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The Quest for Survival, Flourishing, and Meaning

All of my research is driven by a passionate desire to better understand our condition as embodied and spiritual beings who seek out meaning, survival, and flourishing shoulder to shoulder with others, and must accept, like it or not, that their personal lifestory is inscribed into a social drama over which they have a limited amount of control.

My fundamental interest as a student of the human condition is not merely to describe or explain human behaviour, but rather, to understand under which conditions this societal drama, which is both intensely personal and intensely social, can facilitate rather than impede the full realisation of human potential, including spiritual and moral maturity, economic development, friendship, and justice.

Speaking through Megaphone

1. The Ethical Meaning and Value of Political Participation

The content of my early-career research was shaped, above all, by a desire to better understand the meaning of political order from the standpoint of a responsible person who, as Harry Frankfurt would put it, "takes himself/herself seriously." Two questions were of special interest to me: first, how can individual persons find the knowledge and motivation to contribute to the public life of their communities in a responsible and effective manner; and second, how can individual persons remain faithful to their own ethical commitments as they exercise their social and civic roles?


2. Polycentric Political Regimes as Infrastructures of Human Flourishing

Given the immensely complex and multi-faceted nature of a flourishing human life, and the critical role of free choice in setting its content, it is clear that a flourishing society requires a rich and multi-dimensional ecology of organisations, institutions, and associations pursuing distinct missions and ends. This raises the question, which type of political regime can achieve an acceptable level of civil order, while simultaneously accommodating freedom and a reasonable degree of social differentiation?

I am developing a "bottom-up," federated model of governance and civil order, consistent with a wider social distribution of governmental functions than distributions permitted by standard statist accounts. This entails a radical reappraisal of the notion of the sovereign State, as well as associated concepts such as political community, citizenship, popular sovereignty, political representation, democracy, patriotism, and common good.  

  • Polycentric Governance and the Good Society: A Normative and Philosophical Investigation. Co-edited with Pablo Paniagua. Forthcoming with Lexington Books. 

  • "An Ethical Case for Bottom-Up, Polycentric Governance in a Complex Society." In Polycentric Governance and the Good Society, co-edited by D. Thunder and P. Paniagua. Forthcoming with Lexington Books.

  • "From Polis to Metropolis: On the Limits of Classical Approaches to Governance in a Fragmented Social Landscape." In Disciplines of the City: New Forms of Governance in Today's Postmetropolises, ed. Julia Urabayen & Jorge León Casero (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2019), pp. 3-31.

Graduation Day

3. Polycentric Governance, Freedom & Human Flourishing in Social Organisations and Practices

In the second stage of my research career, I developed a polycentric-federalist approach to the creation and maintenance of civil order. In the course of that project, I observed that human societies in general work best when structured polycentrically rather than monocentrically, and that political institutions must be adapted to this elemental truth. This has implications for the design and governance of civil order, which I explore in my book, The Polycentric Republic, including the unique value of a federated political community.


However, a number of crucial issues remain to be worked out regarding the meaning, value, and applicability of polycentric order and federalism as principles for theorising as well as directing social organisations and practices in general, not just political organisations. In particular: 


  • How can we apply the principles of polycentric order and federalism to social organisations like schools, universities, and businesses, not only as potential subjects of public regulation, but as regulators and sources of order in their own right?

  • Is the division of power and authority among distinct units of an organisation something to be decided by issues of scale, or function, or both? Is there any useful theoretical formulation of such criteria or does this depend almost entirely on know-how and sound judgment?

  • How can social and economic organisations combine desiderata like efficiency and productivity with the recognition of the autonomy and differentiated needs of their participating units and persons?

  • How much "bottom-up," polycentric governance can we realistically expect or hope for in large-scale social organisations like trade unions, universities and international profit-making corporations?

  • Can ideas such as federalism and polycentric order, influenced by both Protestant and public choice traditions, enter into an enriching dialogue concerning the optimal structure of social organisations, with the principle of subsidiarity, with roots in Catholic social doctrine?

  • What is the right balance between centralised regulation of social life on the one hand, and self-regulation of social practices and organisations on the other? How are both regulators and self-regulators to be kept in check?

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