Research Early Career Research Spotlight: Ryan Muldoon

Early Career Research Spotlight: Ryan Muldoon

This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of Ryan Muldoon. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. His teaching and research interests include social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, epistemology, and ethics. He has published pieces in Philosophical Studies and Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Your work is focused on the role diversity plays in our society, and how significant diversity is.  Can you begin by describing how you understand diversity, including how it connects to the understanding of diversity found in other fields (biology, sociology, politics, etc.)?

You are right to point out that there are many different ways that diversity can manifest itself.  As Sen pointed out with the idea of equality, diversity by itself is something of an empty term.  In my work, I focus on what I call perspectival diversity – that is, that reasoners can categorize the stuff in the world in a wide variety of ways.  In more formal terms, the partitions set over state space can be quite different between people or groups.  Economists and philosophers have tended to assume that everyone sees the world in the same ways, and attends to the same evidence in the same ways, but there is a lot of empirical evidence that we don’t do this.  In my view, this is prior to the diversity of values, but is importantly connected to it.  How we interpret the world can favor certain ways of valuing over others, but in political discussions we tend to only see the value diversity, and not notice the perspectival diversity.  This can lead us to be befuddled as to why our interlocutor holds what looks to us to be very strange values, and can make it easy for us to ascribe bad motives to them.  But it’s often the case that what we “see”—what categories we are using and what evidence we are attending to—is different than our interlocutor.  So we might well be talking past each other until we realize what’s going on.  This distinction between perspectival and value diversity is also important in face of value agreement – we can very easily want the same thing for very different reasons.  I think it is quite important to discover those values or political objectives that can be supported by a variety of different perspectives, rather than those that might be supported by many people, but who all share the same reasoning.

One place you discuss the question of diversity is in your co-authored paper on Rawls’ “veil of ignorance,” where you and your colleagues say that disagreement can persist even when you remove self-interest.  What implications does it have for Rawls’ theory, and for our society, that disagreement can survive even when you have no personal stake in the decision being made?

The way we often think of disagreement—that it solely stems from competing interests—can explain some of our (moral, political) disagreements, but there are plenty of areas where there we can disagree even when there isn’t any (self-) interest at stake.  We can have honest disagreements about how to carve up the world.  For instance, an area that economists pushed back on Rawls on after A Theory of Justice came out was on time preferences.  Should a theory of justice factor in ten generations from now?  A hundred?  A thousand?  Likewise, for climate policy, how far in the future are we worried about? Insofar as there are trade-offs between regions of the world or species (or genus, etc), how do we weigh those?  Even more basically, what’s the stuff that we are tracking, if we’re just talking about people?  Rawls argues for primary goods.  But Sen has a pretty convincing argument that we might want to track capabilities rather than primary goods.  Undoubtedly we can come up with other basic units to track as well.  Behind the veil of ignorance, there’s no reason why people couldn’t have a perfectly sensible disagreement about these questions, even without knowing what their interests are.  In that paper, and in my book (Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance), I’ve argued that these kinds of disagreements do a fair amount of damage to veil of ignorance-style justification strategies.  Either the theorist is going to have to restrict the kinds of perspectives allowed to get the result that she is looking for, or the outcome is going to be dependent on the makeup of the individuals behind the veil, as the combination of perspectives they hold will do a fair amount of work in determining what they can come to agree on.  Either way, the procedure doesn’t look so good, given what it is supposed to do.  If we massively restrict the kinds of agents that can participate, then we are narrowing the scope of justification only to those people who share in a particular perspective.  This isn’t what we want out of a tool that is supposedly neutral.  Alternatively, if we don’t restrict, then we don’t get a general answer – the same mechanism can have different outcomes depending on the population, so we can’t use one instance of it as a good justification that has any kind of claim of generality or universal application. So I think we’re left with the idea that veil of ignorance approaches are less useful than we thought.  We can’t get away from diversity that easily.

I think this is a nice case where we can see that diversity is more fundamental than it has often been treated in political philosophy.  We can’t just abstract up a level and have it go away.  You have to actually engage with it.

How did you come to study this topic?  And where has this project led you over time (e.g. your work with the World Bank)?

The biographical answer is that I grew up in a hippie kind of town (Amherst, Massachusetts) where a fundamental value was celebrating religious and ethnic diversity.  I was fortunate to grow up in such a place.  At the same time, however, I noticed that there was pretty rigid enforcement of political values – the local debate was mostly between left-Democrat and Green Party people, and there wasn’t a lot of acceptance of, say, conservative ideas, or even mainstream economics.  I grew up thinking that economics was mostly about justifying injustice.  While I’m grateful for being raised to appreciate and celebrate identity diversity, I’m glad that I came around to the idea that appreciating ideological diversity is a good idea too.

The more intellectual answer is that I started thinking about these issues in a more formal way when I went to a wonderful summer program held by the Santa Fe Institute on complex systems.  I started learning about using agent-based models to examine social dynamics, but got worried that the agents in the models were pretty similar to each other (and in normal analytic models in economics they are even more similar).  So I wanted to think about what happens when agents are different – they learn through different mechanisms, they respond to different evidence, they put up with difference differently, etc.  In asking the instructors about that, I got exposed to Scott Page’s work, and that got me thinking about perspectival diversity.  My advisor, Cristina Bicchieri, gave me a lot of leeway to develop my ideas while also giving me crucial guidance and exposure to the social sciences that have really shaped how I think about this stuff.  Another inspiration for my post-PhD work has been the work of Jerry Gaus and his students. Jerry and I approach things a bit differently, but we’re worried about a similar set of issues, and his work is incredibly good.  Both Cristina and Jerry are excellent examples of philosophers who pay a lot of attention to the social sciences, and ground their work in clear problems that we face.  I try and do the same in my work.

I got involved with the World Bank (and UNICEF before that) because of my work in social norms, where I have been trained by Cristina.  Cristina has been working with development agencies for a number of years, and when the 2015 World Development Report team was developing, I was asked to be a part of it.  That report was on “Mind, Society and Behavior,” and so I was involved both for social norms but also because the idea of perspective was important in the report.  The goal of the report was to show how behavioral science can be applied to problems of development.  Social norms are a big part of that – it is often assumed in policy that people are making individual decisions following the standard rational actor model.  But for lots of behaviors, we are all making social decisions – we respond to what we see others doing, and what we think they want us to do.  One of the most important parts of the Report, and what I’m most proud of us for, is the third section, where we turn the behavioral lessons toward policy makers, and not just the recipients of aid.  We show that policymakers are just as likely to show cognitive bias and just as likely to be in the thrall of a social norm as the global poor.  But also importantly, we show that policymakers often have a very different perspective on the social context of poverty than what the poor have for themselves, and this can cause problems in how we design development interventions.  Paying attention to diverse perspectives can mean the difference between good policy and really bad policy, even when everyone means well and has the best possible intentions.

You mention the work of Scott Page.  I have used his work too, as the necessity of being able to model diverse agents is crucial to grasping politics effectively, as you mention.  Can you explain how you, and others that influenced you, develop diverse agent models in your work?

The boring answer is that it depends.  “Diverse” can mean a lot of things, and depending on the kind of question you are asking, it is useful to think about what you are trying to capture when you’re modeling a social group.  On one hand, you might want to just be doing some kind of robustness analysis – you want to make sure that your model’s results aren’t simply of an artifact of the assumptions that you’re making in the model.  So, you might look to change things like the structure of interaction, the learning rules that agents use, and the parameters that tune their decision-making.  That sort of work is less about exploring diversity and more about just being a reasonably responsible modeler.

Typically in my models I explore one kind of diversity and hold other kinds fixed, simply so I can get a sense of what’s going on.  So, perhaps in one model different agents use different learning rules, in another they might have different utility functions, and in another they “see” different sources of evidence.

Honestly, models that capture diverse agents have only been all that practical for a dozen or two years.  Doing analytic work with diverse agents is in general extremely demanding, unless the problem they are solving is easy or there are convenient symmetries to exploit.  To do interesting stuff, you want to use a computational model, and even there the tendency is to use pretty similar agents (at least as they are initialized), or have defined group types.  As computer power has gotten cheaper and more people have learned to write agent-based models, there has been more experimentation into diverse agents.  The challenge as a modeler is to introduce enough diversity for you to capture something interesting about the world, but not so much that you can’t figure out what’s going on in the model.  Simpler models tend to be better on that front.  So most modelers try and pick the one or two things they want to explore carefully, and hold the rest fixed.

I would love to see more philosophers pick up the tools of agent-based modeling and use them in their work, even if they just use them as an intuition pump.  Social and political life is a complex adaptive system (in the formal sense).  Thought experiments aren’t going to be very good tools – we tend to assume linearity, and that’s not a very good assumption in social systems.  Since you more or less know what kind of outcome you want to be true, running a thought experiment in your own mind is dangerous – it’s too easy to confirm one’s priors.  Computation models at least force you to be aware of your assumptions, and can often surprise you with outcomes.  It’s a good bit of discipline for one’s thinking.

I’ve been working on a paper regarding the alt-right, which takes as axiomatic the principle that a nation must be built on similitude (they emphasize white male and Western values).  How does your work on diversity address the political notion of the “nation” operative in these types of discussions?

My research program has a few resources that I think can be helpful in thinking about this.  Most basically, as I discuss in my book, a single perspective is going to be pretty lousy as a guide to all of the sorts of political problems a nation might face.  Perspectives limit inputs and shape how one sees the world around them.  In not too long, there are going to be political challenges that a single perspective is just going to fail on.  You aren’t going to serve yourself well if you limit perspectives that much.

That said, concepts like “nation” or “citizen” are hugely loaded in our actual politics.  We have a perennial discussion of who a “real American” is.  I think this in part stems from the fact that we develop our conceptions of what a citizen is and what kinds of qualities or values are associated with that conception in very different sandboxes – rural environments have very different problems and resources than urban ones, and the Rust Belt is rather different from the Sun Belt and both are still different from other, non-Belt, regions of the country.  We tend to imagine that our local environment is a good model for the national environment, and we’re surprised when we see people espousing positions or values that make no sense to us given the context that we’re used to.  So we assume they aren’t “real” or they are somehow offering illicit positions.

While I don’t have much sympathy for “alt-right” folks, I suspect they came to their positions from some kind of sense of relative loss.  It’s true that, at least compared to decades ago, the relative status of white guys has gone down.  Women’s workforce participation has shot up since the 50’s, while male workforce participation has gone down some.  Ethnic minorities are a lot more likely today to hold positions of wealth and prestige, and all of this happened during a period of large-scale economic changes.  While white guys as a class remain in a quite privileged position compared to other groups, it’s not too hard to see how some white guys can imagine that their lives would have been better a few decades ago, when their social position was even more dominant.  Relative loss is still a loss.  I tend to think that this was a loss of something that this class of people never had justifiable title to, but I think people make a mistake when they say it isn’t a loss.  The alt-right view of the world, insofar as I understand it, essentially argues that that earlier social position was correct and it was justified, as white males more or less created all of the relevant sources of value, and so it is right for them to capture that value.  It is a worldview that provides a justification for a privileged social position that was lacking a modern justification.

That aside, my work on social norms suggests to me that it is a bit dangerous to make too much of the alt-right folks.  To the best of my knowledge, the alt-right is a pretty tiny sliver of the population.  But social movements grow when people think that they are bigger than they are.  When you’re a mostly online movement, it is easier to appear bigger than you are, because it’s easy to make up extra twitter accounts, or program bots to comment on websites and whatnot.  That large online footprint motivates media coverage and think-pieces on this growing movement, which socially validates to people on the margin that maybe this is a normal kind of thing to join up with because lots of people are doing it.  But really, it’s a pretty small group of people that have figured out how to get some attention for themselves. In terms of numbers, it’s probably more worth paying attention to the political views of World of Warcraft players or yoga enthusiasts.  I take it that the point of the re-branding exercise, from “white supremacist” to “alt-right”, is to grow their numbers and seem more normal.  No reason to help them along.

What are your future plans for this project?

My book recently came out, and that was important for laying out the big picture of how I see social contract theory advancing, and how to think about a political philosophy that takes diversity as a central concern.  Now I am working on building on that foundation in a couple ways.  I am working on a new book project that explores the ways that our social, environmental and built environments shape our perspectives and values.  There’s just the bare descriptive component of showing that this really does happen, but then the rather exciting normative work of arguing what we should do in light of this.  One big takeaway that I aim to develop is that lots of seemingly “boring” and inconsequential stuff, like municipal zoning codes and population density is actually enormously important for political philosophy.  Philosophers tend to abstract away from all of this, but these things shape who we are and how we treat each other.  They tell us what kinds of problems count as political problems, and they shape the options we have for dealing with them.  I don’t think it’s an accident that rural voters identify very different challenges than urban voters during elections, and I don’t think it’s an accident that we have a debate about what a “Real American” is, which is in part couched in different conceptions of what a citizen is.  Another strand of what I’m working on going forward is thinking about the ways that democracy and liberal theory more broadly need diversity to make sense of themselves.  Too often diversity is framed as the problem that we use liberalism to solve, but I think that lots of our liberal commitments can only be realized in a suitably diverse environment.  So I’m exploring that in a few papers that I’m working on.

Are there particular ways you’ve been able to use your research to influence other parts of your life (teaching, activism, service, etc.)?

As I mentioned, I do some work in development policy, and I think one of the reasons that I continue to be valuable to the teams that I work with is that I always have this sensitivity to perspectives in the back of my mind.  Not only does it help me navigate interdisciplinary collaborations, but I’d like to think that it at least reminds me that I need to do some work in thinking about how a beneficiary of a policy would interpret what we’re trying to do.  I think this directly translates into my teaching goals as well.  I’m fortunate to be teaching students who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and a big part of my job is to draw that out in discussion.  College is one of the best moments for people to learn about other perspectives, and develop new ones, and so I do my best to allow students to productively engage each other bringing these different perspectives to the table.  It’s really easy to demonize someone you disagree with, but it’s a lot more useful if you try and understand how they see the disagreement.  That’s hard and frustrating, but a lot more rewarding if you can get it right.  I’m under no illusion that my students are going to be able to name the three formulations of the Categorical Imperative, or even who came up with them, a few years after having taken one of my courses.  But it is my hope that these skills for engaging with people with different perspectives will stick around.


You can ask Ryan questions about his work in the comments section below.


The purpose of the early-career research spotlight is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.

If you know of an early-career researcher doing interesting work, nominate them for our research spotlight series through the submission form here. Our goal is to cover early-career research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members.


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