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Martin van Hees

Prof. dr. M. (Martin) van Hees

Brief summary of research over the last 5 years

Martin van Hees is a professor of ethics at VU University in Amsterdam. He has developed a strong interdisciplinary orientation to examine issues relating to moral responsibility, rights and freedom, and quality of life. His research on these topics is informed by game theory. His academic leadership and stature led him to be appointed Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at Groningen University (2012). At the VU University, where he was appointed as Department Head in 2014, he took the initiative to launch the John Stuart Mill College (2016) for an international undergraduate BSc-program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), the first ever in the Netherlands and one of the first on the European continent.

With his NWO VICI – an individual career grant awarded to the most talented senior researchers (2004-2009), he investigated the nature and value of freedom in collective decision-making processes. This work led to his theory of moral responsibility in multi-agent settings. Inspired by game theory and tort law, he honed in on ‘responsibility voids’ in decision-making. These are situations where no individual agent can be held morally responsible for the outcome (‘no hands problems’), or situations in which many individuals have made different contributions to the current state of affairs (‘many hands problems’). Both types of responsibility voids can undermine cooperation, for instance, in organizations or communities where it is difficult to assign individual responsibility to collective outcomes. The work of Van Hees provides a model for addressing and resolving cooperation challenges through, for instance, explicit allocation or division of responsibilities amongst the agents involved. This has resulted in a fundamentally new perspective on the analysis of cooperation in complex social structures.

His research on rights has also yielded novel insights on indicators of individual development and well-being that characterize a resilient society. He has analyzed the extent to which rights can deal with coordination problems. He has also proposed a new analysis of the ‘capability approach’ [107]. This analysis is not only philosophical; it has concrete implications for policy makers. The capability approach emphasizes that assessments of individual well-being and community justice should not only address the distribution of resources but also take into account the opportunities people receive to live the life they value. It has become a core element of the Human Development Report annually published by the United Nations Development Program, and is now used as an key indicator of regional and country-level differences in social exclusion. Van Hees’s improved conception of ‘capability rights’ has expanded existing justice theories, whereas his more general analysis of rights has contributed to the resolution of coordination problems that may threaten cooperation.

International visibility, activities, prizes, scholarships etc.

Martin Van Hees has published in top-tier journals in philosophy (Mind, The Journal of Philosophy), economics (Journal of Economic Theory, Social Choice and Welfare), and political science (American Political Science Review, British Journal of Political Science). He has also published three monographs and edited three books. His research grants include a VICI grant for the outstanding quality of his work on freedom, an NWO Top grant (2014) and a grant to examine quality of life in relation to health policy (2014).

Van Hees was one of only two philosophers to be included in the VSNU (Association of Universities, the Netherlands) list of excellent academic research in the Netherlands (‘Staalkaart’, 2009). The research program “Ethics” of the University of Groningen, of which Van Hees was the founder and former director, obtained the highest possible score of ‘excellent’ in 2012 on each of the four assessment criteria. In 2013, Van Hees was elected member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and also the Royal Holland Society of Sciences (KHMW).

Van Hees was appointed as a member of the permanent working group on science and ethics of the European Federation of Academies and Sciences (ALLEA, 2014). He was elected Fellow (2004) and Executive Council member (2005-2008) of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA). The 1998 Economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen referred to Van Hees’s work in his acceptance speech, which he characterized as ‘extremely important’ in 1996. Van Hees’s international visibility and reputation are also evident from translations of his work into French, Italian, and Chinese, and from his guest appointments at different universities across the world (Adam-Smith-Professor, Bayreuth, 2003; Shanghai, 2005; Mumbai, 2011; Beijing, 2014).

Van Hees’s excellent international reputation led him to be appointed associate editor (2002-2004) of Risk Decision and Policy, and editor (2009-2014) and advisory board member (since 2014) of Economics and Philosophy. He was elected to serve on the editorial board of the Journal of Theoretical Politics (Sage, since 2002), the International Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy (Springer, since 2007), Philosophy and Methodology for the Social Sciences (Springer, since 2012), and the European Journal of Political Theory (Sage, since 2014).

Van Hees has invested in specifying the practical implications of his work, for instance in policy committees on responsibility (2012), and demographic decline (2011). He produces a steady stream of Dutch language publications, targeting a broad audience. In 2012, the Dutch weekly Elsevier named Van Hees one of the philosophers ‘having the largest influence on Dutch politics’.

5 key publications

  1. Braham, M., & Van Hees, M. (2014). The impossibility of pure libertarianism. The Journal of Philosophy, 111, 420-436.
  2. Van Hees, M. (2013). Rights, goals and capabilities. Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, 12, 247-259, 2013
  3. Braham, M., & Van Hees, M. (2012). An anatomy of moral responsibility. Mind, 121, 601-634. 4.
  4. Van Hees, M. (2007). The limits of epistemic democracy. Social Choice and Welfare, 28, 649-666. 5.
  5. Van Hees, M. (1999). Liberalism, efficiency, and stability: Some possibility results. Journal of Economic Theory, 88, 294-309.