philosophers have tended to assume that if we do not owe political obligation--correlatively if the state lacks the right to rule--then we do not owe the state anything.
But I do not think this is right. It does not successfully account for two facts: a) the state is necessary for our most important undertakings, most obviously the pursuit of justice and b) it is hugely, almost impossibly difficult to actually establish and maintain the state qua actual institution within a particular historical and cultural context. Every even decent state is a historical achievement. These facts seem to me to necessitate the possibility of states attaining what I call a right to function: a right that citizens (as well as outsiders) not coercively interfere in the state carrying out the characteristic functions of governance despite the fact that the state has not met the conditions for the right to rule. The right to function better characterizes states as we actually find them.
This right to function also applies to our fundamental relations to institutions of all kinds, relativized to the constitutive functioning of institutional types: the United Nations can achieve the right to function, as can the World Trade Organization, as can the state, as can a political party, as can the Catholic church, as can your local golf course. But what that right means varies according to the functions of each, and so what standards each institution must meet to achieve that right varies as well. My current project aims to theorize legitimacy at a a more general level in order to unify and systematize our understanding of the legitimacy of particular institutions. The aim is to provide a template that can then be applied to particular cases, including extant institutions that are undertheorized as well as institutions that are still being designed.
I identify which features of institutions potentially matter for their legitimacy, primary among them an institution's purpose, methods, effects, internal structure, history, audience, and place within a broader institutional ecology. For example, an institution might undertake a morally mandatory purpose, a morally voluntary purpose, or a morally impermissible purpose. Each of these can affect the institution's legitimacy. Some institutions function by promulgating and coercively enforcing rules over people who do not consent to those rules, but most do not; some distribute decision-making power within the institution horizontally, some hierarchically; some make themselves transparent and accountable to other institutions wth a variety of formal and informal mechanisms, but some take themselves to be utterly independent. All this matters for the institution's legitimacy and each needs careful consideration on its own.
Constructing a theory of legitimacy for a particular institution or institutional type would then be a matter of identifying the various features of the institution and how each presumptively matters for its legitimacy. Of course, these features will change in various ways when they interact; the template I provide cannot result in a simple mechanistic process. The template defines a unified starting point, which then must be combined with a well-informed understanding of the particular institution and its features.
Some institutions claim authority as part of the constitutive functioning because they promulgate and enforce rules on others. For such institutions, the nature of authority is central to questions of their legitimacy. Some theorists have gone too far with this, identifying the possession of authority as simply what it means for such institutions to be legitimate (and generally speaking, these theorists have not concerned themselves with institutions that do not claim authority, so do not have a more general theory of institutional legitimacy which they rely on). Although I don't think authority ends the conversation for such legitimacy, it is of primary importance. This is especially true of the state and its system of rules, the law.
I argue that philosophers have yet to fully understand the relational nature of authority. I analyze authority through the speech act of the command: what sorts of claims am I making when I look at another fully autonomous human being and arrogate unto myself the power to tell them what to do? (Let alone to hold them accountable if they do not do what I say or punish them. These issues are related but importantly distinct.) Following assurance views of testimony in contemporary epistemology as well as similar analyses of relational normative phenomena like Scanlon's analysis of promises, I identify the signals and commitments that are necessarily made when one person claims authority over another by issuing commands to them.
This analysis leads to my "relational conception" of authority, which shares many features of Joseph Raz's famous service conception but goes beyond it. My account distinctively highlights that 1) commands demand practical deference, 2) deference entails entrusting interests to another, 3) entrusting interests to another makes one vulnerable, 4) a demand for deference is a demand for vulnerability, 5) the demand is communicated, so is common knowledge between the participants, 6) to demand vulnerability is to signal that giving such vulnerability and trust is justified, 7) so the authority takes responsibility for the vulnerability and trust put in her, 8) and the subject's reason to defer depends on and is shaped by the authority's signal of responsibility and trustworthiness.
This informs the authority held by institutions by showing that institutions which claim authority must accept responsibility--and inquires into what this means--and must be sufficiently trustworthy given the level of vulnerability they demand (which in the case of political authority is almost absolute vulnerability). I argue that elements of institutional design explain how institutions can have authority under these constraints. In future work I hope to show how specific features of liberal constitutional orders with which we are familiar matter for authority on my analysis: how the separation of powers, a written constitution, and so on, contribute to the responsibility and trustworthiness of political institutions.
My interests in legitimacy and authority come together with recent events in my interest in civil disobedience. There I argue for a conception of the practice that goes beyond the varieties of the Rawlsian conception that dominates the philosophical literature. I also plan to show how the fact that a political culture that allows and even incentivizes civil disobedience contributes to its trustworthiness and responsibility, and so to its authority, and so to its legitimacy.
(these are draft versions, please refer to official versions)
5. Grounding Procedural Rights, Legal Theory (forthcoming)
Contrary to the widely accepted consensus, Christopher Heath Wellman argues that there are no pre-institutional judicial procedural rights. Thus commonly affirmed rights like the right to a fair trial cannot be assumed in the literature on punishment and legal philosophy as they usually are. Wellman canvasses and rejects a variety of grounds proposed for such rights. I answer his skepticism by proposing two novel grounds for procedural rights. First, a general right against unreasonable risk of punishment grounds rights to an institutionalized system of punishment. Second, to complement and extend the first ground, I more controversially propose a right to provision of the robust good of security. People have a right to others' protecting for avoiding wrongfully harming them: when I take an action that is reasonably expected to threaten the protected interests of others, I must take appropriate care to avoid setting back those interests. Inflicting punishment on someone--intentionally harming them in response to a violation--is prima facie wrongful, so I can only count as taking appropriate care in punishing when I follow familiar procedures that reliably and redundantly test whether they are liable to such punishment, i.e. whether they have forfeited their right against punishment through a culpable act.
4. The Relational Conception of Practical Authority, Law and Philosophy (forthcoming), doi: 10.1007/s10982-017-9323-3
Traditional approaches to authority focus on the problem of the subject sacrificing her autonomy by deferring to the will of another. Yet authority is ultimately a relationship, making demands upon both parties. In particular, a relational approach highlights 1) the vulnerability of the subject to the authority and 2)the authority's paired demand that the subject make herself vulnerable and the acceptance of responsibility for that demand and its consequences. I argue for an instrumentalist conception of authority according to which one party only has genuine authority over another when four conditions are met: the duty, precedence, acceptance, and trustworthiness conditions.
3. Uncivil Disobedience: Political Commitment and Violence, Res Publica (forthcoming), doi: 10.1007/s11158-017-9367-0
"Civil" disobedience is consistent with violence, in particular violence directed at property. It is inconsistent with violence directed at persons because such violence directly contradicts the core commitment of the disobedient. Namely, disobedients necessarily commit themselves to an understanding of the political according to which others are understood as co-participants in the common project of living together. Such a commitment means that disobedients must address others as reason-respecting beings and so cannot do violence to them. Violence against property, however, does not per se undermine the commitment to the political. Focusing on the commitment to the political is a helpful corrective to the mistaken Rawlsian focus on fidelity to law and allows political disobedience to be understood as a coherent contestatory practice in a wider variety of contexts.
2. Institutional Legitimacy, The Journal of Political Philosophy 26 (2018), 84-102, doi: 10.1111/jopp.12122
There is an underlying general notion of legitimacy that applies to all institutions, political or otherwise. To see this we must get away from the statist focus on the right to rule and instead, following Allen Buchanan, focus on how legitimacy functions practically. Legitimacy identifies those institutions which have the right to function and need only correlate with a duty not to coercively interfere with that functioning or with institutional insiders' fulfillment of their institutional roles. This general idea can then be applied to any kind of institution, from the local bakery to the state to the European Union, depending on each institution's constitutive functioning and what demands it makes on individuals.
1. In Defense of Content-Independence, Legal Theory 23 (2017), 143-167, doi: 10.1017/S135232521700009X
Discussions of political obligation and political authority have long focused on the idea that the commands of genuine authorities constitute content-independent reasons. Despite its centrality in these debates, the notion of content-independence is unclear and controversial, with some claiming that it is incoherent, useless, or increasingly irrelevant. I clarify content-independence by focusing on how reasons can depend on features of a source or container. I then solve the long-standing puzzle of whether laws constituting content-independent obligations is consistent with the fact that some laws must fail to bind due to their egregiously unjust content. Finally I defend my understanding of content-independence against challenges and show why it retains a place of special importance for questions about the law and political obligation.
(contact me for a draft, or check out my academia.edu page)
On the State's Right to Function
It is generally assumed that states which lack the right to rule do not possess any rights qua states. However, this ignores the possibility of an intermediate state standing that grants states a more limited set of claims, makes more limited demands on subjects, and is attainable according to more limited standards. Theorizing such an intermediate standing is an important part of conceptualizing states as inherently fallible creations that are necessary for the incredibly difficult task of realizing justice. I propose the right to function as such an intermediate state standing. The right to function entails claims against revolution, usurpation, and coercive interference with individual state agents and it correlates to subjects’ reformative obligation. The right to function recognizes the achievement of states that have made important progress towards more justice and achieving the right to rule and protects them in order to enable further improvement. Political philosophy that includes the right to function alongside the right to rule better accounts for states as we actually find them and their role in the pursuit of justice.
Institutional Purpose and Legitimacy
An institution's purpose matters at a fundamental level for its legitimacy. We usually theorize purpose in combination with a specified bundle of features that describe a particular institution. While this is useful and necessary for coming to a final theory of legitimacy for that institution, it is often unclear what role any given feature plays on its own. In this article I theorize the role of institutional purpose on its own, clearing the way for a more general theory of legitimacy that is especially useful when applied to novel institutions. I consider three sets of issues. First, it matters whether the institution's purpose is impermissible, merely permissible, or morally mandatory (although precisely how it matters is more complex than it may appear). Second, sometimes it matters how close to achieving its purpose an institution gets and it matters whether we are considering a hypothetical justifying purpose or an extant purpose. Third, considering extant purpose raises a variety of its own problems which I suggest can only be solved by adopting a more minimalist conception of legitimacy of the sort I defend elsewhere.
The Regulatory Account of Obedience
Obedience is not merely a matter of doing what the authority commands, it is a matter of doing what the authority commands because she commanded you to. However, this latter clause has been widely misunderstood as necessitating a motivational claim. Yet we often obey when we are not motivated to obey by the command. Instead we allow the command to play a regulatory role, using our inconstant motivations as it must in order to protect for obedience even under circumstances where we are not directly motivated to obey. This regulatory account better captures the phenomenology of obedience and better explains our practices of obedience in all their nuance.
[This paper is on hold following a Revise and Resubmit as I reconsider it in light of recent literature.]
WORKS IN PROGRESS
(in descending order of progress)
(contact me for more information)
How to Theorize Institutional Legitimacy
We need theories of legitimacy for institutions of all kinds, from the United Nations, through the state, to the local book club. While political philosophy has given a great deal of attention to state legitimacy, theorizing the legitimacy of other institutions is still in its relative adolescence. When considering other institutions, theorists have tended to either apply theories of state legitimacy or directly theorize the institution de novo. By disaggregating the features of any institution that potentially matter for its legitimacy--most importantly including an institution’s purpose, methods, effects, internal structure, and place within a broader institutional ecology-- I am able to theorize each element independently, providing a general template that guides theories for particular institutions
A Capacious Conception of Civil Disobedience
The philosophical debate over civil disobedience often takes Rawls' account as canonical. This is unfortunate because Rawls' purpose in discussing civil disobedience was extremely narrow. If we are concerned with more than the limits of political obligation, for example if we are concerned with accurately characterizing a robust political practice of contestation under a variety of different circumstances and regime types, then Rawls' discussion is a misleading place to begin. I argue that we should have a more capacious conception of disobedience, rejecting several Rawlsian elements, including non-violence and willingness to accept punishment.
Trustworthiness, Authority, and Expertise
Trustworthiness is central to both the authority-subject relationship and the expert-novice relationship. In both cases the reason-giver (the authority or the expert) must be sufficiently trustworthy in order to successfully give reasons (practical or theoretical) to the reason-receiver (the subject or the novice). I articulate this central feature of these relationships and trace implications of foregrounding trustworthiness in our understanding of authority and expertise
In Defense of Justificatory Exclusion
Joseph Raz famously and controversially proposed exclusion as a novel form of defeat among reasons. Exclusionary force is especially useful for explaining how rules, like laws, operate in practical reasoning. But Raz interprets exclusion motivationally: excluded reasons are ruled out as motivators for subjects. This is, I argue, incorrect. The more natural, and more plausible, interpretation of exclusion is justificatory: excluded reasons do not count in the balance of reasons that determine what subjects ought to do all things considered. Interpreting exclusion as justificatory raises a variety of problems, though, which I attempt to address.
(we could have a pretty good chat!)
How Can Police Brutality Justify Breaking Traffic Laws? The Puzzle of Indirect Civil Disobedience
Authority by Illocutionary Accommodation
Piecemeal Authority and the Right to Function
Dynamic Institutional Legitimacy
The Legitimacy of Enforcement Institutions
How Institutional Design Matters for Genuine Political Authority
Civil Disobedience and Political Trustworthiness
Make Room for Free Riders
Obedience as a Robust Good
On the Institutional Right to do Wrong
Robust Harms and Reconceptualizing Criminal Liability
On the Good of Being Trusted
future research pathways
(let's toss ideas around!)
Humility as a Political Virtue
Using some of my published papers as a foundation, I plan to write a monograph on institutional legitimacy that combines the promise of a template from "How to Theorize Institutional Legitimacy," the normative core of "Institutional Legitimacy," and the detail of "Institutional Purpose and Legitimacy." I first show what unique work a theory of legitimacy performs and why we need one for institutions of any type. I then disaggregate each of the individual components identified as relevant to legitimacy in the first paper, including purpose, methods, effects, internal structure, audience and place within a broader institutional ecology. I theorize each independently, then consider how they fit together in likely combinations and how they change when combined. This template can then be applied to relevant specific cases.
My dissertation was atrociously (in retrospect) entitled "Evidential Modern Political Authority." Under what conditions can a government justifiably punish citizens for disobeying its laws? Many philosophers today think that the government has the moral authority to impose laws only if the citizens actually consent. This amounts to philosophical anarchism because no extant government meets this condition. But we can provide conditions for justifiable punishment and the authority of governments without appealing to moral obligation. I focus on what people may be blamed for doing, and I argue that when the government has trustworthy expertise, it has the moral authority to issue laws that citizens may be justifiably punished for disobeying. This condition, unlike actual consent, can be met. My dissertation advisor was Christopher Heath Wellman.
I now think the theory of authority presented in my dissertation is incomplete at best. For my most recent thoughts on authority, see my papers.
I have been designing and leading my own courses for years and enjoy teaching a wide variety of topics, mostly in value theory broadly construed. My experience includes teaching at public and private universities, small graduate seminars and 300-person intros, and students from a variety of backgrounds, including English majors at a Chinese university for a year. During my final year of graduate school I received the university-wide Dean's Award for Teaching Excellence.
At Goethe Universität I teach one graduate seminar in political theory every semester. These seminars, taught in English and usually enrolling less than twenty students, focus on fostering in-class discussion and encouraging in-depth analysis of readings.
- Philosophy of Civil Disobedience 2016, 2017
- Theories of Cosmopolitanism 2016
- Propaganda and Political Speech 2017
- The Legitimacy of Supranational Institutions 2018 (planned)
At Virginia Tech and Washington University in St. Louis I taught undergraduate courses on a variety of topics in value theory broadly construed:
[Advanced Undergrad (A); Enrollment of 300(*)]
- Global Ethics VT 2015
- Jurisprudence (A) VT 2015, 2014
- Ethical Theory (A) VT 2015, 2014
- Morality and Justice* VT 2014
- Present Moral Problems WUSTL 2013, 2011
- Business Ethics WUSTL 2013
- Global Ethics (online) VT 2008
Also at Virginia Tech and Washington University, as a graduate student I served as a Teaching Assistant in the following courses:
- Intro to Environmental Ethics WUSTL 2014, 2013
- Biomedical Ethics WUSTL 2012, 2010
- Present Moral Problems WUSTL 2011
- Philosophy of Language (A) WUSTL 2011
- Social and Political Philosophy (A) WUSTL 2010
- Intro to Logic and Critical Analysis WUSTL 2010, 2009
- Global Ethics (online) VT 2008
- Morality and Justice* VT 2007 (x2)
- Knowledge and Reality* VT 2006
If you are considering offering me a job, I would be happy to send you my full teaching dossier, including my teaching philosophy statement, sample syllabi, and complete evaluations.
If you have questions about me, my work, my teaching, or anything else, the best way to contact me is via email. My email address is adams [shift-2] em.uni-frankfurt.de.
You can also find me elsewhere: