Ben Laurence

Ben Laurence is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the College (beginning Autumn 2011). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008, and his B.A. from Reed College in 1998. His areas of specialization are in political philosophy and ethics, including the history of moral and political philosophy, but he also has strong interests in the philosophy of action and human rights.

Laurence’s research focuses on defending the project of ideal theory, the attempt to provide an account of the ideal or fully just political community. He is currently exploring the ways in which certain strands of Liberalism are in tension with this project. He is also working on the questions of what economic organizations are compatible with a fully just society, and why a fully just society must be a democracy. 



Ben Laurence discusses collective action on "Elucidations", the Dept. of Philosophy podcast series - click here


office: Stuart 231-B
office hours: On leave 2013-2014
office phone: 773/702-8458


In the News

"In the Engine Room of Reality: Philosophy’s junior faculty members discuss their work, inspiration, and teaching" by Courtney C. W. Guerra, AB’05 Tableau, Spring 2012 - Link


Selected Publications

  • "The Responsibility-Form of Rights and Practical Capacities" forthcoming in Arizona State Law Journal (PDF)
  • An Anscombean Approach to Collective Action, forthcoming in Anscombe's Intention (Harvard University Press, 2010) edited by Jennifer Hornsby, Frederick Stoutland, and Anton Ford (PDF)

Work in progress

  • "Material Resources in Ideal Theory" (PDF)
  • "What is Right in Isaiah Berlin's Tragic Vision of Politics?", available upon request
  • "Plato on the Political Nature of the Human Being" (with Anton Ford), available upon request

Recent & Upcoming Courses

41150. Political Liberalism. Political Liberalism is the view that the principles of justice must be acceptable to reasonable citizens who disagree with one another on basic questions of morality and religion. In this course we will explore whether a commitment to Political Liberalism is compatible with a commitment to ideal theory, the aspiration to provide an account of the ideal political community. On the face of it there seems to be a tension, for the widespread acceptance of false practical doctrines seems pretty squarely non-ideal. On the other hand, defenders of Political Liberalism have argued that the persistence of practical error is inevitable given a commitment to a free society, and surely, we might think, the ideal political community is free. Can and should this circle be squared? And if not, what are we to say about the freedom of an ideal society? Authors to be read include especially John Rawls, but also Martha Nussbaum, Joshua Cohen, Joseph Raz, David Estlund and others. (I) Spring 2012.

21580/31580. Libertarianism. Is capitalism justified on the grounds of natural liberty? Is the legitimate exercise of political power limited by our pre-political rights, especially our property rights? Indeed, is the sole function of a just government to safeguard such rights? We will work towards answers to these questions by evaluating the tradition in political philosophy that has tended to answer them in the affirmative—Libertarianism. We will begin with John Locke, the father of this tradition, devoting several weeks to a close reading of his Second Treatise of Government. We will attend to both his method and his substantive political conclusions. We will consider his distinctive use of a social contract thought experiment involving a moralized conception of practical reason, as well as his defense of private property and limited government. We will then consider the works of contemporary Libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Michael Otsuka who take inspiration from Locke’s method but diverge sharply from one another in their political conclusions. Finally, we will consider contemporary critics of the entire tradition, such as G.A. Cohen, and consider the merits of alternative approaches within the social contract tradition. (A) (I) Winter 2012. Sylabus

21700/31600. Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. (=HMRT 20100/30100, HIST 29301/39301, LLSO 25100, INRE 31600, LAWS 41200, MAPH 40000) Human rights are claims of justice that hold merely in virtue of our shared humanity. In this course we will explore philosophical theories of this elementary and crucial form of justice. Among topics to be considered are the role that dignity and humanity play in grounding such rights, their relation to political and economic institutions, and the distinction between duties of justice and claims of charity or humanitarian aid. Finally we will consider the application of such theories to concrete, problematic and pressing problems, such as global poverty, torture and genocide. (A) Spring 2009, Autumn 2011. Syllabus

21000. Introduction to Ethics. According to John Stuart Mill, ethics is the study of the first principles of morality, which provide us with an answer to the question “How should one live? ” In this course we will evaluate consequentialism as an answer to this question: the view that the first principle of morality serves to rank states of the world, demanding that we produce the best state of world possible. We will begin with Bentham’s classic defense of the Greatest Happiness Principle, and will also consider Mill's attempt to square that principle with idea of justice. We will then consider the arguments of several recent critics that consequentialism is incompatible with justice (Robert Nozick and Philippa Foot) or integrity (Bernard Williams) and attempts by friends of consequentialisms (Samuel Sheffler) to revise their doctrines so as to defuse some of these criticisms. We will end the course by considering more radical attempts to undermine consequentialism, and one alternate approach to ethics: neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics. Winter 2009.

20703/30703. The Social Contract Theorists. In this course we will consider the answers given to the fundamental questions of political philosophy by the three founding figures of the social contract tradition: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We will consider, among other things, their differing approaches to the relationship between practical reason, morality and politics; the role of the concept of human nature in political philosophy; their attitudes to the idea of a "limit" to sovereign authority; their accounts of the concepts of justice and freedom; and their discussions of private property. Throughout we will be focused on making explicit and evaluating the viability of a social contract approach to political philosophy. Spring 2009.