Carnegie Mellon University
Social and Political Philosophy

Social and Political Philosophy

Social and political philosophy asks how institutions governing collective life ought to be arranged and why.  Historically, political philosophers have focused attention on the nation-state, asking how shared decision-making should be conducted, what limits there should be on state power, what justice demands in terms of the distribution of the benefits from social cooperation, and what is the nature and value of freedom.  As globalization has increased, political philosophers have increasingly turned their attention to questions about the nature and kinds of institutions that should govern international political and nonpolitical interactions.  Members of the CMU philosophy department have interests spanning both domestic and international political philosophy.  Additionally, several of our faculty engage in what might usefully be called “applied political philosophy”, applying tools and frameworks from political philosophy in ways that overlap with the department’s strengths in applied ethics.

Alex John London, David Danks, and Danielle Wenner all conduct research on the ethical and policy issues surrounding the development and dissemination of novel technologies.  London and Wenner have both focused on developments in medicine and biotechnology, while Danks and London have both explored the policy implications of new developments in artificial intelligence, and Danks has looked in particular at the nature of biases within algorithmic decision-making.

Wenner, London, and Robert Cavalier (emeritus) each have research interests in the nature of democratic legitimacy and the stability of liberal, democratic societies.  Wenner has focused on the nature of democratic decision-making and the tension between ideal democratic theory and social and behavioral barriers to effective group deliberations.  London is interested in how members of pluralistic societies can identify shared interests for the purposes justifying state action, especially in the particular contexts of disaster preparedness and responses to public health emergencies.

London and Wenner have both also written about the nature of just institutions in international contexts.  Wenner has written about the nature of exploitation and how to conceptualize relationships between high- and low-income parties in global labor markets, transnational surrogacy arrangements, and development economics research.  Both London and Wenner have developed similar themes related to the conduct of clinical research in low-income and other vulnerable populations.

Kevin Zollman's research focuses on the interaction between ethics and economics. His work uses tools from economic modeling (decision and game theory in particular) to enrich our moral theories and deepen our understanding of ethical behavior. He has written on the evolution of cooperation, on risk in Kantian ethics, and on the game theory behind ethical judgments.