University of California, San Diego
Associate Professor, Political Science
Faculty Affiliate, Philosophy

My research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of political philosophy, philosophy of social science, and political economy. My main project uses resources from formal choice theory to model core features of the arguments theorists give to justify normative political principles. This model yields insights regarding (among other things) the possibilities for coherent normative evaluations and the ways in which feasibility considerations constrain normative judgments. These insights motivate adoption of an approach to normative political theory that focuses on analyzing and overcoming institutional failures (as opposed to the conventional practice of analyzing institutional ideals). I am also interested in sorting out what we can learn about the nature and value of justice from formal models of collective choice, social bargaining, and institutional development.

Before arriving at UCSD, I was Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University.

PhD (2011), Philosophy, University of Michigan
MA (2011), Political Science, University of Michigan
MA (2006), Philosophy, Texas A&M University
BA (2004), Philosophy and History, Brock University


Items listed in reverse chronological order of publication.

Peer-reviewed articles.

Nicholas Southwood and David Wiens, " 'Actual' Does Not Imply 'Feasible' ", Philosophical Studies 173, no. 11 (2016): 3037–3060.

Abstract. The familiar complaint that some ambitious proposal is infeasible naturally invites the following response: Once upon a time, the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of women seemed infeasible, yet these things were actually achieved. Presumably, then, many of those things that seem infeasible in our own time may well be achieved too and, thus, turn out to have been perfectly feasible after all. The Appeal to History, as we call it, is a bad argument. It is not true that if some desirable state of affairs was actually achieved, then it was feasible that it was achieved. "Actual" does not imply "feasible," as we put it. Here is our objection. "Feasible" implies "not counterfactually fluky." But "actual" does not imply "not counterfactually fluky." So, "actual" does not imply "feasible." While something like the Flukiness Objection is sometimes hinted at in the context of the related literature on abilities, it has not been developed in any detail, and both premises are inadequately motivated. We offer a novel articulation of the Flukiness Objection that is both more precise and better motivated. Our conclusions have important implications, not only for the admissible use of history in normative argument, but also by potentially circumscribing the normative claims that are applicable to us.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (PhilPapers)

David Wiens, "Will the Real Principles of Justice Please Stand Up?", in Political Utopias, edited by Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber (Oxford UP, 2017).

Abstract. This chapter develops a "nesting" model of deontic normative principles (i.e., principles that specify moral constraints upon action) as a means to understanding the notion of a "fundamental normative principle". I show that an apparently promising attempt to make sense of this notion such that the "real" or "fundamental" demands of justice upon action are not constrained by social facts is either self-defeating or relatively unappealing. We should treat fundamental normative principles not as specifying fundamental constraints upon action, but as specifying basic criteria for comparatively evaluating and ranking possibilities.

Version of record (Google Books)
Preprint (PhilPapers)

David Wiens, "Cosmopolitanism and Competition: Probing the Limits of Egalitarian Justice", Economics and Philosophy 33, no. 1 (2017): 91–124.

Abstract. This paper develops a novel competition criterion for evaluating institutional schemes. Roughly, this criterion says that one institutional scheme is normatively superior to another to the extent that the former would engender more widespread political competition than the latter. I show that this criterion should be endorsed by both global egalitarians and their statist rivals, as it follows from their common commitment to the moral equality of all persons. I illustrate the normative import of the competition criterion by exploring its potential implications for the scope of egalitarian principles of distributive justice. In particular, I highlight the challenges it raises for global egalitarians' efforts to justify extending the scope of egalitarian justice beyond the state.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (PhilPapers)

David Wiens, "Assessing Ideal Theories: Lessons from the Theory of Second Best", Politics, Philosophy and Economics 15, no. 2 (2016): 132–149

Abstract. Numerous philosophers allege that the "general theory of second best" (Lipsey and Lancaster 1956) poses a challenge to the Target View, which asserts that real world reform efforts should aim to establish arrangements that satisfy the constitutive features of ideally just states of affairs. I demonstrate two claims that are relevant in this context. First, I show that the theory of second best fails to present a compelling challenge to the Target View in general. But, second, the theory of second best requires ideal theorists to undertake certain kinds of causal and comparative analyses that are typically thought to lie outside the remit of conventional ideal theory.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)

David Wiens, "Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice", European Journal of Political Theory 15, no. 3 (2016): 333–352

Abstract. Do motivational limitations due to human nature constrain the demands of justice? Among those who say no, David Estlund offers perhaps the most compelling argument. In this paper, I show that Estlund's argument rests on an ambiguous analysis of the concept of ability. Further, I argue that the most plausible specification of his analysis yields the conclusion that at least some motivational limitations—"good faith" motivational limitations—constrain the demands of justice. In fact, my argument against Estlund implies something stronger; namely, that the demands of justice are constrained by what people are sufficiently likely to be motivated to do. Thus, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, it is the business of ideal theory—not just nonideal theory—to work with the motivational capacities people are likely enough to have.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)
Estlund's reply (DOI)
Rejoinder to Estlund (Philpapers)

Christian Barry and David Wiens, "Benefiting from Wrongdoing and Sustaining Wrongful Harm", Journal of Moral Philosophy 13, no. 5: 530–552

Abstract. Our aim in this article is to identify a criterion to distinguish contexts in which innocent beneficiaries plausibly bear remedial duties to the victims of wrongdoing from those in which they do not. We argue that innocent beneficiaries incur special duties to the victims of wrongdoing (qua beneficiary) if and only if receiving and retaining the benefits sustains wrongful harm. We develop this criterion by identifying and explicating two general modes of sustaining wrongful harm. We also show that our criterion offers a general explanation for why some innocent beneficiaries incur a special duty to the victims of wrongdoing while others do not. On our account, innocently benefiting from wrongdoing per se does not generate duties to the victims of wrongdoing. Rather, beneficiaries acquire such duties because their receipt and retention of the benefits of wrongdoing contribute to the persistence of the wrongful harm suffered by the victim. We conclude by showing that our proposed criterion also illuminates why there can be reasonable disagreement about whether beneficiaries have a duty to victims in some social contexts.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)

David Wiens, "Political Ideals and the Feasibility Frontier", Economics and Philosophy 31, no. 3 (2015): 447–477

Abstract. I present an analysis of feasibility that generalizes the economic concept of a production possibility frontier and develop a model of the feasibility frontier using the familiar possible worlds technology. I then use the model to show that we cannot reasonably expect that adopting political ideals as long-term reform objectives will guide us toward the realization of morally optimal feasible states of affairs. I conclude by proposing that political philosophers turn their attention to the analysis of actual social failures rather than political ideals.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)

David Wiens, "Against Ideal Guidance", Journal of Politics 77, no. 2 (2015): 433–446

Abstract. The prevailing wisdom among political philosophers claims that political ideals provide normative guidance for unjust and otherwise nonideal circumstances. This article has two objectives. The first is to develop a model of the logical relationship of moral evaluative considerations to feasibility considerations in the justification of normative political principles. The second is to use this model to demonstrate that political ideals are uninformative for the task of specifying the normative principles we should aim to satisfy amidst unjust or otherwise nonideal circumstances. The argument implies that social scientists have an essential contribution to make to the normative theoretical enterprise.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)
Online appendix (PDF)

David Wiens, "Natural Resources and Government Responsiveness", Politics, Philosophy and Economics 14, no. 1 (2015): 84–105

Abstract. Pogge (2008) and Wenar (2008) have recently argued that we are responsible for the persistence of the so-called 'resource curse'. But their analyses are limited in important ways. I trace these limitations to their undue focus on the ways in which the international rules governing resource transactions undermine government accountability. To overcome the shortcomings of Pogge's and Wenar's analyses, I propose a normative framework organized around the social value of government responsiveness and discuss the implications of adopting this framework for future normative assessment of the resource curse and our relationships to it.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)
Online appendix (PDF)
Correction (PDF)

David Wiens, "'Going Evaluative' to Save Justice from Feasibility—A Pyrrhic Victory", The Philosophical Quarterly 64, no. 255 (2014): 301–307

Abstract. I discuss Gheaus's argument against the claim that the requirements of justice are not constrained by feasibility concerns. I show that the general strategy exemplified by this argument is not only dialectically puzzling, but also imposes a heavy cost on theories of justice—puzzling because it simply sidesteps a presupposition of any plausible formulation of the so-called 'feasibility requirement' and costly because it deprives justice of its normative implications for action. I also show that Gheaus's attempt to recover this normative force presupposes an epistemic dimension to the feasibility requirement that most proponents of that requirement would reject.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)

David Wiens, Paul Poast, and William Roberts Clark "The Political Resource Curse: An Empirical Re-Evaluation", Political Research Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2014): 783–794

Abstract. Extant theoretical work on the political resource curse implies that dependence on resource revenues should decrease autocracies' likelihood of democratizing but not necessarily affect democracies' chances of survival. Yet most previous empirical studies estimate models that are ill-suited to address this claim. We improve upon previous studies, estimating a dynamic logit model using data from 166 countries, covering the period from 1816 to 2006. We find that an increase in resource dependence decreases an autocracy's likelihood of being democratic over both the short term and long term but has no appreciable effect on democracies' likelihood of persisting.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (UC eScholarship)
Supplemental Analysis (PDF)
Replication Packet (ZIP)

David Wiens, "Natural Resources and Institutional Development", Journal of Theoretical Politics 26, no. 2 (2014): 197–221

Abstract. Recent work on the resource curse argues that the effect of resource wealth on development outcomes is a conditional one: resource-dependent countries with low-quality institutions are vulnerable to a resource curse, while resource-dependent countries with high-quality institutions are not. But extant models neglect the ways in which the inflow of resource revenue impacts the institutional environment itself. In this paper, I present a formal model to show that where domestic institutions do not limit state leaders' discretion over policy prior to becoming fiscally reliant on resources, those leaders have little incentive in the wake of resource windfalls to establish institutional mechanisms that limit their discretion. Importantly, this shows that simple calls for domestic institutional reform are unlikely to be effective. Among other things, future prescriptions to mitigate the resource curse must focus on decreasing rulers' fiscal reliance on resources.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)

David Wiens, "Demands of Justice, Feasible Alternatives, and the Need for Causal Analysis", Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16, no. 2 (2013): 325–338

Abstract. Many political philosophers hold the Feasible Alternatives Principle (FAP): justice demands that we implement some reform of international institutions P only if P is feasible and P improves upon the status quo from the standpoint of justice. The FAP implies that any argument for a moral requirement to implement P must incorporate claims whose content pertains to the causal processes that explain the current state of affairs. Yet, philosophers routinely neglect the need to attend to actual causal processes. This undermines their arguments concerning moral requirements to reform international institutions. The upshot is that philosophers' arguments must engage in causal analysis to a greater extent than is typical.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)
Presentation handout (ANU, Nov 2011) (PDF)

David Wiens, "Prescribing Institutions Without Ideal Theory", The Journal of Political Philosophy 20, no. 1 (2012): 45–70

Abstract. It is conventional wisdom among political philosophers that ideal principles of justice (i.e., principles that would regulate the constitutions of fully just institutional arrangements) must guide our attempts to design institutions to avert actual injustice. Call this the "ideal guidance approach". I argue that this view is misguided—ideal principles of justice are not appropriate "guiding principles" that actual institutions must aim to realize, even if only approximately. Fortunately, the conventional wisdom is also avoidable. In this paper, I develop an alternative approach to institutional design, which I call "institutional failure analysis". The basic intuition of this approach is that our moral assessment of institutional proposals is most effective when we proceed from a detailed understanding of the causal processes generating problematic social outcomes. Failure analysis takes the institutional primary design task to be obviating or averting institutional failures. Consequently, failure analysis enables theorists to prescribe more effective solutions to actual injustice because its focuses on understanding the injustice, rather than specifying an ideal of justice.

Version of record (DOI)
Preprint (Philpapers)

14. Cosmopolitanism and Competition: Probing the Limits of Egalitarian Justice
13. Will The Real Principles of Justice Please Stand Up?
12. "Actual" Does Not Imply "Feasible" (with N. Southwood)
11. Benefiting from Wrongdoing and Sustaining Wrongful Harm (with C. Barry)
10. Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice
9. Assessing Ideal Theories: Lessons from the Theory of Second Best
8. Political Ideals and the Feasibility Frontier
7. Against Ideal Guidance
6. Natural Resources and Government Responsiveness
5. "Going Evaluative" to Save Justice From Feasibility—A Pyrrhic Victory
4. The Political Resource Curse: An Empirical Re-Evaluation (with P. Poast and W.R. Clark)
3. Natural Resources and Institutional Development
2. Demands of Justice, Feasible Alternatives, and the Need for Causal Analysis
1. Prescribing Institutions Without Ideal Theory

Christian Barry and David Wiens, "What Second Best Scenarios Reveal about Ideals of Global Justice", in Oxford Handbook of Global Justice, edited by Thom Brooks (Oxford UP, under contract).

Abstract. In this chapter we explore the options available to egalitarians confronting tradeoffs between domestic and global equality, paying special attention to some of their respective benefits and costs. While there need be no conflict in theory between addressing global inequality (inequalities between people worldwide) and addressing domestic inequality (inequalities between people within a political community), there may be instances in which the feasible mechanisms for reducing global inequality risk aggravating domestic inequality. The burgeoning literature on global justice has tended to overlook the latter type of scenario. Consequently, theorists espousing global egalitarianism have not engaged with cases that are important for evaluating and clarifying the content of their theories.

Preprint (Philpapers)

David Wiens, "Achieving Global Justice: Why Failures Matter More Than Ideals", in Making Global Institutions Work: Power, Accountability and Change, edited by Kate Brennan (Routledge, 2015).

Abstract. How should we specify normative guidelines for our efforts to reform global social and political institutions? According to the conventional wisdom, we can identify morally progressive institutional reforms only if we have a picture of fully just institutions in view. My aim in this paper is twofold. First, I challenge the view that ideal normative principles offer appropriate guidelines for our efforts to identify morally progressive institutional reform strategies. I shall call this view the "ideal guidance approach". Second, I develop an alternative methodological approach to specifying nonideal normative principles, which I call the "failure analysis approach". I contrast these alternatives using examples from the global justice literature.

Version of record (Google Books)
Preprint (Philpapers)

Editor-reviewed articles.

2. What Second Best Scenarios Reveal About Ideals of Global Justice (with C. Barry)
1. Achieving Global Justice: Why Failures Matter More Than Ideals

Book reviews.

1. Leif Wenar, Blood Oil



Sovereigns, Subjects, and the Modern State



Liberty and Equality



Introduction to Game Theory

Spring 2018


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