Hi! I'm Nate. Here's a button that will produce my CV, if you're into that sort of thing (updated October 2018).
Currently I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Philosophy Department of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. Previously I was a Research Fellow with the Justitia Amplificata Centre for Advanced Studies, an interdisciplinary research center in political theory and philosophy at Goethe Universität Frankfurt in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. 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 published and forthcoming in these areas in venues such as The Journal of Political Philosophy, Law and Philosophy, and Legal Theory. On this site you will find more detail about me, my research, my teaching, and how to contact me.
Previously I was also 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, Germany, and now Canada. I've learned 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. It’s nice to be back in time zones where I can occasionally watch some baseball. Sometimes 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.
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 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 taught on the subject in Frankfurt. I have also started research into the implicit enactment of norms, starting from a course I taught on propaganda and recently focusing on the linguistic mechanism of accommodation. I am interested in such mechanisms because they must play a central role in explaining, and so addressing, structural injustices, which by definition are not the simple product of individuals’ intentional actions.
(these are draft versions, please refer to official versions)
6. Legitimacy and Institutional Purpose, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (forthcoming)
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.
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 37 (2018), 549-575, 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.
edited special issues
(I co-edited these volumes and at least co-wrote the introduction)
Special Issue: Legitimacy Beyond the State, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy (forthcoming, expected 2020)
with Antoinette Scherz and Cord Schmelzle
Introduction abstract: The essays collected in this special issue explore what legitimacy means for actors and institutions that do not function like traditional states but nevertheless wield significant power in the global realm. They are connected by the idea that the specific purposes of non-state actors and the contexts in which they operate shape what it means for them to be legitimate and so shape the standards of justification that they have to meet. In this introduction, we develop this guiding methodology further and show how the special issue’s individual contributions apply it to their cases. In the first section, we provide a sketch of our purpose-dependent theory of legitimacy beyond the state. We then highlight two features of the institutional context beyond the state that set it apart from the domestic case: problems of feasibility and the structure of international law.
Special Issue on Philip Pettit’s The Robust Demands of the Good, Moral Philosophy & Politics 5 (2018)
with Susanne Burri
Introduction: Is there anything that unites the diverse goods of love and friendship, of the virtues of character, and of respect? In The Robust Demands of the Good: Ethics with Attachment, Virtue, and Respect (RDG, Oxford University Press, 2015), Philip Pettit argues that the goods of attachment, virtue, and respect all share a common basic structure: they are all, in Pettit’s terminology, ‘robustly demanding’ (RDG, p. 2). Pettit puts forward a novel way of thinking about important goods that he plausibly suggests sit at the core of the good life for a human being. Along the way, he offers a partial defense of a non-orthodox consequentialism that incorporates elements of virtue ethics and Kantianism, as well as offering insights into moral psychology, philosophy of action, and philosophy of mind. In this special issue, five philosophers grapple with the arguments and the implications of Pettit’s book, and Pettit engages with their contributions in a careful and extensive response. In this introduction, we outline the core idea of a ‘robustly demanding’ good, we explain how Pettit employs it, and we sketch the main arguments of the five contributing authors.
(contact me for a draft, or check out my academia.edu page)
Authority, Illocutionary Accommodation, and Social Accommodation
By appeal to the phenomenon of presupposition accommodation, Rae Langton and others have proposed that speakers can gain genuine authority over their audiences when they implicitly claim such authority and the audience accommodates them. I address this argument in two ways. First, I explain where and why we should expect authority within particular conventional practices to be able to be gained by accommodation, considering the balance of values and norms that authority claims implicate. Second, I argue that audiences will often have good reason to accommodate the speaker without ceding authority to them. To explain how audiences can accomplish this, I propose the mechanism of social accommodation. In social accommodation, audiences exercise control over the context in order to bring speakers and their utterances into conformity with background social norms, including moral, legal, and religious norms. Social accommodation explains a way in which audiences can impose their understanding of the prevailing valid norms onto speakers, a way in which norms can subtly and implicitly shape interactions, and a way in which norms can resist challenge.
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.
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)
The Concept of Legitimacy
The concept of legitimacy is central to political philosophy but surprisingly undertheorized on its own terms. I propose a novel understanding of the concept, according to which it governs the domain of role occupation in social practices and it serves the function of enabling social practices to operate. In short, to say that A is legitimate is to say that A is a legitimate B in social practice S. When A is a legitimate B, it attains a normative status within the social practice. This identifies a specific and constrained role for the concept of legitimacy, rejecting the view that legitimacy simply amounts to justification or validity. On my account, legitimacy plays an “entry-level” function for social practices; it is the bouncer at the door. This explains both why legitimacy is crucially important for social practices but also why it is undertheorized. My account also coheres, in broad strokes, with the most developed and insightful literature on legitimacy, namely that concerning state legitimacy. There legitimacy identifies the more minimal standards for some entity to play the role of state in the broader social practice of living together in community, as opposed to justice’s more demanding standards; disagreements about the practice or the state’s role track fundamental disjunctures between theories.
David Lewis argued that scorekeeping in a language game is importantly different from scorekeeping in games like baseball because language follows a rule of accommodation. Accommodation is the phenomenon where a speaker's utterance apparently violates some norm but the audience changes the conversational context such that the speaker is no longer in violation of the norm, allowing the conversation to proceed. This has most commonly been investigated with respect to presuppositions and the norm not to rely on unshared information. Rae Langton and others have extended Lewis' idea to cover the accommodation of illocutionary acts and the norms governing felicitous illocution. I argue that we should continue this extension to the case of what I call social accommodation. Audiences will change the context, negotiating the speaker's utterance, in order to render the speaker in conformity with social norms beyond those governing speech acts per se, including moral, religious, prudential, and many other types of norms. Social accommodation is one way that norms are implicitly imposed and sustained. This is especially important to see in the case of systemic injustice, as one mechanism that contributes to an overall explanation of how norms structure our interactions without intentional imposition by individual oppressors.
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
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
A General Theory of Institutional Legitimacy
Using some of my published papers as a foundation, I am writing 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 "Legitimacy and Institutional Purpose." 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, focusing on three broad categories: what an institution does, how it does it, and where it does it. I theorize the components 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 understanding of 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 McMaster I'm teaching two courses in the fall of 2018. I'm happy to return to teaching undergraduate courses and I'm excited to be trying something new by focusing on argument maps, using the tools at mindmup.com.
Below are descriptions of every class I’ve taught as the professor. Upon request, I also have a full teaching dossier available that includes my teaching statement, descriptions of classes I TA’d for, and evaluations from my VT courses.
History of Political Philosophy, McMaster University, Fall 2018
A second-year course for general education students. We complete a general historical survey of canonical figures in Western political philosophy, starting with Plato and Aristotle, focusing on social contract theory, and ending in the nineteenth century with Mill and Marx. While tracing historical conversations, we also look at their implications for our contemporary political debates. Two meetings per week are devoted to lecture, one per week to collaboratively mapping arguments with an online tool.
Philosophy of Constitutional Law, McMaster University, Fall 2018
An advanced course for undergraduates in their final year of the Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law program as well as graduate students. The first half of the semester is devoted to addressing some of the foundational issues in constitutionalism, including the authority of constitutions and theories of interpretation. In the second half, we read a newly published book in philosophy of constitutional law, giving many of the undergraduates their first opportunity to read a single-authored philosophy book in its entirety. This course is writing intensive, with regular reconstructions and at least two longer research papers, with the choice to revise and write up to five.
The Legitimacy of Supranational Institutions, Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Sommersemester 2018
A graduate seminar investigating the normative legitimacy of supranational institutions in general. We look at some specific cases that have received attention by theorists, including the legitimacy of the United Nations, European Union, international courts, and international NGOs. We also consider the general question of what legitimacy beyond the state means and how it differs from state legitimacy in both concept and normative conditions.
Propaganda and Political Speech, Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Wintersemester 2017
A graduate seminar concerning the nature of propaganda, including what propaganda is, the mechanisms by which it works, the threat it poses to democratic governance and legitimacy, and potential responses to that threat. Focused around Jason Stanley’s recent book How Propaganda Works.
Theories of Cosmopolitanism, Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Wintersemester 2016
A graduate seminar on theories of political cosmopolitanism, understood as the position that justice demands some kind of supranational institutional structure, ranging from distributed coordinative institutions to a single world state. We began with statist challenges to the extension of justice beyond the state and read various theorists in order of the degree of complexity and authority of proposed supranational institutions.
Philosophy of Civil Disobedience, Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Sommersemester 2017; Sommersemester 2016
A graduate seminar on various philosophical theories of civil disobedience, starting with historical sources including Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, moving through Rawls and the Anglophone debate of the 1960s and 70s, culminating in contemporary theorizing of Brownlee, Scheuerman, and others. In addition to broad theories, we considered particular contemporary problems like whether and how civil disobedience applies to the digital realm and to government whistleblowing.
Jurisprudence, Virginia Tech (PHIL 4334), Spring 2015; Fall 2014
An upper-divisional undergraduate course with few philosophy prerequisites. Students were mostly political science and pre-law majors. I designed this course in such a way as to engage non-philosophy majors by focusing on intuitively compelling yet fundamental issues in the philosophy of law, especially whether citizens have a duty to obey the law and the justification of punishment. This was a writing-intensive course so included regular writing assignments and several papers.
Ethical Theory, Virginia Tech (PHIL 3314), Spring 2015; Fall 2014
An upper-divisional undergraduate course, mostly non-majors, focused on detailed examination of the major ethical theories, after students have been introduced to moral issues in introductory courses. We investigated major strains of deontology, consequentialism, and virtue theory. In each case we considered the historical foundations of the theory, its contemporary expressions and variations, and discussed major strengths and weaknesses. Some passing discussions of issues in metaethics, applied ethics, and axiology.
Global Ethics, Virginia Tech (PHIL 2304), Spring 2015; Summer 2008 (online)
A survey of ethical issues surrounding international relations and the forces of cultural and economic globalization. We touched on problems in just war theory, international aid, global poverty, and climate change, among others. The 2015 course included many members of the Corps of Cadets and the class chose drone warfare as the open topic for the final few sessions. The 2008 course was entirely online and included weekly readings, pre-recorded lectures, and an active online discussion board.
Morality and Justice, Virginia Tech (PHIL 1304), Fall 2014
A large introductory course that fulfills an area requirement in the liberal arts, with an enrollment of three hundred, mostly in their first year and undecided on major. It met twice weekly in a large lecture hall and then once a week in smaller, twenty-five student discussion sections led by four graduate teaching assistants. After a brief overview of major ethical theories, the majority of the course focused on contemporary moral issues such as abortion and drug use and policy. The content of the course is flexible to account for topical issues, at least one of which was up to the determination of the students. This semester included discussions of universal healthcare and gun control. The two weekly lectures generally set up contrasting viewpoints, allowing the final, smaller meeting of the week to focus on peer discussion about the contested issue.
Business Ethics, Washington University in St. Louis (U22 234), Summer 2013
A small evening course for non-traditional students. Many of these students were business professionals, actively employed full-time in a variety of fields. Most were business majors and none were philosophy majors. This course touched on a wide variety of the most important issues in business ethics, ranging from the underlying morality of the market to workplace dynamics. The topics were sensitive to the students’ concerns as professionals and included some subjects of contemporary concern, including using the case of Edward Snowden as a frame for a discussion of the ethics of whistleblowing.
Present Moral Problems, Washington University in St. Louis (U22 231), Spring 2013; Summer 2011
An introduction to contemporary moral issues, which for the most part intentionally bypassed ethical theory. The class engaged conflicting viewpoints on moral issues that were of both societal and personal interest, including debates over the nature of marriage, euthanasia, abortion, and others. These classes were very small, five students or less. This allowed me a greater degree of personal engagement and discussion that often focused on moral choices that students had personally encountered.
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 adamsn4 [shift-2] mcmaster.ca. My Frankfurt email was deactivated in early August, 2018, so please reach out to me at my new email if you haven't had a response from me.
You can also find me elsewhere: