Pablo Gilabert, PhD
Associate Professor, Philosophy
Ph.D: New School for Social Research, New York (2003)
DAAD Doctoral Fellow: University of Frankfurt (2001-2)
B.A.: University of Buenos Aires (1997)
I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). I am a native of Argentina. My areas of specialization are ethics and social and political philosophy. Within these areas, I am currently doing research on social justice, human rights, and the role of the concept of feasibility in moral and political reasoning (including the consequences for the relation between “ideal” and “nonideal theory”). My research and teaching interests also include topics in global justice, distributive justice, democratic theory, contractualist theories in normative ethics, the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory, Kant’s practical philosophy, Marxism and socialism, and the history of moral and political philosophy.
I have been an HLA Hart Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford, a DAAD Fellow at the University of Frankfurt, a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, a Visiting Fellow at the University of Montreal, and a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow in the Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
My research has also been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Fonds Québécois de la Recherche sur la Société et la Culture.
My papers appeared in journals such as The Journal of Political Philosophy, Political Theory, The Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophical Studies, Kant-Studien, Kantian Review, Human Rights Quarterly, and Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, among others. I am the author of From Global Poverty to Global Equality. A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Human Dignity and Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2018).
My current research addresses three related questions about social justice (domestic and global): (1) What are the most urgent, immediate requirements of justice? (2) What should be the goals of the pursuit of justice for the long term? (3) How should we think about the relation between the ideal and the real, between the desirable and the feasible, within the practice seeking to achieve these goals? Let me briefly explain the main aims and theses orienting and linking the three aspects of my research.
1. Regarding the most urgent demands of social justice, I develop an account of human rights. In particular, I articulate a philosophical theory of human dignity, which is the moral heart of human rights. Although its pervasive presence in human rights discourse is undeniable, many scholars have recently challenged the idea of human dignity, arguing that it is empty, useless, or even harmful. In response, I offer a systematic account of human dignity that clarifies and vindicates its importance. This account presents dignity as a distinctive normative, non-conventional status of the human person in social life, and shows that it plays crucial roles in shaping the universalistic humanism of human rights. Furthermore, I articulate the dignitarian approach in terms of an ideal of solidaristic empowerment. This ideal asks us to support persons’ pursuit of a decent and flourishing life by affirming both negative duties not to block or destroy, and positive duties to protect and facilitate, the development and exercise of their valuable capacities. As I see it, the ideal flows from the recognition of human dignity: since people have dignity in virtue of their valuable human capacities, an appropriate treatment of them must include the support for the development and exercise of those capacities. I explore the practical implications of these conceptual and normative proposals by showing how they generate a justification of contentious but urgent rights to political participation and decent work.
2. Turning to the longer-term, I am working on developing a characterization of democratic socialism. Socialist ideas are experimenting a comeback after the global economic crisis of 2008, awareness of the acceleration of domestic and global economic inequalities, and the enthusiasm for left-of-center politicians such as Bernie Sanders. In political philosophy, there is also growing interest in figuring out ways of construing socialist and other radical egalitarian ideals to make the left relevant for contemporary times without a relapse into mistakes incurred in the past (such as the insufficient attention to some civil and democratic rights). I contribute to the debate by developing an interpretation of the largely neglected socialist principle “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” This interpretation yields important implications regarding distributive fairness, the existence of positive duties of solidarity to improve the life chances of others, the recognition of individual differences, and the furthering of opportunities for meaningful work. The Abilities/Needs Principle (as I call it) in fact provides a natural extension of my account of human rights. I distinguish between access to a decent life (which is the focus of human rights), and access to a flourishing life (which is the wider focus of social justice as conceived by some democratic socialists and liberal egalitarians). I argue that human dignity calls for both. In this way, the dignitarian approach that I propose yields a systematic philosophical foundation of social justice. Its demands of solidaristic empowerment articulate the full arc of humanist justice.
3. Should we bring about a radically egalitarian, or socialist society in which everyone has extensive and equal access to what they need to lead a flourishing life? Should we even aim at securing a basically decent life for everyone around the planet? Any view of social justice animated by ambitious principles faces the common worry that what it prescribes is unrealistic. There are at least three kinds of response to this worry. The first is to make the normative principles of the conception less ambitious and thus more practicable. The second is to dismiss practical concerns about feasibility as irrelevant to the truth of theoretical claims about what justice demands. These responses are problematic. The first risks surrendering in the face of a morally rotten status quo, and the second fails to illuminate the relation between principles of justice and their fulfillment in the real world. I develop a third strategy that combines normative ambition and feasibility. I propose a dynamic approach to the relation between justice and feasibility. Some feasibility constraints are “soft” rather than “hard”: they are malleable over time (e.g. several cultural, political, and economic mechanisms are soft, while logic and physical laws are hard). When ambitious principles clash with soft rather than hard constraints, an appropriate response often is one that neither deems the principles null nor disengages feasibility considerations. We can use our political imagination to envisage alternative ways to fulfill principles in different contexts, and recognize dynamic duties to expand our ability to fulfill those principles over time. We can thus retain idealism about principles and realism about feasibility and combine them in a practically consequential way. I deploy this dynamic approach to show how the basic and maximal requirements of human dignity (regarding human rights and democratic socialism) are not problematically unrealistic after all.
In sum, I endeavor to develop a philosophical theory of human dignity as a foundation of human rights, to show how the dignitarian program can be extended to generate a compelling understanding of democratic socialism, and to explore how the resulting ideals of social justice do not only provide inspiring pictures of desirable futures but can also be the target of a realistic, dynamic practice that generates new abilities to bring about a more socially just world.
I am also interested in topics in the history of moral and political philosophy. I am especially interested in exploring ideas and arguments in the work of Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx, and in the assessment and fresh development of them (considering them also as they arise, for example, in the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory, Analytic Marxism, moral contractualism, and John Rawls’s political philosophy). I have published, and continue to write, on each of these topics.
To access my publications, see my PhilPapers site