Michael Moehler

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Tech // Core Faculty ASPECT Program

Michael Moehler

My main research interests lie in moral and political philosophy, with a focus on some of the key figures of the two disciplines, such as Hobbes, Hume, Kant, and Rawls. I am also interested in contemporary issues in moral and political philosophy, such as the integration of rational and evolutionary moral approaches, moral pluralism, and the topic of global justice.


I obtained my PhD in Philosophy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In the past, I have held a visiting position in the Department of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its joint Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with Duke University. In addition, I was awarded a research fellowship at the Center for Ethics and Public Affairs at the Murphy Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans.



Journal articles

Rational Cooperation and the Nash Bargaining Solution, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice (forthcoming)

Abstract. In a recent article, McClennen (2012) defends an alternative bargaining theory in response to his criticisms of the standard Nash bargaining solution as a principle of distributive justice in the context of the social contract. McClennen rejects the orthodox concept of expected individual utility maximizing behavior that underlies the Nash bargaining model in favor of what he calls full rationality, and McClennen’s full cooperation bargaining theory demands that agents select the most egalitarian strictly Pareto-optimal distributional outcome that is strictly Pareto-superior to the state of nature. I argue that McClennen’s full cooperators are best described as reasonable agents whose rationality is constrained by moral considerations and that McClennen’s bargaining theory is moralized in this regard. If, by contrast, the orthodox concept of rationality is assumed and plausible assumptions are made about human nature and social cooperation, then a modified version of the standard Nash bargaining solution, which I call the stabilized Nash bargaining solution (Moehler 2010), is justified. From the perspective of rational agents, the stabilized Nash bargaining solution can accommodate McClennen’s criticisms of the standard Nash bargaining solution in the context of the social contract and, for such agents, it can serve as a principle of distributive justice in deeply morally pluralistic societies.


The Scope of Instrumental Morality, Philosophical Studies 167 (2014): 431-451

Abstract. In The Order of Public Reason (2011a), Gerald Gaus rejects the instrumental approach to morality as a viable account of social morality. Gaus' rejection of the instrumental approach to morality, and his own moral theory, raise important foundational questions concerning the adequate scope of instrumental morality. In this article, I address some of these questions and I argue that Gaus' rejection of the instrumental approach to morality stems primarily from a common but inadequate application of this approach. The scope of instrumental morality, and especially the scope of pure moral instrumentalism, is limited. The purely instrumental approach to morality can be applied fruitfully to moral philosophy only in situations of extreme pluralism in which moral reasoning is reduced to instrumental reasoning, because the members of a society do not share, as assumed by traditional moral theories, a consensus on moral ideals as a basis for the derivation of social moral rules, but only an end that they aim to reach. Based on this understanding, I develop a comprehensive two-level contractarian theory that integrates traditional morality with instrumental morality. I argue that this theory, if implemented, is most promising for securing mutually beneficial peaceful long-term cooperation in deeply pluralistic societies, as compared to cooperation in a non-moralized state of nature.


Contractarian Ethics and Harsanyi's Two Justifications of Utilitarianism, Politics, Philosophy and Economics 12 (2013): 24-47

Abstract. Harsanyi defends utilitarianism by means of an axiomatic proof and by what he calls the 'equiprobability model'. Both justifications of utilitarianism aim to show that utilitarian ethics can be derived from Bayesian rationality and some weak moral constraints on the reasoning of rational agents. I argue that, from the perspective of Bayesian agents, one of these constraints, the impersonality constraint, is not weak at all if its meaning is made precise, and that generally, it even contradicts individual rational agency. Without the impersonality constraint, Harsanyi's two justifications of utilitarianism on the grounds of Bayesian rationality fail. As an alternative, I develop a contractarian framework that is compatible with individual rational agency and Harsanyi's central assumptions, and that allows the derivation of moral conclusions on the grounds of Bayesian rationality. The developed framework offers a novel justification of contractarian ethics and may best be described as a combined version of Harsanyi's equiprobability model and Rawls's original position.


A Hobbesian Derivation of the Principle of Universalization, Philosophical Studies 158 (2012): 83-107

Abstract. In this article, I derive a weak version of Kant's categorical imperative within an informal game-theoretic framework. More specifically, I argue that Hobbesian agents would choose what I call the weak principle of universalization, if they had to decide on a rule of conflict resolution in an idealized but empirically defensible hypothetical decision situation. The discussion clarifies (i) the rationality requirements imposed on agents, (ii) the empirical conditions assumed to warrant the conclusion, and (iii) the political institutions that are necessary to implement the derived principle. The analysis demonstrates the moral significance of the weak principle of universalization and its epistemic advantage over the categorical imperative. 


The (Stabilized) Nash Bargaining Solution as a Principle of Distributive Justice, Utilitas 22 (2010): 447-473

Abstract. It is argued that the Nash bargaining solution cannot serve as a principle of distributive justice because (i) it cannot secure stable cooperation in repeated interactions and (ii) it cannot capture our moral intuitions concerning distributive questions. In this article, I propose a solution to the first problem by amending the Nash bargaining solution so that it can maintain stable cooperation among rational bargainers. I call the resulting principle the stabilized Nash bargaining solution. The principle defends justice in the form, 'each according to her basic needs and above this level according to her relative bargaining power.' In response to the second problem, I argue that the stabilized Nash bargaining solution can serve as a principle of distributive justice in certain situations where moral reasoning is reduced to instrumental reasoning. In particular, I argue that rational individuals would choose the stabilized Nash bargaining solution in Rawls' original position.


Justice and Peaceful Cooperation, Journal of Global Ethics 5 (2009): 195-214

Abstract. Justice is important, but so is peaceful cooperation. In this article, I argue that if one takes seriously the autonomy of individuals and groups and the fact of moral pluralism, a just system of cooperation cannot guarantee peaceful cooperation in a pluralistic world. As a response to this consideration, I lay out a contractarian theory that can secure peace in a pluralistic world of autonomous agents, assuming that the agents who exist in this world expect that peaceful cooperation is the most beneficial form of interaction for them in the long run. The theory specifies the restrictions on the behavior of autonomous individual and collective agents that are indispensable for peaceful cooperation in a pluralistic world. In particular, I argue for the need of (i) a globally valid rule of conflict resolution to settle all intra- and inter-group conflicts that cannot be resolved locally, (ii) a world court to apply this rule in cases where local group authorities are inadequate to do so, and to serve as a final court of appeal, and (iii) a world police to enforce the rule.


Why Hobbes' State of Nature is Best Modeled by an Assurance Game, Utilitas 21 (2009): 297-326

Abstract. In this article, I argue that if one closely follows Hobbes' line of reasoning in Leviathan, in particular his distinction between the second and the third law of nature, and the logic of his contractarian theory, then Hobbes' state of nature is best translated into the language of game theory by an assurance game, and not by a one-shot or iterated prisoner's dilemma game, nor by an assurance dilemma game. Further, I support Hobbes' conclusion that the sovereign must always punish the Foole, and even exclude her from the cooperative framework or take her life, if she defects once society is established, which is best expressed in the language of game theory by a grim strategy. That is, compared to existing game-theoretic interpretations of Hobbes, I argue that the sovereign plays a grim strategy with the citizens once society is established, and not the individuals with one another in the state of nature.


Encyclopedia entry

Neoclassical Economics (with Geoffrey Brennan), Encyclopedia of Political Theory, ed. Mark Bevir (SAGE Publications, 2010), Volume II, pp. 946-951

Abstract. The term neoclassical economics delineates a distinct and relatively homogenous school of thought in economic theory that became prominent in the late nineteenth century and that now dominates mainstream economics. The term was originally introduced by Thorstein Veblen to describe developments in the discipline (of which Veblen did not entirely approve) associated with the work of such figures as William Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras. The ambition of these figures, the first neoclassicists, was to formalize and mathematize the subject in the aftermath of the so-called marginalist revolution. Economics is, according to one definition, the science that studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means that have alternative uses. Neoclassical economics pursues this study by means of supply and demand models that determine prices based on the subjective preferences of producers and consumers. Neoclassical economics relies on subjective preferences for determining prices in order to escape from the so-called objective value theory of classical economics, according to which the value of goods could be established by reference to some basic commodity (usually corn) or the labor input required to produce a good. Neoclassicists hoped that by jettisoning objective value, economics could be placed on a more scientific basis as an essentially descriptive and predictive theory of human behavior. Political theory, by contrast, involves both positive and normative elements. It is a positive science to the extent to which it aims to describe and predict political behavior. It is a normative science to the extent to which it prescribes how agents should behave in the political arena and what the best political institutions are. Neoclassical economics is relevant to both of these elements.



Invited talks (selected)

Department of Philosophy and Department of Economics, University of Hamburg, Germany, July 2014

Department of Philosophy and Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, University of Arizona, USA, April 2014

PPE Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, November 2013

Department of Philosophy, University of York, UK, July 2013

Institute of Political Science, TU Darmstadt, Germany, January 2013

Institute of Philosophy, University of Regensburg, Germany, July 2012

Department of Philosophy, University of Cape Town, South Africa, August 2011

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey, March 2011

Institute of Philosophy, University of Bayreuth, Germany, January 2011

Department of Philosophy, Seoul National University, South Korea, October 2010

Department of Philosophy, University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA, January 2010

Murphy Institute at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA, September 2009


Conference presentations (selected)

2014 APA Central Division Meeting, Colloquium paper, Chicago, USA, February 2014

2013 APA Central Division Meeting, Symposium paper, New Orleans, USA, February 2013

ISUS 2012 Conference, Stern School of Business, New York University, USA, August 2012

Eleventh Conference of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies, University of Pisa, Italy, June 2011

Conference on Contractarian Moral Theory, York University, Toronto, Canada, May 2011

Fifth Triennial Congress of the Society for Analytic Philosophy (SOPHA), University of Geneva, Switzerland, September 2009

GAP 7, Institute of Philosophy, University of Bremen, Germany, September 2009

ISUS 2008 Conference, University of California, Berkeley, USA, September 2008

First Annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA, August 2008

Masterclass in Normative Moral Theory, University of Reading, UK, April 2007

Fourth Conference in Political Philosophy, Centre for Social Philosophy, University of Pavia, Italy, September 2006

Brave New World Conference, MANCEPT, University of Manchester, UK, July 2006

ENFA-3, Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, Portugal, June 2006

First Annual Postgraduate Conference in Philosophy, University College Cork, Ireland, May 2006

Eighth Annual Graduate Conference in Political Theory, University of Warwick, UK, February 2006



Graduate research and seminars

PhD Dissertation Supervision (committee member)

MA Thesis Supervision (chair and committee member)

The Welfare State (600 level, PhD seminar, co-taught)

Distributive Justice (600 level, PhD and MA seminar)

Morality: Reason and Evolution (500 level, MA seminar)

Independent Research Study (400 and 500 levels)


Undergraduate courses

Contemporary Theories of Justice (400 level)

Modern Political Theory (300 level)

Introduction to Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (200 level)

Global Justice (200 level)

Morality and Justice (100 level)

Introduction to Philosophy (100 level)



Department of Philosophy (MC: 0126)

229 Major Williams Hall

220 Stanger Street

Virginia Tech

Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA

Email: moehler@vt.edu


Dr. Michael Moehler · Department of Philosophy (MC: 0126) · 229 Major Williams Hall · 220 Stanger Street · Virginia Tech · Blacksburg, VA 24061 · USA