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Pacifist and Feminist Approaches to Violence

What would it take for us to live together without war and large-scale violence? What do we lose when we assume that wars and large-scale violence are inevitable? Must we meet violence with violence? My work in social and political philosophy, and in ethics, engages with these questions; and my methodology is influenced by feminist and critical race approaches. I show how hope, trust, and solidarity help to orient us towards a nonviolent and peaceful future, and I raise critical questions about the necessity and utility of using violence as a response to violence.


Conflict, in the interpersonal, political, and international contexts, is to be expected. In situations of conflict, the temptation or instinct is often to focus narrowly on how best to defend oneself or one’s interests. In American society, for example, which is marked by permissive gun ownership laws and shocking gun violence, rates of gun ownership are increasing as people seek to defend themselves and their loved ones. Rising gun ownership is part of a larger trend, towards decreasing willingness to trust and to expose ourselves to certain kinds of risks. Against this trend, my work explores why we should reason about what to do in situations of conflict (or potential conflict) – even under conditions of uncertainty and danger – from a more open posture that rejects the assumption that violence is inevitable.


This alternative, more open posture requires that we treat conflict as something that can be productive, rather than as something we should avoid or fear. If we can escape thinking in terms of a binary logic of winners and losers, where we must first defend or protect ourselves against others, we can focus on a wider set of questions and see a different set of possibilities. Hobbes famously warned that the person who trusts and otherwise acts morally, without assurances that others will act trustworthily and morally in turn, “make[s] himself a prey to others, and procure[s] his own certain ruin.” It is true that there is always the possibility that our hopes will be dashed, that our trust will be betrayed, and that our solidary acts will not be reciprocated. But when we reason about how to interact with others, guided by the principle of trying to minimize or lower personal exposure to risk, this can distort our relationships with them, making certain relationships impossible for us. We create a circle in which our fears lead us to act in ways that actualize, or contribute to, the outcomes we fear, which then serve to justify our initial fears. And this has the effect of narrowing the kinds of future that we can bring about. I think that the fact of risk does not settle the question of what a person should do, under situations of uncertainty and danger. In particular, I draw our attention to the moral, social, and political goods that become possible for us only if we are willing to bear certain risks. Should we take the risk for these goods?


The first strand of my research makes clearer what the goods at issue are: hopes for the future, trust in each other, and solidarity (including with those with whom we disagree). The second strand shifts our attention to the costs involved in failing to take the risk on hoping for a peaceful future, or in failing to take the risk on trusting others. Finally, the third strand of my research weaves together with the first two, to show that if we seek a peaceful world as our end, we must choose nonviolence as our means.


Published Papers

"The Problem with Preparing to Kill in Self-Defense," Journal of Applied Philosophy (online first)

In a society marked by liberal gun ownership laws, and an increasingly militarized police force, how should we think about cases where a homeowner shoots a person who has mistakenly knocked on the wrong door, or where a police officer shoots someone who is unarmed? The general tendency – by shooters, courts, and many observers – is to use the framework of self-defense. However, as I will argue, relying on the framework of self-defense is inappropriate in these cases, because theories of self-defensive killing are built-up around a very specific type of case, namely, a random, sudden, one-off encounter between roughly equally matched strangers. When a person who acts in self-defense has undertaken certain preparations to kill in self-defense – such as buying a gun, or undergoing certain kinds of training – they transform what would have been defensive violence into offensive violence. But because the self-defense framework distinguishes only between defensive and aggressive violence, it cannot easily register the unique moral features of offensive violence. Relying on the self-defense framework, then, produces judgments that are overly permissive of killings by gun owners and police, masking them as self-defensive when in fact they are much more morally fraught.

Narrowing the Gap Between Anti-Militarism and Pacifism,” The Acorn: Philosophical Studies in Pacifism and Nonviolence 23,

            no. 1/2 (2023): 104–109

"Trust and Contingency Plans," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 52, no. 7 (2022): 689-699

Trusting relationships are both valuable and risky. Where the risks are high, it might seem rational to try to mitigate the risks while still enjoying the benefits of the trusting relationship, by forming a contingency plan. A contingency plan involves contingent punishments for defection, which are meant to encourage the trusted partner to act trustworthily. (Some prenuptial agreements might function in this way.) I argue, however, that such contingency plans suffer from an internal tension wherein the contingency planner both seeks and undermines a particular level (or kind) of trust. There are two problems in particular: one, the planner fails to see the trusted partner as sincerely engaged in the relationship, and two, the planner separates herself out from their joint project by seeing her flourishing as separate from her partner’s. Contingency plans, then, are not just about the future; they cast a moral shadow on what we are doing now.


"Talking to Children About War," Journal of Pacifism and Nonviolence 1, no. 1 (2023): 52-64 

I explore the question of how we should talk to children about war. From a young age, children are exposed to scenarios of violence (for example, in books, toys, and advertisements). My conjecture is that we do this in order to teach children to enjoy the “good” kind of violence and to abhor the “bad” kind. We teach children that defensive war is the good kind of violence, and aggressive war is the bad kind. But, I argue, if we raise children in the expectation of war, and shape their moral development by teaching them that killing is sometimes necessary and good, we mold their moral personalities and constrain their imagination in ways that make it difficult for them to seek genuine peace.

"Hoping for Peace," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 98, no. 2 (2020): 211-221

When the odds of achieving world peace seem so long, do hopes for peace amount to anything more than wishful thinking? In this paper, I introduce the idea of meaningful hope, which can help us to understand hopes for peace as genuine hopes. When we act on meaningful hope, we draw on the value of the hoped-for future, in order to give our hopeful activities a meaning they would not otherwise have had. If my account is true, then meaningful hope, by loosening the grip that non-ideal conditions hold over how we live, gives us a way to move towards living a life of our choosing.

"Pacific Resistance: A Moral Alternative to Defensive War," Social Theory & Practice 40, no. 1 (2018): 1-20

It is widely believed that some wars are just, and that the paradigm case of a just war is a defensive war. A familiar strategy used to justify defensive war is to infer its permissibility from the case of self-defensive killing. I show, however, that the permission to defend oneself does not justify killing, but instead calls for nonviolent resistance. I conclude that on the account of self-defense I develop, the appropriate way to respond to a war of aggression is not by prosecuting a defensive war, but by engaging in a form of nonviolence I call pacific resistance.   

Works in Progress

"What is the Aim of a Just War?" (under review)

(This paper won the APA's Frank Chapman Sharp Memorial Prize for best unpublished work on the philosophy of war and peace in 2021.)

Just war theory has long held that the aim of a just war is peace, and not victory. Peace, however, does not feature in either of the two traditional pillars of just war theory: jus ad bellum (which governs the conditions under which we may go to war) and jus in bello (which governs the scope and manner of killing in war). This paper examines the question, which has so far been ignored in the literature, of how exactly just war theory orients a war towards peace. Establishing this foundational claim, which I will refer to as the Peace Claim, is crucial in order for just war theory to hold the middle ground between its two main rivals, realism (which holds that we must pragmatically pursue victory) and pacifism (which holds that we must nonviolently pursue peace).

"Fight Till the End? How to Think About Surrender and Defensive War" (under review)

What should a state do if it is aggressed against, but cannot win a defensive war? While just war theorists have discussed the question of when and how to end a defensive war, a major underlying assumption is that the state can win, is winning, or has won its defensive war. But what if the state cannot win, is losing, or has lost? Then it seems that there are two options: (1) the state can choose to fight, risking violation of the injunction against fighting futile wars; or (2) the state can choose to surrender, which seems to involve a failure of self-respect and a failure to uphold the principle against aggression. I argue that under these circumstances, states should take seriously a different framework – nonviolent resistance. I show how nonviolent resistance offers a productive solution, making nonviolence not only a permissible option, but a good one, as well.

"On the Need for Civic Solidarity"

In this paper, I examine what might explain the recent proliferation of calls for solidarity. I begin with a brief overview of how solidarity has been traditionally understood, and offer a conjecture for why the American liberal tradition adopted liberté and égalité, but rejected fraternité. I argue that a well-ordered society requires not only justice, but also solidarity, for two reasons. First, solidarity offers us a way to break out of social hierarchies that are imposed on us. Solidarity is a way for members of privileged and oppressed social groups to act together as social and political equals. And second, solidarity attunes us to the social/political needs of others that might not be captured by claims of justice.

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