Paul Billingham

Paul Billingham

(DPhil, MPhil, BA)

Post:
Junior Research Fellow in Political Philosophy, Christ Church
Affiliation:
Political Theory
Email:
paul.billingham@chch.ox.ac.uk
Phone:
01865 286 855
College:
Christ Church College
Office Address:
Christ Church, St Aldate's, Oxford, OX1 1DP

I am Junior Research Fellow in Political Philosophy at Christ Church College. My research centres on the relationship between the actions of the state and the beliefs and values of citizens, especially their religious beliefs. I consider both the way in which citizens’ beliefs might constrain state action, given the liberal demand that laws be justified to all citizens, and the ways in which the state might permissibly seek to influence citizens’ values, to conform them to liberal ideals. The former question concerns public justification and public reason, while the latter concerns the state's role in value-promotion and moral formation. Through this focus, my work touches upon many important topics within political theory, including state legitimacy, pluralism, freedom of conscience, religious exemptions, and the place of religion within public life.

More recently, I have developed an interest in the phenomenon of public shaming, especially online public shaming, and have begun working on the ethical questions raised by this practice.

Before coming to Christ Church, I completed a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and an MPhil at Lincoln College, Oxford.

I teach the Theory of Politics finals paper (second/third year course) and the Theorising the Democratic State prelims course (first year course). At the graduate level, I have supervised MPhil students and teach Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Perfectionism and Anti-perfectionism, a course for second-year MPhil students that I have designed based on my own research. I have also been a seminar leader in political philosophy for masters students at the Blavatnik School of Government.

1. Public Justification and Public Reason

The state imposes laws that coercively define the terms of our common life. Liberals believe that those laws must be (in some sense) justified to all citizens. Yet liberal polities are marked by the ‘fact of reasonable pluralism’ – citizens endorse a great variety of conceptions of the good, or worldviews. This raises the question of how laws can be justified to all. What kinds of reasons or values must be used to justify laws, in the face of our many moral, philosophical, and religious disagreements?

Many political philosophers answer this question by appeal to the ideas of ‘public justification’ and ‘public reason’. They hold that laws must be justified to all citizens by reasons that they can accept, and that this is achieved by the provision of a special class of reasons (‘public reasons’) that can be accepted by all reasonable citizens. My DPhil thesis defended the first claim but rejected the second. Laws should be justified to all by reasons that they can accept, but these justifications need not appeal to ‘shared values’ or any special class of reasons. Laws can be justified to different citizens by different reasons, including reasons rooted in their diverse worldviews. This view is known as the ‘convergence conception’ of political liberalism. In the thesis I developed and defended a distinctive version of this view.

I have published several articles relating to these debates, and continue to work on them.

I have also organised several workshops and events related to this research, including a conference focused on Matthew Kramer's recent book ​Liberalism with Excellence (OUP, 2017), which I hosted at Christ Church in June 2017. The conference speakers included many prominent contributors to the debate (listed here), and papers from the conference will be published as a special issue of a journal in due course.

2. The State and Value-Promotion

The state does not only impose laws. Its pronouncements and actions also influence the beliefs and values that citizens hold. Reasonable pluralism poses challenges here too. Given the extent of principled disagreement among citizens, what values (if any) can the state permissibly seek to promote? Can the state permissibly seek to inculcate, or indeed oppose, any particular beliefs among the citizenry? If so, what means may permissibly be used for these ends?

These questions are the starting point for my next research project. Recently, several theorists have defended a view that I call ‘transformative political liberalism’. On this view, the state should indeed seek to shape citizens beliefs in certain ways – including through its education policy, funding decisions, and decisions about what groups merit charitable status.

I will argue that the state’s permissible role in promoting liberal values is more limited than advocates of transformative political liberalism believe. In part, this is because these views fluctuate between different understandings of the values that the state ought to promote. Official statements of these values present them as fairly minimal and basic liberal values. In practice, however, thicker, more contestable ideas tend to be invoked – ideas that conflict with various worldviews endorsed by citizens within liberal democracies. Further, transformative political liberalism runs into particular problems with regard to religion. It inevitably ends up being involved in complex theological adjudication, despite political liberals believing that the state should not be entangled in such disputes. In some cases, it might seem to imply that many religious individuals simply cannot be good liberal citizens.

This research also connects to questions concerning collective religious liberty. When, if at all, should religious groups enjoy exemptions from otherwise applicable laws, which permit them to engage in illiberal practices? Two of my current working papers explore this question. My article in the ​Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, meanwhile, addresses the question of individual religious exemptions, which I also intend to explore further in future work.

3. Engagement with Theology

Unusually for a political theorist, I pursue my research questions in part by interacting with theology, particularly Christian theology. Much recent political theory concerns the role of religion and religious beliefs, yet few theorists have directly examined the work of theologians, who consider similar questions, but from within a theological framework. Engagement with theological literature sheds new light on ongoing disputes within political theory.

In my DPhil thesis, this engagement took the form of considering whether Christians could accept the theories of public justification that I discussed, on the basis of their theology.

In future work I will engage with the arguments of theologians who express concerns about the liberal state’s influence over religion, religious citizens, and civil society more generally. Many argue that political liberalism already has a negative impact on civil society, on intermediate institutions such as families and churches, and ultimately on the moral formation of individual citizens. ‘Transformative political liberalism’ would heighten these concerns. I intend to consider the validity of these critiques, and whether they necessitate changes in political liberal theories.​

​I organised a workshop bringing together political theorists and theologians to discuss questions of religious diversity and public life and learn from one another's approaches and insights, as part of a major conference on religion and politics held in Oxford in September 2017. More information about the conference can be found here, and information about the workshop here. We hope to publish the papers presented at the workshop within two journal special issues, one in a political theory journal and one in a theology journal, both of which will contain contributions from scholars from both fields.

4. Public Shaming

I have a growing interest in the rise of 'online public shaming' and the way in which social media is used to regulate people's beliefs. Mill famously warned in On Liberty that the weight of public opinion can be a grave threat to freedom of expression and belief. Arguably, modern technology means that this is particularly the case today.

I co-authored an essay on these themes, entitled 'The Democratisation of Accountability in the Digital Age: Promise and Pitfalls', which was awarded first prize in the 2016 Robert Davies Memorial Essay Contest, an annual essay competition run by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford's Saïd Business School.

I am currently working on two further papers, with Tom Parr, focused on the enforcement of social norms through public shaming, and the moral constraints that apply to such enforcement. We seek to develop an overarching framework for assessing the justifiability of public shaming, with a particular focus on online shaming. A short video introducing our work can be found here.

I plan to obtain funding to run a project on the morality of online public shaming, which will bring together insights both from an in interdisciplinary group of scholars and non-academic stakeholders such as journalists, think tank researchers, and representatives from social media organisations, to make progress with understanding and tackling the major challenges presented by the phenomenon.

Political Theory Liberalism Religion

Christ Church

Undergraduate
- Tutorials and revision classes for 
Theory of Politics, a finals paper taken by second and third year undergraduates in both Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE) and History & Politics (HPOL). This course covers central topics in contemporary political theory: liberty, equality, distributive justice, feminism, liberalism, democracy, power, multiculturalism, and rights. Course material for this course can be found here. (Reading lists for the optional topics are available on request.)
- University-wide Theory of Politics lectures.
- Designed and taught
 a four-week course based on my own research, exploring public reason liberalism, religious reasons in politics, and Christian political theology. The readings lists for that course can be found here.

Graduate
- In the 2017-18 academic year I am teaching a new course for second year MPhil students, which I have designed drawing on my own research, entitled Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Perfectionism and Anti-perfectionism.
- Supervised first year students on the MPhil in Politics: Political Theory, taking tutorials and providing guidance and advice concerning the course.

 

Blavatnik School of Government

In the 2015-2016 academic year I was a seminar leader on the Foundations course within the Master of Public Policy programme. This involved running graduate seminars in political philosophy. The seminars covered theories about utility, rights, justice, and equality, as well as more applied topics such as immigration, ethics in public life, free speech, and the morality of markets. I also gave a lecture on liberalism and religion.

I was shortlisted for the 2016 Oxford University Student Union teaching award for Outstanding Tutor, Social Sciences, on the basis of my teaching at the Blavatnik.

 

Previous Teaching Experience and Qualifications

Prior to coming to Christ Church, I taught at several other Oxford colleges. I was a College Lecturer at The Queen's College from 2011 until 2015 and a Career Development Lecturer at Trinity College in 2014-15. I was involved in various undergraduate teaching responsibilities during this time:
​- Tutorials and revision classes for Theory of Politics.
- Tutorials and revision classes for Introduction to the Theory of Politics, the political theory component o
f the politics prelim, taken by first year undergraduates in both PPE and HPOL. This course provides an introduction to both canonical thinkers (such as Mill and Rousseau) and central concepts (such as liberty and democracy). Course materials for this course can be found here.
- Supervised an undergraduate thesis
- Interviewed prospective students for both PPE and HPOL.

- During the 2014-15 academic year I was organising tutor for politics at Queen's. This involved arranging all of the politics teaching at the college.

I am an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, due to my completion of the Developing Learning and Teachingprogramme run by the Oxford Learning Institute. This course provided an introduction to educational theory and the chance to learn about different approaches to teaching.

‘Review Essay: Consensus, Convergence, Restraint, and Religion’, Journal of Moral Philosophy (forthcoming).

‘Public Reason and Religion: The Theo-Ethical Equilibrium Argument for Restraint’, Law and Philosophy, 36(6) (2017): 675-705.
       Published version available here (open access).

'Convergence Liberalism and the Problem of Disagreement Concerning Public Justification', Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 47(4) (2017): 541-564.
       Published version available here.

‘Liberal Perfectionism and Quong's Internal Conception of Political Liberalism’, Social Theory and Practice, 43(1) (2017): 79-106.
       Published version available here.

‘How Should Claims for Religious Exemptions be Weighed?’, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 6(1) (2017): 1-23.
       Published version available here.

‘Can My Religion Influence My Conception of Justice? Political Liberalism and the Role of Comprehensive Doctrines’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 20(4) (2017): 403-424.
       Published version available here.

‘Does Political Community Require Public Reason? On Lister’s Defence of Political Liberalism’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 15(1) (2016): 20-41.
       Published version available here.

‘Convergence Justifications Within Political Liberalism: A Defence’, Res Publica, 22(2) (2016): 135-153.
       Published version available here.

 

Downloadable versions of all of these papers are available on my personal website.