David Brink

I am Distinguished Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of California, San Diego and Director of our Summer Program for Women in Philosophy.

Research Interests

  • Ethical theory
  • History of ethics
  • Moral psychology
  • Jurisprudence

My work in ethics focuses on foundational issues about objectivity (whether there are right answers to moral issues) and normativity (why we should care about morality); practical reason, the good, and the nature of moral demands; and rights and justice. My approach blends historical concern with the views of important figures and traditions in the history of ethics and systematic concern with the clearest and most plausible formulations of first principles. My work in jurisprudence focuses on traditional issues in analytical jurisprudence about the nature of law, legal interpretation, and determinacy in the law; issues in constitutional jurisprudence about interpretation, individual rights, and judicial review; and issues in criminal jurisprudence about responsibility and excuse.


Recent and Current Work

For a reasonably complete inventory of publications and work in progress, check out my Publications and Work in Progress.  Here are some representative items, mostly in the history of ethics, moral psychology, or jursprudence. 

  • "Eudaimonism and Cosmopolitan Concern" explores the adequacy of Sidgwick's contrast between the egocentrism of ancient ethics and the impartiality of modern ethics by evaluating the resources of eudaimonists, especially Aristotle and the Stoics, to defend a cosmopolitan conception of the common good. By distinguishing between the scope and weight of ethical concern, we can identify ethical conceptions that are parochial with respect to both scope and weight, conceptions that are cosmopolitan with respect to both scope and weight, and mixed conceptions that combine universal scope and variable weight.  Aristotle’s eudaimonist justification of the common good appears doubly parochial.  By contrast, the Stoics offer a eudaimonist defense of the common good that is purely cosmopolitan. Though the Stoics have trouble providing a eudaimonist defense of their cosmopolitanism, Aristotelian eudaimonism has resources to justify a mixed cosmopolitan conception of the common good that combines universal scope and variable weight.  
  • "Mill on Justice and Rights" explores Mill’s conception of both the substance of rights -- what rights we have -- and their logic -- how they are related to justice and utility.  Our most important rights are to basic liberties, rather than liberty per se, and to conditions essential for preserving equality of opportunity.  Mill defends these liberal rights by appeal to their role in realizing our capacities for self-governance, which are constitutive of our nature as progressive beings.  Mill does not recognize nonderivative natural rights; he thinks rights have a utilitarian foundation.  But he recognizes both direct and indirect forms of reconciling utility and rights.  Though his indirect reconciliation is potentially problematic, his direct reconciliation is more promising.
  • "Normative Perfectionism and the Kantian Tradition" articulates a form of perfectionism -- common to Aristotle, J.S. Mill, and T.H. Green -- that grounds perfectionist ideals in a normative conception of human nature understood in terms of moral personality or agency.  It defends normative perfectionism against Kant's criticisms that perfectionist demands cannot express categorical imperatives and that we should aim at the happiness, rather than the perfection, of others and defends a perfectionist reading of Kant's own claims about the ground and content of the Categorical Imperative.  It concludes by defending normative perfectionism, and by extension Kant, against the charge that the appeal to rational nature is incomplete and needs to be supplemented with a set of non-perfectionist values or reasons.
  • "Three Dualisms: Sidgwick, Green, and Bradley" assesses the prospects of the ethics of self-realization endorsed by the British idealists T.H. Green and F.H. Bradley to overcome Henry Sidgwick's dualism of practical reason, arguing that Sidgwick was right to think that idealists face their own conflict between self and others.  However, Green's perfectionism makes his version of the dualism more tractable than Sidgwick's hedonistic verison.
  • "Responsibility, Incompetence, and Psychopathy" is the published version of my 2013 Lindley lecture.  It develops the fair opportunity conception of responsibility and applies it to incompetence excuses, such as insanity.  Fair opportunity supports the broader Model Penal Code conception of insanity, as having both cognitive and volitional dimensions, against the narrower M’Naghten conception, which requires a bare cognitive capacity to discriminate right from wrong.  This conception of incompetence supports skepticism about recent appeals to the empathy deficits of psychopaths to fund an excuse of cognitive incompetence.  Because there are other modes of cognitive access to basic normative requirements that are not empathetic, empathy deficits do not absolve psychopaths of moral or criminal responsibility. 
  • "Partial Responsibility and Excuse" examines the interdependence of responsibility and excuse and the failure of proportionate justice that results from the scalar nature of responsibility and the generally bivalent character of excuse within American criminal law.  It defends the adoption of a generic partial excuse in criminal law and explores different ways of implementing a partial excuse.  
  • "Originalism and Constructive Interpretation" reconstructs and defends Ronald Dworkin's commitments to the normative dimensions of legal interpretation, the determinacy of hard cases, and an originalism of principle.

Future Work

I continue to work on several article-length projects in the history of ethics, ethical theory, moral psychology, and jurisprudence.  In addition, I am working on two larger projects.  Fair Opportunity, Responsibility, and Excuse is located at the intersection of moral psychology and criminal jurisprudence.  It articulates and defends a fair opportunity conception of moral and criminal responsibility and applies it to issues of partial responsibility involving insanity and psychopathy, immaturity, addiction, and provocation and crimes of passion.  Self & Others is a long-term project at the intersection of ethical theory and history of ethics that engages issues about (a) practical reason, personal identity, and the good; (b) the demands of morality, especially the relation between partial and impartial demands; and (c) the normativity of ethics.  It defends a perfectionist conception of the personal good, the importance of associational duties, and a rationalist conception of the authority of morality.


Fall Quarter 2016 Don Rutherford and I co-taught a graduate seminar about the content, justification, and implications of perfectionist ideals in the history of philosophy.  We focused on Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Mill, Green, and Nietzsche.  In conjunction with the seminar, we hosted a conference on this theme, Perfectionism: Ancient and Modern, which included presentations by Susan Sauvé Meyer (University of Pennsylvania), Katja Vogt (Columbia University), Terence Irwin (Oxford University), Steven Nadler (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Thomas Hurka (University of Toronto), Gwen Bradford (Rice University), Don, and myself.

In other local news, I'm the recipient of both the 2016 Chancellor's Associates' Faculty Excellence Award for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences and the 2016 Faculty Senate Research Lecturer Award in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. There's a brief video produced in connection with the first award (below), and in connection with the second award I gave a public lecture on Partial Responsibility.  I'm donating part of the cash award to the Summer Program for Women in Philosophy.  

Click to view video