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The Good, the Right

& the Fair

an introduction to ethics


Mickey Gjerris

Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen

Peter Sande

Danish Centre for Bioethics and Risk Assessment
in cooperation with
Institute of Food and Resource Economics
University of Copenhagen

Draft version

March 2011
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Introduction .......................................................................................................................................... 3
1 About this book ........................................................................................................................ 4
2 Thinking about ethics ............................................................................................................. 10
The Good ............................................................................................................................................ 22
3 Welfare ................................................................................................................................... 23
4 More than welfare? ................................................................................................................. 35
5 What about nature? ................................................................................................................. 45
The Right ............................................................................................................................................ 58
6 Contractarianism ..................................................................................................................... 59
7 Consequentialism ................................................................................................................... 72
8 The Ethics of Rights ............................................................................................................... 85
The Fair .............................................................................................................................................. 93
9 Equality ................................................................................................................................... 94
10 Liberty and Equality ............................................................................................................. 103
11 Democracy and pluralism ..................................................................................................... 112

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1 About this book

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. In 2004, more than 500,000 humans
worldwide, nearly all women, died of breast cancer. Almost all of us have either been in contact
with the disease directly or have relatives or friends who have.
Large efforts are being made to understand and treat the disease. One method used to gain more
knowledge of the disease is to develop animal models. Animal models are animals (typically
rodents) that are specially designed for scientific purposes, allowing researchers to examine the
development of various diseases and to experiment with new treatments. The animals are often
genetically modified. The best known example of such an animal is the OncoMouse or Harvard
mouse that was genetically altered to carry a specific gene that significantly increased the mouses
risk of developing cancer and which is being used in the study of breast cancer.
The OncoMouse, along with thousands of other animal models, is routinely used in research into
human diseases across the globe. The use of these animals raises a number of questions for
researchers, research institutions, and society at large.
A first group of questions pertain to how the animals are used to obtain the knowledge that we are
looking for. How ought the experiments to be designed? How large should the control groups be?
What animals provide the best results? How ought the animals to be housed so that their living
conditions do not interfere with the research results? How can the results be transferred from
animals to humans? All these questions are technical and scientific and they relate to the
methodology of the research. They need to be answered as part of the design of the experiment to
increase the likelihood that the research will produce useful results.
Another group of questions relates to the legal sphere. In most countries and in all Western ones,
the use of laboratory animals is regulated by legislation which aims to ensure both the quality of the
research and the welfare of the animals used. Typically, there are procedures that ought or indeed
must be followed by the individual researcher and the research institution to ensure that the use of
the animals falls within the limits of the regulation. The research project needs to be approved by an
independent committee that evaluates its goal and the degree of stress and/or suffering that the
animals are subjected to. The personnel who handle the animals (both researchers and care-takers)
need permission to work with laboratory animals, which is typically granted once the applicant has
participated in certain courses. Thus, a large legal setup is in place, which any research facility
wishing to work on animals needs to become familiar with and adhere to.
A third group of questions concerns how the use of animals in research should be evaluated from an
ethical point of view. Can it be ethically justifiable to use animals for research into human diseases?
If so, are there any moral limits to their use? Can they be subjected to any kind of suffering, or
should there be limits? Can they be used for research into anything, or should they only be used in
situations where important human interests are at stake and when is this to be the case? What
values should govern the research and are the rules that exist in the area in accordance with the
values of the researchers and the citizens? All these questions are ethical in nature and differ from
the scientific and legal questions.
Sometimes, ethical questions may be overlooked. However, a look at the wider public debate
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concerning the use of animals for research and concerning the genetic modification of animals
should convince everyone that ethical questions are very real and they matter to a lot of people.
The term ought to seems to be involved in all three groups of questions, and to identify the
specific nature of ethical questions, it may be useful to distinguish the ethical definition of ought
to from the technical and legal applications of the term.
Thus, one way of using ought to concerns the instrumental or technical dimension, and it most
often involves some consideration of efficiency. A doctor might ask herself which medicine or
procedure would cure a given disease most efficiently, which would be a technical question. Note
that such questions always involves factual matters and that, in general, one can say that the more
knowledge one has about relevant data, the more likely one is to actually do what one ought to do,
in the instrumental sense. Not doing what one ought to do in the instrumental sense will most often
bring about some undesirable state of affairs, either for oneself, or for some other affected party.
For example, if the doctor selects the wrong medicine, the patient might die.
There is also a legal ought to or should. Here, the question is rarely a matter of efficiency.
Rather, it concerns whether or not something is regulated by law(s), and if so, what the law
demands, forbids, mandates, allows or restricts. Needless to say, not doing what the law demands
you ought to, or must, can have legal consequences. If a doctor selects an illegal drug to test on an
unknowing patient on purpose, then he can be punished.
The third, and for our purposes the central way of using ought to is the moral use. Theorists and
laymen alike have struggled to precisely define what is meant by morally ought to. However, we
believe that almost all individuals are quite familiar with the moral sense of ought to. Most of us
have been in a situation in which we consciously abstain from doing something, or we are
compelled to do something, even though doing otherwise would be more comfortable, profitable or
convenient. Perhaps we do not follow the moral ought to very often. But, at times at least, the
moral ought to seems to kick in and compels us to, or stop us from, doing something even though
it might be both instrumentally and legally fine. (Of course, most of the time there is an overlap
between the different senses of ought to.)
This book is an introduction to some of the basic theories about what one ought to do morally
speaking. So, we are going to present the most prominent ethical theories and arguments from
normative ethics and political philosophy to the reader.
Note that throughout, we do not distinguish in any meaningful sense between the notions moral
and ethic: The terms ethic and moral have (roughly, at least) the same original meaning, even
though some philosophers choose to define ethics as being the broader and more theoretical of the
two, whilst morals pertain to our everyday norms; some do it the other way round; and still others
use them as synonyms. In this book, we have chosen to follow the latter practice. Normative ethics
concerns the systematic attempt to provide us with a theory that explains, the moral ought to and
how to apply it in real-life choices and dilemmas.

Pluralism and a sensible discussion of the ethical
We speak about theories in the plural here; and this is a conscious choice. There is wide agreement
about the importance of ethics, but there is much less agreement concerning what is the right
account of what we ethically speaking ought to do. This disagreement concerning ethics sometimes
leads people to the sceptical conclusion that it is senseless to discuss ethics; it is like arguing
whether or not coffee has a pleasant aroma. It simply boils down to a matter of taste.
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We disagree, but since we have devoted a whole chapter to how we can discuss ethics in a sensible
way, we will not discuss it further here. On a more general note, however, we would like to stress
that we take our starting point in the assumption of pluralism. To us, a variety of theories and
arguments about ethics are intellectually stimulating and worth considering and studying; more
stimulating, indeed, than just sticking to one such theory. And even though each of the authors has
his own moral view, we do not advocate any specific moral theory in this book. Moreover, we do
not provide the reader with specific answers to specific moral questions, such as our (eventual)
moral duties towards the poor, or towards the environment, etc. Rather, we seek to provide the
reader with some intellectual guidance so she can make up her own mind.
Nonetheless, we do not claim to be fully neutral or impartial, because we cannot be. One can not
present all the relevant positions and theories regarding ethics. What we have done is to focus on
the arguments and theories that we take to be either very central in the philosophical discussion and
literature and/or to be very central to our own understanding of normative ethics and its

The structure of the book
The book is divided into three major parts plus an opening discussion. The opening discussion
includes this short introductory chapter and the following chapter, where we will pursue the
question about the rationality of thinking about and discussing ethics.
The first major part of the book (chapters 3 to 5) presents some major theories about the good, or
what one might plausibly claim ought to be promoted or respected. This is, of course, a central
theme in ethical theorizing. Without a grasp of what ought to be promoted, or protected, or
respected, it is hardly sensible to discuss ethical questions.
The second major part of the book (chapters 6 to 9) presents the major attempts to answer the
question what is the right thing to do?, or simply the question of (morally) right action. It is
necessary to distinguish between the good, or what ought to be promoted, on the one hand, and how
to act (hopefully in the light of what is good) on the other. Even though we agree on what is
valuable, we may disagree concerning how far each of us ought to pursue what is valuable.
The third major part of the book (chapters 10 and 11) concerns political institutions, or the relation
between the morally good and society. Suppose that a person has firm ideas about both the good
and the right. This does not necessarily settle all questions about how to arrange society and its
laws. Other people might, for instance, disagree with your favoured conception of morality. This
last part presents some important discussions about political or societal morality, and its differences
and likenesses to individual morality.

The chapters explained
Chapter 2: In this chapter we set the stage for the discussions in the rest of the book by asking
three central questions that anyone considering practical ethics needs to think through: 1) From
where do our ethical values come? 2) Is there a way to evaluate ethical values to find the best or
right values? And finally, 3) Is it at all possible to have a constructive ethical dialogue that
avoids simply widening the gap between opposing view-points. In chapter 2, we seek to find a
middle road between ethical relativism, where ethics is simply seen as unexplainable personal or
cultural preferences, and ethical absolutism, where ethics is seen as an expression of eternal truths
which are binding for all ethical agents. Suggesting that ethical pluralism, in our sense of the word,
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provides a foundation for fruitful societal debates on ethical dilemmas, we also suggest some
minimum requirements for ethical arguments that leave the floor open for substantial
Chapter 3: In this chapter we start to explore what it is for something to be good or valuable. We
discuss an influential contender for the title of being the only thing which is good in its own right,
namely welfare. Different theories of welfare are presented and discussed, starting with hedonism,
which is the view that the only thing that matters in life is to gain pleasure and other positive mental
states and to avoid pain and other negative states. Another view which is discussed is that the
welfare of a person consists of the satisfaction of that persons preferences. It turns out that all the
candidates for a theory of welfare presented in the chapter have their characteristic problems and
Chapter 4: One of the main problems for a strictly welfarist position is that we seem to have moral
experiences of phenomena that tell us that welfare is not all that matters. In this chapter, we discuss
two such examples in depth: Lying and self-governance both in relation to smoking and the GPS-
tracking of mentally disabled patients. Most will probably agree with us that lying is wrong. But, is
it always wrong or is it only wrong when the lie creates less welfare than the truth? The chapter thus
discusses whether all ethical considerations can be boiled down to welfare considerations, or
whether there are actions and phenomena that can be said to be ethically bad in a way that is not
wholly reducible to concerns about welfare.
Chapter 5: So far we have only discussed ethics as a phenomenon that takes place or happens
between people. But what about the rest of nature: Animals, plants, ecosystems etc. How far should
moral concern extend? In the light of climate change, one can ask: Do we only have to take other
people into account when we seek to adapt to climate change and mitigate its consequences, or do
we have a responsibility for nature as well? In this chapter, we describe the four main positions
within contemporary environmental ethics, we discuss how the concept of nature can be
understood and we discuss the problems that arise when the ethical community is expanded beyond
Chapter 6: In this chapter we ask, what is the morally right way to act? The perspective of the
acting person is central to the discussion. The acting person has to prioritize between doing different
things, which differ in terms of how different parties are affected. In the chapter, we discuss the
view that I should only do what is good for me, a view called ethical egoism. This view leads us on
to so-called contractarian ethics, according to which ethical norms are based on a hypothetical
contract whereby rational and self-interested agents agree to collaborate to their mutual benefit.
This approach excludes animals from moral concern, unless some of the agents happen to care for
Chapter 7: This chapter goes on to discuss what, in a way, is the opposite view of egoism, namely
consequentialism. According to this view, the right action is the one which maximises good and
minimises bad consequences irrespective of who the beneficiaries are. The most famous version
of this view is utilitarianism, according to which welfare is the good to be maximized. In the
chapter, the way in which consequentialism has evolved in the light of different kinds of criticism is
discussed, for example that in practice we can never overlook the consequences of what we do, or
that the view imposes unreasonable demands on us. According to modern versions of the view, the
consequentialist principle is not a decision guide; rather it helps us to develop our ordinary moral
norms so as to lead to the best possible consequences.
Chapter 8: The Ethics of Rights. In this chapter we address some of the most influential schools of
moral thought, namely those which insist that morality is best explained in terms of rights. A right
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here means, roughly, a trump which either says that a person has a right to some specific thing,
treatment or good, or more commonly, that a person has a right to protection against some action or
treatment. Accordingly, the ethics of rights are in opposition to consequentialism, because rights are
often trumps against being sacrificed for some greater good. But what, if anything, justify such
Chapter 9: Equality the importance of distributions. Here, we begin to move from an
individualist to a societal perspective. Up to this point, we have mainly been discussing morality as
a personal question what ought I to do? But, morality essentially concerns outcomes that affect
more than one person. So, in this chapter, we discuss various theories about the distribution of
outcomes, how good and bad things are distributed across affected parties. We take the simple
intuition that an equal distribution is in one sense or another desirable as our starting point and then
move on to more complicated theories.
Chapter 10: Political Philosophy: Liberty and Equality. In this chapter, we continue to focus on
collective rather than individual problems, but move on to what is termed political philosophy.
The central question of the chapter concerns the relation between, on the one hand, individual
liberty, and on the other, equality. How ought we to act? For example, what kinds of tax policies
should we have in relation to liberty and equality? In essence, theoretically informed answers to this
question are theories of social justice. As we discussed equality in the previous chapter, we spend
more time discussing liberty in this chapter.
Chapter 11: Political Philosophy: Democracy and Pluralism. In this last chapter, we address some
of the most pertinent problems in political philosophy, namely those of democracy and pluralism.
Most of us believe in democracy. However, can a democratic majority make any decision? What
are the limits of democratic decision-making? And what about pluralism? How is it possible to
respect different citizens who have vastly different conceptions of morality and justice in the same
political regime?

Prerequisites and intended audience
Our intention has been to write a book which is accessible to all readers with some academic
training or ambition on a reasonably advanced level, for example, first year university students.
Training in philosophy or related areas is definitely not a requirement for reading or understanding
this book. Whereas it is of course possible to read the book without engaging in discussions with
other readers, we hope that the book will be used in groups or classes where there is the time and
opportunity to discuss the various arguments, cases, and positions presented. Again, our intention is
not to provide definite answers to moral problems, but to equip the reader with a more qualified and
broader understanding of how ethical issues are analyzed and discussed.
Moreover, we have avoided the historical approach (popular in some countries) as well as the
philosopher-centric exegetical approach, where a more or less complete and close reading of
some famous philosophers takes centre stage. Instead, we have focused on a more thematic and
analytical approach, which we believe serves the purposes of a general yet comprehensive
introduction best. In several places we have used case studies and examples from central
philosophical texts to illustrate the points raised in the best possible way.

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Some tips for each chapter
Most chapters begin with a brief introduction of the main themes discussed. This is followed by the
presentation of a case, which exemplifies some central problem or challenge relevant to the main
theme(s) of the chapter. Do remember to give yourself time to reflect on the cases and
introductions; remember that we are not providing the answers. Moreover, if you lose track of what
is going on in a chapter at times, going back to the introductory remarks might be a help. Each
chapter ends with a short summary of the central points and with some suggestions for further
reading, which may be helpful if you want to go deeper into the presented themes and discussions.
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2 Thinking about ethics

Discussions about what is right and wrong can very easily turn into heated arguments. Often
they end in disagreement and sometimes anger because the two parties cannot find any
common ground. But ethical reflection can be used to facilitate such discussions in a more
fruitful direction and provide a common ground for discussing what sometimes are perceived
as matters of life and death. To demonstrate this we will look at three main questions: 1)
from where do our ethical values come? 2) Is there a way to evaluate ethical values to find
the best or right values? And finally 3) is it at all possible to have a constructive ethical
dialogue that avoids simply widening the gap between opposing view-points.
We believe that by answering these three questions, we will be able to shed some light on
how ethics is discussed today and make a case for ethical pluralism as being a good point of
departure when discussing ethics. Ethical pluralism here means rejecting both relativism and
fundamentalism and using the criteria of consistency and openness to evaluate the different
ethical perspectives present in society today. Ethical pluralism does not solve the problem of
differing values, but it ensures that those who care to discuss them follow the same basic
rules for discussing ethics. This can both ensure that ethics can be used as a flash-light to gain
knowledge and respect for the values and principles of others, whilst informing the decision-
making process in such a way that as many stakeholders as possible are included, although
only some can have their way.

In 1998, James Thompson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US led a group of
researchers that succeeded in isolating cells from the inner cell mass of early embryos, and
developed the first human embryonic stem cell lines. This was the culmination of more than a
hundred years research into the therapeutic potential of human cells and the beginning of the intense
interest in stem cell research that has attracted huge investments since the late 1990s. The
technology is not only full of potential, but is also surrounded by ethical controversy. Stem cell
research involves the utilization of human cells. So far research has been very dependent on
obtaining these cell lines from human embryos; embryos that were destroyed in the process of
obtaining so called totipotent cells, which potentially can be manipulated to grow into cells of a pre-
specified nature. This was exactly what caused all the controversy. To some, the early human
embryo constitutes an individual and its destruction is therefore tantamount to killing an innocent
human being. Others focus on the fact that the early human embryo is not yet recognizable as a
human and has no central nervous system. They view the embryo, not as a human being, but as a
biological resource to be utilized for the benefit of humans. In between these two radical views,
there are a lot of positions, which, to varying degrees, acknowledge the fact that the early embryo
can develop into a human being, but also recognize the potential of stem cell research for mankind.

Disagreeing about ethics
One of the pertinent ethical issues in the stem cell debate has been whether it is justifiable to do
something, which is seen by some as being morally wrong (destroying an embryo), in order to
obtain something else that is considered good (medical development). This discussion of the
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relation between the means and the ends of a proposed action can be found within many areas of
ethical discussion, as it is one of the most controversial issues between two of the larger schools
of ethics: a consequentialist school, which focuses on weighing outcomes against each other to find
the one with the best overall consequences, and a deontological school of ethics that focuses on the
prohibition of certain actions (in this case destroying human embryos).
Another issue that has been heavily debated is whether the observation that perceptions of ethical
values change over time should make us cautious about new technological developments. There
seems to be a tendency for technological developments, which were originally met with scepticism
and caution, to become socially acceptable after a few years. Just think of the controversy
surrounding test-tube babies back in the 1970s. Today, one would be hard pressed to find anyone
who objects to this technology in principle, although many experts are concerned with problems
such as inheritable infertility. One explanation for this is that values change over time and, having
experienced the technology and having found that most of the initial objections to the technology
are unfounded, society as a whole becomes more accepting. Technological development is therefore
an important area that challenges the ethical values in a society and it would be detrimental for
society to stop such development. Others claim that the reason new technologies become accepted
after a while is that society becomes desensitized to the controversial issues connected to particular
new technologies through exposure over time.
In other words, the claim is that only by opposing new wrongs from the beginning, can we halt the
process of desensitization and prevent new wrongs from becoming things that we are used to doing.
At the same time, it is worth noting that there are huge geographical and cultural differences in what
is deemed to be ethically and socially acceptable. One example is the opposing attitudes concerning
stem cell research held in protestant and catholic oriented parts of Europe.
The ethical debate about stem cell research does not seem to have created any kind of consensus
between those discussing the subject in public, but that does not mean that those who listen are not
influenced by the arguments for and against the technology. Whatever the result of the debate on
stem cell research so far, it is yet another example of the perennial discussion about the ethical
status of human existence.
When do humans become ethically important and can it be ethically justifiable to destroy human
life in its early forms? This question lies at the heart of both the controversy over abortion, as well
as the issue of stem cell research. Other ethical debates in western societies exhibit a similar
development, in that they tend to clarify what it is that we disagree about, without bringing the issue
any closer to a consensus. This leaves us with ethically charged decisions to be made in a climate of
conflict and disagreement. But this is not inevitable. As we will try to argue in this chapter, ethical
debates should rather be seen as opportunities to take the time to understand not only the opinions
of others, but also the underlying values of those opinions. This would not necessarily lead to
agreement, but to a more respectful attitude towards the values of others and a better understanding
of our own values.

Fundamentalism and relativism
The interpretation of mutual understanding as one of the main goals of ethical discussion can be
motivated by ethical pluralism. In this chapter, we will place this normative ethical position in
opposition to two extreme positions: fundamentalism and relativism. In this context, a
fundamentalist is someone who believes that they have infallible knowledge about what is right and
wrong: therefore they have no need to discuss this with other human beings. Very often, a
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fundamentalist will belong to a group of people who share a similar conviction. Thus, by
confirming each other of the truths of the group, they reinforce each others opinions and build an
identity as members of the community. The only task for the political or religious fundamentalist is
to convince others of these values, and, as the knowledge is absolute, there is more than just a
tendency for fundamentalists to use means to promote their cause, which are violent and oppressing.
The fundamentalist has no need to listen to others as the truth is already known.
At the opposite end of the continuum we find the relativist, who, as a consequence of the empirical
fact that different values have existed in different cultures and at different times, claims that all
values are subjective and particular to individuals. It is impossible to discuss values in a rational
way between different ethical viewpoints. We can inform each about our values and try to
accommodate the values of others out of practical necessity, but ethical values are fundamentally
matters of taste: expressions of non-justifiable preferences. The sentence, I consider child abuse to
be ethically wrong, is on par with the sentence, I dont like tomato soup. As with the
fundamentalist, there is no point in having a discussion about ethics. All we can do is inform each
other, but we cannot learn anything from each other, let alone have our values criticized.
To understand these very different positions and the huge middle ground in between we will
begin by examining the first question mentioned at the start: where do the ethical values that people
live by, originate? To get there, we need to begin by looking at two of the most basic feelings
connected to ethics.

Shame and guilt
All human beings (unless psychopathic, very depressed or mentally disabled) understand the
difference between what is right and wrong. When we experience others who violate what we think
is right, we feel outraged and indignant. Just think of a large corporation, which knowingly exposes
its underpaid workers to toxic waste without proper safety equipment. We demand that things are
corrected and that the guilty parties are punished for their crimes. When we personally fall short of
the ethical standards we believe in, we usually feel regret and our conscience makes evident to us
that we have failed. Whether we react to this and seek to make amends, or whether we find an
explanation and excuse that makes it possible for us to continue without feelings of guilt, is an open
question. But what is not an open question is that we have ethical values, which we use to make
judgments on our compatriots and ourselves although we often pass the hardest judgments on
A related but different emotion is that of shame, which is related to how others evaluate our actions.
I might find it ethically acceptable to get drunk and walk through the quiet neighbourhood of my
home singing obscene songs loudly late at night, but the next morning I might be ashamed of my
actions, as I worry that others might hold other values and react negatively to my escapades. But
whereas shame is primarily an emotion rooted in our fear of the social judgment of others, guilt is
the tool of our own conscience to inform us that we have fallen short of our own ethical values.
When we experience shame, due to the social judgment of others, and guilt for falling short of our
own standards at the same time, we start to regret our actions and search for ways to make amends
or at least mitigate their effects. Facing up to our own ethical values can thus be very important to

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The ethical perspective (EP)
Our ethical values are always there to help guide our actions: Should I donate money to a charity?
Should I help my friend or go out and enjoy myself instead? Should I buy fair trade coffee or the
cheap one? Should I vote for this or that political party? Should I support animal welfare products
or eat industrially produced meat? All these questions we answer by referring to our ethical values.
And they again refer back to our general attitude towards life, the universe and everything. In short:
Our Ethical Perspective (EP). An ethical perspective (EP) is the position from which we view and
judge the world and ourselves. Our EP is the aggregation of all our values and it provides us with
the glasses through which we view the world and the yardstick with which we measure each other.
This does not, however, mean that an EP is necessarily free from contradictions, or from inner
conflict. This is important to understand. Sometimes we experience these conflicts because we are
inconsistent in our thinking. Many in the western world are happy to wear leather made from dead
cows, but would object to dog fur or cat skin, although it is very hard to point to any ethically
relevant difference.
At other times, we find that we hold inconsistent values that easily come into conflict. We can
imagine a person who, at the same time, believes that it is wrong to destroy a human embryo, but
also believes firmly that women have the right to decide over their own bodies when it comes to
pregnancy and abortion. Thinking about our EP and evaluating the importance of the different
values it consists of, is therefore necessary if one is to make a choice in such a situation. Finally, our
EP is also our fall back option when presented with issues that we have not yet formed an opinion
about. So, when asked for the first time whether stem cell research is ethically problematic, most of
us have to do two things, 1) Obtain some knowledge about what it is and, 2) Assess the technology
in the light of our EP in order to form an opinion.
Philosophers and other scholars, who are interested in these matters, differ in their opinion as to
how an EP is shaped, and especially how it ought to be shaped. To the fundamentalist, the EP is (or
at least ought to be) shaped by their infallible knowledge about good and evil. This can occur
through listening to the clergy, reading holy books or communicating directly with the divine. To
rationalists, the EP is developed through logical thinking and common sense the task being to
create an EP that is not in conflict with itself and which can be applied to make judgements in all
matters. Others assert that the EP of an individual should be decided by the feelings that the world
awakes in us, or by notions such as duty or utility.
From a more descriptive perspective, it seems fair to say that an individuals EP is continuously
evolving and is influenced by the individuals personality and surrounding environment. Here,
environment should be understood as being the historical, social, mental and physical environment
of a person. Thus, an individuals upbringing, family, friends, education, job, culture, religion,
genes, temper, gender and sexuality all have an influence on the ethical perspective. At some point,
the individual moves into action, sorting out the values, choosing some over others, keeping some
out of love for their mother, rejecting others out of loathing of a childhood teacher etc. This process
of sorting out usually continues for our whole live, shaping and reshaping our EP, making us
change our values or reject new ones. Furthermore, much of this happens without us being aware of
it. Sometimes we experience something that brings us into a crisis situation, which demands that we
consciously reflect on our EP. However, most of the time, our EP develops just as we as individuals
develop through life, without requiring any special attention.

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Do you know your EP?
For some politicians, intellectuals, religious adherents and people in general it is a question of great
honour to be able to demonstrate that they have gone through life (or just a series of experiences)
without changing their EP. I say, I have always said and I will continue to say is thus considered
to be a phrase, which expresses integrity and solidity, inspiring trust in the speaker. But it could also
be interpreted as the words of an inflexible mind, stagnating with obstinate interpretations of life
and unable to learn from experiences. Whether one views it one or the other way, it is important to
remember a few of things about ethical perspectives.
A) Everybody has an EP although some may not have thought much about it. B) We cannot
change our EP as easily as we change our clothes it is an integral part of who we are. C) We can
partially see the world through the EP of another person if we take the time to listen to the person
explain and argue for the values behind it and describe how it was shaped. D) If we take the time to
do this then ethical dialogue improves immensely since a partial understanding of another
individuals EP is a prerequisite for discussing value differences in a fruitful way. E) Seeking to
understand others is also a way of gaining self-knowledge. In the attempt to understand the EP of
another person, we are forced to articulate our own EP, thus gaining a deeper understanding of
others and ourselves through dialogue. It is like travelling. We are not only confronted by other
individuals out there in the unknown territory we are also confronted by ourselves. In this way,
we are often able to see ourselves with greater clarity. As the British philosopher Simon Blackburn
remarks: Travelling broadens the mind.

What if we are in doubt?
We are seldom in doubt about what we think is right and wrong, as long as we stay within most
everyday experiences. We pass judgment on the world (and ourselves) with great efficiency most of
the time. We have an everyday perspective that enables us to follow the norms of our culture and
society without much hesitation. We do not stop to think about ethics every time we are confronted
by an ethical situation. Instead of reflecting on the particular situation, we automatically follow the
norms that govern our lives. And this strategy works well most of the times. We rarely take the time
to reflect on our EP and seek to understand why we judge in the way that we do and it is much rarer
for us to attempt to understand the EP of others. This is regrettable as such an understanding both
puts a sobering disclaimer on our own assertions for ethical infallibility, whilst also making the
views of others more understandable. This does not, however, mean that ethical value differences
will be solved by understanding the ethical perspectives of ourselves and others. What it means is
that if we take the time, we can create the foundation for a dialogue and move beyond the mutual
monologues that characterize many ethical debates and make them, at times, seem like war zones.
But sometimes we are unsure of what is right and wrong. We hesitate when confronted by certain
choices. Perhaps the situation is very complex; perhaps we realize that we hold conflicting values,
or perhaps the issue at hand is unfamiliar to us. We might be in a difficult situation in life, or we
may be facing a complex technological development. Then we might start to reflect on our EP in an
attempt to seek guidance as to how to respond in the situation. And we may even decide to modify
our EP in the light of the particular situation. In other words, we find ourselves in a situation, which
causes us to re-evaluate our EP. But what values can we turn to to assess our values? Is there a
clock that we can use to check the other clocks? This leads us to the second question which was
posed at the beginning of the chapter: Is there a way to evaluate ethical values in order to find the
best or right values?
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Evaluating ethical values
As mentioned previously, it is important to know the background of the myriad of ethical
judgments, view-points and attitudes, which we carry around with us. By understanding how we
ended up with our own values and how others ended up with theirs, we are less prone to thinking
that we are necessarily right and that those who disagree with us are either stupid, or just not
listening. We all have an EP and we could easily spend a lot of time becoming all the wiser as to
how it has developed, but for some of us, an historical explanation is not enough. We want to be
able to do more than just explain the genesis of our EP. We want to be able to demonstrate that we
are justified in holding the values we do, both in relation to ourselves and in relation to others.
Clearly, some of us do not concern ourselves with this. However, it is our experience that for many
people it is unsatisfactory not to be able to defend their EP in some way other than just pointing to
its historical origin. Obviously, some people do not share this urge and consider it to be an annoying
over-intellectualization of something very simple, but to others it is a necessity, if they are to feel in
any way consistent about their view-points.
The question, how can we evaluate our ethical perspective, thus remains at least for some of us.
Is there some sort of standard according to which we can compare our EP, allowing us to determine
which ethical values are the most important, which are misunderstood and which are simply wrong?
Is there, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, A view from nowhere where we can stand and
look at all the different values and decide which are true and which are false? A place where we,
undisturbed by our own ethical perspective can pass judgment on the ethical perspectives of others
and our own? It should be clear from what has been discussed above that we are sceptical of this
idea. If it is true that our EP is as inherent to us as we have hitherto claimed, then it makes no sense
to believe that we can somehow ignore it and evaluate it from the outside. Rather, what we can do is
to take up one or a few elements of our EP at a time and critically reflect upon them, both looking at
their historical origins and their philosophical implications. We will return to this a little later, but
next we will discuss what some consider be the logical consequence of not being able to find the
view from nowhere.

But isnt everything just a matter of taste, then?
The impossibility of finding an objective neutral platform outside our murky world of values and
subjectivity has led some to conclude that ethics can never leave the subjective sphere. As
previously mentioned, such a position is known as relativism. Relativism is the flip-side of
fundamentalism. If fundamentalism is a belief in infallible ethical values and indisputable truths,
then relativism is the belief that values are relative to different groups, tribes or organizations.
Whether one adheres to one or the other value cannot be the subject of any rational (in the broadest
sense) discussion, as values are subjectively held judgments that cannot be argued in a way that
could obligate anyone else to adhere to them.
Some believe that relativism finds support in the fact that, throughout human history, and
throughout different human cultures, a plurality of different and even mutually exclusive values has
existed. Individual subjectivity thus gives way to cultural relativism and the notion that just because
contemporary culture adheres to certain values, for instance protecting the rights of the individual, it
does not follow that cultures in which this is not the case, are ethically wrong.
Initially, relativism seems like a good solution to the endless ethical debates. It acknowledges that
there is a reason we cannot come to a conclusion and enables us to move on. But relativism, when
taken to its logical conclusion, also entails consequences that few of us are willing to accept. It
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would mean that one could not claim that it is absolutely ethically wrong to support an organization
that preaches hate towards people of a different religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. If an
individual is a racist, then one could not oppose him on ethical grounds. According to the relativist
there is nothing to talk about, as there is no way one can justify a view-point and thereby obligate
others to adhere to it. You might say that the relativist, in being relativistic about the reasons we can
provide for our values, almost becomes a fundamentalist in regard to the values held by individuals,
as relativists are located outside the sphere of discussion and justification.
If we examine other cultures, a relativistic outlook denies us the right to speak out about apartheid
in South Africa, Taleban fundamentalism in Afghanistan, or the oppression of basic human rights in
China. The relativist would say that these are examples of different values and who are we to say
that we know better?
Relativism thus seems to work best when the gap between the values we differ on, is not too great.
After all, it is easy to claim that there are no common ethical values when the different values we
hold are very similar. However, few of us are willing to accept, for example, that it is ethically
unproblematic to suppress a black woman because of the colour of her skin, just because it takes
place within the framework of different ethical values. Relativism is therefore very convenient in
everyday life in a homogenous society. It is socially prudent to be tolerant of the values of others
and by claiming relativism, one does not need to defend ones own values, or spend time
understanding the values of others. Relativism (as understood here) simply says, Ill leave you
alone, if you leave me alone an ideology with seems to suit us well in the postmodern societies of
the western world of the 21
Century. But when faced with suicide-bombers, racists and actions
which are founded on radically different values from our own, relativism suddenly seems less

Ethical pluralism as the middle ground
It seems that even though we cannot find the view from nowhere, we do make evaluations by some
standards that exclude at least some values on ethical grounds. Somewhere in between
fundamentalism and relativism, there is a room where we can reflect on values and ideals and, to
some degree at least, pass judgment on them. At least it is apparent that we do so, and when we turn
to ethical pluralism, we will see whether this can be justified. Ethical pluralism, on the one hand,
accepts that mutually exclusive values can exist at the same time without there being any way of
deciding which one is the better. On the other hand, ethical pluralism maintains that there are limits
to what can be claimed as being ethical, although admittedly they are rather broad. It is the room
where, through careful thinking (in the broadest sense), we can find some common ground from
where we can at least judge whether some values and actions are ethical or otherwise. It is where
we go when we have to choose between different values in a situation in which we are unsure of the
right choice, and it is here we go in order to pass judgment on others.
Many suggestions as to how to evaluate ethical values and systems have been proposed. One that
merits special attention here is the idea of wide reflective equilibrium originally suggested by the
political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) and later developed more fully by thinkers such as
Norman Daniels. The task is to produce coherence between three areas of knowledge held by a
person, (a) a set of reflected ethical judgments, (b) a set of ethical principles relevant to the cases,
and (c) the relevant background information that influenced the judgments made in (a).
This is not the place to give a detailed account of the attempts to provide an objective, or at least
inter-subjective, base for discussing ethics. What we have done in the following is to single out
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what to our minds are the two most important criteria when evaluating ethical values and principles.
These are consistency and openness. They serve as a foundation, but can be further supplemented
by others.

The ethical tape measure, part 1: Consistency
The first basic demand for participating in the moral game is that one accepts some degree of
consistency. By the term consistency we simply mean that one should accept that equal situations
are evaluated on equal terms, or that it is argued why the two situations are not equal.
For many people, the practice of slaughtering 14 days old seals in the Bay of St. Lawrence in
Canada is ethically problematic. The hunting of the animals is regulated by the Canadian
government to ensure the sustainability of the seal population. In 2009, the total number of animals
that can be killed was set to 275,000. The seals are either killed by a blow to the head with a spiked
mullet or shot and the meat is typically left behind and is eaten by wild animals.
What happens if we look at this case through the perspective of consistency? The question thus
becomes, how does the hunting of young seals differ from other ways of obtaining products for
human consumption from animals? If we compare seal hunting with e.g. meat production, the
demand for consistency claims that you either oppose both the slaughtering of young seals and
conventional meat production, or produce an argument for why there is a relevant difference.

Baby seal bacon?
The act of killing the seals in itself can hardly be said to be a crucial difference, as killing is an
integral part of almost all animal production. The method of killing the seals is, from a strict animal
welfare perspective, one of the more humane ways of dispatching an animal, as the relatively soft
skull of the young seal is easily crushed by a hard precise blow, thereby killing the seal almost
instantly. We are well aware that this method of slaughtering seals is not always carried out with
precision, but in theory at least, there seems to be no additional welfare problems for this way of
killing when compared to the way in which we kill other farmed animals.
That only part of the seal is utilized for human consumption is not so different from what happens at
a slaughter house, where large parts of animals are discarded and never used for human
consumption, but are utilized in different ways, e.g. as feed for fur production animals. This does
not happen with the remains of the seals, which are left behind and quickly return to the food chain
in nature. Some claim that the difference is that the seals are only used for luxury products in the
form of fur, whereas e.g. chickens are used for food, which is considered to be much more useful.
The problem here is that meat is not a necessity in a human diet. Vegetarianism is the obvious
choice and a choice which benefits individual health, the environment in general and, more
specifically, reduces CO
-emissions from the agricultural sector. At least in the lifetime of a typical
western consumer, there is no need to eat meat for other reasons than aesthetic (the taste). The
question thus remains: what is the relevant ethical difference between traditional animal production
and, the production of seal fur?
If none are to be found, you either have to accept seal fur production, or oppose also e.g. the
industrialized production of bacon, from the point of view of consistency. We do not suggest here
that it cannot be argued that there are relevant differences, but suggest that it is necessary to argue
for these differences if a substantial ethical argument is to be put forward against the production of
fur from Canadian seals. Such differences might be found if, for example, the method of
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slaughtering was brought more into question, the distress felt by the parent animals when
witnessing the slaughtering was more in focus, the claim that the meat is utilized by other animals
was more closely examined, the difference between wildlife and farmed animals was more clearly
explored, or an argument was put forward emphasising the de-sensitizing effect on our culture that
the mass slaughter for fur of animals that appeal to our emotions for protection could have.
An ethical perspective should only accept that equal beings are treated differently if there are
ethically relevant reasons to do so. An ethical perspective asserting that it is ethically acceptable for
me, but not for anyone else, to cheat at exams, has to be able to identify a relevant ethical difference
between me and everyone else. If an EP entails that people of different religions, races, genders or
sexual orientations are treated differently, for example, in relation to their opportunity to have
political influence, one has to explain why the differences are relevant. It is not enough to point to
differences in name, time, place, gender, colour etc. Such differences are not ethically relevant in
If there are no relevant differences, then you have to accept that the same rules apply to all - if you
wish to participate at all in the moral game. In philosophical terms: You have to accept a principle
of universability. Notice that it is not impossible to identify valid reasons as to why only some
individuals should be allowed to do something. But the burden of evidence is always on those who
wish to distinguish between things that are otherwise considered equal. An ethical perspective that
distinguishes between the legal responsibility of a mentally disabled person and a normal adult
obviously treats the two individuals differently. But most would accept this since the reason is that,
with regards to their mental faculties, they are not equal, which constitutes an ethically relevant
difference in relation to whether they should be held legally responsible for their actions.

The ethical tape measure, part 2: Openness
A person should be able to incorporate new knowledge and new ethical experiences into her ethical
perspective, reinterpreting principles and values if necessary. Through the life of a human being, it
is obvious that things may change. New opportunities might arise due to, for example, technology,
or the person in question might have experiences that make them question their beliefs. Some may
argue that it is impossible to change ones ethical perspective, because they believe it is handed
down from God. This would mean that the person would be unable to reinterpret ethical values due
to lifetime experiences. Such an ethical perspective, which is insulated from the reality of human
existence, is problematic. We consider it to be a requirement of the moral game that participants
reflect upon their values, engage in dialogue about them and remain open to the possibility that they
might be wrong, or at least not totally right, thus exhibiting a small degree of humility in the face of
the absoluteness of their values.
As an example, take anthropocentrism (the notion that all humans and only humans are ethically
relevant beings). Anthropocentrism is hard to defend by claiming that humans are somehow
distinctly different from all other living organisms on the Earth, if the knowledge gained from
evolutionary theory is taken into consideration. If anthropocentrism is part of ones EP, the criterion
of openness demands that the idea is scrutinized and any arguments against anthropocentrism are
taken seriously. It is impossible to say anything in general about what experiences, or what
knowledge is important enough for humans to reinterpret their ethical perspective. Here we just
wish to claim that openness is a fundamental part of any ethical perspective and that EPs that do not
contain this quality are problematic.
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These two criteria, consistency and openness, can be used to evaluate the ethical perspectives that
we meet in our lives. But they will not solve all ethical disagreements. Rather, they enable us to
identify the EPs that rely heavily on prejudices, egoism, and a lack of critical thinking or plain
stupidity. But there are still many different perspectives left that fulfil the demands of the two
criteria mentioned here, but which, nonetheless, lead to different conclusions about what ethical
values should be pursued.
One can imagine that a person who claims that all humans should live in brotherhood and take care
of the weak would be able to fulfil the claims put forth here. But so would a radical social-
Darwinist who claims that the laws of human societies should mimic the laws of evolution in the
sense that they should promote the strong and sort out the weak. It would be difficult to imagine a
believer in the ideology of Nazism fulfilling the criteria. It would be hard to argue for the relevant
differences between humans that would justify the atrocious inequalities within Nazism, just as the
openness of the ideology can be seriously questioned.
The demands suggested here for participants in the moral game do not predetermine which values
will be the right ones. Rather, they set the stage for the moral discussion and rule out arbitrary and
poorly thought-out positions. The task from then on is to enter into the moral game and put ones
values up for discussion. This leads us to the third question in the introduction: Is it at all possible to
have a constructive ethical dialogue that avoids simply widening the gap between opposing view-

What can be gained by discussing values?
As mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, ethical discussions today seem to result in the further
entrenchment of values and the widening of the gap between opposing viewpoints. We believe that
this can be explained, to a large extent, by the assumed underlying aim of many ethical debates: that
they should end up with a consensus, or at least a compromise. But based on the understanding of
ethical discussion and evaluation that has been developed in this chapter, we would suggest that the
purpose of discussing ethics is not only to reach decisions, but also to gain knowledge of the ethical
perspectives involved in the debate.
First and foremost, ethical discussions represent an opportunity to understand the values of others,
both from an historic and a normative perspective. The historic perspective means listening to the
ethical values of others and the stories that created those values bringing them into their lives. The
normative perspective means trying to understand individuals justifications for their values. And it
means reciprocating and justifying our own values. This does not, as already mentioned, necessarily
lead to any kind of agreement. But it will make us a bit wiser concerning the reasons why we
disagree in that we will have gained a deeper understanding of our colleagues position, as well as
our own ethical perspective, which we would have to clarify during the debate. In this form, ethical
discussion, instead of acting like a wedge driving two parties further apart, as happens all too often,
acts as a flash light that illuminates the discussion.
Finally, we claim, along with the German philosopher Jrgen Habermas (1929-), that being able to
justify ones actions in the light of certain values and principles is also a way of showing respect
towards other human beings. It means that we take them seriously enough to feel obliged to give
reasons for our actions.

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Decision time
But the knowledge gained also gives us reason to respect the view-points of others as long as they
fulfil the criteria for meaningful ethical perspectives, as previously discussed. And this respect can
be used afterwards in the decision-making process. At some point we usually have to make a
decision. We could discuss the ethical issues related to stem cell research for a long time, but at
some point we need to make societal decisions about whether to proceed with the research, or not.
At this point, the knowledge gained during ethical discussions can be used to inform our actions in
a way that includes the values of those who disagree with us.
Often, we have to do one thing or another. We either have to decide to proceed with stem cell
research, or not. However, we could take the fact that there are those in society who find this kind
of research ethically problematic, into consideration, and do our utmost to search for alternatives,
while progressing with the research in as careful a manner as possible. This will probably not
satisfy everyone, but it is a way of creating a socially robust solution to our ethical disagreements,
which seeks to alienate as few as possible in society. It is one thing to live in a society in which
ones values are not shared by the majority. Such a situation is impossible to avoid in a democratic
society. But it is quite another to live in a society in which ones values are not even heard and in
which no attempt is made to understand them by the majority.
Thus, discussing ethical values can be important even though the discussions rarely lead us to agree
on the matters we discuss. Not only do ethical discussions enable us to understand the values of
ourselves and others, but it also helps us to evaluate those values and, ultimately, to arrive at
decisions in ethical matters that seek to incorporate the values of as many as possible, and to respect
those whose values could not be taken into consideration.
By engaging in ethical debates in a reflective manner and considering ones own and others values
in a critical light, whilst remembering that our ethical values are a result of both an historical
processes and normative arguments, we should be able to gain a better understanding of each other
and the ethical disagreements that abound in our societies today. Even though we might disagree on
basic values, it is still possible to live peacefully together, as long as we seek to respect the agreed
facts of a situation and try to give reasons for our view-points. But not all disagreements can be
peacefully settled, or at least tolerated this way. In the subsequent chapters, we will consider how
far we can get with this basic attitude and identify what should be done when it is not enough.

Discussions about values are often very heated and it can be hard to see that they lead to any
progress. Often people just state and restate their values in an attempt to get their way.
Controversial issues such as stem cell research are eagerly discussed, but it seems that often the
result is that those who already agree just rally closer together.
The reason behind such heated arguments is that what should be considered right or wrong matters
to us very much on both a personal and societal level. We cannot help but become involved since
we all have ideas about what is right and wrong. Each and every one of us gathers these basic
values together to form our own ethical perspective (EP), which acts as a platform from which we
view and judge the world in ethical terms. Our EPs are the result of many factors such as
upbringing, education, social, cultural and religious background, common sense etc.
A common response to the multitude of sometimes even mutually exclusive ethical perspectives, is
to turn to relativism and declare that ethical values cannot be discussed, since they are nothing but
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personal preferences with no more substance than our partiality for certain kinds of food. However,
the consequences of relativism do seem too harsh for most people. It is one thing to admit that there
is no way to decide whether strawberries or blackberries are best, but quite another to have to
acknowledge that there is nothing ethically wrong with molesting children.
The chapter suggests that ethical pluralism is a way to avoid relativism without slipping into its
counterpart: fundamentalism. Ethical pluralism means respecting the fact that a plurality of values
exists, whilst at the same time maintaining that there are certain rules that all value systems should
abide by if the individuals who hold them wish to participate in the moral game. Here we suggest
just two: consistency and openness.
Even after having identified the ethical perspectives that do not live up to these two criteria, there
will still be a plurality of sometimes mutually exclusive values. Here, ethical pluralism suggests
using ethics as a method of dialogue to gain an understanding, not only of the viewpoints of our
counterpart in a discussion on, for example, stem cell research, but also of the background of our
counterparts EP. Through mutual understanding, a respect for each other can be built that can
inform decisions in controversial areas and ensure that as many as possible have the experience of
being included in the decision-making process, although not everybody can have it their own way.

Daniels, Norman (1979): Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics. The
Journal of Philosophy 76 (5): 256-282.
European Food Safety Authority (2007): Animal Welfare aspects of the killing and skinning of
seals. Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (Question No EFSA-Q-2007-
118). European Food Safety Authority.
Nagel, Thomas (1986): The View from Nowhere. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further reading
Baker, Robert (1998): A Theory of International Bioethics: Multiculturalism, Postmodernism, and
the Bankruptcy of Fundamentalism. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 8 (3): 201-231.
Driver, Julia (2007): Ethics: The Fundamentals. Maldon MA, Oxford & Carlton Victoria:
Blackwell Publishing.
Hinman, Lawrence M. (2008): Ethics: a pluralistic approach to moral theory (4
Thomson Wadsworth Press.
Joas, Hans (2000): The Genesis of Values. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
MacIntyre, Alasdair (2007): After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Third Edition). Notre Dame IN:
University of Notre Dame Press.
Rawls, John (1999): A Theory of Justice (Revised edition). Cambridge University Press.
Ruse, Michael & Pynes, Christopher A. (eds.) (2006): The Stem Cell Controversy: Debating the
Issues. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books.
Williams, Bernard (1985): Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Harvard University Press.

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The Good

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3 Welfare

One of the most fundamental questions one can ask within the field of ethics concerns the
end-goal of our efforts: What are they supposed to achieve? The question does not concern
the immediate goals of our endeavours, which are extremely diverse. Rather it concerns the
overarching aim of ones efforts. What is it all supposed to be good for? Lets try to explore
this issue a little bit.
The typical reader of this book probably wants to attain a good education. She or he may try
to develop, or maintain a relationship with a close friend. She or he may spend time with her
or his family. She or he may be engaged in some sort of political movement, or a political
party. And so on with a long series of specific goals and efforts. But what is the overarching
aim of all these activities? One influential answer is that the aim is, or at least should be, to
achieve a good life both for oneself and for others on whom one may have an influence.
In philosophical terms, the idea can be expressed by saying that welfare is what ultimately
matters. On the face of it, this idea appears to be rather uncontroversial. It would be very
strange to claim that it does not matter ethically whether people are happy and thrive and in
other ways achieve a high level of welfare. And it would be even stranger and misanthropic
to claim that the avoidance of pain, disease, hunger and other negative states which stand in
the way of an individuals welfare does not matter.
However, exactly how the good life should be defined is a matter of some philosophical
controversy. This controversy is the subject of the present chapter. A further controversy,
which will be touched upon at the end of the chapter, is whether welfare is the only thing
that matters from an ethical point of view. This controversy will be the subject of some of the
subsequent chapters.

One highly influential way of arguing that a problem is of great ethical significance is by pointing
out that the problem may lead to human suffering, i.e. negative welfare. Such an appeal to negative
welfare is found in the following quotation from a paper published in the very prestigious scientific
Journal, Nature:
The World Health Organisation estimates that the warming and precipitation trends due to
anthropogenic climate change of the past 30 years already claim over 150,000 lives annually. Many
prevalent human diseases are linked to climate fluctuations, from cardiovascular mortality and
respiratory illnesses due to heatwaves, to altered transmission of infectious diseases and malnutrition
from crop failures. The regions with the greatest burden of climate-sensitive diseases are also the
regions with the lowest capacity to adapt to the new risks. Africathe continent where an estimated
90% of malaria occurshas some of the lowest per capita emissions of the greenhouse gases that
cause global warming. In this sense, global climate change not only presents new region-specific
health risks, but also a global ethical challenge. To meet this challenge, precautionary approaches to
mitigating anthropogenic greenhouse gases will be necessary
(Patz et al. 2005, italics by the authors of the present book)
The premises, upon which the authors concluded that climate change constitutes a global ethical
challenge and the initiatives that are needed to limit emissions of CO
and other greenhouse gasses
appear to be the following: 1) A large part of the climate change that we are presently witnessing is
caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses; 2) A number of serious diseases have
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increased as a consequence of climate change; 3) These diseases will affect poor countries in
particular, where there are limited resources for, and access to, effective medical care; 4)
Anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are mainly caused by people who live in the
developed world, but it is the poor regions, notably Sub-Saharan Africa, that will bear the brunt of
the resulting climate change and, therefore, people in the developed world have a special obligation
to do something.
Nowhere in the above argument is it explicitly stated that, from an ethical point of view, it is a
problem if people become ill with malaria, which cannot be treated effectively. Of course, in a way
it is perverse to ask why an increased level of malaria is bad and is something worth worrying about
from an ethical point of view. If an individual is unable to understand why it is an ethical problem
that anthropogenic climate change results in greater numbers of people becoming ill with malaria
in sub-Saharan Africa and other poor parts of the world that person is, of course, in a way unable to
see the obvious. However, there is another way of asking why, which does make sense, and that is
to ask the more philosophical question: Yes, it is indeed bad, but what is it that makes it bad?
One answer to this question, which has been very influential, is to say that an increased level of
malaria is bad because it leads to an increased level of negative welfare in the form of pain and
other mental states which are intrinsically unpleasant. Firstly, the flu-like symptoms of malaria are
very unpleasant. Secondly, malaria can lead to a number of other diseases, which have similar
unpleasant symptoms. Thirdly, malaria, often in combination with other diseases, can result in
death, which may be considered problematic in itself (more about this later in the book) but which
will typically also lead to negative welfare. The death of an individual will in most cases cause the
surviving relatives to grieve and may also result in hardship if the dead person generated an income
for the family. Finally, malaria prevents the sufferer from working while he/she is ill, and
subsequently, it often leaves them weakened and possibly handicapped for life, severely limiting
their ability to work in the future, which can, in turn, lead to poverty which in itself has numerous
unpleasant consequences.
What is suggested here is that negative welfare is defined in terms of mental states, which are
intrinsically unpleasant. According to this definition, negative welfare is equivalent to feeling bad.
When an individual is in pain, feels nauseous, anxious or experiences any other mental state which
is unpleasant, the individual experiences negative welfare; and conversely, when there is no
unpleasant feeling, there is no negative welfare.
What about positive welfare?

Positive and negative welfare
Very few people, if any, would disagree with the above argument that an increased level of malaria
is bad because it leads to increased negative welfare. However, as soon as one introduces the notion
of negative welfare it seems clear that there must also be something called positive welfare. If
negative welfare is defined as the presence of pain and/or other unpleasant states, then what is
positive welfare? Is it the absence of painful or unpleasant states or is it the presence of positive
states, for example the feeling of joy? Is positive welfare then the same as happiness?
However, the injunction that we should aim to promote happiness and prevent suffering from an
ethical point of view is likely to be controversial. Whereas almost everyone would immediately
agree that it is ethically problematic if a group of people suffer because, for example, they become
infected with malaria, it is much more controversial to say that it is ethically problematic if people
miss out on something which would make them happy, such as an opportunity to watch television.
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In light of this, the highly influential Austrian-British philosopher, Karl Popper (1902-1994), has
argued that we should forget about promoting happiness and our sole aim should instead be to
reduce avoidable suffering for everybody by as much as possible. According to Popper, it adds to
the clarity of ethics if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of
suffering rather than the promotion of happiness (Popper 1966, p. 285).
This is certainly a tempting idea. However, it suffers from a major problem which has been pointed
out by the British philosopher R.N. Smart. If our sole aim was to eliminate suffering, then we would
be obliged to take the lives of everyone painlessly if we could, because then we would eliminate all
suffering once and for all. Smart asks us to consider the following thought experiment in particular:
Suppose that a ruler controls a weapon capable of instantly and painlessly destroying the human race.
Now it is empirically certain that there would be some suffering before all those alive on any proposed
destruction day were to die in the natural course of events. Consequently the use of the weapon is
bound to diminish suffering, and would be the rulers duty
(Smart 1958, p. 542)
The point here is that not only would the mass killing lead to an end to all suffering, but any
alternative course of action, which involves the survival of people, would lead to at least some
suffering. Even in the happiest of lives will there be periods of suffering due to disease, grief and
the like; and it seems that no cause of action will be as efficient as mass killing in preventing
suffering. However, according to Smart, this certainly does not mean that it would be morally right
to kill the entire human race. Rather, it shows that in ethics, we cannot forget about promoting
happiness. Indeed, according to Smart, what would be ethically problematic about the killing is the
loss of the positive enjoyments and happiness likely to be found in a great number of the lives
destroyed (Smart 1958, p. 542).

Psychological hedonism
Smart appears to adhere to a view about welfare and its ethical significance called hedonism. This is
the view that welfare consists of the presence of pleasant (in a wide sense of the word) mental states
and the absence of painful, or unpleasant ones. The theory allows that some painful states may an
unavoidable part of a life dominated by pleasant states indeed this is a key premise in Smarts
argument against Popper. So the point of the theory is not to avoid painful states at all costs rather
it is to get the most favourable balance of the good, pleasurable, moments over the bad, painful,
The theory may be viewed as being both psychological and normative. The psychological theory
says that, as a matter of fact, humans tend to strive to obtain pleasure and to avoid pain, whilst the
normative theory says that pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only things which are
ultimately worth striving for.
There is something immediately implausible about psychological hedonism. On a good day,
everything that one does can be permeated by a feeling of joy, but we also experience gray Monday
mornings, when the most pleasurable thing one could do would be to stay in bed. However, most of
us still get up in the morning, even though it would be much nicer to stay in bed.
If psychological hedonism is going to stand any chance of being recognized as a plausible empirical
theory it must be reformulated to account for the fact that many of our immediate motivations have
very little to do with the attainment of pleasure. Therefore, if the pursuit of pleasure is a
psychological motivation, it must be over-all and long-term. And, of course, the kind of theory
which says that we do what we do because we believe that, at the end of the day, it will help us to
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gain pleasure and avoid pain may have something to say for itself. If one compares an individual
with a conventional lifestyle with an individual with a very indulgent lifestyle, who lives a life in
the grip of immediate pleasures, then clearly the indulgent individual may in the long-run miss out
in terms of pleasure.
Firstly, the indulgent individual will typically be less well-off and therefore be less able to purchase
goods that generate pleasure, for example dining at a good restaurant, or travelling abroad.
Secondly, some of the things that can give to rise to very positive experiences in the long run, such
as a rich family life and lasting friendships, will typically not be achievable if one is not sometimes
able to forget about ones own immediate needs. Finally, an indulgent lifestyle may for example
involve masses of rich food and alcohol which is likely to have some severe negative, and very
painful, side-effects on ones mental and physical health in the long run.
The idea that a search for pleasure is the underlying motivation behind everything people do may
seem provocative to some. On the other hand, it is very much in line with the more cynical or
reductionist views of mans nature, inspired by thinkers such as Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). However, whether one likes the idea or not, it is bound to be very
difficult to test and it should at best be considered a questionable hypothesis.

Normative hedonism
The normative version of hedonism, on the other hand, is not vulnerable to the objection that, as a
matter of fact, we pursue other things than just pleasure. Here the point is not that the pursuit of
pleasure is our main underlying aim in life, but rather that it ought to be. The classic formulation of
this normative stance was developed by the English lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham
(1748-1832). Bentham was a social reformer who thought that under the influence of religion and
tradition a lot of institutions aimed to inculcate goals in people which were in fact detrimental to
their happiness. One example is education and the belief that teaching children and young people
arts and sciences was of high value, even though this kind of education actually left a lot of young
people frustrated and unhappy.
Against the prevailing norms of his time, Bentham argues in a famous passage that really the only
measure there can be of the value of various interests is the amount of pleasure they generate:
The utility of all these arts and sciences, - I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity, - the
value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of
preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice
apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the
game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-
pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few. If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before
a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most
difficult to be pleased.
(Bentham 1830, p. 206)
Here Bentham concedes that for some people poetry and music may be more gratifying than
playing games. However, according to Bentham, this only says something about the people in
question, not about the value of different kinds of pleasures.
Of course, Bentham can and should also grant that even though training in mathematics and other
difficult subjects does not by itself give any pleasure to the student, there may be good indirect
reasons why it is worthwhile to teach these subjects. For example, if an individual is going to
become a nurse or a doctor it is important that they know some mathematics in order to be able to
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perform the job. Even though the person does not get any pleasure out of learning mathematics, this
kind of teaching may be justified by the consequences in terms of pleasure and avoidance of pain
for other individuals, in this case the future patients who will be treated.
So the point made by the normative version of hedonism is not that each and every action of ours
should be measured by how much pleasure it provides. Rather it is that, to be of value, everything
we do or require must ultimately contribute to pleasure and the avoidance of pain. So mathematics
teaching may be justified by its ultimate contribution to for example health care, which is justified
by its ability to prevent pain. On the other hand, if some rule or institution at the end of the day
causes more misery and gives rise to less positive experiences than an alternative rule or institution,
then it should be removed.
It is important to realize that this kind of thinking has already had a profound effect on the morality
of modern, liberal societies. Bentham himself, with his background as a lawyer, was keen to reform
the legal system of punishment. When a crime has been committed, the victims of the crime
normally suffer. However, punishment itself just adds more suffering, but now to the perpetrator.
According to Bentham, punishment can only be justified if it has good consequences such as
preventing the perpetrator from committing further crimes, or deterring others from committing
similar crimes. However, according to Bentham, a lot of the punishment he saw could not be
justified in this way. And Bentham was instrumental in promoting the kind of thinking about
punishment which focuses on prevention, rather than revenge.
Today, this kind of thinking about punishment is highly influential in most of the Western world.
Of course, there are also counter-reactions. So even though many legal scholars interested in
punishment think that crime prevention is the only legitimate reason for punishment there are
popular counter-reactions which require punishment for the sake of revenge. So Benthams view is
influential, but not unanimously accepted (Also, under a hedonist perspective it can be discussed
whether the pleasure, or relief, felt by the victims of a crime when they see the criminal suffer,
should count or not, and if so, whether this would modify the reformist view on punishment
defended by Bentham and his followers.)
In general, whether pleasure and the absence of pain are really the only things which count when it
comes to deciding how to live a good life can be questioned. We will now turn to this question.

Is it better to be a sad Socrates than a happy pig?
For Bentham, as for other adherents of normative hedonism, we ought to arrange things so that we,
and those affected by what we do, achieve the highest possible amount of positive welfare in the
form of pleasure. Pain and other forms of negative welfare must be avoided, as far as possible. Of
course, it can be rational to accept some amounts of negative welfare if it is a means to avoid larger
amounts of negative welfare, or if it is a means to gain a larger amount of positive welfare.
For example, long distance running and other forms of severe exercise may be quite unpleasant in
the short term. However, such exercise may prevent one from suffering from poor health later in
life; and some even claim that after some habituation, severe exercise can actually be quite pleasant.
According to Bentham, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the amount of welfare. If
one experiences joy from watching soap-operas on TV, rather than reading novels or philosophy,
then according to Bentham, there is no reason to start reading such literature even if one has the
mental capacity to benefit from heavy reading. The only reason for taking up heavy reading instead
of watching soap operas is that the former may give rise to a higher level of pleasure in the long
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run. For example, a young person who spends his entire youth watching TV, rather than reading
good books, may have a more boring and therefore less happy life compared to a young person who
is initially pressured into reading books thereby acquiring a passion for heavy reading so that he has
a less boring life than the first person.
However, to many the idea that all pleasures should be equal may still be quite provoking. Indeed,
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who was a follower of Bentham in many respects, disagreed with
Bentham on this point.
In a famous passage, Mill argued that it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig
satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a
different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."
What Mill seems to have in mind here is that we make qualitative distinctions between the things
that matter in our lives. Whereas Bentham claimed that there is essentially only one thing which has
positive value, pleasure, and that the only morally relevant distinction which can be made between
different pleasures is their duration and intensity, Mill seems to claim that some kinds of pleasures
are simply more valuable than others. For example, according to Mills view, it may be intrinsically
more valuable to think about a philosophical issue, than to watch a soap opera.
Of course, adherents of Mills view need not claim that it is better to think about philosophy than to
watch a trivial show on TV, even for people with limited intellectual abilities. Rather, if one had the
choice between an intellectually challenging life and a life in the grip of more mundane pleasures,
one would be well advised to choose the former life. This may matter in situations in which we
make choices regarding future lives, when bringing up children and considering educational policy
for example.
Also, according to Mills perspective it is unnecessary to claim that there are no other needs which
have to be fulfilled before one starts engaging in the so-called higher pleasures. If Mill was alive
today, he may, for example, accept the popular hierarchy of needs developed by the American
psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), according to which there are a number of basic needs
which have to be fulfilled before an individual will get anything out of attempting to realize the
higher pleasures connected to human creativity.
The main point of Mills qualitative hedonism is that a pleasure is not just a pleasure. Some
pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than others. This means that what matters is not only to get
the highest possible amount of pleasure against pain, but rather to get the right kind of mix of
pleasures, including pleasures connected to aesthetic and intellectual activities in order to get the
most out of life. Sometimes it may even be worthwhile sacrificing some lower pleasures to get
some higher ones i.e. it may be better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
Mills view is probably in accordance with the priorities of many of his readers (if you dont enjoy
higher pleasures, you probably wont read a philosophy book). However, one may ask whether Mill
provides an argument for discarding Benthams relatively simple theory. And even if Mills theory
is accepted as being superior to Benthams hedonism, one may ask whether it really qualifies as a
form of hedonism. One may rather view it as a form of what has been called the objective list theory
of the good life. According to this kind of theory, there is a list of goals which must, if possible, be
pursued if one is going to achieve a good human life.
However, Mill would probably insist that even if his theory allows for different kinds of goals
contributing to a good life, they all have one thing in common; the positive goals consist of
experiencing various forms of pleasant mental states, and the negative goals entail avoiding various
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forms of unpleasant mental states. So, Mill is still a hedonist in the sense that welfare is about
mental states and experiences.
The question then is whether Bentham and Mill are right in thinking that welfare is really only
about experiences. We shall now turn to this question.
The experience machine
According to hedonism as long as we feel good everything is good. However, it can be argued that
welfare should be more about what happens in the world, rather than what happens in our minds.
The American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) is an advocate of this argument, which he
elucidates by way of the following thought-experiment:
Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired.
Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were
writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be
floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life,
preprogramming your life's desires? ... Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there;
you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so
there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the
machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our
lives feel from the inside?
(Nozick 1974, p. 43)
Very few people would probably answer Nozicks question, Would you plug in? with an
enthusiastic, Yes, certainly I would. Nozicks argument is, therefore, very appealing. Strictly
speaking, the argument does not really show that hedonism is false; rather it seems to show that
most of us do not really believe in hedonism. Formally speaking, the argument can be reconstructed
in the following way: (1) If we believed in hedonism, we would gladly plug in to the experience
machine. (2) However, we arent willing to plug in to the experience machine. (3) Therefore, we do
not believe in hedonism.
An adherent of hedonism may react in several ways to this argument. Firstly, the fact (if it is a fact)
that people do not believe in hedonism does not demonstrate that hedonism is a false theory in the
same way as many people not believing in Darwins theory of evolution does not demonstrate that
Darwins theory is false. However, it seems that a scientific theory, such as the theory of evolution,
and an ethical theory, such as hedonism, are not analogous in this respect. Scientific theories are
about mind-independent reality and therefore the theory can true or false independently of whether
we think it is true or false. Ethical theories on the other hand are not about a mind-independent
reality. Rather they attempt to rationalize what is in our minds when we make ethical choices.
Therefore, what it means to say that normative hedonism is true, even though no-one believes it, is
Secondly, an adherent of hedonism may question the first premise of Nozicks argument. She may
say that there are a number of reasons why someone may be reluctant to plug in to the experience
machine, besides being sceptical of hedonism. One obvious reason is a lack of trust in whether the
machine is actually going to deliver the promised goods. Thus, healthy scepticism as to whether an
experience machine would actually work may explain why people are reluctant, despite all the
promises to the contrary.
Finally, some hedonists may question the second premise of Nozicks argument. They may claim
that, of course, most people would hook up to the machine if it really was available. To back up this
claim, they could point to the fact that a lot of people spend a great deal of time hooked up to reality
TV and other virtual forms of experience machines.
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However, it can be argued that the fact that many people spend time hooked up to virtual forms of
experience machines does not mean that they would we willing to plug in to an experience machine
and thereby leave reality forever. One reason for this could be that people care about a lot of things
and not just their own inner lives. And if this is the case, what is then the appeal of a normative
hedonist theory which claims that individuals ought to only care about their own inner lives?
If one accepts Nozicks argument against hedonism on the basis of his thought experiment about the
experience machine, there are two ways one can move beyond classical hedonism of the sort
proposed by Jeremy Bentham. One way is, as suggested in the previous section, to move towards an
objective list of what matters in life. Such a theory might concede that pleasant mental states are, of
course, important for a good life in line with hedonism. But there are other factors, such as
achievement and close personal relationships, which are incompatible with a life spent in an
experience machine. Achievement and close personal relationships are typically things which lead
to pleasant mental states, but it may be claimed that the value of the states entirely depends on the
achievement and/or close personal relationships being real and not just figments of the imagination.
Following this path would mean having to abandon the ambition of Bentham to deliver a simple
and clear cut account of what matters. Another way, which avoids this consequence, is to move
towards a preference theory of welfare.
One way to understand the point of the experience machine is that what is wrong with hedonism is
that it wants us to strive for one thing, the maximum amount of pleasure, when what we actually
prefer is something else living a real life during which we pursue a multitude of goals, only some
of which entail experiencing pleasure. The one feature that these goals seem to have in common is
that they are personal goals; they are what the individual prefers to strive for. However, if this is the
point, why not say that what really matters is that each and every one of us should get what we
prefer. This is the core of the so-called preference theory of welfare.

Preference theory of welfare
According to the preference theory, the good life is defined in terms of preference-satisfaction. A
good life is one in which the person in question gets what she or he wants. This view has several
advantages. Firstly, it is very simple. Secondly, it sits well with central elements of economic theory
and other social sciences in which welfare is defined in terms of so-called revealed preferences, i.e.
what an individual seems to demand through their behaviour on the market.
A third advantage of the view is that it is not vulnerable to Nozicks argument and other related
arguments which say that we actually prefer something different from what the theory says we
ought to prefer. According to the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (1946-), one of the leading
proponents of the preference theory of welfare, this is the main attraction of the theory:
... I cannot deny that for me, a good life is one in which my own considered, informed preferences are
maximally satisfied. If I hold this judgment in a form that makes no particular reference to myself as
I must, if it is to be a moral judgment as I understand the term then I must hold that this is true for
others as well, other things being equal.
(Singer 2002)
According to Singer, what he considers a good life in his own case is when his preferences are
satisfied as much as possible. And if he has this view regarding his own life, then it follows that if
he wants to make a moral claim he should be willing to generalise his statement and claim that for
each and every person a good life entails maximising the satisfaction of ones personal preferences.
This then establishes a clear link between the good life and personal autonomy. No one, according
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to Singer, is in a position to tell a person that he is wrong when he says that certain things matter in
his life.
Another argument, which supports preference theory, is that it is able to deal with the problem faced
by hedonism that different people seem to care differently about mental states. Thus, some people a
have low pain threshold and care a lot about relatively mild forms of pain, whereas others have a
high pain threshold and only care about very intense pain. According to the preference theory, this
is not a problem at all, since it is the severity of ones negative preference, rather than the mental
state itself, which matters.
It is, however, important to note that Singer makes two qualifications to the link between the good
life and the satisfaction of preferences. Not all preferences count, but only those which are
considered and informed. With these two qualifications, Singer wants to exclude the possibility that
preference satisfaction could contribute to a persons quality of life in two types of situation. The
first is when a preference is not stable because the person is in the grip of a mood, or a whim. The
second is when the person lacks information about the consequences of having the preference
These two qualifications appear to be very simple and well motivated. However, as will become
clear in the following section, after a little reflection, they considerably modify ones immediate
understanding and assessment of preference theories.

What does it take for preferences to be considered and informed?
Suppose that a person has just seen a very engaging documentary about outdoor holidays.
Immediately after a friend comes by and asks her whether she would like to join in on a one week
holiday in the wilderness, sleeping in a tent and living on freeze dried meals. In the grip of the
documentary the person cheerfully accepts the invitation. However, it turns out that the person
doesnt really like the kind of simple living connected with a wilderness holiday. Actually, she
hates to get up in the morning without being able to get a proper bath and she hates not to be able to
sleep in a real bed. Therefore the holiday turns out to be a complete disaster both for the person in
question who doesnt like the experience at all and for the others who have to put up with the first
persons dissatisfaction.
In this case, even though the person originally had a preference for a wildlife holiday, such a
holiday did not contribute to the persons quality of life. So for the satisfaction of a preference to
count as positive contribution to a persons quality of life the preference must at least be stable over
the time needed for preference to be satisfied. And before acting on a preference it is therefore
important to consider whether it is something that one really wants. This is, of course, much easier
to say than to do. In practice it can be really difficult to find out what one really prefers. Some
people have to go up quite a number of blind alleys before they find out if they ever find out
what they really want to do with their life.
Regarding the other qualification made by Singer, that preferences should be informed, think about
smoking. Today most people are fully aware that smoking may cause lung cancer and other serious
diseases. However, this was not the case 50 or 60 years ago. People who were young at that time
would most likely not have been told that smoking posed a danger. Quite to the contrary, since the
tobacco industry through adverts and by other means not only promoted tobacco smoking but also
was involved in a number of efforts to cast doubts on the growing scientific evidences showing that
smoking is dangerous.
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Most old people who now suffer from tobacco related diseases probably now strongly regret having
started to smoke when they were young. However, given the lack of publicly available information
at that time and the efforts of the tobacco industry to distort what information was out one cannot
say that their original preference to smoke was willingly uninformed. So in their case, even though
they just followed their preferences and did not ignore readily available information, they did not do
what was best for them because of lack of information.
However, even if information is available people may ignore it. Even though many less people in
the Western world smoke today than did in the past, still many people smoke, and many young
people start to smoke. Does that then mean that following a preference theory one should say that,
since people choose to smoke, smoking makes a positive contribution to their quality of life? If one
gives a positive answer to this question the theory becomes rather implausible. Thus it will imply
that whatever people do that on an ordinary understanding of things is harmful to themselves will
count as a positive contribution to their quality of life as long as they have been informed about
the potential consequences of what they are doing.
Or should one say that in many or all cases smoking does not contribute to peoples quality of life
because they have not really considered their preference to smoke in the light of relevant
information before they started (and because they got addicted after starting to smoke so that they
later cannot easily stop, even if they want to)? If one gives a positive answer to this question then
the theory becomes more plausible on a common sense view. However it seems to lose some of the
simplicity it had on a first glance. Now there is no longer a simple link between what people
choose, even in the light of relevant information, and what is good for them.
Also the obvious link to personal autonomy will be lost. Thus to avoid the implausible
consequences of saying that whatever people choose to do after being informed about the potential
negative consequences contributes to their quality of life one will have to put quite a lot of weight
on the requirement that preferences should be considered and informed for their satisfaction to
make a positive contribution to a persons quality of life. And rather severe policies to prevent
people from smoking seem to be warranted if the goal is to improve peoples welfare in the long
So a closer look at the requirements that preferences should be considered and informed to
contribute to a persons welfare take away some of the simplicity and intuitive appeal of the
preference theory of welfare. Whether this means that the theory should be given up depends on
how well if fares compared to alternative theories. As we have seen in this chapter all main theories
of welfare have their problems. So far no theory sticks out as the obvious candidate for a simple and
intuitively appealing theory of welfare.
Whatever way one defines welfare the question still remains whether the advancement of welfare is
the only thing that matters from an ethical point of view, and if not, how to balance welfare against
other goods or concerns. This will be discussed in some of the following chapters.

The aim of this chapter is to discuss what welfare is and how it matters. The starting point is to
argue that it matters to prevent pain and other forms of negative welfare. Some have argued that our
only concern should be to avoid negative welfare and that we should not at all focus on positive
welfare. However, it is argued that this position leads to paradoxical consequences.
TheGood,theRight&theFairDRAFTVERSION Side33

When it comes to the definition of welfare the starting point is hedonism, which can both be
interpreted as a psychological and a normative theory. Focus is here on the normative theory which
claims that the only thing that matters in life is to gain pleasure and other positive mental states and
to avoid pain and other negative states.
Two kinds of criticisms against this view are discussed. The first is that there are qualitative
differences between different forms of pleasure which will not be accounted for by a simple version
of hedonism. The other is that we seem to care about more than just our mental states we want to
achieve things not merely to experience achievement.
In light of these criticisms an alternative definition of welfare is suggested, according to which the
welfare of a person consists in the satisfaction of that persons preferences. This view seemingly has
the advantage that it leads to a close connection between a persons welfare and what person
chooses to do. However, the requirement that preferences should be considered and informed
actually makes that connection much less tight that it first seems.
So the candidates for a theory of welfare presented in this chapter all have their characteristic
problems and advantages.

Bentham, Jeremy (1830): The Rationale of Reward. London: Robert Heward.
Mill, John Stuart (1863): Utilitarianism. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.
Nozick, Robert (1974): Anarchy, state and utopia. New York: Basic Books.

Jonathan A.; Campbell-Lendrum,

Diarmid; Holloway, Tracey & Foley, Jonathan A. (2005):
Impact of regional climate change on human health. Nature 438: 310-317.
Popper, Karl R. (1966): The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1, The Spell of Plato (5
Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. [1
edition 1945]
Singer, Peter (2002): Reply to Martha Nussbaum, 'Justice for Non-Human Animals', The Tanner
Lectures on Human Values November 13, 2002.
Smart, R.N. (1958): Negative Utilitarianism. Mind 67: 542-543.

Further reading
Crisp, Roger (2006): Reasons and the Good. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Feldman, Fred (2004): Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and
Plausibility of Hedonism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Griffin, James (1986): Well-being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.
Kraut, Richard (2007): What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being. Cambridge MA: Harvard
University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha & Sen, Amartya (eds.) (1993): The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Paul, Ellen Frankel; Miller, Fred D. Jr. & Paul, Jeffrey (eds.) (1992): The Good Life and the Human
Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
TheGood,theRight&theFairDRAFTVERSION Side34

Sande, Peter (1999): Quality of life Three competing views. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice
2 (1): 1123.
Sumner, L.W. (1996): Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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4 More than welfare?

If ethics was only about welfare, our ethical lives would in some ways be simpler. We would
just have to focus on doing whatever creates the most welfare. However, even this can be
hard enough to find out in itself and to further complicate matters, we often find ourselves
in situations whereby other things have an influence on our ethical deliberations, things that,
even though they may not contribute to our general welfare, we nevertheless find ethically
important. Showing our respect to the dead even though for them it is impossible to care -
is just one example. Insisting that doctors and our partners tell the truth is another, whilst the
freedom to make our own choices, even the ones that jeopardize or even reduce our welfare,
is a third. Thus, honesty and autonomy are examples of traits and modes of existence that we
usually find admirable, even though they apparently do not contribute to our welfare. But
perhaps they do actually increase our welfare in the long run? Or perhaps some things, such
as honesty and autonomy, are more important than welfare, and if this is the case: Do such
concepts always trump welfare considerations, or do they comprise additional factors, which
need to be taken into consideration alongside welfare when we have to select a course of
action from all the potential courses of action available to us?

Case: Corpses as biofuel?
Is it ethically acceptable to use the excess heat from crematorium ovens to heat buildings? This is a
subject few of us have thought about and one which initially makes many people uneasy. This
became apparent in Denmark in the mid-noughties when several city councils around the country
began utilizing the excess heat from crematorium ovens in the district heating system.
The Danish minister for religious affairs at that time, Bertel Haarder, felt so uneasy that he asked
the Danish Ethical Council to discuss the subject back in 2006. The Council concluded that it was
an ethically acceptable practice, as long as the dead body, the wishes of the deceased and the
bereaved were treated with respect. Furthermore, the council found that the practice would create a
symbolic link between the individual and the processes of nature. Finally, the council decided that,
in the present situation in which the living are being threatened by climate change due to the
excessive use of fossil fuels, it would be wise to utilize the heat from the crematorium ovens in this
It may seem hard to disagree with such well-founded and practical arguments. However, by
following the debate in the Danish newspapers, it soon became apparent that many people felt that
there was something not right about the practice, even though they understood the reasoning and
ethical arguments behind the Councils conclusion. The coherent reasoning of the Council did not
make the uneasiness disappear. We believe that there are mainly two reasons for this. The first is
that, in general, death is something we try to avoid thinking about. It is frightening, inevitable and
the most undeniable sign of our mortality. The other reason, which is the one that we will be
concerned with here, is that it seems disrespectful to utilize the earthly remains of our loved ones in
this way. Even though the practice might be environmentally friendly and economically efficient,
there is kind of a taboo against considering such practical matters in the face of death. The need to
respect the deceased and the mourners seems to forbid such mundane considerations. This does not
necessarily mean that we should not utilize the heat from cremations in this way. Rather, the
discussion serves to highlight the uneasiness that accompanies the decision.
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The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you, God!
For most of us being honest is important. We consider it to be ethically correct, if not outright
demanded, that we tell the truth. Honesty is so fundamental to our society that the classic movie
scene from an American court-room in which the witness places her or his hand on the Bible and
swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth has become almost iconographic.
Furthermore, we usually take pride in being honest and find it embarrassing to be caught in a lie.
And there are not many things that provoke as much outrage in us as being unfairly accused of
being a liar. Look at the pain in a childs eyes when it is wrongfully disbelieved or think of our own
capacity for self-righteousness of almost galactic proportions when we tell the truth, but are treated
as liars.
This does not mean that we cannot take pride in lying as well, if for example, the lie will benefit
someone else, under which circumstances we usually feel the need to justify the lie by pointing out
the benefits that it created. In other words, we need to prove that lying accomplished something
good. However, few of us feel the need to do the same when we tell the truth. The truth speaks for
itself, in that it seems to carry its own justification.
Thus, honesty is important to us: both from a social perspective, whereby our reputation for honesty
is crucial for our status and opportunities, but also from a more integral perspective, because we
value the truth for its own sake. Therefore, in most situations, but not in all as we will discuss
shortly, we consider telling the truth to be the right thing to do. But why is this so? Is it because
being honest is intrinsically the right thing to do, or does it just seem that way because telling the
truth and faring well usually go together?
The ideal of absolute truthfulness often crumbles when faced with the complexity of everyday life
and this may be a good thing. Lying can sometimes produce worthy results. But do we really only
praise honesty when it fits in with our plans or do we also attribute it with the same degree of
significance when it goes against them? Why is it that we can defend lying in certain cases, but feel
no need to justify honesty? It seems that the question of honesty might tell us something about
ethical values that move us beyond the notion of welfare.

Lying about sex
Is it ethically acceptable to cheat on your partner? This is a question that few would give an
affirmative answer to, at least with their partner present. However, at the same time we know from
social studies that it is a common phenomenon, indeed a number of studies can be found in the wiki
entry on infidelity. Initially, infidelity seems to be ethically wrong, which is clearly reflected in its
more common name: cheating. From this follows one of the important ideals in this context: If you
are caught cheating on your partner, then you should act honourably and be honest and accept the
consequences. Such claims can be supported with reference to the multitude of reality TV-shows in
which the young and beautiful compete over money in luxurious surroundings, while entering
strategic alliances and erotic relationships. Here it becomes very clear that lying about cheating is
seen as a cowardly attempt at self-protection.
But what is wrong with lying about infidelity? An initial answer could be that in many ways it hurts
the partner. If we assume that a woman has cheated on her boyfriend, the boyfriend is unaware that
he is with a woman who is willing to do something that would cause him great pain just to satisfy a
sexual urge. So, even though telling the truth might not do the woman any good, since her partner
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might leave her if told about the incident, it would certainly benefit her boyfriend, since the truth
would enable him to act in a more informed way.
This, of course, does not mean that no one lies about their affairs, one-night stands etc. It just means
that we do not judge it as being the ethically right thing to do. However, in the real world we have
an almost devilish ability to reconstruct reality around us, so that doing what benefits ourselves the
most, also seems to be the most beneficial thing to do for everyone involved. We are experts at
lying to ourselves in order to cast ourselves in a positive light. The divide between our ideals and
our actions can sometimes be surprisingly wide and we can be surprisingly good at denying it if
brought to our attention.
Returning to the unfaithful girlfriend, let us make some assumptions about the situation and see
whether they change our intuitive understanding of it. What if the affair was just an unmemorable
fling for the girlfriend, which left her feeling full of remorse and guilt and something that she would
never do again? And supposing the relationship she is in is an otherwise stable relationship with
several children involved, so that telling the truth might cause more grief than just forgetting about
the whole miserable affair. Should she still tell the truth no matter what, or should she take the
circumstances into account before deciding what to do?
In this hypothetical scenario, the girlfriend could spare her partner from the painful knowledge of
her infidelity by lying, or by just keeping quiet. Would that be a good enough reason for not telling
the truth?
Let us imagine for now that the old saying, what you dont know cant hurt you, is true. Let us
imagine that the girlfriend, by being dishonest, can not only save her own skin, but also the
relationship in the long run. In this case, we might assume that her partner will actually have a
better life if he is not told about what has taken place. The welfarist from the previous chapter
would certainly think so. Everybody would be better off, if the lie was told. Others would say that
using honesty and dishonesty simply as neutral tools to promote welfare is problematic and they
would need some justification, whereas still others would consider dishonesty to be ethically
unjustifiable whatever the reasons.
The answers to these questions will vary from person to person depending on their personal values
and how they interpret the situation. What we are arguing for here, is not that one should always tell
the truth, just as we are not attempting to identify particular situations in which one should tell the
truth or lie. Rather, we want to highlight the fact that there seems to be a difference between lying
and telling the truth that might be ethically important: a difference that shows itself in the curious
phenomenon that we usually justify our lies not our truths. Thus initially, it seems as if honesty
and dishonesty are more than just tools for creating welfare: They seem to be ethically relevant in
their own right.

Is there such a thing as a white lie?
Even though we might initially think that the truth is important in itself, after deeper reflection we
may end up agreeing with the welfarist and accept that the reason we consider the truth to be
important is that it results in better consequences than lying. This would then lead us to formulate a
rule about lying along these lines: In general, we ought to tell the truth, but sometimes the situation
is such that - all else being equal we are ethically obliged to tell a lie. In other words: Lying does
not matter, as long as it benefits someone in a way that is ethically important.
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Indeed, we even have a name for such situations: telling a white lie, which is presumably a lie that
does not hurt anyone. Now, as we have just demonstrated, it can be difficult to describe a situation
in which a lie cannot be said to harm someone in some way. It is, therefore, more correct to describe
a white lie as a lie, which does not seriously harm anyone and which perhaps even helps us avoid
more serious problems than it creates.
White lies thus serve an important social function in that they allow us to behave nicely towards
each other, although we may not feel friendly towards the other person: So good you could come,
I really like your new hairstyle and thanks for the meal, it was delicious are all common white
lies. Here, lies are a necessary part of the social matrix, a kind of glue, which enables us to behave
in a civilized manner in situations in which telling the truth would probably have dire consequences.
So, although most of us would agree that, in general, lying is not ethically commendable, we
nonetheless accept that there are situations in which we perhaps ought to lie. To some, such
situations are those in which they have something to gain by lying, but to most of us, lying is only
acceptable if it benefits someone who would be poorer off, if we did not lie. The notion of the
merciful lie is founded upon this reasoning. The theologian, Augustine (354-430), considered the
merciful lie to be one of the very few examples of an evil thing (lying) being permissible due to its
ability to prevent the occurrence of a greater evil.
If a sick man should ask a question which it is not expedient that he should know, and might be even
more grievously afflicted even by thy returning him no answer, wilt thou venture either to tell the truth
to the destruction of the mans life, or rather hold thy peace, than by a virtuous and merciful lie to be
serviceable to his health.
(Jackson 2001)

It should be noted that Augustine himself seems to be in doubt here. He has a very hard time
accepting that some lies may be ethically acceptable, but cannot avoid the conclusion that the
merciful lie might be preferable. This issue is actually still relevant today, even though Augustine
lived almost 1700 years ago. In todays western medical system, the principles of autonomy (self-
governing) and informed consent (that the patient has the right to all information about his/her
disease and to make her/his decisions on the basis of this information) are sacrosanct and no doctor
would withhold important information from a patient, or prevent him/her from making important
But is it always right to tell people how serious a situation is? Earlier, when the relationship
between doctors and patients was based more on the patriarchal authority of the doctor, it was
common practice for a doctor to tell the patient whatever the doctor felt would benefit the patient
most which was not always the truth. For example, it was actually regarded as cruel to tell people
if there was no hope left.
That Augustine, who was often a very lucid and elaborate thinker who firmly believed in the dogma
never lie, stumbled here and became rather muffled, should not surprise us. He just expresses
what most of us feel when faced with this dilemma, that sometimes life becomes so complex and
full of contradictions that we can feel morally obliged to do something that we would otherwise
consider wrong. Or as the American bioethics committee put it when asked to discuss the ethical
implication of cloning human cells for therapeutical purposes:

Augustine: On lying. Here quoted from Jackson (2001).
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Finally, we must proceed with the paradox that accompanies all human suffering and human
imperfection in full view: that sometimes we seem morally obligated to do morally troubling things,
and that sometimes doing what is good means living with a heavy heart in doing it.
(The Presidents Council on Bioethics 2002, p. 140)

A stringent German that accepted no exceptions
So we seem to be taking two steps forward and three steps back here in our attempt to gain an
understanding of the relationship between telling the truth and lying. In some instances, lying seems
ethically justifiable, but at the same time telling the truth appears to be the ethically right thing to
do. What we can say is that honesty is important, otherwise lying would be considered
It is, however, not a very clear position to take. Whether one should lie or tell the truth becomes
dependent on the situation and ones interpretation of it. The advantage of the position is that we
can take the complex social contexts of our lives into account. The disadvantage, however, is that
what we do seem to be almost arbitrary and that the inherent wrongness of lying is lost in this way
of thinking. There is one scholar, a giant within western philosophical thinking, who had a much
more stringent way of looking at lying. According to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant
(1724-1804), lying is always wrong and can never be excused, no matter what the situation.
What Kant was especially suspicious about was the well developed human ability to twist situations
to our own advantage, in this case by inventing excuses for lying based on the premise that we are
helping others, which is in reality only a facade to mask our true intention; to take care of our own
interests, which would potentially undermine all moral action:
If necessity is urged as an excuse, it might be urged to justify stealing, cheating and killing and the
whole basis of morality goes by the board. Then again, what is a case of necessity? Everybody will
interpret it in his own way and, as there is no definite standard to judge by, the application of moral
rules becomes uncertain.
(Jackson 2001)

For Kant there are several reasons why honesty is an absolute duty within ethics. The most
important of all is that lying is self-contradictory, since it cannot, as a rule, be universalized. That it
cannot be universalized means that you cannot make a general rule that everyone is obliged to
follow i.e. Thou shall lie. Making such a claim would render communication between humans
meaningless indeed the rule would contradict itself as it would be untrue by its own content. The
universability of actions is thus one of the trademarks of ethical actions according to Kant. The
criteria of universalization can be understood in several ways: here it suffices to define it as 1: a
criterion that makes lying logically inconsistent and 2: a safeguard against the egoism that Kant
feared would invade ethical actions, if exceptions became permitted. By insisting that any action by
the individual should be replicable by all, Kant attempts to keep the tendency of making exceptions
that benefit oneself at bay.
Furthermore, Kant sees lying as a denial of our sheer humanity. The hallmark of human existence is
that we, in contrast to animals, are not just followers of our desires, we also have the ability to

Immanuel Kant wrote this in 1797. Here quoted from Jackson (2001).

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critically evaluate our desires rationally. Therefore, the ability to tell the truth and refrain from
lying, even though lying could help us achieve our desires, is part of being human so that lying
amounts to denying our own personal humanity, but also the humanity of those we lie to.
To Kant then, even the smallest lie is ethically wrong and he sees no possibility for making
exceptions. This became very clear when the Swiss philosopher, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830),
challenged Kants claim that it would even be wrong to lie to a man about the whereabouts of an
innocent friend that the man was out to murder. Even in this seemingly absurd situation in which
most nerve fibres in our bodies cry lie, lie, lie Kant remains resolute regarding his absolute
principle. Lying to the murderer would obviously be beneficial for the intended victim, but mankind
as a whole would suffer, since the act of lying to an individual is to treat them as unimportance, , as
a mere tool to achieve ends that do not necessarily have anything to do with the individual.
Kants claim is that when we do this treat each other as a means to an end we deny the
rationality of the other person. Because all individuals are rational beings, one cannot reduce
another person to a means of reaching personal ends. According to Kant, if one does this, one
denies the rationality of the other person and by default the rationality of human beings in general,
as humans are equal in the sense that they possess the same rationality. Kant goes on to say: To
be truthful (honest) in all declarations is therefore a sacred unconditional command of reason, and
not to be limited by any expediency (Kant 1889).

From tool to duty
As can be seen from the above discussion, truth can be understood in many ways: from a mere tool
that has no ethical importance in itself, to something that is so valuable that failing to tell the truth
can be seen as a denial of the sheer rationality of human beings. Our guess is that most individuals
have a position in the middle of the two extremes and would struggle much like Augustine when
faced with the dilemma of lying to do good and lying to benefit ourselves. Telling the truth is
valuable in itself, but in certain situations other values might need to be protected. The value of
truth can sometimes be traded for pay-offs in other areas. Few would ascribe to Kants extreme
position and claim that lying is always wrong no matter what, but on the other hand, few would
regard honesty and dishonesty as mere tools for increasing welfare.
Another case that raises the question of whether there are more values than just welfare at stake
when we try to decide how we should live with each other, is smoking. Smoking is obviously an
activity that raises questions of welfare regarding the smokers themselves, but also non-smokers
who are subject to passive smoking and to the general population in the sense that smoking related
diseases place a burden on health budgets etc. At the same time, however, smoking also raises the
issue of the right of the individual to pursue his or her happiness. How much can societies infringe
on the personal freedom of smokers to pursue their habit? This is the question we will turn to now

Freedom is a central concept in modern ethics. In everyday modern life, it often translates into
people having the right to decide things in their lives, as long as the decisions do not harm other
people. It is important to realize that being free does not mean that your decisions are not influenced

Immanuel Kant (1785): On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies From Benevolent Motives. Here quoted from Kant (1889).
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by anyone or anything. All of us are, for instance, influenced by our upbringing. We did not choose
how we were brought up, or the values our parents tried to instil in us, but nevertheless the
upbringing we experienced influences our decisions as adults. However, we have the freedom to
critically evaluate our upbringing and, to some extent at least, to decide whether we wish to live by
these values, or reject them.
On the other hand, there are influences on our lives that contradict our freedom. If I am physically
threatened to do something I would not normally do, such as committing a crime under the threat of
violence, then in this situation I did not have freedom of choice. The influences which are
acceptable with regards to our freedom and those which are not are not easily identified. The
discussion of religiously prescribed dress codes for Muslim women which is taking place in many
European countries at the moment is an example of this. To some the dress code is a manifestation
of the unacceptable suppression of the freedom of women to dress as they please, but also to
participate as equals in society, whereas others see it as being up to each individual woman to
choose whether she wants to live in accordance with the Muslim religion. Therefore, far from being
an example of suppression, such individuals consider such a choice to be an expression of freedom.
That freedom is ethically valuable when it increases our welfare is probably an uncontroversial
statement. The right to make important decisions about education, ones spouse, job, children etc. is
something that most of us consider to be valuable. But what happens when the choices we make do
not increase, but rather endanger our welfare? Is freedom then still important from an ethical point
of view?
Later in the book we will discuss in more detail how the balance between respecting the freedom of
the individual and protecting the interests of society at large is a defining question within western
political philosophy. Here, we will just provide some examples of when it appears that we consider
the freedom of the individual to be important in its own right, regardless of the consequences for
society as a whole.

As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when smoking in public spaces was totally
acceptable. Restaurants, trains and movie theatres were full of smokers and children made ashtrays
out of clay for their parents in kindergarten. In most western countries today, smoking is more or
less prohibited except for outdoors and in private homes. The position regarding smoking, and
indeed passive smoking, has changed because today the health dangers involved are generally
accepted and very few would claim that smoking is not a very unhealthy habit. Thus, the freedom of
smokers has been limited in that they are only permitted to smoke in designated areas. But why
hasnt smoking just been totally banned? Why are smokers allowed to jeopardize their own health?
We suggest that is because most would consider an outright ban on smoking to be an infringement
on the freedom of smokers, as people have a right to do what they want as long as they do not put
others in danger. And just as it is not forbidden to do a bungee jump, to eat unhealthy food, to ski
down steep hills or to swim in the ocean even though all these activities are dangerous, to ban
smoking outright would be to meddle too much in peoples lives.
As with honesty, freedom seems to be a concept that we cannot leave aside without a good reason.
All else being equal, respecting the freedom of humans to make their own life-choices is important,
even though placing more restrictions on peoples choices may result in higher welfare. It may be
that we will see further restrictions on the freedom of smokers in the future justified by the health
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interests of the public and the costs to the health service. And perhaps restrictions on the
consumption of alcohol and unhealthy food may follow.
Many would argue that such intervention into peoples lives is in the interests of welfare for
individuals and society as a whole. But as can be learned by reference to the discussions about
smoking around the globe, it is far from uncontroversial to intervene in peoples personal choices,
even when addiction to nicotine could be said to infringe heavily on the freedom of the users.
There seems to be three positions in the debate about smoking and personal freedom. The first says
that smoking is a personal choice and people should be allowed to smoke, as long as it does not
affect others. At the other end of the spectrum we find those who argue that smoking cannot be
considered an act of personal freedom, as smokers are essentially drug addicts who are unable to
control their behaviour in a rational way. Smoking should therefore be banned and smokers helped
to quit their habit.
Western societies today seem to opt for a middle solution. Smoking is being prohibited in public
areas because it damages the health of others, cigarettes are taxed to make it less attractive to smoke
and public campaigns are launched to inform the public about the dangers of smoking but the
individuals choice to smoke is not interfered with. From a welfarist perspective, a total ban on
smoking might increase welfare, but it risks creating a black market with cigarettes becoming part
of organized crime, thereby reducing societal welfare in the long run. The welfarist needs to balance
such considerations before passing judgment on what should be done. Such a weighing of the pros
and cons could very well lie behind smoking policies in the western societies where you can still
smoke, if you want to, although in fewer and fewer places and at a higher and higher price.
New research has put this compromise seeking way of regulating smoking to the test after it has
been shown that approximately 10% of the dangerous ultra-fine particles in the smoke from
cigarettes can get from one apartment to another in an apartment block. This means that even if
there are no open doors or windows between two apartments, one can still be subjected to passive
smoking if your neighbour chooses to smoke in his or her private home. Should smoking in private
homes then be banned if you live in an apartment block? Some may reject this outright as an
intolerable infringement on the freedom of the individual. To others it may seem natural to increase
the protection of the public against passive smoking to this level. In the USA, a complete ban on
smoking has already been introduced in some building blocks e.g. in Seattle and New York, whilst
the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development strongly encourages city authorities
around the country to ban smoking in public housing units:
Because Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) can migrate between units in multifamily housing,
causing respiratory illness, heart disease, cancer, and other adverse health effects in neighboring
families, the Department is encouraging PHAs to adopt non-smoking policies. By reducing the public
health risks associated with tobacco use, this notice will enhance the effectiveness of the Departments
efforts to provide increased public health protection for residents of public housing.
(U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2009)
The potential ban against smoking in private homes is justified by pointing to the danger that others
are exposed to (passive smoking). What remains to be seen is whether smoking will be banned
outright, even when it poses no danger to anyone other than the smoker himself, or whether this will
still be considered as an individual choice. It may seem far-fetched to imagine a situation in which
western societies impose a total ban on smoking, but in other areas western societies have been less
reluctant to take away the freedom of individuals in an attempt to protect people from their own
choices. Selling ones internal organs, such as a kidney, and certain drugs are illegal, whilst
prostitution is prohibited in many countries. In many instances, the freedom of the individual is
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restricted to protect fellow citizens. This is why it is illegal to rob banks, kill people that annoy us
and drive as fast as we like on the high way. However, in the above mentioned cases, it seems that
we are also trying to protect individuals from their own choices. But is it ethically justifiable to take
away an individuals freedom to protect him/her against making choices that the majority consider
Even non-smokers will probably pause here to consider whether the freedom of the individual is
just a tool to create welfare, which can be disregarded when it does not, or whether personal
freedom is ethically important in its own right, just as telling the truth seemed to be in the previous

Freedom for the not so free
Another discussion that highlights the importance of freedom is the discussion of how we should
treat people who have lost the ability to care for themselves to use their freedom in an informed
way so to speak.
At nursing homes, where people have lost the ability to take care of themselves because of
dementia, a recurring problem is that the residents sometimes leave the home and get lost and
cannot find their way back. Previously it was necessary to either lock the doors to prevent residents
from leaving, or search for them when they wandered off. Today, residents who leave the premises
and become lost can easily be located with the use of a simple GPS tracking device, which increases
their freedom of movement and allows the staff to treat them more like adult human beings and less
like small children.
Nonetheless, there are strict rules which regulate the use of these tracking devices. In Denmark, the
use of a GPS tracking device requires written approval from the sick individuals next of kin and
official approval from the social authorities. But why is this the case when there is such a clear
benefit, not only for the individual who is suffering from dementia, but also for the care staff? It is
because the situation involves restricting the personal freedom of the individual. There is a fine line
between using such technology responsibly to improve the care provided to people suffering from
dementia, on the one hand, and using it to control patients in a way that is potentially unethical, on
the other.. The dilemma is thus between the safety and the freedom of the patient here expressed
as the basic freedom of movement.
The question here is not whether the right of freedom should trump safety every time, or vice versa.
The point is to illustrate once again that ethics sometimes involves more than just welfare and that
there can be other important considerations which can make us act in ways that are not
understandable if one believes that only welfare counts. On the other hand, perhaps each and every
one of the cases, which we have discussed in this chapter, can be explained in welfare terms and our
understanding of concepts such as truth and freedom as being valuable and important in their own
right, is a misunderstanding. We will continue this debate in the next chapter, where we will discuss
whether animals, plants and nature as a whole should be ethically relevant and not just human
beings. Once again we will see that although welfare is an important concept, we often find
ourselves in situations in which it seems that it is not the only thing that matters.

Within ethics, there is an ongoing discussion about the importance of welfare. To some it is the only
thing that counts when ethically evaluating an action, whilst to others it represents only one factor
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among several. Some of the values besides welfare that may be relevant in themselves are: Respect
for others, dignity, honesty and autonomy. The question is whether our initial positive
understanding of these concepts is due to their inherent ethical nature, or whether it is just because
they benefit the welfare of humans in the short, or long term.
In this chapter, we discussed three examples of when it seems that welfare is not all that matters:
utilizing human remains as biofuel, lying and limiting the personal freedom of individuals. In all
three cases, welfare considerations are important, but there also seems to be something else at stake.
In the case of infidelity, even though a lie might save a relationship, which is worth saving, and
thereby increase the welfare of everyone involved,, it still seems problematic to lie. Thus, treating a
concept such as lying as a neutral tool to create welfare seems to go against some deeply held
intuition about ethics. On the other hand, the other extreme view that, one may never lie, suffers
from the same problem. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in which it seems to be the right
thing to do or at least the lesser of two evils.
From a welfarist perspective, the reason why we should protect the freedom of individuals, tell the
truth and treat the dead with respect is that this kind of behaviour creates the most welfare. But to
many we do not just tell the truth because it will eventually lead to the best outcome, but because
we are somehow obliged to do so. It is not easy to decide who is right. But the question, Is there
more than welfare at stake? remains important when trying to navigate through life.

Jackson, Jennifer (2001): Truth, Trust and Medicine. London & New York: Routledge.
The Presidents Council on Bioethics (2002): Human Cloning and Human Dignity. Washington
Kant, Immanuel (1889) [1785-1797]: Kants Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the
Theory of Ethics (translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 4th revised edition). London, New York
& Bombay: Longmans, Green and Co.
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Non-Smoking Policies in Public Housing
(NOTICE: PIH-2009- 21 (HA)). Washington, USA.

Further reading
Bok, Sissela (1989) [1978]: Lying. Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage
Goodin, Robert E. (1989): The ethics of smoking. Ethics 99 (3): 574-624.
Kagan, Shelly (1998): Normative Ethics. Boulder CO:Westview Press.
Tnnsj, Torbjrn (2002): Understanding ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
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5 What about nature?

So far we have been discussing in what ways humans are ethically obligated to each other in
interpersonal matters. In this chapter, we will discuss what happens when nature is brought
into the discussion. This question is becoming more and more pertinent as human use of
nature has a detrimental effect in many ways not only on human living conditions, but also
on the living conditions for many species of animals, plants and many ecosystems.
Should we take care of nature for the sake of humans, or are we also ethically obliged to
take care of nature for its own sake? The question of how far the ethical community can be
extended is central within the ethical discussion about how nature should be treated. This
chapter introduces the four main ethical positions found within the discipline of
environmental ethics and asks another very important question: what exactly is meant by the
term nature. Is there an ethical difference between wild, untouched nature and a bit of
nature that has been culturalized through millennia such as a dairy cow? Finally, we discuss
the many ethical conflicts and dilemmas that arise if the ethical community is expanded
beyond the human sphere.

Why care about the polar bear?
Somewhere not that far from the North Pole stands a bewildered polar bear (Ursus maritimus).
What confuses this white furry giant is that its prey, the seal pup, is lying on the ice with its mother
close by. Usually, the seal pup would be in a snow cave dug out by its mother, invisible to its
enemies. The polar bear typically has to search around, sniffing its way to the cave and, when it
finds it, it breaks in and catches the seal. But, the snow is too shallow and too soft for the seal
mother to dig a cave for its pup. Climate change has put a stop to this parental protection behaviour
and the seal is forced to raise its pup out in the open. Contrary to what one might initially believe,
this is not an advantage for the polar bear. Normally, it relies on its phenomenal olfactory sense to
catch its prey, but now it is at a loss as to what to do. Now, the seals can see the bear approaching
and they have plenty of time to slide into the water and make their escape.
This is nothing new from a purely evolutionary point of view. This is the way evolution works. The
environment changes and organisms are forced to either adapt and survive or become extinct. After
all, the polar bear was originally a brown bear or grizzly that got caught by glaciers in the mid-
Pleistocene age somewhere between 100.000 to 250.000 years ago. Thus, the polar bear will have to
adapt to a more terrestrial life style, or be replaced by its old relatives in the new arctic environment
that is developing. If we strip the problem down to its basic scientific components, it is doubtful
whether there are any ethical questions at stake here. What we have is just a natural phenomenon
unfolding, although one can obviously discuss whether the underlying causes (human induced
climate change) can be described as natural.
However, to most people, there is more than just science to the world. The experience of the polar
bear although usually seen from a safe distance on the TV and the symbolic importance of the
animal together with the images of polar bears clinging to melting pieces of ice in an immense
ocean, carry an ethical component: a feeling of wrongness and perhaps even guilt and an urge to do
something although few of us actually get around to doing something before we get caught up in
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the daily trivialities of our lives once more, far away from the melting ice and the hungry polar

What is important?
In this chapter, we will extend the discussion of ethics beyond the purely human sphere to include
the rest of nature. In the case of the polar bear, it is rather obvious that one can extend the welfare
discussion and ask whether it is ethically acceptable that human greenhouse gas emissions cause a
loss of welfare for animals. Few in the Western world would disagree that mammals can experience
pleasure and pain and therefore should be taken into consideration; although we might argue to
what extent animals should matter. For example, what about animals such as shrimps and spiders,
plants and trees, flowers and mosses and non-living things such as mountains, rivers and
ecosystems. Can and should they be included in the ethical game somehow?
Climate change raises a lot of questions of a scientific nature. But as in the case of the polar bear
climate change also raises ethical issues and emphasizes perennial questions in new ways. One
obvious question to ask in this connection is: why should I care? Is it because it is wrong for people
to care about polar bears? Should we care because it is wrong in relation to the individual polar bear
that loses its life, or because it is wrong to destroy an animal species? Alternatively, does causing
such a drastic change on an ecosystem constitute a loss of value in itself? These are not easy
questions to answer, because we have to consider our fundamental understanding of what nature
actually is and what our role as humans beings should be in relation to nature.
Questions such as these have been discussed within philosophy and theology throughout human
history, but they moved to the forefront of ethical thinking with the advent of the ecological crisis
in the 1960s and the growing public awareness of environmentalism as a political subject. Since the
1970s, such issues have formed the foundation of the environmental movement and the new
academic discipline: Environmental Ethics, or sometimes the Ethics of Nature, that followed it.
One of the more useful ways of thinking about the kinds of questions this discipline struggles with
is to look at how different arguments can be used to support different understandings of the ethical
importance of non-human nature. In the following, we will describe the four main positions within
environmental ethics and discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of each. If we return to the
example of the polar bear, the importance of this discussion becomes clear. The amount of
resources we should allocate to preserving the polar bear and the priority the issue should be given
considering the current situation in which climate change threatens human living conditions in
many parts of the world depends on the answer. If the only reason for saving the polar bear is our
own aesthetic preferences, we will probably not prioritize the preservation of the animal very
highly, whereas if we believe that it is a creature that has ethical importance in itself, then we may
well consider its preservation to be very important.

Agents, subjects and objects
To understand the discussion taking place within ethics about the ethical status of different beings,
it is useful to divide the world into three groups of entities. The first group consists of ethical
agents. These are beings that are able to understand the idea of ethics and that they have ethical
obligations and that they should act accordingly. Basically, an ethical agent is a being whom we
would be justified in expecting to act in an ethical way. An ethical agent is thus a person whom we
would hold accountable for his or her actions. Even though we might be able to imagine that there
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could be aliens that would live up to the criteria of ethical agents and even though we might find
rudimentary ethical behaviour within the animal world, e.g. chimpanzees and dolphins, for all
practical purposes, we can correlate the group of ethical agents with the group of humans that we
would drag to court for doing something wrong. An ethical agent is someone who we rightfully
expect to behave in an ethical way.
At the same time, ethical agents are ethical subjects, which means that they not only have ethical
obligations, but that they should be treated ethically. Ethical subjects are worthy of moral
consideration. To be an ethical subject simply means that ethical agents are obliged to take ones
interests into consideration when deciding what to do. Ethical subjects are beings who have ethical
importance in themselves. They have moral standing. The term subject is chosen to indicate that
they are involved in the decision process as beings that cannot be reduced to mere objects. They are,
so to speak, at the centre of the decision in so far as they have to be taken into account in their own
right. It is widely accepted that there are ethical subjects that do not belong to the group of ethical
agents, including children, the mentally disabled, people with senile dementia, people who are in a
coma etc. As illustrated in the figure below, this means that ethical agents can be seen as a sub-
group within the larger group of ethical subjects.
The final group of entities that exists is comprised of ethical objects. These are entities which have
no ethical importance in themselves, but ethical agents still have to take them into consideration,
because they might have an effect on someone or something that is an ethical subject. Thus, very
few would claim that a beautiful vase is an ethical subject and, therefore, the act of destroying the
vase is not ethically wrong in itself. However, the act may be wrong because of the effect it may
have on the owner of the vase. Alternatively, I might consider flowers to be ethical subjects, who
therefore demand my ethical respect. In this case, the act of destroying the vase may have been
performed in order to prevent the flowers from being killed and placed in the vase in the first place.
Whether it is one or the other, it is not the vase itself that is at the centre of the ethical
considerations. The vase is merely an object that is only relevant to the extent that it has an effect on
ethical subjects. Taken together, ethical agents and subjects can be said to constitute the ethical
community, whereas ethical objects are not members of this community, they are only relevant in so
far as they are means for the members to reach their goals.

Ethical objects
Ethical subjects
Ethical agents
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If we use this conceptual scheme to organize the discussions within environmental ethics, then the
overarching question becomes: What belongs to each category? The discussion regarding which
entities belong to the group of ethical agents is uncontroversial, as it is basically humans of an age
and mental capacity which means they can be held responsible for their actions. However,
controversy surrounds who or what belongs to the two other groups. Basically there are four
positions: The anthropocentric position that claims that only humans have ethical importance and
therefore only humans belong to the group of ethical subjects. Then there is the sentientist og
zoocentric position which claims that all sentient beings are ethical subjects. The biocentric position
seeks to include all living beings (including plants) in the group of ethical subjects, and finally, the
ecocentric position seeks to also include non-living entities such as mountains, rivers and more
systemic entities such as species, ecosystems and landscapes.
Initially, this discussion might seem rather academic. However, one need only contemplate the
difference being considered as a fully-fledged member of the ethical community has made to
different groups of human minorities (e.g. black people, women and sexual minorities) to
understand the significance of the debate for our treatment of agricultural animals. If animals are
just ethical objects, efficiency becomes the only limitation on our exploitation of animals in the
agricultural production system. We would be able to do anything, as long as it allows us to produce
more meat for less money. But, if animals are ethical subjects, then they are beings with moral
importance and they should be treated as such in agricultural production systems. If this is the case,
there will be limits to how much pressure we can exert on animals to reach our own goals.

Four centrisms that explain it all
As mentioned earlier, Western ethical thinkers have spent a great deal of energy trying to
understand the relationship between humans and nature since the extent of the effects of
anthropogenic use of nature came into focus in the 1960s. Out of these efforts, four more or less
distinct positions have crystallized that can be used to obtain an overview of the ethical landscape.
Within each category, several sub-positions can be identified, but here we will treat them as
uniform positions and only mention larger differences.

Only humans allowed
Anthropocentrism (from the Greek antropos: man) is an attitude which is prevalent throughout
much of the Western world. It is predominant within the Christian philosophy of nature, and has
had a major influence on the Western civilizations view of the natural world. According to this
view, humans are the only ethical subjects. This approach does not preclude taking nature and the
environment into consideration, but it assumes that the consideration is indirect, i.e. all use and
protection of the natural world is conducted out of consideration for human needs and interests. An
extended version of this view is found in the UNs so-called Brundtland Report, Our Common
Future from 1987, in which consideration for the needs of future generations is emphasized as the
reason why we should change our behaviour towards the environment. In the past 20 years, this
approach has had a notable impact on environmental and nature management, for example in
connection with energy consumption, waste policies and the protection of animal and plant species.
From an anthropocentric sustainability perspective, the possible extinction of polar bears becomes
interesting for a number of reasons, e.g. because polar bears feed on seals, which in turn feed on
fish, fewer polar bears would mean fewer fish, which would then have a negative impact on
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fisheries within the region and local economies, thereby adversely affecting vulnerable human
populations. Also, polar bears attract tourists, who boost local economies.
One of the challenges for the anthropocentric perspective is to explain why it is only people who are
ethically significant. To assert this solely on the grounds of a biological affiliation to the species
Homo sapiens gives little meaning outside a narrow religious understanding of human beings as
being specially selected by God during creation according to Christianity. If we strictly adhere to
philosophical reasoning, it is illegitimate to base ones understanding of the relationship between
humans and nature on scripture. Therefore, if one wishes to defend an anthropocentric viewpoint
the question becomes: What qualities do human beings possess that elevates them and only them
to the status of ethical subjects?
In the history of philosophy, many different qualities have been proposed such as reason, logical
thinking, language, the ability to use tools etc. However, not all people possess these abilities such
as children, the mentally disabled and people suffering from dementia. What about these
individuals? This argument, known as the argument form marginal cases has been put forward by,
for example, the famous utilitarian Australian-American philosopher Peter Singer (1946-):
The catch is that any such characteristic that is possessed by all human beings will not be possessed
only by human beings. For example, all human beings, but not only human beings, are capable of
feeling pain; and while only human beings are capable of solving complex mathematical problems, not
all humans can do this.
(Singer 2002)
Another philosopher, John Rawls (1921-2002), answered this challenge by pointing to the potential
for these people to obtain the necessary abilities to be included in the anthropocentric ethical
community. Thus, some of us actually have the necessary abilities; but others have had, will have,
or could have them because they belong to the species Homo sapiens. Whether or not one considers
this to be a convincing answer to the challenge made by Singer, anthropocentrists are still left with
challenges: All human abilities, as far as we know, have developed through the evolutionary
process and can thus be recognized in different animal species, albeit to a far less developed degree.
Whales communicate, chimpanzees engage in social behaviour that can be interpreted as being
moral in a rudimentary sense, birds use tools and the behaviour of elephants when one of their kind
dies is very complex. Why then draw a sharp dividing line between the human species and animals?
Even if some unique human feature could be identified, why this feature should be so ethically
relevant as to be the sole criterion for entry into the ethical community would require justification.
Another challenge is whether it is actually only because children have the potential to become
real humans at some point that we include them into the ethical community., Or is it because we
have a more basic ethical experience of the child in front of us that we include it into the
community and care for it for the sake of it as it is now and not for the sake of what it might
become. It seems counter-intuitive to say that we only take care of people because we feel obliged
to respect their potential and not because we consider them to be beings that justify our care in their
own right.

Now also accepting animals
Since the 1960s, more and more attention has been given to mankinds relationship with nature, and
increasing criticism has been levelled at the anthropocentric viewpoint. The criticism which has had
the most impact has come from the sentient (meaning having the power of sense perception or
sensation) perspective. This point of view is closely related to the welfarist perspective where the
focus is solely on welfare. According to welfarism, the criterion for being part of the ethical
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community is therefore the ability to feel comfort or pain. Therefore, your experiences contribute
either positively or negatively to the combined quality of life and must therefore be taken into
account. This way of thinking has, among other things, resulted in a growing focus on animal
welfare in commercial livestock production and vivisection, while, generally speaking, animal
welfare is also higher on the public agenda today than at any time previously.
As mentioned, not many people today will claim that experiences of pain or pleasure are ethically
irrelevant. One can discuss the extent to which different creatures should be part of ethical
considerations, and one might claim that human beings should take precedence over animals.
However, few people will (or can) argue that the suffering of animals is ethically irrelevant. Rather,
the question is whether the ability to feel pain and pleasure is the only relevant factor to be
considered when deciding whether something belongs to the group of ethical subjects.

Trees have moral standing
Biocentric or life-centred ethical theories reject such an ethical distinction. All living organisms
whatever their level of consciousness should be considered ethical subjects and included in all
ethical reflections. Anthropocentrism identifies abilities which are deemed unique to humans, or a
purely biological affiliation with the species Homo sapiens, whilst Sentientism identifies the ability
to feel pain and Biocentrism whether an entity is living, as criteria for moral standing.
One of the first academic works to struggle with this question was written by Christopher D. Stone,
an American professor of law, who discussed the moral and legal status of non-sentient entities in
his book: Should Trees Have Standing. In 1986, the American environmental ethicist, Paul W.
Taylor, published the book, Respect for Nature. A Theory of Environmental Ethics, in which he
argued in favour of a biocentric perspective based on the idea of a good of its own. His claim is that
some beings distinguish themselves in a way that makes it meaningful to say that things can be
good or bad for it. Things and events can either help or damage it. Those beings are beings that,
according to Taylor, have a good of its own. Taylor then made having a good of its own a condition
for having an ethical value irrespective of everything else. Thus follows that a thing that has a good
of its own is an ethical subject. For Taylor, all living beings fauna and flora belong to the ethical
community. Trees, bushes and vegetables are thus not excluded from the moral realm, but should be
considered alongside humans and animals when ethical questions arise.
Other biocentric positions argue, on the basis of our human experiences, that the ability of humans
to identify with the other must be what defines the boundary of the ethical community. The claim
is that the limits of the ethical community are drawn by the human ability to identification. To
identify with a being is also to be able to feel empathy with a being. And since humans to at least
some extent thanks to shared existential basic conditions such as vulnerability and mortality, can
feel empathy with all living things that is where the line is. Inanimate objects such as rocks, rivers,
mountains etc. do not share the same basic conditions with us in the same way and thus only have
indirect ethical significance (i.e. they are ethical objects).

If you forget the whole you lose the parts
Although Anthropocentrism, Sentientism and Biocentrism are very different in many ways, they
share one common feature: all focus on the individual. It is the experience or good of the singular
individual that is important. What happens to the community, whether it is human or ecologically
understood, is only important in so far as it influences the individual. However, supporters of a
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holistic approach do not consider the above to be sufficiently far-reaching. Indeed, the ethical
community can only be defined in a satisfactory way once everything in the natural world living
or dead and not just individual organisms are included in considerations. The so-called deep
ecologists point out that current environmental problems, such as air pollution and what they
consider to be the ruthless exploitation of the natural world, require a rethinking of our role in the
natural world and the environment. According to this perspective, the human exploitation of the
natural world is a symptom of the fact that humans have forgotten the fundamental truth that they,
together with other living individual organisms, are embedded in a larger ecosystem so that
everything is interconnected. Humans are part of the natural world and are so closely associated
with the rest of it that, ethically speaking, it makes no sense to distinguish between humans and
nature. The boundary of the individual is not the thin layer of skin covering the body. The
individual in a certain sense is also all the ecological processes that it takes part in.
The Norwegian philosopher, Arne Nss (1912-2009), thus talks about the difference between the
individual self and the ecological self, whereby the latter, in the extreme sense, may be understood
as the ecosphere. Therefore, it is not only individual organisms, but also magnitudes such as species
and ecosystems, which have direct ethical significance. The goal then is to preserve a high level of
diversity and untouched nature and achieve a state of harmony between the natural world and
humans, whereby humans are part of the cycles of nature and exist on an equal footing with other
creatures and in so far as is possible avoid influencing the ecosystems more than necessary.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is one of the most quoted thinkers within the ecocentric framework. He
was an American environmentalist, ecologist and forester, whose book, A Sand County Almanac
(1949) has achieved an almost iconic status within wilderness conservation circles. In the book,
Leopold attempted to identify the ideals that should inform human interaction with nature:
This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means
audible to all. . . . On a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over
rimrocks, sit quietly and listen . . . and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand.
Then you may hear it - a vast pulsing harmony - its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the
lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.
(Leopold 1949)

Who cares about the koala?
From a philosophical point of view, there are a number of competing views of nature which range
from anthropocentrism, where only people have ethical value, via sentientism and biocentrism to
ecocentrism, which includes all living matter in the ethical community. The view of nature that
governs our thinking is very important when discussing how humans ought to relate to nature. A
small example can be used to illustrate the different ethical approaches in relation to climate
change. Recently, Australian researchers discovered that an increased level of CO
in the
atmosphere reduces the nutrient content of the leaves of the eucalyptus tree while also increasing
the number of naturally occurring toxins. With fewer nutrients, the value of the leaves as a food
source is reduced, which has implications for the koala bear; the only mammal that relies on
eucalyptus leaves as a source of food and water. The fact that there are fewer nutrients in eucalyptus
leaves is obviously not a problem for humans who cultivate eucalyptus trees as a source of paper
pulp. Only the quality of the wood and the size of the trees are of interest. In other words, from an
anthropocentric viewpoint, you could argue that as long as the trees can be used for our benefit, this
development presents no ethical problem for humans now or in future, other things being equal.
Implicit in this argument is the belief that the natural world should be regarded as an instrument.
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Therefore, whether there is an ethical issue or not depends on whether the natural world serves our
human interests or otherwise.
However, this does not necessarily mean that, from an anthropocentric point of view, you can
justify the consequences of global warming for eucalyptus trees and koala bears. In addition to our
need for food, water and shelter, people have other needs such as an interest in, or a desire to care
for plants and animals. David Abram an American ecologist and magician, along with others from
the growing field of environmental psychology, have argued that humans basically need to maintain
a relationship with plants and animals to be fully human. With this enlarged welfare concept, the
declining nutritional value of the eucalyptus tree would become an ethical problem, as something
which we humans appreciate koala bears in Australia would be threatened with extinction. We
should therefore show consideration for the koala out of regard for other people. On the other hand,
according to the anthropocentric point of view the koala cannot expect consideration itself.
From a sentient viewpoint, koala bears are entitled to consideration, as they are higher animals that
are capable of feeling pain or happiness. One can of course argue that, if the koala bear becomes
extinct, some other creature will almost certainly fill its ecological niche. And to some philosophers
it is not the individual being that counts, but the overall amount of joy and happiness in the world.
One could imagine a hypothetical situation whereby the koala becomes extinct and is replaced by a
new invasive species called mawatupiki which ensures at least the same amount of joy in the world.
Others, who think more in an historical and individual context, see the koala as being ethically
important as an individual and as a species due to its role and niche in evolutionary development.
Regardless of whether one adheres to one or the other kind of sentientism, it is clear that koalas
need to be taken into consideration in their own right.
More far-reaching ethical viewpoints, such as biocentrism, would also be concerned about
organisms which may be harmed through the effects of increased CO
levels on the leaves.
Biocentrism would maintain that such organisms are entitled to moral consideration, like people,
regardless of whether they benefit us directly or indirectly. Finally, ecocentrics would also consider
how the changes in the nutritional values of the leaves would affect the overall ecosystem and the
species within it.

But what is nature?
Even though the idea of nature plays a large role within discussions of environmental ethics, what is
actually meant by nature is difficult to define. Most people adhere to the view that nature should
be protected, but they are rarely clear about what should count as nature and what should not.
Should a landscape such as the Danish heath land, which has been created through human
intervention, be counted as nature? What about old oak trees planted in fields? Or animals, such as
the dairy cow, which has been bred by humans for millennia? It is worthwhile to discuss some of
the interpretations of the concept of nature as the understanding of what actually constitutes
nature is important for the outcome of ethical deliberations.
To get a grasp on the concept of nature, it is helpful to begin with the opposite of the concept,
namely culture. Culture is what humans make. It can take many different shapes and it can have
both mental and physical qualities. Chairs are part of culture as is democracy, astronomy,
cheesecake, soccer and writing. Culture is produced by humans and usually for humans. Culture is
the way in which humans shape the world socially, practically and ideologically. The opposite of
culture is nature, which is then everything that exists before humans begin to change things, to
culturalize them, so to speak. Nature is thus everything that is independent of humans: It is what is
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given, what is there when we begin. The air is nature as are spiders, desert sand, orcas, forest
strawberries, death, and mountains. The crucial factor for deciding what is nature and what is
culture could thus be the independence of the phenomenon to humans. This criterion actually
works very well as long as one stays within simple limits. To say that we should respect nature and
then take care not to wipe out a certain species of birds, but not extend those considerations to a
certain brand of shoes seems initially right and can be explained by using this criteria.
But unfortunately the world is rarely that simple. The distinction between culture and nature has
become more and more blurred as human cultures have evolved on the planet for the last 10.000
years, gradually gaining more and more power over the natural world through various technologies
from the first ploughshare to cloning. Because humans have interfered and exercised power over
increasingly large parts of nature, today it can be very difficult indeed to find something on the
planet that is fully independent of humans. Even the most remote parts of the planet have been
visited by humans, whilst chemical compounds produced and used by humans can be found in
nearly all living creatures and in general the effects of human pollution, such as climate change, are
all-embracing. So, in this sense, it can be hard to find any nature today.

How to deal with mixed entities?
But, many people are thinking about something else when they describe something as being
nature and therefore worthy of ethical consideration. Independence should not be understood as
that which is untouched or unaffected by humans, but as that which is whole before humans begin
to change it. Nature is that which does not need us to unfold its potential. The orca, fire and forest
trees would do very well without humans around. As a matter of fact, most living beings would
(which may make you feel guilty for being such a lousy neighbour). Here nature is seen as the
wild or wilderness.
This does not solve the problem, however, with all the mixed entities that humans have produced
during the past millennia. Animals, such as cows, pigs, lamas and chickens, have been tamed and
bred to serve humans needs. Plants have been bred to be more efficient in all kinds of ways and
landscapes have been changed to serve humans needs such as rice production, golf courses and
parking lots. Nature and culture have been mixed in many different ways. In the case of the parking
lot, it is very difficult to identify any remaining nature, whereas if we look at the Sami way of
breeding reindeer, it seems as if the nature part of the animal is easy to discern. But what to do
with a cow? Is a cow a piece of nature that should be included in the ethical community? Or is it a
piece of nature gone culture through excessive breeding which, therefore, should be considered as a
biological production unit that should only interest us as an ethical object?
Such a question is irrelevant to the anthropocentric oriented environmentalist. All we have to do is
protect humans. This sometimes means that we have to protect nature (non-human entities) since
humans depend on it. The only question the anthropocentric has to answer is what kind of effects on
human are relevant to take into consideration. Here, one can distinguish between two positions:
strong and weak anthropocentrism. Strong anthropocentrism focuses solely on physical needs such
as protecting nature so that it can provide us with breathable air, drinkable water and edible food.
The weak anthropocentric position is broader and includes human needs for nature experiences and
possibilities to bond with other living beings. However, in both cases, the underlying ethical
reasoning is that nature should serve the interests of humans. Whether a cow is nature or culture or
somewhere in between does not matter.
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The sentientist is not bothered by the indistinct the concept of nature either. To her, what we need to
know about an entity is whether or not it can feel pain. If it can, then we should include its interests
in our attempt to maximize the overall quality of life, whereas if the entity cannot experience pain,
it belongs to the category of ethical objects and is thus only indirectly ethically relevant. As cows
are quite capable of feeling pain and mental distress, we have an ethical obligation to minimize this,
or at least show how their suffering is justified by a higher gain in quality of life elsewhere.
Whether the cow is considered to be mostly nature or mostly culture is unimportant.
However, for the biocentrist, independence (or rather lack of it) can lead to surprising conclusions.
Earlier, we mentioned the American environmental philosopher, Paul Taylor. He argues that all
living beings have an ethical importance because they have a good of their own, a telos, that is
independent of humans. But, according to Paul Taylor, this does not apply to domesticated animals
as they have become so culturalized as to lose their independence of humans. Such animals are no
longer nature, but culture and therefore cannot claim membership of the ethical community, as they
are now so far from their original independent state that they have become a mere means to human
ends. Therefore, a cow is not an animal, but a biological factory.
To the ecocentrist, problems abound with the distinction between nature and culture. Very often, the
ecocentrist views cultural phenomena in nature as an unnatural disturbance that threatens the
ecological balance of wild ecosystems. But, as more and more nature becomes culturalized, it
becomes increasingly difficult to uphold the distinction between nature and culture. Some
ecosystems, such as those that have developed around agricultural production, are not natural in the
sense that they are independent from humans, but does this mean that we have no duty to take care
of them? The ecocentrists answer to questions like this is that we should minimize our impact on
wild nature as much as possible by designating certain zones for the production of food whilst
leaving the rest as wilderness. Step lightly on the ground is a popular catch phrase within
ecocentric circles which expresses the ideal that we should leave as small an ecological foot print as

Ethical dilemmas
The discussion regarding what should belong to nature and what should belong to culture has great
importance when we discuss environmental protection. A subject that is only becoming more and
more pressing as the consequences of climate change are becoming clearer. What should we strive
to preserve and what can we abandon? But, another complex issue lies before us as well. Once we
have decided what nature is, and what should be considered members of the ethical community,
how should we go about prioritizing, if and when we cannot live up to all our ethical obligations at
the same time?
The problem of prioritization expands as we expand the scale of the ethical community. From an
anthropocentric viewpoint, only humans have ethical importance, but already here we can face
situations in which we cannot fulfil our ethical obligations to all involved at the same time. The
medical developments within organ transplantation mean that we can prolong human lives that
would have been lost just a few years ago. But at the same time, these developments have resulted
in additional pressure and discomfort for the relatives of the donor, when they are faced with the
choice at the same time as they are struggling to come to grips with the death of a loved one. And
we can easily imagine the situation where we on the one hand have a patient who is in need of an
organ and whom we are technically capable to help, if only we can obtain an organ from a donor
and on the other hand have a group of reluctant relatives to a road accident victim. Relatives that
would feel they would not only loose the live of their loved one, but also the death, if her or his
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organs were used for transplantation. In such a situation we cannot take heed of all the ethical
demands involved, but must prioritize.
Problems like these obviously increase in number as we expand the ethical community so that more
and more beings become ethically relevant in themselves. We are often faced with situations
whereby taking care of one entity would entail disregarding other organisms. Therefore, we have to
decide what is important to protect; whether we should actively meddle with nature, or leave it to
evolve by itself etc. Should we cull the number of animals in National Parks, or let nature run its
course and let hunger and social herd mechanisms ensure that the number of animals over time is
sustainable? Should we conserve vast areas of potentially useful agricultural land to provide a
habitat where plants and animals can continue to be part of natural evolutionary processes?
One way to answer questions like these is to use a consequentialist framework. Here the goal is to
select the best available outcome, understood as that which results in the highest overall quality of
life for all concerned parties. This is closely connected to the sentientistic welfarist perspective
discussed above, where the individual animal is of no interest in itself, but only its contribution to
the overall amount of joy or suffering. Within such a framework, it is fully acceptable to sacrifice
the ethically relevant interests of one being as long as it can be justified by a larger increase of
welfare somewhere else in the ethical community. A consequentialist would argue that saving the
polar bear from extinction would be extremely expensive and a higher quality of life could be
achieved for all concerned parties by using the funds to provide clean drinking water to children in
southern parts of Africa.
Another way of circumventing the abundance of ethical dilemmas is to try to demonstrate some
kind of hierarchy of ethical importance that can help us decide who or what to help. Usually
humans are deemed more important that animals, which in turn are considered more important than
plants. This fits well with our intuition, but what about concepts such as species and
ecosystems? Where do they enter the picture? Is the species more important than the individual
members? Is the system more important than its components? In the early days of environmental
ethics, thinkers such as the American, J. Baird Callicott (1941-), became notorious for claiming that
it was more important to protect ecosystemic health than to save humans, whilst deep ecologists
claimed that the ecologically sustainable number of humans on the planet was around 250 million.
Such claims led to a harsh criticism of these positions as being misanthropic, a critique levelled by,
for example, the French philosopher Luc Ferry (1951-). Although the criticism is often directed at
the positions without an understanding of their complexity, how one should navigate ethically in a
landscape where beings other than humans should be taken into ethical consideration remains an
open question.
Very few are fanatics who would sacrifice human lives to protect nature, but there are many
conflicts regarding whose interests should carry the most weight. The use of animals in medical
experiments, the destruction of rainforests to create more arable land, the destruction of coral reefs
around the world due to pollution and rising ocean temperatures that are again linked to industrial
production and CO
emissions. There are no easy answers, but it is clear that if human interests
always carry the most weight when it comes to the practical decision-making, any talk of the value
of nature in itself or the rights of animals rings hollow.

The future
That nature has become such a prominent part of ethical thinking during the past 30-40 years is
mainly due to the fact that we humans have created a situation in which we need to think long and
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hard, but also make quick decisions about how to organize our societies, if we are not to destroy
their very foundation. Nature has always been a theme within philosophy and religion, but with the
technological development since the start of the 19
Century, human influence has increased to
such an extent that we now threaten most species on the planet. The most obvious example of the
detrimental impact of humans on the environment is climate change. To some this is a clear sign
that something must be done immediately. However, at the same time, we need to clearly think
about which values we wish to act upon. What is it we seek to preserve and why? As we have
shown in this chapter, this needs clarification if we are not to act in the dark, or if we want to avoid
simply putting out the fires that attract the most media attention. We will leave the question of
which ethical view should prevail as open, not least because the authors disagree vehemently on this
issue. In contrast, the authors agree whole-heartedly that the ethical question regarding the relation
between humans and the rest of nature will only become more important in the coming years as
human societies try to adapt to drastically changing living conditions.

Key points
How the relationship between humans and nature is understood has become increasingly important
as the detrimental effects of the human use of nature are becoming more and more severe. Pollution
of the air, soil and water, increasing pressure on the welfare of production animals and climate
change are all issues that bring this to the forefront of ethical debates.
A good way to structure the different positions within environmental ethics is to ask what should be
considered an ethical agent, subject or object. Ethical agents can be held responsible for their
actions, whereas these agents ought to behave ethically towards ethical subjects and finally ethical
objects are all the beings and things that are not considered to be ethically important in themselves,
but nevertheless might play a role to the extent that the use ethical agents make of them has an
impact on ethical subjects.
Within environmental ethics, four main positions can be identified: i) Anthropocentrism where only
humans are considered ethical subjects, ii) Sentientism, where animals are included in the ethical
community since the ability to experience pain and joy is the central requirement here, iii)
Biocentrism, where all living beings are considered ethically important in themselves, since life is
the criterion to enter the ethical community and finally, iv) Ecocentrism, where non-living entities
such as rocks, rivers etc. are also considered ethical subjects along with more systemic entities such
as landscapes, ecosystems and species to be included in the ethical community
The concept of Nature is not easy to define. If it is understood as that which has not been influenced
by humans, then there is hardly any left on the planet. However, if it is understood as that which is
independent of humans in that it does not need us to flourish, then more can be found. This,
however, does not settle the question as to how to view entities that exist in the space between
nature as wilderness and culture understood as human artefacts i.e. designed landscapes, animals
that have been bred for millennia and plants that are utilized by humans. Different ethical positions
view these entities differently.
If the ethical community is expanded beyond the realm of humans, ethical conflicts and dilemmas
multiply. The likelihood that values will come into conflict and that ethical agents will find
themselves in situations in which they cannot live up to their ethical responsibility towards humans
and nature at the same time, will increase. Often taking care of nature also means taking care of
humans, but it does not always result in a win-win situation. Ones view of nature and how one
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prioritizes between conflicting values depends on ones ethical viewpoint, the clarification of which
becomes critical on an individual and a societal basis.

Abram, David (1996): The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-
Human World. New York: Vintage Books.
Callicott, J. Baird (1980): Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair. Environmental Ethics 2: 311-
Ferry, Luc (1992): The New Ecological Order. The University of Chicago Press.
Leopold, Aldo (1949): A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press.
Naess, Arne (1989): Ecology, community and lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy (translated and
revised by David Rothenberg). Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nash, Roderick Frazier (1989): The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison
WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Rawls, John (1999): A Theory of Justice (revised edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Singer, Peter (2002): Animal Liberation. New York: HarperCollins.
Stone, Christopher D. (2010): Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment
(third edition). Oxford University Press.
Taylor, Paul W. (1986): Respect for Nature. A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton NJ:
Princeton University Press.
United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (1987): Our Common
Future. United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development..

Further reading
Carson, Rachel (2002): The Silent Spring 40
Anniversary Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Krebs, Angelika (1999): Ethics of Nature. A Map. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter.
Midgley, Mary (1983): Animals and Why They Matter. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Norton, Bryan G. (1984): Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism. Environmental Ethics
6: 134-135.
Rolston, Holmes III (1994): Conserving Natural Value. New York: Columbia University Press.
Warren, Mary Anne (1997): Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things. Oxford
& New York: Oxford University Press.

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The Right
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6 Contractarianism

So far in this book we have been talking about values; about what matters. This is, of course,
closely linked to action: I can make the world a better, or a worse place through what I do;
and knowing about what matters is therefore relevant to my deliberations on how to act in
various situations.
Sometimes, there is a very simple link between what matters and what one should do. When
I want to do what is best for me, I try to find out what matters most to me in the long run.
However, the situation is usually not that simple. The good (or bad) consequences that follow
from my actions may affect different individuals, groups or the world in different ways.
And there is often a conflict between what matters to me and what matters to others or to
the world at large. Thus, for example, after having covered all my basic expenses I may have
some money left over that I can either spend on myself by going on holiday to some exotic
destination, or spend, fully or partly, on helping poor people who would live in utter misery
without help. The question then is how should I handle this conflict from an ethical point of
In this and the next two chapters we turn to a discussion about what our duty is when
dealing with such conflicts and about individual motivation. Thus, our focus will be on the
questions: Do I have a duty to help others, and if so, how far does that duty go? Does it
matter who these others are? Do I have special duties to those who are close to me in
different ways, or should I simply prioritize those who are in most need? And what is my
motivation for doing what duty requires of me?
In later chapters we will discuss collective duties and the extent to which the state and other
authorities may be justified in forcing us to contribute to the common good.
However, in this chapter we will discuss an influential, minimalistic, approach to these
questions. According to this approach, my only fundamental duty as an individual is to look
after my own interests and, in to ground wider ethical duties, the argument is that complying
with these duties indirectly, or in the long run, promotes my individual interests.
So the contractarian approach discussed in this chapter is not only theoretically simple,
allowing moral behaviour to be viewed as a form of self-interest, it also allows for an easy
moral life. Thus, contractarianism is morality made easy. However, at the end of the chapter
we will discuss why some people think that it is too easy.

Many ethical issues can involve potential conflicts between what is valuable and what is in the
self-interest of people who, individually or collectively, are in a position to generate valuable
Thus, the authors of this book and many of our readers are in a position in which we could perform
very worthy deeds, but choose not to out of convenience or self-interest. One obvious issue where
this is relevant is helping poor people in the developing world. Most of us could donate sums of
money (or larger sums of money than we already donate) at no great cost to ourselves to
humanitarian organizations, which could channel our money into projects which alleviate hunger,
malnutrition and disease among the more than 1 billion very poor people living on the earth in
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However, many of us choose not to donate, to donate relatively little or to vote for politicians who
prioritize spending money for the good of their electorate, rather than on projects aimed at
alleviating poverty in the poor parts of the world. Why is this? One answer is that we do not help
because we do not see any benefit for ourselves and those close to us.
On the face of it, this answer sounds very selfish, a bit like saying I only care about myself. I appear
to be giving myself a special status that I am unwilling to grant other people, even though they may
be exactly like me in all relevant respects. Thus, I fail to take that principled stance, which is
characteristic of taking an ethical perspective on things. When I adopt an ethical perspective, I am
not just claiming that I want to do this, or that. Rather, I am saying that I ought to do this or that. By
using the word ought to, I am implying that there is a more general ethical principle in play. What
characterizes such a principle is that there is no special reference to a specific person (in this case
myself) or a specific time and place. This is a version of the so-called requirement of
universalizability, which, in its present form, was most forcefully advanced by the British
philosopher R.M. Hare (1919-2002) in his book Freedom and Reason from 1963, for example.
However, there is a way of supporting the answer with a principle which is in accordance with the
requirement of universalizability, where no special reference is made to a specific person, place or
time. This can be done by saying that ethically speaking; everybody ought to prioritize helping
themselves and those they care about. Therefore, by formulating the principle in this way, I am not
just pleading for myself; rather I am putting forward a general view, which can be labelled ethical
However, that I should not help anyone apart from myself and those that I care about does not
follow from ethical egoism. Rather, it follows that I should only help others if I and those dear to
me will ultimately benefit. Thus, it may be a good idea to help if helping prevents poor people from
doing things which may harm my interests. For example, donating money to developing countries
may be seen as a means to prevent, or at least limit, illegal immigration, piracy or terrorism.
So, according to this approach to ethics, our ethical duties must ultimately be derived from self-
interest. Everybody ought to look after her or his own interests, and the only reason that can be
given as to why an individual ought to sacrifice her or his short term self-interest is that it will
benefit them in the long run.
This approach to ethics dates back to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
Therefore, we will begin by giving a brief introduction to Hobbes and his development of the
approach, which is based on the idea of the social contract.

Hobbes social contract
Hobbes primary interest was in understanding the foundation of political authority: Why should an
individual obey a king or another political authority? This question can be seen as a special case of
the more general question, raised above, about why an individual should do anything other than
what benefits him, or those close to him.
There was a very real and grim background to Thomas Hobbes reflections on why one should obey
a political authority. He lived in England in a period of civil war and unrest. His starting point was a
very pessimistic view on human nature: Man is a selfish creature driven by passions such as
dominance, aggression and envy. The short term interest of every person is to live out these selfish
passions. However, to do this would run counter to a willingness to obey a king or any other
political authority.
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According to Hobbes, the only reason an individual can have for obeying an authority, which would
limit the individuals opportunities for fulfilling her short term interests, is if it is in her long term
self-interest. Hobbes sets up a thought experiment to argue the point that it is indeed in an
individuals interest to sacrifice her short term interests for the sake of a social order. In this
experiment, he imagines two potential states in which a person can choose to live. One is a state of
nature where each and every person lives according to her own selfish inclinations. The other is a
state of society where every individual is subject to the authority of a ruler and therefore has to
comply with norms which coordinate the interaction between citizens.
Living in a state of nature has the advantage that the individual can follow her own inclinations.
However, this comes at a price. Since everyone else is doing the same, the situation will turn into
what Hobbes calls a "war of all against all". Assuming, along with Hobbes, that people are of more
or less equal strength; then the individual has rather poor prospects of achieving a dominant
position. Indeed, it is much more likely that most people will end up in a very poor position. In the
words of Hobbes, they will live lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".
By comparison, the state of society will be a much better deal. Hobbes thought that the only stable
society would be a form of dictatorship governed by an absolute ruler. This society would be
founded on a social contract whereby the ruler is granted power on the condition that he guarantees
a social order, which affords people protection from others in the society (for example by means of
the police and a court system) and from people from other societies (by means of military
We will not analyze the details of Hobbes political thinking here. The main aim of introducing
Hobbes is to present the idea that even when we take the assumption that people are only concerned
about (and should only be concerned about) their own needs and preferences as our starting point,
individuals may still have egoistic reasons to abide by orders issued by a political authority. So
Hobbes adopts a contractarian approach to answering the question of why one should obey an
external political authority. This form of political thinking has been generalized by modern
philosophers in an attempt to develop what may be called a contractarian form of morality. Here,
the focus is not on why one should do what the state requires, but on why one should abide by
moral norms, which require one to consider the interests of others even when this goes against
ones own short term interests.
By starting with the premise of self-interest in combination with the requirement of rationality, i.e.
that we ought to do what in the long run best serves our self-interest, the modern philosophers in
question attempt to establish that it follows that one should comply with a number of moral norms
such as not lying and keeping ones promises. Before looking at how this is done, we will first take
a closer at the premise of self-interest: Is it really true that we are all selfish, and how does this
relate to ethics?

Psychological egoism
The view that only self-interest matters is often labelled egoism, and normally a distinction is drawn
between a psychological and an ethical version of this view. The psychological version of this view
claims that as a matter of fact human beings are always motivated by self-interest when they act,
whereas the ethical version of the view claims that one only ought to pursue ones own interests.
Psychological egoism seems to be the starting premise for Hobbes. However, one can question,
firstly whether this view is actually true, and secondly whether the view, if true, forces us to accept
ethical egoism, i.e. that we only ought to be motivated by self-interest.
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To say that we are all egoists, in the sense that the only thing which motivates us to act is self-
interest, is to make a very strong claim which seems very easy to falsify. Think, for example, about
the nun, Mother Teresa (1910-1997) who spent more 45 years of her life caring for the poor, sick,
orphaned, and dying people in the slums of Calcutta and in other parts of the world, an effort for
which she received many honours, among other things the Nobel peace prize in 1979. It seems odd
to claim that people like Mother Teresa who devote their lives to caring for others should be purely
driven by self-interest.
One possible answer from adherents of psychological egoism is to say that the claim made by
psychological egoism is not that people cannot be motivated to do things for others, but that their
ultimate motive is always self-interest: When we do something for others, it is always so that we can
feel good and/or obtain personal benefits, which result from being seen as a person who is willing to
help others.
This reply may be difficult to refute in the case of Mother Teresa, who seems to have been driven
by a strong religious motivation, whereby personal salvation may well have been part of the
equation, and who received huge personal benefits in terms of personal honours and recognition.
Also, critics have questioned whether Mother Teresa actually managed to help the people in her
care in the best way possible. However, it is possible to come up with other examples, which are not
susceptible to this kind of response. One such example is the many reports of soldiers saving fellow
soldiers by throwing themselves on grenades. Such a soldier will immediately die and therefore
cannot expect to feel good, or get any personal benefits as a result of his deed.
To this the adherent of psychological egoism might reply by saying that the soldier who throws
himself on a grenade still acts out of self-interest. He only performs the act because it is what he is
motivated to do and not because of some call of duty, which goes against his personal inclination.
In this respect, the soldier only does what is in his own personal interest. However, this reply suffers
from two closely related problems.
One problem is that psychological egoism turns into a view that is true by definition. It assumes that
selfish action is defined as action where one acts according to ones own preferences. In light of this
assumption, it is hard to imagine any kind of action that isnt selfish. Given that our preferences
show themselves through the way we act, then all voluntary acts are by definition selfish.
This may seem to be a positive thing for the adherent of psychological egoism if ones view is
true by definition then it is not possible to argue against the view. However, this advantage comes at
a very high price, which is the second problem: That the view becomes irrelevant to the discussion
about egoism in the ordinary meaning of the word, where not all acts need to be selfish. Let us try to
elaborate on this problem further.

Predominant egoism
Normally, we make a distinction between people who act in a purely selfish way and people who
act with varying degrees of regard for the interests of others. When a boss of a large bank, for
example, expends his energy on securing his own financial position rather than looking after the
interests of the shareholders and the costumers, we consider it to be selfish behaviour. This kind of
behaviour is not uncommon. However, there are also examples of people who act in a way that
most would consider unselfish.
One dramatic example was provided by Frank De Martini, an architect who worked at the Twin
Towers in New York. During the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 he was
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working with his wife Nicole in the North Tower when it was hit by the first airplane. According to
the New York Times (1 December 2001): When the north tower was struck, Nicole De Martini
was just leaving her husband's office on the 88
floor. Finding a stairway that was still intact, he
ushered her to safety. But he refused to follow just then because others needed help. De Martini
went back with three helpers and was instrumental in helping more than 50 people to escape. He
and his helpers all died.
It would be difficult to argue that De Martini was acting in a selfish way. Of course, all sorts of
motives may have been involved. For example, before the event he had given public testimony
saying that the towers would be able to withstand a collision from a modern airplane; and therefore
he may have felt some personal responsibility. However, he was by all normal standards acting in
an unselfish, if not heroic, way because he risked (and lost) his own life to help others in a situation
in which he could easily have chosen to escape.
Thus, psychological egoism as defined above prevents one from making useful distinctions between
different behaviours, e.g. between the soldier who jumps on the grenade, and the soldier who
pushes his friend onto the grenade. Both look "selfish" and equally so from the perspective of
psychological egoism defined as the view that we are all selfish in the sense that we only act on the
basis of our own preferences. In contrast, we need to be able to distinguish between selfish acts,
where the person in question only acts for his own good and unselfish acts, where the person in
question has preferences which include what is good for others.
So, in light of the risk of becoming irrelevant to the ordinary discussion concerning selfishness, it is
a wise move for the adherent of psychological egoism to abandon protecting her position by making
it true by definition. This means that allowance must be made for the occurrence of some actions
which are unselfish. However, even if allowance is made for the possibility that people are mostly
unselfish the adherent of psychological egoism may claim that this is not the case as a matter of
Thus, instead of saying that all acts are by definition selfish, the adherent of psychological egoism
may claim that in most cases people act in a selfish way. The adherent of psychological egoism
would endorse what the American philosopher Gregory Kavka (1947-1994) has called
predominant egoism:
In most general form, Predominant Egoism says that self-interested motives tend to take precedence
over non-self-interested motives in determining human actions. That is, non-self-interested motives
usually give way to self-interested motives when there is a conflict. As a result, we may say that
human action in general is predominantly motivated by self-interest.
(Kavka 1986, p. 64)
This view has some initial plausibility at least, and may serve as a starting point for a discussion of
ethical egoism. So, for the sake of argument, lets assume that psychological egoism, now defined
as predominant egoism, is true and that therefore human beings as a matter of fact are
predominantly motivated by self-interest. What implications does this have for what we ought to
do? Does ethical egoism follow from psychological egoism as just defined?

Ethical egoism
Ethical egoism does not logically follow from psychological egoism. Suppose someone says: I am
the kind of person who, at the end of the day, only cares about myself and my own interests, so
therefore it follows that I should only care about myself no reason for feelings of guilt or second
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thoughts. To this an obvious reply would be: Stop being so smug and try to pull yourself together
there is certainly no reason to turn your egoism into a virtue.
Looking at matters from a more theoretical and less personal point of view, one may start by
noticing that the inference from psychological to ethical egoism is not logically valid. Following the
Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and his many later followers, this can be supported
by saying that one cannot derive an ought (an ethical statement such as ethical egoism) from an
is (a factual statement such as psychological egoism). To get to an ought one would need at
least one ethical statement among the premises.
One way to try to fill the gap is by appealing to the principle that ought implies can, i.e. that there
is no point in saying that we ought to do something if we are not able to. To get from psychological
to ethical egoism, one could say that any sort of ethical ought, which asks us to do more than just
look after our own self-interest, is asking us to do something we are unable to. This criticism may
clearly be applicable to very strong requirements such as the one derived from a literal reading of
the statement from the Bible which says that you should love your neighbour as yourself
(Leviticus 19:18). Therefore, ethical egoism, the argument goes, is the only tenable ethical position.
However, by denying ethical egoism, one need not go so far as to require that one does not give
oneself any sort of preferential treatment. To deny ethical egoism, one only has to claim that
sometimes, or to some extent, we are required to consider the interests of others. And this doesnt
appear plausible in the light of the version of psychological egoism under consideration here,
predominant egoism, so say that we are simply unable to do anything more than just looking after
our own self-interest.
Another approach is to argue that the conflict between ethical egoism and common sense ideas
about our ethical obligations is not as important as it appears at first glance. The point here is that
ethical egoism requires us to pursue our self-interest in the long run. To fulfil this requirement, we
may sometimes have to forego short-term benefits, and we may even have to abide by moral
principles which run counter to what at first glance seems to be our self-interest. So, the point is that
to reach the optimum result, each of us pursuing our self-interest is insufficient some additional
norms or principles are required. The main argument in favour of this makes use of the so-called
prisoners dilemma.

The prisoners dilemma
The prisoners dilemma is a part of game theory which is a form of applied mathematics that aims
to model behaviour in strategic situations. The dilemma can be presented in the following way:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and,
having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from
the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other),
the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain
silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the
other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain
silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the
investigation. How should the prisoners act?
Assume that the self-interested goal of both prisoners is to serve as short a time as possible in
prison. Assume, furthermore, that the way one prisoner acts will in no way affect how the other
prisoner acts so there is no way in which the prisoners can strike a deal with each other. Then,
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according to normal standards of rationality, it will be rational for each prisoner to betray the other.
That this is the case can be inferred from the following diagram which outlines the different
possible outcomes, depending on the decisions of the two prisoners:

Prisoner B Remains Silent Prisoner B Betrays
Prisoner A Remains Silent Each serves 6 months
Prisoner A: 10 years
Prisoner B: goes free
Prisoner A Betrays
Prisoner A: goes free
Prisoner B: 10 years
Each serves 5 years

Try to look at the situation from the point of view of prisoner A: Assume first that prisoner B
remains silent. Then it will be in the self-interest of A to betray, because that will reduce his
sentence from 6 months no prison sentence at all. Assume then that prisoner B betrays. In this case,
it will also be in the self-interest of A to betray, since this will reduce the sentence from 10 to 5
years. So whatever B does, it will rational for A to betray B. So to betray is what is known as the
dominant strategy in game theory.
However, if both A and B act rationally according their own self-interests, the result will be that
they will each end up serving a 5 year prison sentence, while they could have got away with only 6
months had they both remained silent. This serves to illustrate that sometimes the best result, from a
purely selfish point of view, is not achieved if everyone just does what is rationally necessary in the
pursuit of personal interests. Thus, if both prisoners had followed at strategy that under normal
circumstances one should never betray a fellow prisoner, then each would only have had to serve a
6 month sentence instead of 5 years in prison.
According to contractarian ethics, ethical norms and principles can be viewed as elements of
strategies we set up to get the most out of our lives. The hypothesis pursued by contractarian
philosophers is that a strategy, including a number of ethical norms and principles, involving
concern for others may, in the long run, generate better outcomes for us than a strategy where we
pursue our own self-interest. The clear advantage of this approach, according to ethics, is that it is
closely linked to human motivation, because it is founded on self-interest.
We shall now turn to this approach.

Contractarian ethics
The most prominent proponent of contractarian ethics is the Canadian-American philosopher David
Gauthier (1932-). In his book Morals by Agreement from 1986, he defends a specific contractarian
foundation of morality and tries to argue that rationality requires one to act in accordance with
moral norms.
Gauthier takes his starting point in the assumption that we are all concerned with maximizing our
individual welfare, where he defines welfare in terms of preference satisfaction (see chapter 3). To
establish moral limits on our individual attempts to maximize our welfare, he imagines a
hypothetical bargaining situation in which we all meet and try to negotiate a deal. The outcome of
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the deal is a set of moral norms that everyone will agree to comply with. These norms will serve as
constraints on the ability of each to satisfy short-term interests. However, there will also be gains.
There are two kinds of gains that may follow from the widespread acceptance of moral norms.
Firstly, in the spirit of Hobbes, there is what one might call negative gains, in that others refrain
from robbing, murdering, raping and in other ways assaulting you in pursuit of their individual
interests. Secondly, there are positive gains in the form of benefits of direct collaboration with
others. For example, two persons can set up a firm and, by combining their talents, they can achieve
much more than if they had acted on their own.
Of course, much collaboration will take place within the framework of a capitalist market in which
the guiding principle for each individual is to maximize welfare by trying to sell goods (including
personal labour) at the highest possible price and buying goods at the lowest possible price. This is
fully in the spirit of Gauthier, who claims that markets and morals share the non-coercive
reconciliation of individual interest with mutual benefit (Gauthier 1986, p. 14). However, the
market cannot stand alone it only functions within the framework of a well-functioning society,
and one of the things which are required for a society to function is that people in general are honest
and will not try to cheat you.
So, in the hypothetical bargaining situation, you, I and all other rational individuals are offered a
deal whereby we trade some of our freedom to pursue our short-term interests for the mentioned
gains which result from everyone complying with a set of moral norms. Since according to the
assumptions made by Gauthier, we are only motivated by self-interest, we will all try to obtain the
gains at the least possible individual price. So each person will try to minimize the price she or he
has to pay.
More specifically, the person will try to minimize the difference between, on the one hand, the ideal
outcome, which is to be able to pursue ones own interests without any limitations, while others
obey moral rules and thereby limit the pursuit of their short-term interests, and, on the other hand,
the outcome whereby the individual also has to comply with a set of moral norms. Even though the
outcome will be less than ideal, it will still be much better than the fall-back option, which is that
everyone pursues their own short-term interests without any constraints.
Each person must make a bid with is good enough to convince others to strike a deal and to comply
with it. Because each individual is only willing to sacrifice the minimum in order to strike a
functioning deal, but no more than this, Gauthier asserts that the so-called principle of, minimax
relative concession, is sufficient to ground a number of moral principles:
many of our actual moral principles and practices are in effect applications of the requirements of
minimax relative concession to particular contexts. We may suppose that promise-keeping, truth-
telling, fair dealing, are to be defended by showing that adherence to them permits persons to co-
operate in ways that may be expected to equalize, at least roughly, the relative benefits afforded by
interaction. These are among the core practices of the morality that we may commend to each
individual by showing that it commands his rational agreement.
(Gauthier 1986, p. 156)
Thus, the idea is that everyone will consider it to be worth the effort to comply with certain basic
moral norms, as long as they trust others to do the same. The norms mentioned by Gauthier,
promise keeping, truth-telling and fair dealing, seem useful from any perspective.
However, what about norms for the sharing of goods? Arent there significant potential conflicts of
interest that could arise among the contractors concerning these norms? And therefore, doesnt it
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seem unlikely that such norms will flow from the principle of minimax relative concession? These
questions lead to a discussion about how to ensure compliance with the contract.

Why comply with the contract?
Suppose I am a talented person with access to ample resources and you are a poor person with
limited talents. In this case, during negotiations for a moral contract, you may opt for norms which
require rich people to share their possessions with poor people, to which I, the rich person, will
probably be against. How should this conflict be solved? According to Gauthier, the answer to this
question will depend on why there is this difference between the two of us. If there is no relation
between you being poor and me being rich then it doesnt matter. However, if you are poor because
I (or my ancestors) have taken advantage of you (or your ancestors) then, according to Gauthier,
there is justification for re-distribution.
The argument for this is as follows:
Otherwise those who consider themselves taken advantage of in initial acquisition will perceive
society as unfair, in demanding payments from them without offering a compensating return, and will
lack sufficient reason to accept market arrangements or to comply voluntarily with co-operative joint
(Gauthier 1986, p. 201)
One may question whether the claim which is made here is really true. Why shouldnt poor people
think that a limited deal, which does not include the re-distribution of wealth, is better than no deal?
Relatively speaking, they may have more to gain than the wealthy individuals who can use their
wealth to identify individual solutions which can protect them against the negative consequences of
failing collaboration. To this Gauthier would reply, according to the quotation, that the poor will
still fail to comply, because they find the arrangement unfair.
However, this kind of reply raises some very fundamental questions about Gauthiers contractarian
project. The main idea of the project, as described above, is to argue that people who are motivated
merely by self-interest will still buy into some form of morality as a means to secure their long-term
interests. Here, concerns about fairness do not seem to have any role to play. So, it is as if Gauthier
smuggles in the assumption that people are not only motivated by self-interest, but they are also
guided by some moral principles about what is fair and reasonable.
Such principles may also play a role in solving the problem about why people should comply when
a deal has been struck, even in situations in which non-compliance seems to be more beneficial
from the point of view of the individual. Gauthier is fully aware of this problem:
The genuinely problematic element in a contractarian theory is not the introduction of the idea of
morality, but the step from hypothetical agreement to actual moral constraint. Suppose that each
person recognizes himself as one of the parties to agreement. The principles forming the object of
agreement are those that he would have accepted ex ante in bargaining with his fellows, had he found
himself among them in a context initially devoid of moral constraint. Why need he accept, ex post in
his actual situation, these principles as constraining his choices? A theory of morals by agreement
must answer this question.
(Gauthier 1986, p. 9)
If I am merely driven by concern for my own self-interest, why should I then comply when a deal
has been made? Why shouldnt I attempt to free ride? It seems as if the prisoners dilemma
reappears here. If the other person complies, then I may benefit from not complying, and if the other
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person does not comply, I will certainly benefit by not complying. So free riding seems to be the
rational choice in both scenarios.
Gauthier tries to answer this by turning the argument on its head: The only way to avoid the
negative consequences of free riding is for everyone, or at least most us, to become what Gauthier
calls constrained maximizers of self-interest, i.e. people who have internalized the relevant moral
principles and who are therefore disposed to do what morality requires, rather than do what seems
best from a narrow rational point of view.
Therefore, the idea is that in order to do what is in our individual best interests in the long run, we
need to train ourselves (or more realistically, be trained by our parents) to stop thinking primarily in
terms of our own self-interest and instead think in terms of what actions are in accordance with the
relevant moral norms. Thus, to be able to pursue our own long term self-interest, we must stop
merely thinking about our own self-interest and instead internalize moral norms, which limit the
immediate pursuit of ones own interests.
Critics of this solution to the problem of free riding have argued that Gauthier has, in a way,
smuggled in the moral point of view that the contractarian theory was supposed to ground. And,
according to the critics, the consequence of this is that it takes more than selfishness and rationality
to motivate someone to act morally.
If the critics are right, then the idea of founding a certain form of morality purely on selfishness and
rationality breaks down. However, this does not mean that the whole contractarian project has to be
discarded. There is also another side to the project, which is to claim that moral requirements should
be minimal and based on mutual advantages to those who are part of the moral community.
Therefore, according to contractarianism, morally speaking, we only have to consider the interests
of those on whose collaboration we depend. Thus, according to Gauthier for example, animals, the
unborn, the congenitally handicapped and defective, fall beyond the pale of a morality tied to
mutuality (Gauthier 1986, p. 268). In the remainder of this chapter, we will look at one example of
how the theory deals with one kind of being which cannot enter into a contract, i.e. animals.

Limits of moral consideration: The case of animals
Contractarian morality only applies to individuals who can enter into a contract with the moral
community. On this basis, the contractarian philosopher Jan Narveson (1936-) has argued that
animals have no moral rights:
On the contract view of morality, morality is a sort of agreement among rational, independent, self-
interested persons, persons who have something to gain from entering into such an agreement [] A
major feature of this view of morality is that it explains why we have it and who is party to it. We
have it for reasons of long-term self-interest, and parties to it include all and only those who have
both of the following characteristics: 1) they stand to gain by subscribing to it, at least in the long
run, compared with not doing so, and 2) they are capable of entering into (and keeping) an
agreement. [] Given these requirements, it will be clear why animals do not have rights. For there
are evident shortcomings on both scores. On the one hand, humans have nothing generally to gain by
voluntarily refraining from (for instance) killing animals or treating them as mere means. And on
the other, animals cannot generally make agreements with us anyway, even if we wanted to have
them do so
(Narveson 1983, pp. 56-58)
According to the contractarian view, there is clearly a morally relevant difference between an
individuals relationship with other human beings and with animals. People are dependent on the
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respect and cooperation of other people. If someone treats their fellow humans badly, these will
respond by treating him or her badly in return. By contrast, the animal community will not strike
back if, for example, some of its members are used in painful experiments. From a selfish point of
view, an individual only needs to treat animals well enough for them to be fit for his or her own
purposes. And in any case, as Narveson points out, non-human animals cannot enter into a contract,
or agreement, governing future conduct, so they therefore cannot join the moral community.
For the contractarian, since neither animal suffering nor the killing of animals is an ethical problem
per se, any form of animal use is in itself ethically acceptable. Our use of animals may even be
ethically desirable, since it often brings human benefits. For example, animal production is an
important source of income for many people, even though there may be negative side-effects both
for the environment and human health. To many more people, it is, of course, a source of
convenient and delicious food. Similarly, through animal experimentation, it is possible to develop
new medicines and other ways to cure, prevent or alleviate human diseases.
The lack of standing of animals in the moral community does not necessarily mean that the way
animals are treated is irrelevant from a contractarian point of view: if people like animals, for
example, and dislike the practice of their being used in this or that way, animal use can become an
ethical issue, because it is in a persons interests to get what he or she likes. But the contractarian
view of animals is highly anthropocentric, since any rights to protection which animals might have,
will always depend on, and be secondary to, human concerns.
Inevitably, most people tend to like some types of animals more than others. People are generally
more troubled by the suffering of their favourite animals. In view of this, levels of protection will
differ across different species of animals. For example, because most people like cats and dogs
more than rats and mice, causing distress to cats and dogs is likely to be a more serious moral
problem than causing the same amount of distress to rats and mice in the eyes of the majority of the
The contractarian view accords with attitudes to animal treatment which are common across many
societies. Thus, it serves to explain why our treatment of species which many people feel close to,
such as cats and dogs, is usually of greater concern than our treatment of other, less popular, species
such as rats and pigs. Also, in this respect, contractarianism makes our moral life easy. However,
one may wonder whether it becomes too easy.
Can it really be correct to assert that causing suffering to animals, even for a trivial reason or for no
reason at all, is morally unproblematic as long as no human being is bothered by the conduct? Many
people instinctively feel that it is immoral to cause another being to suffer for little or no reason,
whether ones victim is a human being or an animal. And for this reason, they may prefer a moral
theory that gives weight to a concern for the wellbeing of these vulnerable beings from the outset,
be it animals or humans, on whose collaboration we do not depend, but who in turn are entirely
dependent on us.
One way of catering for such a preference is by shifting from a contractarian to a consequentialist
point of view, which we will do in the next chapter.

The aim of this chapter has been to start a discussion of what is the morally right way to act. Central
to this discussion is the perspective of the acting individual, which is in contrast to the discussion
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about value in the previous chapters. The acting individual has to prioritize between doing different
things which differ in terms of how different parties are affected.
One main dilemma facing the individual, which results from this perspective, is whether he or she
should do something, which is in his/her self-interest, or do something which benefits others. The
starting point of the discussion is the egoist response to this dilemma, i.e. that I should only do what
is good for myself. This is not necessarily an ethical position. However, there is a form of egoism
which can qualify as an ethical principle, i.e. that everybody ethically speaking ought to give
priority to helping themselves and those close to them.
Complying with this principle is compatible with doing good thing to others to the extent that it
benefits oneself in the long run. This basic idea of contractarian ethics originates from the English
philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, whose idea of the social contract was discussed above. Hobbes
thought that humans are selfish by nature and he thereby adheres to psychological hedonism. This
view has been discussed and it was argued that only a moderate version of the view, predominant
egoism, is defensible.
Following on from this, it was argued that ethical egoism does not follow from psychological
egoism. And it was also argued that ethical egoism cannot stand alone as a moral principle. The
argument for this is based on the so-called prisoners dilemma, which shows that if individuals only
pursue their own self-interest they may end up with a sub-optimal outcome, compared to a situation
in which they comply with certain moral norms.
This insight forms the basis of the contractarian ethics developed by David Gauthier. The chapter
discussed Gauthiers argument that allegiance to parts of common sense morality may be based on a
hypothetical contract whereby rational and self-interested agents agree to comply with a set of
moral norms. This contract gives everyone a better deal than they would have had in a situation in
which everyone just pursues their own short term interests. Everyone has, therefore, a self-
interested reason to accept the contract.
An influential criticism of Gauthiers project is that he can only make his argument convincing if he
smuggles in some form of moral norm of fairness as well as selfishness and rationality. Whatever
one thinks of this criticism, contractarianism is an ethical position that distinguishes itself by the
claim that, morally speaking, we only need to consider the interests of those on whose collaboration
we depend.
One group of beings which does not have moral standing according to contractarianism is animals.
The chapter concluded by discussing the contractarian approach to animal ethics.

Gauthier, David (1986): Morals By Agreement. Oxford: Clarendon.
Hare, R.M. (1963): Freedom and Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kavka, Gregory (1986): Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory. Princeton NJ: Princeton University
Narveson, Jan (1983): Animal rights revisited. In: Ethics and animals (eds.: H.B. Miller & W.H.
Williams). Clifton NJ: Humana Press.
Wikipedia (undated): Prisoners Dilemma.'s_dilemma

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Further reading
Rachels, James (2003): The Elements of Moral Philosophy (4
edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Shaver, Robert (1999): Rational egoism: A selective and critical history. Cambridge UK:
Cambridge University Press.
Vallentyne, Peter (ed.) (1991): Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays on David Gauthier's
Morals by Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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7 Consequentialism

The previous chapter presented an attempt to base morality on selfishness: I will comply with
moral norms and rules because it benefits me in the long run. However, as we saw, it is very
difficult to base a genuine commitment to moral action on such a shaky foundation. And
anyway, only those with whom I am likely to benefit from collaborating will be potential
beneficiaries of my moral commitment.
In light of this, it seems like a good idea to try to build ones moral commitment on a more
generous assumption. A simple way of doing this is to say that what really matters morally in
what I do is the extent to which I do good things and prevent bad things from happening
and that it really doesnt matter whether these good or bad things befall me or someone
This leads to the moral principle called consequentialism, which is the focus of this chapter.
Consequentialism comes in different varieties depending on how one defines good and bad
outcomes. The classic and most influential form of consequentialism is utilitarianism where
the value of outcomes is defined in terms of welfare. So, for utilitarianism, the right action is
the one which produces the highest level of welfare relative to the alternatives.
In this chapter, we will try to define the consequentialist idea. Utilitarianism will be described
in some detail along with the way in which modern consequentialists have developed the
idea in light of criticism.

The Copenhagen Consensus is a think tank based in Denmark, the aim of which is to help
governments and philanthropists to identify the best way to spend aid and development money. In
2008, it arranged an event to which a group of the worlds leading economists were invited to
prioritize investments in ten different challenges which face the world including air pollution,
global warming and malnutrition.
They were asked the question: What would be the best way of advancing global welfare, and
particularly the welfare of the developing countries? They were told that they had an additional
USD 75 billion of resources at their disposal over a fouryear initial period. The economists were
provided with state-of-the-art knowledge regarding the problems and possible solutions by leading
experts in the different fields.
The economists came up with a prioritized list of 30 solutions relating to the different challenges.
Top of the list was the provision of micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc),
which related to the challenge of malnutrition. Other solutions relating to malnutrition also came
high on the list. Solutions relating to air pollution and global warming came much lower down the
on list and none of them were on the list of 13 interventions on which money should be invested,
according to the panel, given the USD 75 billion budget restraint.
This may seem a bit strange. Even though problems relating to malnutrition are vast and serious it
seems that, for example, climate change problems are much larger in scale and consequences.
However, for the panel it was not only relevant to look at the size of the problems to be tackled, but
also the costs of solving or mitigating the problems. Here, interventions related to malnutrition were
preferred because they not only have a significant effect, but they are also cheap with a very high
likelihood of success. In the words of the panel these interventions have tremendously high
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benefits compared to costs. Thus, according to the economists, the method that should guide the
choice of intervention is to choose those that give the highest return in terms of problems solved per
dollar spent.
A deficiency of micronutrients, such as vitamin A and zinc, is not only a problem which is cheap to
solve if it is not solved it leads to severe problems for children. Vitamin A deficiency leads to an
increased risk of illness and death from common infections and the World Health Organization
(WHO) estimates that up to 250 million children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. Up to half a
million of these children go blind every year half of them dying within 12 months of losing their
eyesight. Many more children suffer from a lack of mental development as a consequence of
vitamin A deficiency, whilst a lack of zinc is, among other things, related to increased susceptibility
to diarrhoea from which nearly 2 million children die annually.
A lot has already been done to prevent micronutrient deficiency in children living in the poor parts
of the world, but according to the experts, there is scope to do much more at the cost of only a few
dollars per child. So, even though malnutrition in children is a smaller problem than climate change,
it is still, according to the panel, better to spend money on providing vitamin supplements to
children than to spend the same amount of money on initiatives to prevent climate change. This is
because attempting to prevent climate change will be much more expensive and the effects of the
initiatives are much more uncertain.
One may, of course, discuss the factual claims on the base of which these conclusions are drawn
as many people have done. However, it is it is important to see that there is also an ethical side to
the discussion. The kind of moral thinking applied by the Copenhagen Consensus, i.e. that we
should always use scarce resources so as to do the maximum amount of good, exemplifies
consequentialism, the ethical principle which will be discussed in this chapter.

The consequentialist idea
According to consequentialism, not only governments should spend extra resources according to
the logic used by the Copenhagen Consensus all our resources should be spent in this way. Thus,
according to consequentialism, each of us should always act so as to generate the best possible total
outcome. Let us try to unpack this idea.
The rather artificial sounding situation imagined by the Copenhagen Consensus, whereby an
individual has to decide how to spend scarce resources so that it gives the highest possible return in
terms of benefits to the people affected is, according to consequentialism, not artificial at all.
Rather, this is how our whole moral life should be. Each and every person possesses a certain
amount of resources in terms of what that person can do. These resources can be turned into money
if one takes a paid job for example. However, money is just a currency which allows us to measure
the effects of our efforts.
Hence, the aim of the consequentialist is to always do the things that have the best possible outcome
in terms of benefits for those affected, either by doing something good or preventing something bad
from happening. Thus, a key feature of consequentialism is impartiality all potential beneficiaries
matter equally - it does not matter who benefits; all that matters is the total extent of the benefit.
In this respect, consequentialism can be seen as the opposite of contractarianism. Ethical egoism, as
described in the previous chapter, is partial in the sense that one person benefits, i.e. the benefits
attributed to the person who is acting are given priority. The consequentialist view, on the other
hand, is impartial. It does not distinguish between who receives the benefits, only about the total
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extent of the benefit. This does not mean that ones own benefit does not matter from a
consequentialist point of view. Therefore, consequentialism is not the same as pure altruism,
according to which one should only be concerned about others. Ones own good matters according
to consequentialism but no more than any other persons benefit.
Imagine, for example, that you are trekking in the mountains with some friends when you are
suddenly caught in bad weather. You end up taking shelter in a small hut with the prospect of
having to survive for up to a week in a cold place before being rescued. Before the trip, each
participant agreed to bring food and water for a whole week, warm clothes and sleeping bags (just
in case of an emergency). Unfortunately, half the participants have not brought these things with
them and so, through their own fault, they are stuck in the hut with nothing to eat or drink or
anything to keep them warm. If they are not given some food and water and something to keep
them warm they will probably die before they are rescued. In contrast, the other half of the group
has sufficient food and water and they are able to keep themselves warm. However, if they share
their resources they will still survive, but they will be hungry, thirsty and very cold. Should they
share the resources?
According to the consequentialist point of view the resources should be shared even though it will
mean that the ones who have prepared will suffer because they will have to help the ones who are in
a bad situation due to their own carelessness. However, the consequences of not helping are so
serious that it is simply not a viable option. Most people would probably agree with this decision
and, therefore, most people hold a consequentialist point of view - at least in some cases. However,
to be a full-blown consequentialist one would have to subscribe to the position that all moral
situations are in principle like the one described above. Yet this is a controversial claim as we shall
see later in this chapter. However, before we discuss this claim in more detail, let us try to define
consequentialism a little more precisely.

In order to give a precise definition of consequentialism one needs to start with the notion of the
good which is valuable in its own right. In light of this, consequentialism can be defined as the view
that the right thing to do is to always maximize the good, or in other words, we should always do
whatever results in the maximum outcome of what is valuable in its own right.
What immediately becomes clear from this definition is that consequentialism utilizes an account of
what is valuable in its own right. As we have seen in chapters 3-5, there is not one generally agreed
upon view as to what is valuable in its own right and, therefore, there will also be different varieties
of consequentialism depending on what account is given of the good.
The classical version of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which claims that the morally right
action is the one which brings about the highest possible amount of welfare. The founding father of
utilitarianism, who also coined the phrase utilitarian, is Jeremy Bentham. In chapter 3, we saw how
he defended a specific account of welfare, hedonism, according to which pleasure and the absence
of pain is what matters, or is what is valuable in its own right. The optimal balance of pleasure and
pain is what he calls happiness. He therefore gave the following account of his version of
consequentialism, which he calls the principle of utility:
By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action
whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the
party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose
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that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private
individual, but of every measure of government.
(Bentham 1789)
So, according to Bentham, the goal of everyone should be to create happiness. The same is true in
the case of collective action taken by political institutions. One political area in which Bentham
himself invested a lot of energy was the criminal code. Bentham was trained as a lawyer and he
considered the system of punishment in England at that time to be irrational and immoral.
Utilitarian thinking has actually had quite a profound effect on this area.
The basic idea of punishment is to harm a person who has broken the law, be it through a fine,
imprisonment or capital punishment. However, according to utilitarian thinking, punishment as
such just adds more misery to misery. First harm is caused through a crime and then more harm is
added by punishing the perpetrator. This clearly goes against the principle of utility according to
which the aim of all acts should be to increase good and limit harm (in Benthams version increase
pleasure and limit pain).
According to utilitarian thinking, punishment can only be justified if it prevents more harm than it
creates. This may happen either directly, for example if a criminal is held in jail and thereby
prevented from committing more crimes, or indirectly, either by reforming the character of the
criminal or by deterring potential criminals from engaging in criminal activities. This view of
punishment, whereby it is used to prevent crime in the long or the short run, is accepted by most of
those who work professionally in the area of punishment and crime prevention, at least as part of
the justification for punishment. However, it is also clear from public controversies about the
punishment of criminals who have been violent to innocent victims or have abused small children
for example, that many people do not share this view. Many often argue for punishment in the form
of retribution.
In some places, Bentham claims that according to utilitarianism, the greatest happiness of the
greatest number is the measure of right and wrong. This is a nice slogan for utilitarianism, but it
contains a serious ambiguity. It speaks both about the greatest sum of happiness and the greatest
number of people affected. Often these two things will go hand in hand, since spreading resources
between many needy people, rather than focusing on a few, will often give the highest total welfare.
However, it is not difficult to come up with examples where this is not the case.
During wars and disasters, doctors who help wounded victims are often put in a position in which
they have to make a choice between who to help due to a lack of skilled personnel, medicine or
equipment. If the aim is to do the maximum good in terms of the number of people who survive,
then the best policy for the doctors may not be to help as many as possible, but rather to focus on a
smaller group comprised of those who are most likely to survive if treated. This is a tough decision
for the doctors to make. But, in such a situation, the norm is to opt for the larger good in terms of
the number of people surviving, rather than simply trying to help as many people as possible and
this is also what would be recommended from a utilitarian perspective in general. So in reality, the
slogan of utilitarianism should only be, the greatest happiness whilst the slogan of
consequentialism should be, the greatest good.
As we saw in chapter 3, simple hedonism is not the only account of what is meant by welfare. John
Stuart Mill argued for a modified hedonistic view according to which higher pleasures matter more
than lower ones e.g. that it is better to be a sad Socrates than a happy pig. Based on this, Mill, who
was also a consequentialist, defended a form of utilitarianism which holds that the satisfaction of
higher pleasures matters more than the satisfaction of lower pleasures. Similarly, Peter Singer and
other contemporary consequentialist philosophers, defend an account of welfare in terms of
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preference satisfaction. Their view is therefore labelled, preference utilitarianism. According to
this view, the right action, in relation to the affected persons (and animals to the extent that they
also have preferences), is the one that results in the highest level of preference satisfaction.
So what all utilitarian approaches to ethics have in common is that they define the basic principle of
right action as to be the maximization of utility defined in terms of welfare. The main distinction
between the different forms of utilitarianism concerns the way in which welfare is defined; be it
simply in terms of pleasure and pain, in terms of pleasure and pain with a distinction between
higher and lower pleasures, or in terms of preference satisfaction.

Consequentialism: an agent-neutral perspective
The consequentialist principle of maximizing the good may also be combined with other ideas of
what the good is other than welfare. The British philosopher, G.E. Moore (1873-1958), is an
example of a philosopher with such a view. Moore defended a form of consequentialism for which
the goal is to maximize ideal good such as the existence of beautiful things and the company of
good friends.
However, more commonly, the consequentialist approach is discussed in more specific contexts
where it is agreed that it is valuable to promote or prevent a certain kind of consequence, for
example to prevent innocent people from being killed, who would otherwise go on living a good
life. Here, consequentialists are those who focus solely on achieving the maximum valuable
outcome, or minimizing a negative outcome. In contrast, non-consequentialists are those who focus
on things other than just the outcome. To illustrate, consider the following example provided by the
British philosopher, Bernard Williams (1929-2003):
Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a
row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A
heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of
questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition,
explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against
the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not
protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer
him a guest's privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of
the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special
occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim,
with some desperate recollection of schoolboy action, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he
could hold the captain Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up
that nothing of that kind is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the
Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers, understand the
situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?
(Smart & Williams 1973, pp. 98-99)
Of course, there is bound to be some uncertainty about what will actually happen if Jim does, or
does not, shoot the person, whilst there may also be some legal issues here. This aside, what should
be done is clear from a consequentialist perspective: Jim should of course shoot one Indian. If he
does, one person will die, but nineteen will survive. If he does not shoot the Indian, the individual in
question will still be killed and so will his comrades. Jim will feel guilty for the rest of his life if he
kills an innocent person, but he is likely to feel at least as guilty if, by refusing to kill the Indian, he
ends up feeling responsible for nineteen unnecessary deaths. Thus, when viewed from a
consequentialist perspective the decision is obvious, Jim should kill the Indian.
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Bernard Williams tends to agree with this conclusion. However, he strongly disagrees that the
conclusion is obvious. He argues that there are similar situations in which the contrast between the
possible outcomes is less stark, and where the right decision may be to do what brings about the
worst consequences. An alternative view could be that what matters from a moral point of view is
not only the consequences of what we do, but what we do in itself. If Jim does not shoot one Indian,
then twenty Indians will be shot, but he personally will not shoot any of them.
As we shall see later in this book, according to some moral views, , there may be a moral difference
between doing something and causing something to happen as a consequence of not doing
something, as in Jims case. This would be an example of what is called an agent-relative morality:
Here, the position of the agent makes a difference as to what is morally right to do. It is Pedros
choice to kill the Indians. Why should Jim let himself get caught up into Pedros murderous
schemes? Jim is not responsible for what Pedro does. Something like this a non-consequentialist
may argue in this case.
The kind of ethical egoism discussed in the previous chapter is an example of a form of agent-
relative moral view. Here, it matters morally whether the consequences befall the agent or someone
else and the preferred act is always the one which benefits the agent the most. As we shall see,
according to other agent-relative positions, what matters is whether an outcome is intentionally
caused by the actions of the agent or by someone else.
To illustrate the point, suppose we change the example of Jim and the Indians slightly. Now Jim has
the choice to either kill one of the Indians, or let another person kill the Indian and beat another very
badly. Legal issues aside, many people would say that of course Jim should not kill the Indian. Not
because of the way the consequences add up, but because killing someone is something one should
only do in very extreme situations. For the consequentialist on the other hand, whether or not Jim
should kill the Indian in this situation depends on how the consequences add up. They may very
well add up in such a way that Jim should not kill the Indian, for example, because the harm he will
suffer by killing the Indian will be more than that experienced by the Indian who is beaten up.
However, for the consequentialist, the decision that Jim should abstain from killing the Indian
cannot be taken for granted. It all depends on how the consequences add up.
An important point to notice here is that, as far as a consequentialist is concerned, the judgment
concerning the right action to take does not depend on whether the situation is seen from the point
of view of the acting person, in this case Jim, or a third party. Thus, consequentialism is a form of
agent-neutral morality. The morally preferred line of action does not depend on whether you see the
situation from the point of view of the acting person, or from the point of view of a benevolent
spectator for example. In principle, there is no difference between the way the moral agent should
see his situation and the way an ideal independent observer would view the same situation.

Does the end always justify the means?
In the case described above, it was assumed that killing an innocent person, other things being
equal, is an ethically wrong thing to do. However, as we saw, it may be right for someone to kill an
innocent person if it is the only way to prevent someone from doing something worse. Therefore, in
this instance, the end (preventing innocent people from being killed) justifies the means (killing an
innocent person). In the case of Jim, as described by Bernard Williams, it might be considered
mitigating circumstances if the Indian who Jim is considering killing is begging to be killed.
However, there may be other cases in which there are no such mitigating circumstances and so the
consequentialist view, which allows the end to justify the means, can be problematic. One such case
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has been presented by the Australian philosopher H.J. McCloskey (1969, pp. 180-181). He asks us
to imagine a sheriff in a town in the southern part of the USA, perhaps sometimes in the 1960s, who
is faced with a difficult dilemma:
A white girl has been raped. In the local community, it is widely believed that a certain black man is
guilty of committing the crime. However, the sheriff knows that the man is innocent. But, he also
knows that if he does not press charges against the man, riots against black people will probably
break out and these riots, given the very tense situation, will probably end in a loss of life. What
would we want the sheriff to do in this fictional, but not entirely unrealistic, case?
From a consequentialist point of view, the right thing to do would seemingly be for the sheriff to
frame the black man so that that he is sent to prison or perhaps even executed for a crime for which
he is not guilty. However, according to McCloskey, this goes against widely held views about
justice and fairness and, therefore, shows that utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism are
unacceptable moral views. The problem as McCloskey sees it is that utilitarianism allows the end to
justify unjust means.
There are roughly two ways in which a consequentialist can respond to this kind of counter-
The first response is to point to the potential indirect negative consequences which may follow if
those who are responsible for upholding the law, like the sheriff in the case, do not show respect for
the law, but instead bend it to fit the circumstances. The fact that people trust the legal system is an
important prerequisite for the smooth functioning of modern society. Dire social consequences
would ensue if it became known that a representative of the law knowingly framed a young black
man to appease a white mob. Therefore, there are very good consequentialist reasons why those
who are responsible for upholding the law should in general follow the law and not allow
exceptions based on consequentialist calculations.
However, the case may be specified in various ways so that this kind of response will not do the
job. It may be very unlikely that the miscarriage of justice is discovered whilst the sheriff in
question may be a person of high moral standards who decides to deviate from his law-abiding
principles in this very exceptional case. In reply to the changed circumstances, the consequentialist
may introduce the second response which is to argue that exceptional cases call for exceptional
responses and that an advantage of the consequentialist view is that it allows for this. The
consequentialist may argue that in real-life cases of this sort, a consequentialist line of thinking is
actually often applied.
A real life example of this is the judicial purge which took place in Denmark after the end of the
Second World War and the German occupation. A number of people were convicted for
collaborating with the German occupational forces during the war. However, the collaboration was
not illegal according to the law that was in force during the war. Therefore, people were convicted
according to retrospective laws, a practice which contradicts normal norms of legal justice. This
was seemingly accepted by the political and legal system because of the very tense situation just
after the war, which could have exploded and resulted in people taking the law into their own hands
resulting in much worse consequences, as happened in some other European countries. Later, when
things had calmed down, a lot of cases were dropped.
So the consequentialist stance regarding the issue of allowing the end to justify the (unfair) means is
that there are good reasons to stick to the rules, in normal cases at least. Only in highly exceptional
cases might going against generally accepted norms of justice be justified because, for example, of
the potentially very harmful consequences of not doing so.
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Levels of moral thinking
The discussion above gives rise to a more general problem: How should a consequentialist view
existing moral norms or rules? Are they to be given up and replaced with the principle of
maximizing good consequences?
As discussed above, from a consequentialist point of view, for the sheriff to comply with the
accepted norm of legal justice could have positive value despite the fact that acting otherwise, in the
specific example, would be the better option in terms of direct consequences. What is at play here
are indirect consequences in this case negative consequences, which may result if citizens
discover that those in charge of upholding the law do not respect it. This could undermine respect
for the law amongst the general population, which could have significant negative consequences for
a lot of people.
The same could be said for common sense norms of good moral behaviour such as keep your
promises; dont steal; dont be violent towards people etc. Such norms play an important role in
human life, not only by helping to create some order in our lives and making social life reasonably
predictable, but also by simplifying everyday decisions about how to act.
Imagine that you as a consequentialist, a welfarist utilitarian for example who tries to act directly as
dictated by the consequentialist principle. This would mean that you would have to engage in some
very demanding thought processes from the moment you opened your eyes in the morning.
First, you would have to outline all the alternative courses of action which are open to you during
the day. This alone would be a massive task. Instead of doing what you normally do, for example
going to work or university, you would have to first consider the myriad courses of action are open
to you. You could go and visit someone; you could stay home and write a letter to a newspaper; you
could volunteer to work for a humanitarian organization, and so on. Each of these main courses of
action could then be subdivided into a number of alternative sub-courses of action. For example, if
you decide to visit someone, you could either visit A, B or C, and so on. So, there will be a huge
number of possible courses of action to consider.
Secondly, for each course of action, you would have to estimate all the consequences in terms of
welfare for all the affected parties for the entire future. Finally, you would have to add up the total
expected welfare for each course of action in order to be able to decide which action gives the
largest total sum of welfare. On top of this, you might even have to consider how doing one thing in
the morning might affect your opportunities for doing things in the afternoon. For example, if you
do something very exhausting in the morning, such as going to the fitness centre, you may be able
to do less good in the afternoon. This whole exercise is, of course, not only complicated; it is also
very uncertain and time-consuming if you want to do it well.
In short, if you tried to perform this exercise you would probably never get out of bed, but even if
you did manage to get out of bed, you would probably be exhausted, confused and very frustrated.
From a welfarist utilitarian point of view, this would not be a good situation at all. So, from a
consequentialist point of view, one can conclude that it is not a good idea to try to think in
consequentialist terms all the time. Rather, it appears to be a better strategy to think in terms of
simple common sense moral norms most of the time, such as those mentioned previously, or
whatever set of rules that bring about the best expected overall consequences.
Bentham and Mill recognized the need for rules of thumb to be able to practically apply the
principle of utility. Later discussions have put even more emphasis on the role of rules. Some
thinkers have defended what they call rule-utilitarianism, whereby the role of consequentialist
thinking is not to assess individual acts, but rather to assess general rules for action. Thus, the
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consequentialist principle should be used to select a set of rules which, if people follow them, will
result in an outcome which would be better than any other outcomes resulting from alternative sets
of rules.
This idea of rule-utilitarianism has been widely criticized, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, it is
difficult to specify which rules would qualify apart from a rule which says that one should strive
to generate the best outcome. And then nothing much is gained. Secondly, one can ask why we
should follow the rules which would give the best outcome as long as all comply, when we know
that there will always be a significant number of people who will not comply. This kind of
following rules for their own sake is not very much in line with consequentialist thinking which is
focused on the real life outcomes of our actions.
Today, few consequentialists believe in rule-utilitarianism. However, the idea that, as a
consequentialist, one often needs some simple norms or rules for guidance has survived. According
to an influential version of this idea, we need two levels of moral thinking. On the everyday,
intuitive level, we use current moral norms and rules as a guide. Sometimes, in a quiet moment of
reflection perhaps, we step back from our ordinary moral practice and switch to a critical level of
moral thinking and assess and adjust everyday rules, norms and policies in the light of the
consequentialist principle. Thus, the consequentialist principle serves as a criterion against which
we can assess and adjust the moral norms and strategies which normally guide our actions.
We will now again look at the case of animal ethics to see how moral strategies should be worked
out from a consequentialist perspective.

Animal ethics: Reform or radical change?
The use of animals for the production of food is an integral part of Western culture. Until recently,
most viewed it as a necessity and not a matter for moral debate. However, since at least the 1960s,
awareness regarding the effects of intensive animal production on animal welfare has been
increasing. Calves in veal crates, hens in small cages, and tethered or stalled sows are some of the
images which have given rise to public concern.
One place to look for advice regarding how to treat animals is the utilitarian philosopher Peter
Singer who argues that we ought to consider the interests of animals as being on a par with the
interests of humans:
I am urging that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize
should be extended to all members of our own species. ...Jeremy Bentham incorporated the essential
basis of moral equality into his utilitarian system of ethics in the formula: Each to count for one and
none for more than one. In other words, the interests of every being affected by an action are to be
taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being. A later
utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick, put the point in this way: The good of any one individual is of no more
importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other.
...The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of
his own race, when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race.
Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of
members of other species. The pattern is the same in each case.
(Singer 1989, pp. 152-153)
For a utilitarian like Peter Singer, what matters are the interests of those who are affected by what
we do not the race or the species of the creatures who have the interests.
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This view clearly affects the way we should look upon modern animal production: The basic
interests of these animals should be set aside so that production can be efficient and consumers can
buy cheap meat and other animal products. However, for most people in affluent parts of the world,
these cheap products are not of vital importance for their welfare they could easily manage
without meat and other animal products.
In light of this, Peter Singer argues that we should all stop eating meat. This would solve the
problem of animals suffering in intensive animal production, since if we all stop eating consuming
animal products, there would be no farm animals around to suffer. However, there are two obvious
problems with this approach.
The first problem is that there could be an alternative approach whereby farm animals live good
lives and, at the same time, humans are able to enjoy animal products. Would this not be better
viewed from a utilitarian point of view? Of course, animals would still have to be slaughtered, but
this need not be a problem for the utilitarian as long as the animals are killed in a painless way and
are replaced by other animals which live equally good lives. Peter Singer agrees in principles, but
argues that in practice, this is not how things would work out. He asserts that if we dont stop eating
meat, animal production will continue more or less unaffected by concerns about animal welfare.
However, this leads to the second problem: Despite approximately 50 years of discussion
concerning the way farm animals are treated, only a very small fraction of people in our part of the
world have become vegetarians, whilst the consumption of meat increases steadily in line with the
increase in general wealth. Therefore, one could ask whether a utilitarian, or another kind of
consequentialist, who is convinced that we ought to make radical changes to the way farm animals
are treated, would have more influence by adopting a more pragmatic and piecemeal approach to
changing peoples behaviour in this respect.
Thus, someone who, from a consequentialist point of view, wants to improve the conditions for
farm animals could pursue the strategy of animal welfare. Instead of defending moral
vegetarianism, this approach looks for ways to reform animal production. This can be achieved, to
some extent, by means of animal welfare legislation. Thus, in Europe during the last four decades,
laws have been passed, first in individual countries, later at the EU level, to outlaw certain forms of
animal production which are perceived as being cruel, such as keeping veal calves in confinement
without access to straw, keeping laying hens in cages, and tethering or keeping pregnant sows in
confinement. Also, minimum requirements for space and other resources such as provision of straw
have been established by means of legislation.
On top of this, it is possible to appeal to highly motivated consumers to buy special animal products
that have been produced in a welfare-friendly manner. If large numbers of consumers request
products from animals reared in ways that are perceived as being welfare-friendly, a knock-on
effect on the manner in which other animals are treated is likely. This approach has been reasonably
successful in some areas. In Denmark for example, between 30 and 40 per cent of eggs and milk
consumed in 2010 came from alternative production systems.
As the example of animal production illustrates, a consequentialist with a strong conviction about a
goal, in this case an end to cruel forms of animal production, will still have a difficult choice to
make about the strategy for achieving the goal. Should it be to argue for a radical shift in practice or
a gradual reform? Given the fact that most people do not share the strong anti-speciesist view
defended by Singer, in some cases, attempting to achieve gradual reform may be more effective
than trying to achieve a radical change.
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It is of course not always easy to decide which strategy is the most efficient. In the short run, the
reformist strategy often seems to work best. But, there is the danger that the reformist strategy is
just the easy option, which prevents people from taking a moral leap. On the other hand, one needs
to consider that not all individuals are consequentialists and therefore, small steps may be needed to
move things in the right direction.
It would be much easier if all individuals were convinced consequentialists or would it?

Too demanding?
In the discussion of whether the end justifies the means, consequentialism may appear to be a view
which allows people to do things which other moral standpoints would not allow. However, it is
also a very demanding view in some respects. Literally speaking, according to consequentialism,
one is always obliged to do everything in ones power to bring about good outcomes and to prevent
bad outcomes no matter who benefits.
This means that whenever you spend your time or your money, you should spend them in such a
way that you generate the largest return in terms of doing good or preventing bad. This would have
dramatic consequences considering the problem mentioned at the start of this chapter about the
hundreds of millions of people who go hungry to bed every day.
In a paper from 1972, Peter Singer essentially argued that everyone ought to change their way of
life radically and focus on helping poor people rather than satisfying our needs for luxury. Singer
did this by proposing the following innocuous sounding principle, if it is in our power to prevent
something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral
importance, we ought, morally, to do it. This is known as, the minimal principle, and is less
demanding than most forms of consequentialism as it only requires the prevention of bad things, not
the promotion of good ones. Nevertheless, it can still be quite demanding.
For example, if you can find a charity that will efficiently channel your donation into programs
which help starving families, then you should do this before most of the things that you presently do
to benefit yourself and your family.
Of course one can ask whether others are also obliged to help. Peter Singer thinks that they are, but
he does not consider the fact that many will not help to be a valid excuse for not helping. To support
this argument, he presents the following line of reasoning:
if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the
child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the
child would presumably be a very bad thing. the fact that there are millions of other people in the
same position, [as regards the opportunity to help starving people], as I am, does not make the
situation significantly different from a situation in which I am the only person who can prevent
something very bad from occurring. Again, of course, I admit that there is a psychological difference
between the cases; one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly
placed, who have also done nothing. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations.
Should I consider that I am less obliged to pull the drowning child out of the pond if on looking
around I see other people, no further away than I am, who have also noticed the child but are doing
(Singer 1972, pp. 231-233)
Therefore, the consequentialist principle would have very profound effects on the lives of
individuals. In order to comply with the principle, you would have to organize your life so as to
generate income to be passed on to starving people or others in similarly bad situations. Of the
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income you generate, you should only keep enough for yourself to prevent you and your family
from starving or to prevent other similar forms of misery and to ensure that you are able to continue
to work and provide money for the poor.
But what kind of life is that? With this kind of prospect, it would probably be a difficult philosophy
to sell to anyone apart from the odd individual who aspires to canonization. Not even Peter Singer
himself has been able to live up to his own prescription even though he does donate a substantial
amount of his salary to charities.
It is, of course, a problem for consequentialism if the demands it makes on people are so high that
they give up. The conclusion for the devoted consequentialist like Peter Singer has not been to
abandon the principle, but rather to change the way it is promoted. In a recent book about how to
help the poor, The Life You Can Save (2009), Singer suggests some much more easily achievable
goals. For example, we should give up certain luxuries such as bottled water and instead give what
is thereby saved to efficient charities. His reason for lowering the ambition level is clearly
consequentialist by doing so he thinks that he can motivate more charitable behaviour and thereby
make a better contribution towards the goal of helping the poor.
The application of the consequentialist principle is clearly flexible, as we have seen here, but it is
still driven by the principle itself: We should, in practice, follow the consequentialist principle to
the extent that it provides the best consequences. And sometimes we need a break from moral
commitments - to be able to achieve the best possible consequences.
Some adherents of consequentialism have recently come to the conclusion that the standard form
consequentialism presented above is indeed too demanding. They have, to use a term invented by
the American philosopher Samuel Scheffler, argued that consequentialism needs to allow for an
agent centred prerogative, allowing each of us to use some of our resources on ourselves and those
dear to us and only apply consequentialist thinking to what we have more than this. This view deals
more or less satisfactorily with the issue of consequentialism being too demanding (depending on
how much we are allowed to keep for ourselves).
However, to some this kind of half baked consequentialism may sound too much of an arbitrary, ad
hoc solution. And they would want to look for a new theoretical starting point as we shall also do in
the next chapter.

The aim of this chapter was to describe and discuss the consequentialist principle that we should
always aim to bring about the best outcome. The key feature here is impartiality who benefits is of
no importance; all that matters is the total size of the benefit.
Consequentialism presupposes a definition of the good which should be aimed for. If the good is
defined in terms of welfare, then utilitarianism follows. There are different forms of utilitarianism
depending on ones definition of welfare.
An important feature of consequentialism is that it adopts an agent-neutral perspective to our
actions whereby, in principle, there is no moral distinction between, for example, me killing
someone or me not preventing someone else from killing the same person.
Another feature of consequentialism, which has attracted a lot of attention, is that it always allows
the end to justify the means even if the means are highly unjust. The consequentialist can partly
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deal with unjust means by pointing to the positive indirect consequences of upholding norms of
To live in accordance with the consequentialist principle would be very laborious and certainly not
very efficient. Therefore, consequentialists tend to agree that in normal situations, we should act in
accordance with current moral norms. The role of the consequentialist principle is rather to
critically assess and adjust these norms.
Debates often arise in consequentialism concerning what is the right moral strategy particularly
when most people do not seem to share the consequentialist view. Here, one can either be a radical
and argue for dramatic changes to our way of life, or one can adopt a more pragmatic stance and
argue for piecemeal reform.
Finally, we discussed the problem that consequentialism makes some very demanding
requirements, which most people would not be able to fulfil. Therefore, from a consequentialist
point of view, there are further reasons for adopting a more pragmatic stance.

Bentham, Jeremy (1789): An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
McCloskey, H.J. (1969): Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Singer, Peter (1972): Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(3): 229-
Singer, Peter (1989) All Animals are Equal. In: Tom Regan & Peter Singer (eds.) Animal Rights
and Human Obligations. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall. pp. 148-162.
Smart, J.J.C. & Williams, Bernard (1973): Utilitarianism: For and against. Cambridge UK:
Cambridge University Press.

Further reading
Scheffler, Samuel (1988): Consequentialism and its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Driver, Julia (2007): Ethics, The fundamentals. Oxford: Blackwell.

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8 The Ethics of Rights

In the previous chapter, we discussed how consequentialism demands that we should act so
as to produce the best overall consequences. But what about peoples rights? In a famous
example, Gilbert Harman asks us to imagine the following case: Chuck is an innocent and
healthy young man visiting a hospital. At the hospital there are five patients all of whom are
in dire need of an organ transplant. They will die very soon if they do not receive one. It just
so happens that Chuck has these organs. Consequentialism would say that, other things being
equal, we should chop up Chuck and use his organs to save the five patients. After all, we
would be saving five lives and losing only one, compared with the situation where we let
Chuck live and five die. Some would definitely believe that a moral theory demands that we
kill Chuck, but something is fundamentally wrong about this kind of morality. The ethics of
rights tradition tries to provide an alternative to consequentialism, which makes it clear that
we indeed should not Chop up Chuck.

We now turn from consequentialism to its main contender in philosophical ethics, the rights-
based approach. As we have seen, consequentialism takes many forms, but it has at least one
defining feature: what makes an act right or wrong depends entirely in its consequences and their
propensity to promote good, and nothing else. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion means that
there are no constraints on the promotion of the good: for the consequentialist, if an action overall
promotes (expected) welfare maximally, then that action is the morally correct one. This clashes
with a very widespread idea, namely, that of rights. A right is commonly held to be a sort of
trump: it is something which you can claim against other people, and if other people ignore the
claim, they are morally wrong. That is, they are bound by duty (moral, not legal duty) to respect
your right.
Lets return to our gory story about Chuck. Many would assert that there is something deeply
flawed in the basic consequentialist way of thinking: isnt it the case that we violate Chucks rights
here, specifically, his very fundamental right to live? Isnt it simply morally wrong to kill Chuck
because his rights are violated; that the essence of ethics is the inviolability of people, which should
be protected by rights? The ethics of rights is an attempt to encapsulate such ideas.
What we call the ethics of rights is in some ways a rather diverse set of ethical theories. However,
this set has one defining feature, namely that all the theories subsumed here hold that there are ways
to promote the good that are morally impermissible, even if they promote the overall good. That is,
these theories hold that there are constraints on the promotion of the good. It might be that
chopping up Chuck promotes overall welfare, but the constraint on sacrificing people, expressed in
their right to live, forbids such a way of promoting welfare. To be sure, most welfarist
consequentialists would disagree that we should chop up Chuck. For instance, they would point to
the potentially catastrophic results if the public became wary about visiting hospitals out of a fear of
being chopped up. But this is not the point: the point is that the maximizing consequentialism is
logically committed to the claim that we ought to chop up chuck if it really was expected that this
promoted the overall good.
Against this, the proponent of the ethics of rights tradition will insist that there are constraints
against doing so. Moreover, the maximizing consequentialist is committed to the view that you
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must promote the good, maximally. So its not just the case that you can chop up chuck. On the
contrary, you are obliged to as there are no options (i.e., options other than promoting the good.)
Against this, some proponents of the ethics of rights will claim that you may have options which
involve not promoting the good; indeed, some will argue that this should not be our motive in the
first place. In sum: the proponent of an ethics of rights will hold that there are, at a minimum in
some cases, constraints and options constraints against promoting the good (ways in which it is
forbidden to promote the good) and options which involve not promoting the good (ways in which
it is allowed for any given person not to promote the good.)
The ethics of rights has a long and complex history. Still, a defining moment can be attributed to the
German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his idea of categorical imperatives.
What follows is probably the most trenchant version of Kants various formulations of the basic
moral categorical imperative:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any
other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.
Lets try to unpack what it is Kant is saying here. Ignore the slightly high-brow phrase humanity
and read always act in such a way that you treat yourself and others at least also as ends, and never
merely as a means to an end. What does it mean to treat another person as an end, or as a means to
an end? Treating someone as a means implies that either you act selfishly, or that you use that
person as a vehicle to reach some other goal, which is not shared by the person. In short, it means
ignoring that the person is someone with his or her own goals, dignity, integrity, will and freedom.
Lets combine all these together and say that you do not take the persons interests (as a rational and
moral being) into account. Conversely, to treat a person as an end means taking him or her seriously
as an equal human being with interests that ought not to be ignored just to further some other end.
This all connects the ethics of rights-tradition with a certain kind of ideal of moral equality.
Consequentialism is, or can be, one way of trying to respect moral equality. The welfare of every
individual counts for as much as any other individual. However, this is compatible with sacrificing
one or some for the greater good, as long as overall welfare is maximized. John Rawls, who we will
encounter again in a later chapter, famously argued against utilitarianism claiming that it does not
give equal protection to all: only the abstract good counts and we are, in a certain sense, all
means to the end of promoting the good. This is the only sense in which we are equals in
utilitarianism. The ideal of moral equality expressed or encompassed by Kants categorical
imperative is very different: as rational beings, capable of deliberation and of acting accordingly,
we are all equals. Its the same categorical imperatives for all, because the laws and conditions for
rational thought are the same for all rational beings. We therefore owe the same kind of respect to
all rational beings. In practice, the way the ethics of rights-tradition asserts that our equality as
rational beings should be protected, is by protecting individuals with strong rights.
In much of the literature, Kant is portrayed as being the great forefather of deontological ethics, a
direct translation of which is the ethics of duty. Indeed, Kant spoke more of duties than rights.
However, there is not much difference between theories that emphasize duties, on the one hand, and
those that emphasize rights on the other. If I have a duty to take your interests into account when I
act, you have a right that I do so, and conversely. So our categorization of Kant as belonging to the
ethics of rights-tradition might be non-canonical, but nothing important hinges on this

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From Equal Moral Standing to Rights
The ethics of rights, then, can be seen as a particular way of fleshing out an ideal of moral equality.
This equality concerns our standing as free, rational beings. An important implication is that
everyone should be treated equally, always. However, treated equally is an equivocal statement.
In the present context, it certainly does not mean that we all should have the same income or
possessions. It means that we all possess the same dignity or integrity or value we are all equal as
moral beings, or we have the same worth as rational beings, and we have the right to be treated as
Within the ethics of rights-tradition, there are other ways of conceptualizing our equal moral worth.
The most prominent one is the idea of natural rights. The phrase natural is quite unfortunate; its
close connotations, such as nature, or self-evident, are misleading. Nevertheless, what is meant
by natural rights is simply fundamental rights that need no (indeed, according to some adherents of
the natural rights idea, cannot have any) further grounding. These fundamental rights are something
we all have as human beings, simply in virtue of our status as human beings, and not in virtue of our
nationality, effort, race, sex or anything else. Of course, there is a close affinity between the idea of
natural and human rights, as they are put forward by the United Nations declaration of human
rights, for example.
Now, an important point: it is one thing to say that we are on the same moral footing, or that we all
possess the same moral worth. But it is quite another to say that we all have the same rights.
Nevertheless, rights seem to be a straightforward expression of our equal worth etc.: by giving or
acknowledging - a fundamental right, say, to your life and possessions, you cannot be sacrificed for
the sake of others: you are worth as much as they are and vice versa. And this returns us to the
crucial point of difference between the ethics of rights tradition and consequentialism: the former
disputes the latters idea that morality consists of maximizing welfare, come what may. What is
important is rather that the rights of individuals are respected, and these rights sometimes block any
move toward maximizing welfare.

What is a right?
Now let us try to define the subject. A good way of conceptualizing rights is to conceive them as
If a person P has a right, R, it means that:
1. P is allowed to do R, and
2. no one is allowed to interfere with P doing R
And all this under the condition that,
3. by doing R, P does not violate the rights of other people
To exemplify: Let us say that Angus has the right to health care. He is allowed to do R. Then, no
one is allowed to interfere with his going to hospital. Now for a crucial distinction: is the right in
question a negative or a positive right? A negative right means just 1 and 2 (and 3) in the above.
That is, no one is allowed to obstruct Angus from going to hospital and seeking a doctor. However,
if the right to health care is a purely negative right, no one is obliged to assist Angus. That is,
Angus right does not entail that others should do anything (build a hospital, serve as doctors, give
him medicine etc.); it merely entails that others are obliged to not do something, namely obstruct
Angus pursuit of health care.
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A positive right, obviously, is much stronger. It entails that others are obliged to help Angus,
positively. So, we might add a fourth point to rights, when we are talking about positive rights:
4. (for positive rights) Others have a duty to assist P in doing R.
This simple, yet far-reaching, distinction is all too often overlooked. Furthermore, pay close
attention to 3 in the list. Let us say that Angus does have a right to health care. This does not entail
that Angus has the right to run over Bonnie on his way to hospital, because Bonnie has a right to her
life and limbs.
In theory, just about anything can be claimed as rights: life, liberties, possibilities, food and shelter,
holidays, etc. Historically, the ethics of rights tradition has been quite moderate in its claims and
concentrated on some very basic necessities: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, understood in
falling degrees from the negative to the positive, for example, you might have some (modest)
claims against others to ensure your survival. Nevertheless, your liberty is mainly negatively
protected. In contemporary parlance, especially in the human rights field, there has been much more
emphasis on positive rights.

How do rights do their job?
The American philosopher Ronald Dworkin introduced a powerful metaphor to explain how rights
work, which we will expand on here. Imagine that all our various claims towards others (Do that
for me; Dont interfere with me doing this, assist me with etc.) form a deck of cards. Some
cards have more moral value than others. If you have two friends and one asks you to help her out
for a few hours because her baby is ill and she cannot afford to pay for a babysitter, and the other
friend asks you to come over just for a social visit, then probably, the first friends card is of
higher value. Rights function as trumps in this card game: they override all other claims. If you
have a positive right to medical assistance in some situation, that right trumps other claims, e.g., the
claim that your municipality could save a lot of money by not treating patients who will not or
cannot pay for themselves.
Trumps are equivalent to, or expressions of, the basic idea in the ethics of rights tradition that
individuals have strong rights against others, and crucially, a right against being sacrificed for the
greater good. If the community asks you to give up your organs because it would save the lives of
five individuals, it might be very nice of you to do so but you have a strong right not to do so.
Your right to life functions as a trump against the claims of others. This corresponds to what we
earlier called an option: an option not to promote the good. Conversely, if someone just went ahead
and killed you in order to promote the good, the killer would have committed a moral wrong
because there is a constraint against promoting the good in some ways, including promoting by
Naturally, the whole deck cannot consist of trumps: then all social interaction would immediately
be deadlocked. On the other hand, we would probably want more than just one trump, more say
than the negative right to life. The card game metaphor with an emphasis on trumps nicely
illustrates the logic of a rights discourse. It also illustrates a fundamental problem: what are we to
do when two trumps are played? We will return to this below.
As the whole deck cannot consist of trumps, it means that there are some situations where trumps
do not come into play. Does this mean that morality does not come into play? After all, if our basic
moral standing is expressed in rights, and rights function as trumps, it looks like any situation that
does not involve trumps does not involve morality. Adherents of the ethics of rights disagree on this
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matter. Some would indeed be prepared to say that insofar as no rights are involved in a situation,
there is no moral truth to be found. Morality takes a holiday. This probably conforms to many
peoples (by the way strongly anti-consequentialist) intuition that at least some areas of our lives
must be free from moral considerations and demands. But some would say that, once trumps are out
of play, other moral considerations take over e.g. consequentialist notions such as welfare. Indeed,
if you agree that there is at least some moral reason to prioritize helping the friend in need over
visiting the other friend for fun in the above example, it is possibly because you believe that the
contribution to welfare (or the threat to welfare) involved in the example makes it wrong to not help
the friend in need, and not because you believe there are trumps rights involved.
Nevertheless, the main thrust of the ethics of rights position is to say that once rights are out of the
picture, true or mandatory morality is at rest. This is not to say that making unselfish
contributions to the welfare of others is not a commendable or praiseworthy act. But it is not a
morally obligatory thing to do. This conforms to a widespread belief that consequentialism unduly
invades our lives with its incessant demand that we should always act so as to maximize the good.

Some problems with rights
However, it is not always the case that rights conform as snugly to common beliefs as they do in the
case of Chuck. In this last section, we will discuss two important counterpoints.
The morality of killing and the ethics of rights tradition: Some believe that extreme situations, such
as wars, suspend our day-to-day morality. This is probably empirically and psychologically true;
however, it is controversial to say that the demands of morality are suspended just because
circumstances are adversarial. Indeed, this seems to undermine the whole point of having rights or
acting morally.
In war we often encounter the problem of so-called collateral damage. Or in plain words: the
killing of innocent civilians. Warfare almost inevitably means that we kill or maim innocent people.
How can this be reconciled with the fact that these innocents have an absolute right to life?
The radical answer is to maintain that the killing of innocents is incompatible with peoples basic
rights. So there is no justification for collateral damage, and hence, for warfare. However, such
radical pacifism appeals to only very few for the obvious fact that, whereas mutual and universal
pacifism would indeed be nice, we still have to deal with the reality of conflicts and the temptation
for warmongering nations to enter into war. Even philosophers must sometimes be realists and
this is one of the cases in which realism about, among other things, the inevitability of conflict and
the dark sides of the human psyche is truly necessary. And whereas war is indeed hell, one-sided
pacifism runs the risk of being even worse.
Only very few ethics of rights proponents have proposed pacifism. Rather, a variety of other
attempts to solve the conundrum have been raised. The most important is the doctrine of double
effect. In brief, the doctrine of double effect maintains that sometimes it is morally permissible to
bring about harm, even death, to people, if the harm is merely foreseen, and not intended as a
goal in itself and, furthermore, that it is necessary to bring about some morally justified goal. This
could be, for example, the killing of soldiers in battle (who are not supposed to be innocent), saving
civilian lives, the attainment of which outweighs the harm done. This might sound appealing as it
enables you to justify a measure of self-defence: if you are to protect your life, you are justified in
blowing up a tank that is driving straight towards you, even if this means killing the baby that is
strapped to it for the death of the baby is merely foreseen and not intended as a goal in itself.
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However, critics maintain that this is not truly compatible with the ethics of rights. It appears too
convenient that peoples rights are suddenly dispelled, just because the harm done to them is
merely foreseen and not intended. Let us say that we dump dangerous nuclear waste in the sea
and people protest, saying that it will harm people in the future. It is hardly an excuse that we only
foresee and do not intend to harm anyone. Here, defenders of the doctrine of double effect will
say, Aha! But dumping the nuclear waste is illegitimate because the act did not have a justified
productive goal. The doctrine says that that there must be a good goal which outweighs the harm
done. But this reply only gets the double doctrine defender out of the fire and into the frying pan.
This is because defending an action because, overall, it creates more good than the alternative is a
straightforward example of consequentialist thought. The whole rights-edifice then seems to be
redundant, if not downright self-defeating.
Conflicts of rights: Another problem for the ethics of rights tradition is when rights conflict which
one another. We have concentrated on the basic right to life, but as noted, we would probably want
other rights as well. One of the classic rights belonging to this tradition, the right to bodily integrity,
is in one sense related to, but still different from, the right to life. If you only had the right to life,
there would be nothing wrong with hitting you repeatedly on the head with a hammer, as long as
you did not die. Let us assume that people have this right to bodily integrity. Adapting a famous
example of Thomas Nagels in his The View from Nowhere (1986) imagine that you and your friend
survive a car crash. However, your friend is in dire need of medical treatment. In fact, he will die
very soon if he does not get to a hospital, and of course, the car you were driving is smashed to
pieces. You enter a house asking for help, but frighten the elderly woman who lives there and she
runs into the bathroom to hide, locking the door behind her. The old lady is also the owner of a mint
condition Ferrari Testarossa, which will surely get your friend to hospital in good time. Your only
option is to grab the ladys grandchild and twist the childs arm, forcing the woman to hand over the
key to the Ferrari.
The problem is, of course, that you are violating at least one right (the innocent childs right to
bodily integrity) to safeguard another mans right (your friends right to life.) The intuitive answer
is to compare the gravity of each potential violation of rights. However, this is not a satisfactory
answer. First, it implies that we can sacrifice one persons interests in order to promote anothers.
This is exactly the kind of move that the ethics of rights wants to preclude. Second, if we are to
compare violations in the first place, we need a measure of gravity. But that leads us to the slippery
slope down to the measurement of welfare. After all, what other plausible criterion could you use to
measure how grave a loss an individual suffers when his or her right has been violated? But this
reiterates the problem we encountered when we discussed the doctrine of double effect: that under
the fine veneer of rights lurks the quicksand of consequentialism.
Some proponents of the ethics of rights opt for the radical solution: they say, no, we should not
allow for comparisons of welfare. This is most often seen in conjunction with the claim that what
matters is not what happens as seen from a point of view outside the concrete moral situation,
where we can make judgments such as a minor or major infringement of rights, or the total sum
of rights violations, and then opt for the lesser of two or more evils. Rather, what is morally
relevant is only how you behave, not what happens in the big picture. It is your duty to make sure
that you do not infringe upon anyones rights. It is not your duty to act so as to minimize the
number of violations, or maximize the number of rights-respecting acts. As Robert Nozick, a
philosopher and proponent of the ethics of rights, put it, there is no place for a utilitarianism of
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This might solve the immediate theoretical problem. But it comes at a high price. For common
sense surely dictates that it is often morally better to violate a small right say, borrowing
someones rowboat without her permission in order to avoid violating a heavy right say, that a
madman succeeds in drowning three children. Maybe common sense is wrong. However, if one
insists that borrowing someones rowboat without permission is a greater moral wrong than
allowing three children to die, then it seems that one is making a fetish out of a moral concept
rights at the expense of decent and sound human behaviour. Moreover, if one of the points of the
ethics of rights tradition is to express a robust kind of respect for people, then it seems odd to ignore
the plight of people in order to respect an abstract moral concept such as rights.

Summary: the ethics of rights in perspective
As you have hopefully seen, the ethics of rights, just like consequentialism, has its strengths
and weaknesses. On the plus side, it is an intuitively much more palatable way of fleshing out
the ideal of moral equality and respect, or equal human worth, than the highly abstract,
everybodys interests are taken into account but it might mean sacrificing your interests
entirely kind of moral equality and respect espoused by consequentialism. Moreover, it
creates a kind of free haven where the demands of morality do not enter, or at least do not
enter with full force, which accords well with many peoples experience of the demands of
morality. Finally, it is in fine tune with the widespread intuition about certain forms of
inviolability of our integrity, such as the case of Chuck.
On the downside, the ethics of rights tradition faces a dilemma: either it allows for
comparisons when different rights collide, or when violations of the same kind of right are of
a different gravity. This threatens to undermine the whole construction and turn the ethics of
rights into a circular form of consequentialism. Alternatively, the ethics of rights could
uphold a strict right-and-duties scheme and disallow comparisons, but this would threaten to
distance it from common sense and fetishize the concept, instead of caring about and
respecting people. A third alternative should be noted: Maybe we should be guided by rights
and duties as far as possible, but when they are in conflict, we should allow for comparisons,
and when in reasonable doubt (or when there are no rights at play), we should be guided by
some sort of consequentialism. Such a pluralistic theory will not accommodate all of the
ideals of a pure ethics of rights perspective. However, it seems to overcome many of the
difficulties philosophers have identified in the discussion of the ethics of rights tradition.
The ethics of rights tradition might retort that morality is not neat and clean. Sometimes we
face tragic choices. It might be the case that ethics, in virtue not of our incompetency, or lack
of a precise moral theory, but of the subject matter itself, is sometimes tragic in the sense just
discussed. However, when taken at face value, the ethics of rights tradition seems to conjure
moral tragedies where none exist. By insisting on the sanctity of minor rights or small
injuries, it allows much worse tragedies to happen. This flies in the face of common sense.

Dworkin, Ronald (1984): Rights as Trumps. In Jeremy Waldron (ed.) Theories of Rights.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 153-67.
Harman, Gilbert (1977): The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford:
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Kagan, Shelly (1989): The Limits of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nagel, Thomas (1986): The View from Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rawls, John (1971): A Theory of Justice. London: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, J.J. (1991): Self-Defense. Philosophy and Public Affairs 20(4): 283-310.

Further reading
Kagan, Shelly (1998): Normative Ethics. Boulder CO:Westview Press.
Smart, J.J.C. & Williams, Bernard (1973): Utilitarianism: For and against. Cambridge UK:
Cambridge University Press.
Tnnsj, Torbjrn (2002): Understanding ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
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The Fair
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9 Equality

We have seen various attempts at explaining moral values, duties, rights etc. Up to this point,
we have concentrated on answering the question What ought I to do, morally speaking?
However, we have not discussed (at length) for whom the outcomes of ones actions are
morally relevant. More specifically, we have not touched upon a very central aspect of
morality, namely: does it matter how goods are distributed across people? With this question,
we approach one of moral philosophys applied areas, namely political philosophy, but in
this chapter, our focus will not be on concepts such as the state, democracy and other
staple issues of that branch of philosophy. Rather, we will concentrate solely on distributions
(of whatever we might think relevant from a normative point of view) and their moral
importance. The discussions which follow might seem to imply that only humans are the
relevant agents and patients for distributional purposes. However, if one believes that
animals, or some other group of entities, are relevant, then the thoughts presented here
apply in different ways to them as well.

A vivid example to illustrate the normative importance of distributions is given by the philosopher
Thomas Nagel. We elaborate slightly to make the example fit our purposes more clearly:
Imagine you are the parent of two children. Let us call them Lucky and Unlucky. You have an extra
sum of money that for some reason cannot be split, and you can either choose to spend it on Lucky,
by paying for her to go a school for gifted children that will satisfy her special interest in
astrophysics. Or, you can spend it on Unlucky, by buying her some special medication that will
alleviate her crippling allergies somewhat. Any plausible evaluation of the levels of welfare of the
two children will conclude that Lucky is better off than Unlucky. Let us stipulate that Lucky has a
welfare score of 20, and Unlucky has a welfare score of 5. The dilemma is that if you chose to
spend the money on Lucky, she will benefit relatively more than if you spend the money on
Unlucky. Let us stipulate that their welfare-bonuses are +10 and +3, respectively. Therefore, the
welfare benefit is much greater if you spend the money on Lucky, rather than Unlucky. What
should you do?
The stringent consequentialist, or welfarist, would have no qualms: the money should be spent on
Lucky. After all, you add more welfare to the world by doing so. However, many would say that
there is at least some reason to think twice before going ahead and benefitting Lucky. She is better
off than Unlucky, who is, well unlucky.
If you feel uneasy about benefitting Lucky in the example, it is probably because you share some
beliefs that are very widespread: first, there is more to morality than just creating more welfare; the
way in which the welfare befalls different agents is also morally important. Second, all things being
equal, helping the worse off is morally more important than helping the better off. If you hold these,
or functionally equivalent beliefs, you might conclude that, instead of choosing to benefit Lucky,
and creating more overall welfare in the world, you should benefit Unlucky, and hence (incidentally
or purposively) create more equality in the world (in this case, equality between Lucky and
Unlucky, or between Unlucky and all who are better off relative to her.)
It is important to note that in many cases, welfarists would actually condone (or rather, demand)
that we choose to benefit the worse off. This is because there are often reasons to say that by
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benefitting the worse off, we create more welfare than if we benefit the better off. The wealthy
businessman with a high income, good health, two cars and a nice pension fund will of course be
happy if you give him an additional 10.000 dollars. However, if you gave the money to a poor
village in Africa, so they could build a safe well and afford medication for their children for five
years, the contribution to welfare would be enormous. Technically, this phenomenon is known as
diminishing marginal utility: in most cases, the more welfare (utility) you have, the less worth there
is to an additional fixed contribution in terms of added welfare.
However, this was not the case in our example: benefitting Lucky would have increased the overall
welfare; hence, the welfarist would not choose to benefit Unlucky. For the welfarist, the distribution
per se of welfare does not count. It is only the amount of welfare that counts. But many, probably
most, moral theories do in fact hold that distributions are important in various ways.

Pure egalitarianism and levelling down
One way of maintaining that distribution is important is expressed in egalitarianism. Egalitarians
assert, roughly speaking, that equality (between people) is a valuable thing, which should be
promoted and respected. A pure egalitarian would claim that equality is all that is necessary to
consider when judging between different alternative outcomes: the more equal an outcome, the
better, and a morally right (or perfect) outcome is judged so solely because it is perfectly equal.
However, egalitarians differ to such as extent that it is perhaps unfortunate that it has become
commonplace (in academic circles, at least) to call them all egalitarians. One sense of the term
implies that we should all have equal resources, e.g., the same amount of money. Another more
widespread meaning is that we should all have the same opportunities (as in equality of
opportunities). A third, much more minimalistic conception, says that we should all have the same
rights, as in equality before the law. A fourth sense is that we all ought to have the same level of
welfare. And there are many more. The term Egalitarianism is in many quarters contentious,
because one of the more minimalistic conceptions of egalitarianism (the idea that we should all
have the same rights) is confused with the rather more radical thesis that we should all have the
same resources, or the even more extreme thesis that we should have the same level of welfare (by
extreme we are merely implying that adhering to such moral principles would have
extraordinarily far-reaching consequences for the ways in which we morally evaluate our behaviour
At this point, we will look to one such extreme thesis as a model for how we ought to think about
cases like Lucky and Unlucky. Let us call this thesis pure egalitarianism: If you think that equality
is morally important, you might even think that it is the only important factor (for judging the moral
status of outcomes). And let us say that you also think that equality should be measured against our
level of welfare. For why should lucky people be allowed to enjoy more welfare than others?
In our case, pure egalitarianism would say that we ought to benefit Unlucky, because that would
lessen the inequality between Lucky and Unlucky. After all, if we chose to benefit Lucky, we would
end up in a situation where Lucky had a welfare score of 30, and Unlucky 5. Conversely, benefiting
Unlucky will give us a result of 20 vs. 8 still unequal, but more equal than before.
So, does pure egalitarianism provide the best model for thinking about distributions? After all,
many are tempted to say that we ought to benefit Unlucky, and pure egalitarianism has just
provided us with a rationale for doing so: we end up with a more equal distribution. Nevertheless,
very few would say that pure egalitarianism is a plausible thesis. To see why, we will consider the
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implications, which is something you should always do when testing a normative thesis for
In a famous paper, Equality and Priority from 1997, the British philosopher Derek Parfit identified
one very unappealing feature of extreme egalitarianism: Imagine a world in which half the
population is blind, but the other half can see perfectly. Imagine further that we have a sure-fire
method for transplanting one eye from a seeing person to a blind person, so they both end up with
one good eye. The eyesight of the person who had two good eyes would be impaired, but they
would still be able to see and function almost as before. For the vast majority of the sighted, the
reduction in welfare would be marginal, at least comparatively speaking. The blind, however,
would benefit massively from the transplantation. The net sum increase of welfare would be
tremendous. Many would believe that we ought to transplant eyes from the sighted to the blind.
After all, the sighted would only suffer a relatively minor impairment, whilst the blind would
benefit hugely. Notice, furthermore, that not only do we have a net increase in welfare, but we also
have a large increase in equality: actually, all other considerations aside, we have attained perfect
equality, because everyone now has one eye.
So far, so good. There is no disagreement between welfarists and extreme egalitarians here. But
imagine now a slightly different scenario. Again, half the population is blind, whilst the others are
sighted. But now we have no method of transplanting the eyes from the sighted to the blind. So, we
cannot benefit the blind by taking one eye from the sighted. Now, here is the point: there is one way
to achieve equality, namely, by blinding all the sighted! If we do so, we will again achieve perfect
equality (although it is hard to see how anyone benefits: the sighted are now blind, whilst blind are
still blind.) But and here the welfarist (as well as others) has a very tough question for the (pure)
egalitarian if no one benefits, why on earth should we aim for equality? Unless you can point to at
least one sense in which it is better to have an equal distribution that is, that it benefits someone
it is hard to see why we should aim for equality. This method of achieving equality, which in
essence is to bring everyone down to the same level of welfare without benefitting someone, is
aptly called levelling down, and many philosophers are so impressed by the argument about
levelling down that they believe that extreme equality is a dead end. The reason is simple: if
equality in itself is important (that is, beyond what an equal, or more equal, distribution can
contribute to peoples welfare), then there must be at least one sense in which we ought to prefer the
situation in which all the sighted have been blinded. But many believe that it is impossible to
identify in what sense we ought to prefer a situation in which no one benefits, and we have
dramatically lowered the welfare of half a population!

Another solution: The difference principle
So, where does this leave equality? Most people strongly believe that equality is valuable and
something which should be considered in moral judgment. But let us agree, or stipulate for the sake
of argument, that extreme equality is not a palatable option. How can we accommodate our
egalitarian intuitions without falling foul of levelling down?
One extraordinarily influential alternative was formulated by the American philosopher John Rawls.
Apart from the prominence of his argument, it is interesting for another reason: Rawls formulated
the argument in opposition to utilitarianism or welfarism. Among his claims was that utilitarianism
did not respect people in the right way. He argued that an individual should not be made subject to
anothers will to fulfil their needs. Rawls asserted that we are all distinct and sovereign moral
individuals who should be respected as such. If this rings a bell and reminds you of what we
discussed under the heading, the ethics of rights, then you are correct: Rawlsian thought has
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strong roots in Kantianism. Rawls believed that utilitarianism and welfarism do not appreciate the
fact that people are bearers of rights, and they treat us all as potential means to maximize welfare.
In its place, Rawls suggested the so-called difference principle (DP.) The arguments for this are
varied and sophisticated, but we will go straight to the point. DP states that only inequalities that
are to the benefit of the worst off are legitimate inequalities. Let us look a bit closer at what this
On first impression, DP suggests that equality is the desired state of affairs. This may seem to imply
that DP is in fact no different from pure egalitarianism. However, it also says that inequalities are
legitimate insofar as they benefit the worst off! Therefore, it cannot be a principle that takes
equality as a necessary condition for legitimacy. Why might we want to depart from equality? We
may want to because a departure from strict equality might benefit someone, and according to
Rawls, those who should benefit are the worst off.
To make things clearer, look at these three alternative distributions for a micro-society consisting of
only two people, A and B:
Alternative 1: Alternative 2: Alternative 3:
Level of
welfare: 5 5 5 15 6 9
Person: A B A B A B

Let us look at the three alternatives in light of welfarism, pure egalitarianism and the difference
principle. The welfarist would consider Alternative 2 to be the preferred distribution. It results in 20
units of welfare. The extreme egalitarian would say that Alternative 1 is the right one, because the
result is perfect equality. According to the difference principle, however, we should select
Alternative 3. Yes, there is inequality if we compare it with Alternative 1. But, and this is the
important point, A (who is worst off) is better off here than in any of the other alternatives.
A little aside: DP can be read in two different ways: one can say that any inequality is legitimate as
long as it actually benefits the worst off. In many real life situations, such a reading is compatible
with huge inequalities: the billionaires are allowed to stay billionaires, as long as they give 1 cent to
the poor (which benefits the worst off). However, DP can be read in a much more demanding way
by insisting that we should go for the distribution which in fact benefits the worst off most. This is
the reading we assume here.
In the above, we said that we might want to depart from equality because we want to benefit the
worst off. This does not answer why we would want to allow the better-off to be better off in the
first place. One reason for this is empirical: incentives are often needed to motivate people to be
more productive. If people are more productive, we can enlarge the collective pool of resources
(e.g., if people make more money, we can tax them more, or they can create more jobs), which will
benefit the worst off now and in the long run. Some radical egalitarians have suggested that we
should create an egalitarian ethos in which the talented simply work more just for the sake of
benefitting the worst or worse-off, without the need for incentives (extra pay). For various reasons
this is probably not the route Rawls would have wanted us to take, but on the face of it, it seems a
natural suggestion given the morality of DP, which aims to improve the lot of the worst off. But
would you pay the price if it meant that we would have to mould the personalities of citizens into
completely unselfish collectivists?
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Why should we go for the DP? There are two main arguments. One relates to a Rawlsian idea,
which roughly says that if we have a fair initial situation of bargaining in which we should decide
how to allocate resources in society, we should be motivated by the so-called maximin principle.
The maximin principle says that we should arrange allocations so as to maximize the minimal
(worst) position in society, that is, we should try to make the worst position we could end up
occupying in society as good as possible. This is vulnerable to the objection that we might choose
any number of other principles in such a situation, e.g., one that maximizes overall welfare, perhaps
with a sort of minimum guarantee for the worse off (see prioritarianism and the doctrine of
sufficiency later on).
However, there is another more potent, or at least more influential, line of argument which leads
many philosophers to endorse DP, or some other principle much like it. This is the lottery
In classic political philosophy, it is assumed that deserved inequalities are legitimate inequalities.
Every person has a certain deserved portion of the resources, and as long as their actual lot matches
their deserved lot, everything is just dandy. To each his due that is fair. In a nutshell, Rawls and
rawlsians (as well as the vast majority of contemporary egalitarians) endeavor to pull the carpet
from under the very notion of worthy and hence deserved via the lottery argument. Here is our
rendering of this argument:
In order to deserve something such as a medal, you must be responsible for the basis upon which
whatever it is you deserve rests. If you deserve to win the gold medal in a 100 meter sprint, it is
because you are the fastest runner. It might be the case that someone else wins the race because of a
freak incident (e.g. an exceptionally strong gust of wind carries her over the finish line). She may
then be entitled to the medal according to the rules of the race. But you still deserved the medal
because you were the fastest runner. Obviously, the winner cannot be responsible for the freak gust
of wind. So she does not deserve the medal, even though she is entitled to it. She did not possess the
requisite relevant, worthiness, in this case: the ability to run as fast as you.
Now, consider the (alleged) worthiness basis for wages, profits etc. in modern societies. Let us call
these talents. One talent could be good looks. Exceptionally good looks might win you beauty
pageants, but it might also open all sorts of doors in social life and give you a better chance of
ending up with a well paid and interesting job. Indeed, social science research has concluded that
this is in fact the case. Another could be education. Naturally, having a high level of education
normally enables you to compete for the most lucrative and well-paid jobs.
However, and this is the key point: in what sense are we really responsible for our talents? The first
of our chosen examples, good looks, is basically a genetic gift from our parents.. In any case,
good looks are not really something for which you can be said to be responsible. It is just like the
freak gust of wind in our 100 meter sprint competition. The same can be said for education. You are
not responsible for the upbringing that enabled you to pursue an education, for the fact that you
were born into a society which offers education, for the fact that someone established a system of
scholarships, or provided you with tax payers money, or for having parents who were willing to
pay for your education. And neither are you responsible for the fact that educational systems always
favor certain traits and abilities and reject others. In fact, your genes and many social
circumstances, which are totally beyond your control, and hence responsibility, determine your
talents. Therefore, if you are not responsible for your desert bases (your talents), then you do not
deserve the fruits of these desert bases!
3Aha, you might reply, this is all very well, but isnt it the case that I have chosen to put the
effort into using these gifts (genetic or social) it is only by my active effort that these gifts have
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turned into something productive. I am responsible for my actions, and hence, I deserve the fruits of
my labours!
This retort, natural as it is, does not worry Rawlsians. Their reply is simple: your ability to exert an
effort is also a talent for which you can claim no responsibility. Hence, it cannot ground claims of
deserving. In sum, the lottery argument purports to undermine any claim to resources (or welfare,
for that matter) based on personal desert This is a tremendously strong argument in favour of
redistribution, Rawlsian or otherwise. For if the well-off cannot claim that they deserve the talents
or luck which form the foundation of their good fortune, then nothing morally prevents us from
redistributing in favour of the worse-off.
Naturally, the lottery argument or its rawlsian conclusion has been disputed. We cannot present all
of the counterpoints, so we concentrate on three. First, it might be disputed that worthiness is as
empty a notion as the lottery argument asserts. The argument completely does away with
worthiness, but many believe that our moral experience does not confirm that worthiness is an
entirely superfluous notion. Hence, a theory of just distribution must make some room for
worthiness. When we see a hardworking, honest person and a lazy mischievous one and compare
them, we do not query their worthiness or their metaphysical status: we want good things for the
good guy and less for the bad guy, also distributionally speaking, or so it might be claimed. Doing
away with worthiness is too radical. Secondly, there seems to be an asymmetry between the claims
that people can make on each other in the rawlsian scheme. Let us say that the productive and
talented are not responsible for their luck, so they cannot claim any particular outcome, say, to keep
at least half of the fruits of their labour and talents. The poor and unlucky are not responsible for
their position either. But they can claim something (a larger share of the cake, so to speak) due to
something for which they are not responsible! To some, this seems to be a weird asymmetry. The
theory aims to consider people as ends in themselves and to respect the fact that we are individuals
so that we should not exploit an individual as a means to our own ends. However, the theory ends
up sacrificing the productive and talented for the benefit of the worse off. Third, imagine that we
can benefit the worst off ever so slightly, but only by dramatically reducing the welfare of an
enormous group of better off people (though, of course, not down below the worst off.) The
difference principle would then demand that we should do so. However, this is highly
counterintuitive, at least in extreme situations.

The Priority Principle
A short recap: so far we have moved from welfarism, which basically ignores distributions and
hence is in conflict with our intuition that distributions or their patterns are somehow important; to
pure egalitarianism, which basically says that an equal distribution is all that counts and hence
opens up for the unpalatable phenomenon of levelling down; to the difference principle, which
basically says that we ought to arrange distributions so as to benefit the worst off to the maximum,
but which, in the eyes of some critics, fails to accommodate plausible ideas about worthiness and
fails to respect people as individuals who cannot be sacrificed in order to benefit other people.
At this point, it seems that the very concept equality is in a bit of a pickle, at least as long as we talk
about distributional equality (the discussions so far do not relate, at least not directly, to issues such
as equality between the sexes, or before the law, or any of the many other dimensions of
This raises the question: why should we care about distributional equality in the first place? Leaving
aside petty emotions such as envy, perhaps it is because we are motivated by concern for our fellow
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human beings. How can we allow gross inequality (such as between the best-off in the West and the
worst-off in the Third World), when redistribution could alleviate much, if not all, of the poors
predicaments? But the key point here is not equality as such, rather it is the consideration of the
poor and the unlucky; sympathy for real, suffering people as opposed to a principle of equality in
one version or another.
Something like this might lie behind the motivation of those who adhere to the priority principle,
otherwise known by the tongue-twisting name, prioritarianism.
Roughly speaking, the priority principle says that we have moral reasons to benefit the worse off
that are weightier than the reasons we have for benefitting the better off. Hence, the priority
principle assigns a greater moral value to benefitting the worse off so that the worse off have a
higher priority than the better off when it comes to evaluating alternative distributions. However,
and this is important, priority is not absolute! That would make the priority principle equivalent to
the difference principle. However, if we can benefit the better off enough, then that benefit would
outweigh the priority given to the worse off, and in such a situation we should choose to benefit the
better off. Heres an example:
Imagine that Abe is very badly off, but Betty is even worse off. Let us say that Abe has a welfare
index of three and Betty one, whilst the normal, contented man on the street has a welfare index of
50. According to priority, both Abe and Betty are worse-off. You, as an impartial third party, can
choose to give either Abe or Betty some medicine which will alleviate their crippling diseases
slightly, and give either of them a tiny welfare increase of one. According to priority, you should
give it to Betty, because she is even worse off than Abe. She has the highest priority.
Now, so far nothing distinguishes priority from the other theories of distribution (except for
welfarism, which does not care about distributions in the first place, and hence would be indifferent
as to whether the one unit increase in welfare should befall one or the other.). The defining point of
priority can be illustrated by altering the example a bit:
Again, we have Abe with a welfare index of three and Betty with one and you are an impartial
bystander. This time, however, the effects of your action are different. If you give the medicine to
Betty, she will again experience a (very minor) welfare increase of one. If you give it to Abe,
however, he will be completely cured and receive a massive boost of 50 to his welfare! In this case,
almost all prioritarians would agree that the extra welfare gained by Abe outweighs Bettys
relatively higher priority, and so the medicine should be given to Abe.
However, prioritarianism is not equivalent to welfarism: there are situations in which you could
choose to benefit a better off individual and the resulting increase would be larger than if you chose
to benefit the worse off, but where the priority given to the worse off morally outweighs the larger
increase of welfare for the better off, according to prioritarianism. So, sometimes, a smaller overall
increase in welfare is morally superior to a larger net increase, because the increase in welfare goes
to an individual, or group of people, who are relatively worse off than some other individual or
group, according to priority.
Remember Lucky and Unlucky from the start of the chapter? Perhaps the reasoning behind the
principle of priority is the one which best captures the intuition of those who believe that, all things
considered, we ought to help Unlucky, rather than Lucky in our initial example: not because it
furthers equality (it does in the example, but this is merely a byproduct according to
prioritarianism), but because the worse off have a certain kind of moral priority when we consider
the morality of distributions. We care about people, not abstract principles like equality.
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Priority has another appealing feature. In the Lucky-Unlucky example, you might think that a lot
hinges on the relevant sums of welfare involved. If the overall relative increase of the sum of
welfare for Lucky is high enough, then perhaps one is morally permitted, or even obliged, to go
ahead and benefit Lucky. Imagine, for instance, that Lucky will become super-happy if you benefit
her and that Unlucky will only experience the smallest of increases in his welfare if you choose him
is it then really morally wrong to benefit Lucky, even if equality is not taken into consideration at
all? Priority allows for this; the priority is there, but it is not absolute.
At this point, the reader will perhaps spot an important question: how much priority should we give
to the worse off? This is the main challenge for advocates of the priority principle. If the priority is
very high, then priority is in practice impossible to distinguish from the difference principle. If even
tiny contributions to the welfare of the worst off outweigh massive contributions to the welfare of
the better off, then priority loses its distinguishing feature (even though the rationale might be
different). But then again, if the priority is not that high, so that even quite modest welfare increases
for the better off can outweigh slightly smaller increases for the worse off, then priority becomes
hard to distinguish from welfarism, and its distinctive appeal a special care for the worse off
begins to disappear.

The doctrine of sufficiency
The priority principle was an attempt to overcome some of the problems that seem inherent in
valuing equality for the sake of equality, rather than for the sake of valuing people. In this last
section, we will look at a slightly different take on the morality of distribution, which we call the
doctrine of sufficiency (to avoid the even more tongue-twisting term sufficientarianism).
Something very much like the doctrine of sufficiency probably lies behind notions such as poverty
lines lines which demarcate the unsufferably poor from the merely badly off.
Maybe the problem with the previous distributional principles lies in their focus on equality and the
fact that they insist on judging situations in terms of comparisons between people? Perhaps there is
a better way of expressing the intuitively appealing idea that we should care about people, and
especially the worse and worst-off individuals? Some versions of the doctrine of sufficiency at
least, try to overcome the problem of equality, whilst trying to avoid the problem of assigning
priority that bedevils the priority principle.
A doctrine of sufficiency as we understand it says, roughly, that what matters is not how much an
individual has compared to others: Comparisons don not matter. Rather, what matters is whether a
person has or has not enough i.e., sufficient. To determine whether an individual has enough, it is
not normally relevant to compare that individual with others. What matters is to distribute in such a
way that as many people as possible have sufficient. Sufficient for what, or against what measure, it
might reasonably be asked? Various versions of the doctrine of sufficiency will give different
answers, but here is one: the morally important thing is to give people a decent chance to live a
decent life. This would mean that they are able to obtain the basic necessities of life (food, shelter,
clothing), or if they are unable to get these themselves, that they are provided for them. Moreover,
in order to achieve the threshold of resources necessary for a decent human existence, as opposed to
a merely animal existence, individuals should be able to fulfil some of the higher human needs,
such as social, intellectual, spiritual etc. This would not only call for a certain distribution of
resources, as we normally understand the term, but also for certain rights and possibilities. But once
a person achieves a level of resources where the basic needs necessary for a decent human life have
been met, our responsibility towards him or her is either (drastically) diminished or disappears
altogether. (It should be said that the doctrine of sufficiency is pretty open-ended as regards what
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should happen once the desired level of resources or welfare is met.) Why is this? Why should a
persons distributional moral standing be altered once he or she meets some level of resources? One
answer to this question is as follows: what we owe to each other is first and foremost the means
necessary for a decent life. Once a person has these means, it is up to that person to make do with
the allocated resources. This is not to say that he or she is worth less, morally speaking it is just
that we do not owe more than this to a person, distributionally speaking.
We noted earlier that comparisons are not relevant, at least not in the first place. However, it seems
only natural to say that for all the people below the threshold of sufficiency, there are reasons
(either instrumental or moral) to help the relatively worst off, in terms of sufficiency, before those
who are just below the threshold or, to put it another way, always aim to bring about the greatest
increase towards sufficiency.
The problems with sufficiency are rather self-evident. The first problem is to clearly define the
point of sufficiency. When exactly do people have enough? The second is to explain why people
should not be helped to the best level possible; why only care about sufficiency?

Holtug, Nils & Lippert-Rasmussen, Kasper (eds.) (2006): Egalitarianism. New Essays on the
Nature and Value of Equality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Frankfurt, Harry (1988): The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Nagel, Thomas (1979): Mortal Questions. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000): Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parfit, Derek (1997): Equality and priority. Ratio 10(3): 202-221.
Rawls, John (1971): A Theory of Justice. London: Oxford University Press.

Further reading
Barry, Brian (1989): Theories of Justice, Vol. I of A Treatise on Social Justice. Berkeley & Los
Angeles: University of California Press; London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.
Kymlicka, Will (2002): Contemporary Political Philosophy (2
edition). Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Swift, Adam (2006): Political Philosophy A Beginners Guide for Students. Oxford: Polity Press.
Temkin, Larry S. (1993): Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wolff, Jonathan (1996): An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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10 Liberty and Equality

In the previous chapter, our discussion took place at the intersection between moral and
political philosophy. Now, we will take a full leap into the latter field whilst being informed
by the discussions in the earlier chapters. A classic and still highly relevant topic in political
philosophy concerns the relation often tumultuous between liberty and equality. This
connects the discussion in this chapter with the one in the previous: perhaps you consider one
of the distributive principles to be exactly the right one? However, enforcing a particular
ideal distributive pattern almost always implies that the liberty of some will be restricted. If,
for instance, you favour the difference principle, the liberty of the talented and hardworking,
or the purely lucky, to pursue economic gains will inevitably be curtailed. What do
philosophers have to say about the relation between liberty and equality or, in other words,
what are their thoughts concerning social justice?

A moral doctrine or ethical perspective will, at least sometimes, inform your personal choices. If
you are a utilitarian, some of your choices will reflect your utilitarian point of view. You might, for
instance, join an NGO or charity organization to help relieve poverty in the third world. If you are a
Kantian you might try to refrain from lying because you believe that doing so is incompatible with
the respect you owe to other people. And so on. Clearly, your ethical perspective will affect you;
you will lead your life in a certain way and you will make decisions according to your moral point
of view. But, and this is the theme of the following chapters, it might also affect other people.
Clearly, you joining a charity or refraining from lying affect others.
However, most of us believe that not only should we behave in accordance with our ethical
perspective; we also believe that (at least sometimes) we are justified in deciding how other people
should, and should not, act. The most important arena for this is the political. Politics is all about
establishing demands and limitations concerning how people should act. For instance, a utilitarian
might lobby for a political party that favours heavy taxation as a mean of societal redistribution,
precisely for utilitarian reasons. Notice the dramatic change in sphere when the utilitarian moves
from his or her personal choices to the political: it is one thing to act in accordance with your
preferred ethical view: you might affect others, but you do not necessarily make any demands on
them. But when you magnify your ethical doctrine and begin to use the vast powers of the state in
order to pursue an ethical agenda, you will very often begin to make demands on other people (in
this case: you use the power of the state to enforce taxation). In short: politics is, or at least can be,
morality with muscles, for better, or for worse. Of course, almost every normative theory implies
that if something, X, is right for A in virtue of p (e.g., a utilitarian injunction that Abe must do X,
say, donate to charity, because doing so will p, maximise welfare) then X is right for anyone
similarly situated (hence, if Betty is similarly situated as Abe, then Betty ought to donate to charity
as well.) In this sense, the step from personal morality to political action is not that dramatic.
In the following, we will pursue a central theme in modern thought about political morality, namely
the relation between liberty and equality. We will use the terms liberty and freedom
interchangeably. Later on, we will go into more detail concerning these concepts, but for now a
rough and ready understanding of the terms will suffice: you are at liberty to do something when no
one, or nothing, stands in your way to do it. Evidently, liberty is extremely important: whether or
not you are at liberty to do something (e.g. to study medicine) will have far reaching implications
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for your quality of life. And so on for all the myriad of possibilities that are open or closed to you.
Yet, you exercising your liberty might restrict someone elses options. Most resources (understood
in the broadest possible sense to include things like jobs, opportunities etc.) are always scarce,
whilst demands and wishes are often limitless. Not everyone can follow the path to a medical
career. If you take a place in med school you will probably stand in the way of someone else.
This is where equality enters the picture: many believe that liberty must be tempered by the notion
of equality to guarantee that an individual who exercises freedom does not illegitimately hinder
others from exercising their freedom. Freedom should, in a certain sense, be equal freedom. Even
Isaiah Berlin, a staunch defender of liberty, admitted that freedom for the pike means death for the
minnows, meaning that unrestricted liberty for the strong will end up destroying the weak. This
does not imply that either freedom or equality in the moral sense are compromised if only one out
of two hopeful students can take up the place in med school: as moral notions, freedom and equality
are both subject to interpretation, and if equality is interpreted as meaning equal opportunities,
then the two students are equal, if they had equal opportunities to pursue the qualifications needed
for med school, and no other distorting sources of discrimination lay behind the decision to pick
one, rather than the other student. It does mean, however, that in most circumstances, there is an
inherent potential for conflict between the ideals of liberty and equality: Some ways of expanding
freedom will imply minimizing equality: you might greatly expand the range of opportunities for
the most talented 75 per cent of a population by refraining from educating the least talented 25 per
cent (focusing on educating the talented could plausibly release resources spent on educating the
least talented). And conversely, securing equality might mean preventing the most talented 75 per
cent of a population from having any sort of education, thus levelling the playing field and
benefitting the least talented 25 per cent (see the discussion of levelling down in chapter 10).
Whereas both options mentioned here might seem perverse, it is still the case that we will have to
steer somewhere between two such extreme courses of action. When making political decisions,
one is often faced with choices that have implications for freedom and equality, and very often, we
cannot please both maximally. Moreover, not taking action will entrench already existing
frameworks of power and hence their consequences for freedom and equality. So not taking
action is a choice for which we should count ourselves politically and hence morally responsible.
We need to face up to this challenge and find out which course of action is legitimate. Political
action, or refraining from political action, is a moral choice, which needs to be underpinned by valid
A minute minority of thinkers believe that we can make do without the state. These are called
anarchists, and they come in many guises, from the extreme left to the extreme right of the political
spectrum. We will not dwell on their anti-state arguments, but instead we will point to one rather
obvious reason why we need the state. This has to do with coordination: the state seems necessary
in order to coordinate the vast number of operations that make human life as we know it possible.
Without the state, Thomas Hobbes claimed, life would be solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short.
Life would be an endless paranoid struggle, a permanent state of war in which we would all have to
take precautionary measures against everyone else. The state, if it is at least minimally effective and
not entirely corrupted, alleviates this pressure somehow. The state punishes criminals and enforces
contracts. It coordinates infrastructure, establishes laws to organize trade and commerce. It takes
care of our relations concerning far away countries. And so on. Without the state, we would have to
take care of these things individually something that would be completely beyond the powers of
any single individual in todays world. Nevertheless, political anarchism does identify one
interesting feature of the state, namely, that the state claims authority over (some of) our affairs
and it asks how can that authority ever be legitimate?
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Thus political philosophy concerns the questions:
What are the legitimate reasons for the state?
What are the limits of the states legitimate interference with individual freedom?
What do we, as members of this or that political collective, owe to each other, as equal
Setting downright bizarre theories of politics aside, contemporary political thinking focuses in
particular on the relation between liberty and equality. What is the right way to strike a balance
between the two, or can we find a morally plausible way of accommodating both? Hence, we will
concentrate on these two concepts, beginning with liberty.

Liberty is a curious phenomenon: many cherish it; many political struggles are fought in its name,
and yet, there is very little consensus about what it actually means. What kind(s) of liberty is
valuable; what role should it play in defending and criticizing political institutions?
To disentangle two fundamental senses of liberty, let us suppose you are a vegetarian living in a
contemporary western democracy: You, the vegetarian, might claim to be free to only eat non-
animal foods, insofar as no one is forcing you not to eat non-animal foods. There are no laws which
stipulate that you have to eat at least some meat, say, an obligatory Sunday roast, and there are no
laws which forbid you to eat a vegetarian diet. One sense of liberty then, seems to be negative, in
the sense that it only means the absence of some obstacle or interfering force. It is a freedom from
a freedom from outside forces that prevent you from being vegetarian.
But vegetarians might be said to be free in a different way. Barring extreme poverty, you are free to
go ahead and buy or grow non-animal products. Hence, you really have the possibility to go ahead
and buy those lovely bean curds. Another sense of liberty then, seems to be positive: it connotes the
actual, positive possibility of doing or achieving something. It is a freedom to a freedom to
actually buy bean curds.
To make the distinction clearer, consider this example: The authors of this book might have the
negative liberty to become professional footballers. There are no legal hindrances, for example a
law forbidding philosophers to touch footballs. However, it seems rather evident that we do not
have the positive liberty to do this. It would require skills and physical prowess of a kind we do not
possess. We are free from formal constraints, yet we are not free to actually become professional
footballers. We can then take small, but much appreciated consolation, in the fact that Christiano
Ronaldo will probably not take up moral philosophy.
Now, it seems that we have to deal with (at least) two very different senses of liberty. Both the
history of philosophy and everyday discourse are full of examples of people who have considered
the distinction between freedom from and freedom to to be extremely important. The
philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) famously claimed that, The fundamental sense of freedom is
freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this
sense, or else metaphor. He was indeed a champion of negative liberty. In crude terms that also
meant that he defended free markets, a not too powerful or large state, and individual property
rights to protect against massive redistribution. The typical contrast is those who cherish positive
freedom. Again, in crude terms, this implies an emphasis on redistribution, protection against the
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vagaries of the market and positive rights i.e. rights to something such as money, education,
health care etc.
But is there really such a division of freedom, between freedom from and freedom to? It might be
meaningful to describe various situations as involving freedom from vs. freedom to. However,
when you look more closely at specific, concrete freedoms, e.g. freedom of expression, it seems
that any thorough description will involve both freedoms: freedom of expression evidently includes
negative elements a lack of censorship, absence of reprisals and positive elements: the person
enjoying freedom of expression must have certain positive liberties: he or she must be able to
communicate, have effective access to the requisite means of communication, have an audience etc.
In fact, it seems hard to speak of any concrete freedoms that cannot always be formulated in
terms of both freedom from and freedom to. Your freedom to walk down the street is also a freedom
from being molested when you do so. Your freedom from religious persecution is also a freedom to
pursue the religious path of your choice, or abstain from religion altogether. Perhaps a more
satisfying (i.e. precise) way of describing specific liberties is to say that whenever they are real,
they involve components of both the negative and the positive.
Does this mean that the whole, freedom from/freedom to discussion should be abandoned? No,
because it is still a very useful way of getting a grip on the notion of freedom, but it should be
modified somewhat. Let us go back to the vegetarian case.
Imagine that you, as a vegetarian, live in a society where there are no laws prohibiting the sale of
vegetarian produce. However, it just so happens that you live in a town where people really do not
care much for such products. In fact, the shops and restaurants often only have animal products.
In such a situation, we might describe your vegetarian freedom in the following way: you have
the formal freedom to be a vegetarian. After all, there are no laws against it, and (let us stipulate)
there are no social sanctions etc. that quasi-formally forbid or sanction vegetarianism. However,
you do not have the effective freedom to be a vegetarian. Of course, you can freely choose to die of
starvation, but that is hardly a relevant sense of the freedom involved.
The formal/effective distinction clearly illustrates an important and real distinction between
different aspects of freedom. Often, granting formal freedom is a freebie. It simply means that there
are no legal or social impediments (bans, prohibitions etc.). In contrast, securing effective freedom
is often costly. Imagine the amount of money and time that would be necessary to turn the authors
of this book into professional footballers!
The right/left distinction in politics, unclear as it may be, sometimes maps nicely unto the
formal/effective distinction, at least as far as economics is concerned. Normally, those on the right
are advocates of formal freedom, and those on the left champion effective freedom.
But even the formal/effective distinction is not beyond criticism. To see why, take two arguments,
one from the right and the other from the left. If you look closely at the idea of effective freedom, it
seems to presuppose formal freedom. You might have the means (money) to buy veggies, and
someone might try to sell you beetroots, but you do not really have the effective freedom to go
ahead, if the law forbids the sale of beetroots. At least, your effective freedom seems shaky indeed.
But, and this is the important point, what is the freedom specifically involved in effective freedom
then? What makes it different from formal freedom? In the beetroot example, you had the resources
(your money), and you had the opportunity or possibility to purchase (someone wanted to sell you
beetroots). But, can we call resources and opportunities freedom? Would it not be much more
precise to describe these as well, resources and opportunities, rather than lumping them together
under effective freedom? Perhaps the freedom from chains of which Isaiah Berlin spoke, is not
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only the fundamental sense; it is the only meaningful sense of freedom. This is at least what some
people on the right argue.
Conversely, it might be argued that formal freedom is not really freedom in the true sense. Imagine
that you, the vegetarian, had no money to buy veggies. According to champions of formal freedom,
this is the not a key issue when discussing whether you are free to buy veggies, because no one is
forcing you not to buy veggies. The state gives you formal freedom insofar as the state does not ban
the sale of veggies. But, if the existence of some formal freedom does not affect you (not having
resources means that you cannot buy the vegetables; a law preventing you from buying them does
the same, so it amounts to the same), in what sense is this freedom relevant for you? Much the
same can be said of many formal freedoms: the fact that there is no formal obstacle to a person
from a very poor background with no education becoming the next president, the chances are he or
she will not become president. Moreover, as the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka says, when
he writes a book, he is not enjoying the freedom to write: what he enjoys is writing the book. But
that puts effective, rather than the formal freedom, at centre stage (even though formal freedom is
still a necessary requisite in order to enjoy some activity, such as writing a book.) Furthermore,
should you in desperation try to exercise this formal freedom, in spite of your lack of resources, and
steal some beetroots; then it is the state that, ultimately, forbids you to exercise this freedom. But
then, the states generous granting of formal freedom amounts to nothing. Hence, formal freedom
is not freedom at all.
As was the case with the distinction between negative and positive liberty, perhaps the best way to
describe all real liberties is to describe them as being composed of both effective and formal liberty.
When someone enjoys writing a book, obviously, both formal and effective liberty are necessary

Equality, liberty, and social justice
In the previous chapter, we discussed various aspects of equality. We introduced utilitarianism or
welfarism, extreme equality, the difference principle, the priority principle, and the doctrine of
sufficiency. All these can be considered political principles of redistribution. In this section, we will
discuss social justice, which is commonly considered to depend on political equality of some kind.
Hence, the discussions of equality in the above are, of course, important and relevant. As we have
stressed, most contemporary discussions of social justice concern the relation between equality and
liberty: on the one hand, there is a quest for equality, on the other, there is a hotly disputed
consideration of individual or group liberty, and the relative weight of these values is at the centre
of the discussion.
Now, (re-)distribution is not all there is to social justice and political equality. These involve the
whole range of our political rights freedom of expression, freedom to assemble, freedom to
practice a religious belief, our democratic rights of representation and participation, and many,
many more. However, we will postpone a discussion of these facets of social justice to the next
chapter, and instead concentrate on the different understandings of social justice and equality in.
The philosopher Ronald Dworkin claims that all plausible political theories stand on an egalitarian
platform. We have already touched upon this issue, but in brief, Dworkins claim is not that all
plausible political theories advocate equality of income, or some variant of extreme equality, or
some of the other theories that will lead to redistribution which we encountered in the chapter on
equality. Rather, his claim is that any political theory that states that some citizens say, women, or
homosexuals, or blacks, or non-believers - are worth less than others, is by that very fact
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implausible. Essentially, we expect the same of a political theory as we do of a moral theory: in the
absence of other weighty considerations, the state owes us equal respect and concern. Some believe
that it follows from this conception that we should aim to redistribute resources such as income etc.
substantially. For them, equal respect implies equality of income or welfare. For others, however,
equal respect is far from compatible with redistribution. However, and this is important, they still
believe equal respect and concern is a fundamental requisite for a plausible political theory. We will
take a closer look at one such theory below.
A theory of social justice must cover all the important aspects of how our collective action, mainly
coordinated in and by the state, affects peoples rightful share of resources, or welfare, or
opportunities, or whatever way in which one might choose to measure the impact of state policies.
A theory of social justice must be able to explain when and why a differential impact of these
policies on peoples share is justified, and when it is not. Why is this so central? It is because we do
not want the fate of the individual to be left to unjust and arbitrary circumstances. If social justice
means treating like cases alike or giving each his or her due, then it follows that the key
challenge for a theory of social justice lies exactly in explaining when an unequal impact is
justified, if ever.
Kymlicka unpacks this challenge in a very instructive manner. Roughly speaking, he claims that the
challenge consists of reconciling two different and conflicting principles. On the one hand, we want
a theory of social justice to ignore arbitrary circumstances or endowments (talents, capacities
etc.) that can affect peoples lives. Being born in a rich family or a poor is arbitrary, and thus
should not have unequal impact on our lives. Ignore here means that the pattern of distribution
across citizens which results from our theory of social justice should not reflect such arbitrary
circumstances. Naturally, this reflects a specific ideal of equality: we should not allow inequality
which arises from arbitrary circumstances. On the other hand, we do want to hold people
responsible in both a negative and positive way for their choices, insofar as they do not wholly
reflect arbitrary circumstances. So, if you have two people who are roughly equally well equipped
mentally and in terms of resources, and one chooses to put all his or her efforts into a job, leaving
little or no time for other pursuits, and the other chooses a life-style with a low-key job and lots of
spare time, we should not, from the point of view of justice, have any quarrel with the likely result
that the first person ends up with more resources than the second. Inequalities that arise from
peoples choices are not problematic. They might even be commendable, so our theory of social
justice should be choice-responsive. Naturally, this ideal reflects liberty: you should be free to
work to improve your life, and you should also be free in the sense that you should not bear the
burden of other peoples imprudent choices.
Neat as this distinction may seem, controversies are bound to arise. For example: we can never be
perfectly circumstance-ignorant and achieve complete equality, whilst at the same time respecting
a minimum of personal liberty. Some people are so badly off in terms of natural endowments and
talents that no matter what we do, we can never compensate them fully for their bad (and arbitrary)
circumstances. We could continue to transfer resources from the talented and hardworking or the
plain lucky to the unlucky, and still we would not fully equalize their circumstances, or provide
adequate compensation - unless of course we made everyone equally badly off but thats hardly an
acceptable solution. Moreover, even going only half the way (i.e. giving some compensation)
would mean transferring a huge amount of resources from the talented to the ordinary, thereby
minimizing their liberty. Conversely, increasing the liberty of the talented, hardworking and lucky
will always mean less compensation for the unlucky thereby compromising equality and restricting
the effective liberty of the unlucky. We can never fully satisfy both liberty and equality, at least not
concerning large-scale distributive principles. Things might look differently in smaller settings and
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where people do not differ grossly in terms of endowments and resources. However, if we aim for
an ambitious ideal of justice which encompasses everyone, people will differ in both aspects.
Nevertheless, we can try to find a plausible middle way between these two principles. Plausible
here will, to a very large degree, depend on your ideas concerning what we can be said to be
responsible for: if you believe that we can hold people responsible for the vast majority of their
actions, then you will tend to emphasize choice-sensitiveness and oppose large-scale redistribution.
However, if you are sceptical about the notion of personal responsibility and believe that we are
largely, or wholly, the product of random circumstances, then you will probably advocate
significant redistribution from the lucky and talented to the unlucky and unskilled.

Against redistribution: libertarianism
Maybe the discussion of responsibility and compensation is redundant, at least politically speaking.
What if it is not the business of the state to redistribute at all? Some theorists aver that social justice
does not concern the pattern of distribution of resources and opportunities. The fact that Abe has
a low income and few opportunities, whilst Belinda has a high income and many opportunities, is
irrelevant. What is relevant for justice is how these inequalities occurred. The history, rather than
the pattern, of distribution is the important thing. As long as Belinda has not interfered with Abes
rights (stolen from him, cheated him etc.) justice is satisfied. Hence, inequality is irrelevant as seen
from the point of view of justice.
We will now discuss two arguments, which both come from the so-called libertarian tradition.
Without putting too fine a point on it, we can say that libertarians base their ethical viewpoint on a
strong notion of self-ownership: we own ourselves and we are therefore responsible for our choices
and the outcomes. From this follows a string of negative rights: you are not to interfere in my
choices, at least insofar I do not violate other peoples choices. The same goes for the state. Most
importantly, we have strong rights of property which exclude coerced taxation and hence state-
borne redistribution. Note that this is all in tune with the more abstract notion of the egalitarian
platform mentioned before: we all have the same strong rights etc. Now, what might lead one to
adopt this view?
The American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) provided a powerful and influential example
to illustrate one line of thought that leads to the libertarian position. Imagine that initially, all people
have the same amount of resources. In fact, imagine almost any kind of initial distribution, but let us
stick with an equal distribution for now. Enter Wilt Chamberlain, basketball star. Now, a lot of
people are willing to pay to see Wilt do his stuff. Wilt signs a contract giving him one dollar for
each spectator during the season. Let us say 250.000 people come along during the season, all of
whom are happy to pay the ticket price. At the end of season, Wilt will have 250.000 dollars, and let
us stipulate that Wilt lives for free and eats in the clubhouse, so he ends up with 250.000 dollars,
more than anyone else.
Nozicks provocative question is: what is wrong with this? After all, no one was coerced. People
were free to buy a ticket or not; no one forced them to pay. And so on for all the involved parties. In
Nozicks memorable phrase: what could ever be wrong with capitalist acts between consenting
adults? But, if it is the case that, if no one is forced into any transactions, then there is no moral
complaint, then there is nothing wrong with someone ending up with more (or less) than others.
However, following the same argument, it would be very wrong to force customers to use their
money in ways that they do not freely consent to! For instance, if the customers obtained their
money in a legitimate way, how and why could it ever be legitimate for the state to punish them by
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taxing the product (Wilts games) they wish to buy? How, then, can it ever be legitimate for the
state to tax people, possibly against their will, for redistributive reasons?
We will postpone a critical analysis of the example for a moment and present another libertarian
argument against the legitimacy of coerced redistribution. As we said, libertarians base their
position on the idea that we own ourselves. From a moral point of view, this seems to be a
reasonable starting point: who else should it be, especially if we need a robust rendering of the idea
of equal respect? Now, it follows that we own our bodies and our various talents, mental or
otherwise. Again, this is both reasonable and seems to be in concord with the quest for equal
respect. The crucial step in libertarian thought is this: from the belief that we own ourselves, they
claim that it follows that we own the fruits of our labour. But if that is the case, how can you
legitimately be coerced by the state to pay taxes for redistribution? You might choose to donate
money to charity, which is both commendable and legitimate. But, as you own yourself, you also
own your income and therefore compulsory taxation becomes a kind of theft, or slavery. And
stealing or slavery are hardly features of social justice!
These two arguments have been met with much criticism. In a sense, much of it can be boiled down
to one challenge, namely that they ignore the distinction between choices and circumstances, which
we discussed earlier. In the Wilt Chamberlain example, the problem (so the critics argue) is that it
may well be that the distribution is equal initially; but do people have the same circumstances?
Evidently, Wilts circumstances are quite different from the others. Wilts skill at basketball is a
very valuable commodity, which he can sell on the market. If he can take no (or even only some)
credit for his basketball skills, then there is no justice in his reaping the full benefits of his talent.
Now, the libertarian might retort that we should imagine that everyone has the same circumstances,
but Wilt just chose to use his talents whereas others did not. This deserves two replies: first, as we
saw when we discussed the lottery argument, a talent for using talents might be an undeserved
talent in itself. Second, even if everything in the example really is the product of free, uncoerced
choices, it might still be a bad thing if some people have nothing and others a lot. It might not be a
case of social injustice, but it can still be a bad thing.
In the argument from self-ownership, the choice/circumstance distinction is in play again, albeit in a
slightly less obvious manner. Libertarians and their opponents might share the same starting point,
namely, that we own ourselves. However, the crucial step in libertarian thought is to make the jump
from self-ownership (I own my body and talents) to property rights (and therefore, I own the
fruits of my labour.) Why is this? Why does the fact that I own my body and talents entail that I
own the fruits of my labour? Some will argue that libertarians have failed to provide a good
argument for this.

Berlin, Isaiah (1969): Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dworkin, Ronald (1977): Taking Rights Seriously. London: Duckworth.
Hobbes, Thomas (1651, several editions): Leviathan. See e.g.
Kymlicka, Will (2002): Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction (2
edition). Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Nozick, Robert (1974): Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books
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Many of the thoughts and arguments in the section captioned Liberty are expressed brilliantly in
the chapter Liberty in:
Swift, Adam (2006): Political Philosophy a Beginners Guide for Students and Politicians.
Cambridge: Polity Press.

Further reading
Barry, Brian (1989): Theories of Justice, Vol. I of A Treatise on Social Justice. Berkeley & Los
Angeles: University of California Press; London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.
Wolff, Jonathan (1996): An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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11 Democracy and pluralism

In the Western world, it is a commonly held belief that individuals ought to be able to control
central aspects of their lives. To use a phrase, we view individuals as authors of their own
life, as opposed to dumb and blind puppets of fate, chance, class, sex etc. In other words, we
value a certain form of personal autonomy. But (thankfully), we live together in political
communities, and we need rules and decision procedures in order to live together in a way
which allows us to reap the fruits of cooperation and community, whilst securing each
individuals autonomy. The favoured approach to this is democracy, a concept that you may
be more familiar with than many of the other concepts you have encountered in this book.
However, democracy is a very contested and complex phenomenon. In this chapter, we will
introduce some of the most essential philosophical controversies regarding democracy. Are all
decisions made by a democratic majority legitimate? Is more democracy (a wider scope for
democratic decisions) per se better? What does pluralism mean for democracy? Should we go
for representative or direct democracy? What is the role of culture? Should we have a world

What moral constraints influence our decisions which affect other people? This is a difficult
question if you believe that people ought to be masters of their own lives, because most of the
decisions you make will affect other people, and sometimes a decision you make will affect other
people in ways they would not like. Hence, your decision will contradict the ideal that people
should be able to exert control over their own lives.
Some decisions do not fall under this description. For instance, you can agree with the affected
party as to what course of action should be taken. Here, both your will and the will of those affected
are in agreement. Hence, the fact that you are exercising your influence is fully compatible with the
affected party exercising control over his own life. In democracy, or at least in many conceptions of
democracy, there is an underlying assumption that a unanimous decision is ideal simply because
such decisions are not against anyones will. Nevertheless, few scholars of democracy believe that
only de facto unanimous decisions are legitimate, as this would imply that we can rarely, if ever,
call a decision democratically legitimate.
When then is a decision democratically legitimate? The obvious, but rather unsatisfying answer is,
whenever a majority is in favour of the decision in question. Some decisions might be legitimate
simply because they are favoured by the majority. What we have in mind are decisions concerning
questions to which there simply is no right answer in the absence of a vote. The typical example
here is the decision whether to drive on the left, or the right side of the road. There is no correct
answer to this question. Nevertheless, everyone is much better off if we all drive on the same side,
thereby ensuring the safe flow of traffic. A majority vote on this question seems to settle the matter
satisfactorily: no matter what we decide, we are all better off when we have made a decision and
stick to it. However, only few questions are of this kind. Political decisions will often leave some
better off, and others worse off. If a simple majority bestowed legitimacy on any decision, then it
would be democratically legitimate to decide, for example, that all red-haired people should pay
10% extra in tax, or should not receive public health care, or be forced to take up certain
occupations and barred from others. But, from a moral point of view, such decisions are arbitrary
and unjustified. They are not morally legitimate.
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The crucial question is then: when is it legitimate to force someone (political power always entails
the possibility of coercion) to abide by the decisions of the majority? Hence, we need to examine
the question, what are the conditions for democratic legitimacy, morally speaking?
A good starting point here is to pose yet another question, namely why should we have democracy
at all what is the justification for democracy? Imagine our ideal is that modern states owe each of
their citizens some sort of fundamental respect, at least as far as possible. Treating people with
respect normally implies treating them as competent and autonomous individuals, who are able to
control their own affairs and lives, at least within certain limits. Every competent adult should be
able to exercise some amount of control over her own portion of the world. Since the state regulates
the affairs of the people, this idea seems to imply that citizens should be allowed a say in the affairs
of the state: to participate in the public debate by voting for the representatives or by voting directly
on important political decisions, to lobby for their favoured political candidate or case, or to run for
office themselves.
Nevertheless, controversy is bound to arise because citizens have different ideals, goals and values.
One faction might believe that people ought to be held responsible for their own life-style choices.
While such people might respect that an individual is at liberty to smoke and drink heavily, they
may also want to hold them responsible for such choices, and hence, they may believe that society
should not foot the bill if the smokers and drinkers fall prey to life-style related diseases such as
lung cancer, diabetes or cirrhosis. Another faction might insist that holding people responsible
disease which is a result of their life-style is callous or the result of flawed reasoning. How should
society, or rather the state, handle such conflicts, whilst upholding the ideal that the democratic state
ought to respect every citizen, and that all competent adults should be allowed to exercise some
amount of control over their own affairs?
The question how to use (or not use) the tools of the state our collective moral muscles - is the
central theme here. Another one is a quite specific condition for the use of this power, which has
become known as, the fact of pluralism. Here, pluralism refers to the fact that citizens in modern
societies espouse a plurality of world-views, conceptions of the good (ideas about what makes their
lives go well), life-styles, religious points of view, moral ideals etc. Clearly, whereas pluralism does
not automatically lead to conflict even quite profound moral and religious discrepancies do not
automatically tear all societies asunder or lead to inter-group alienation there is an innate potential
for conflict.
This reframes the basic political philosophical question concerning legitimacy. The basic question
becomes: If we want democratic decisions (and the state as such) to be legitimate, how should we
arrange our political institutions given the fact of pluralism? After all, given the vast variety of
ways people think and feel about fundamental issues, such as social justice, religion, science, the
environment, sexual life-styles etc., it seems almost inevitable that one of the main purposes of the
modern state must be to accommodate this plurality and, as far as possible, to sustain a reasonably
peaceful co-existence between the different groups and subgroups within society, whilst respecting
every citizen. But how is this possible?

The American president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) described democracy as government of the
people, by the people, for the people. This is probably very close to the best interpretation of the
concept of democracy. The slogan expresses some fundamental features that every democratic state
must possess to some degree. Of course, democracy is government of the people (all state
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government is) and we are unlikely to encounter disagreement between democrats and their
opponents on this matter. Nevertheless, it is still a highly controversial theme, for who are the
people? After all, if the idea is that competent adults should have a say in the affairs which affect
them, then why shouldnt we have global democracy many decisions made by the US or Chinese
government affect people in the rest of the world. We will return to this question later. For now, we
will simply assume that democracy applies to the relatively closed nation state.
The part by the people must mean that all relevant persons in the political community have a say,
whilst for the people must mean that the government is for the benefit of the people and not some
economic or religious elite, or for the sake of some ideal that is detrimental to the interests of the
people. As you can probably see, even though democracy has a definitional core, there is scope
for enormous disagreement regarding the ideas encapsulated in by and for the people. Even
though there is agreement, more or less, on the concept (the definitional core) of democracy, there
is no agreement concerning the best conception (how to define that definitional core) of democracy.
In a sense, this is the fundamental and most important issue regarding democracy: How and why
should we limit democratic decisions in order to rule out the potential for democratically legitimate
yet wrong (as seen from the point of view of morality) decisions? In other words: Can a democratic
majority justify just any decision?
Here, it is useful to think of opinions as falling along a spectrum with anarchism at one extreme
and totalitarianism at the other. The anarchist believes that no decisions should be enforced by
a state; hence, there are no democratically legitimate decisions and so the scope for democratic
decisions is zero. The (democratic) totalitarian believes that, at least in principle, any kind of
decision is suitable for democracy. Hence, the scope for democracy is total. Whereas the first
extreme makes the state impossible, it can plausibly be argued that the second extreme is more
democratic. But it is not the case that the second extreme is better because of this! If this sounds
odd, it is because the term democracy is laden with positive connotations. But, consider for a
moment whether it really is a good thing that, in principle, everything can be decided by a
democratic vote: there would be no principled protection of minorities, no protection of privacy, no
fundamental rights to protect individuals against majority democratic decisions. If you accept such
considerations as morally relevant, you will agree that we cannot say that some state of affairs x is
better than some state of affairs y simply in virtue of x being more democratic. To make a long
and complicated story short: almost everyone who reflects seriously upon democracy, accepts that it
must be tempered and constrained by at least 1) the protection of (vulnerable) minorities against
electoral majorities and, 2) the protection of the individuals rights. The real question is not, should
democracy be totalitarian, but rather how far should the scope of democracy reach. This forces
us to take a brief detour into moral epistemology; the study of how, if at all, we know whether
something is morally right or wrong.
Some matters or decisions are not right in any sense of the word in the absence of a democratic
decision. We have already noticed this with the example of whether we should drive on the left or
right-hand side of the road. There is no independent truth of the matter before we decide on the
matter. It is democratically-dependent. It seems obvious that such cases are uncontroversial.
Democracy is as fine a method for making decisions in such cases as any other.
However, other matters are far more controversial. Let us return to our case of those who believe
we should be held responsible for our life-style choices versus those who believe we should not:
what is the truth of this matter? Is there an independent truth? Does it cover all individuals, or is the
truth of the matter subjective and changes from person to person? The truth might depend on a
democratic decision. However, the wisest course of action is perhaps to not decide on the matter
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democratically, but to let people decide for themselves. However, does not deciding on the matter
imply subsidizing people with unhealthy life-styles, or not? If there is a collective insurance system
in place, which pays for everyones health care (that is, a tax-paid system), then in one obvious
sense, those who make healthy life-style choices will almost inevitably end up subsidizing those
with unhealthy life-styles. However, this seems unfair unless we can say that we are not
(adequately) responsible for our life-styles. But, this is exactly the question which is in dispute! It
seems that no matter which decision we end up with (or if we abstain from taking a decision), we
are going to enforce a moral view on some part of the electorate that they do not accept.
Politics is often called the art of the possible. The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, but at
least two interpretations have been offered, both of which stress that the art of politics takes place
within a democratic framework and under the conditions of pluralism. First, there is a pragmatic
and moderate interpretation: given that potential and real conflicts of interests are inherent to
pluralistic societies, we have to emphasize stability, compromise and consensus, and we need to
strike deals constantly between conflicting sections of the populace, and not let one part have the
upper hand in all decisions, which would lead to widespread dissatisfaction and possible civil
unrest. In short, democracy implies a certain, moderate and anti-revisionist way of making
decisions. This might be true (or at least prudent); however, the drawback of this reply to pluralism
is that it does not go far in telling us what exactly moderate means, and why (if at all) we should
pay attention to marginal factions of society who are unable to muster the force to unsettle the
democratic consensus. From a moral point of view, it will not do to say that we should only settle
for compromise when some faction in society is powerful enough to resist a political decision, for
morality does not stem from power.
Another reply, extremely popular among contemporary political theorists, is to emphasize the
importance of the ways in which political opinion, and hence decision, is formed in the first place.
The focus is on the political process, more specifically the political deliberation, which covers more
or less the complete process of democratic opinion formation. For such adherents of deliberative
democracy, the key question is: Under what conditions is our political deliberation formed in a
way which will facilitate, or even guarantee, political and moral legitimacy. This leads naturally to
an emphasis on (free and informed) political discussion, the idea being that such discussion will
lead to increased mutual understanding and reciprocal respect. Critics of the deliberative turn in
democratic theory do not argue that discussion is unimportant; however, they question whether it
will naturally lead to the right or best decision, and how much optimism concerning citizens
willingness to compromise and to understand each other is warranted. Furthermore, we still need to
decide if and how democratic decisions should be limited by certain rights (and which rights?), and
we cannot know for sure that discussion will settle that issue in the best way. In a sense,
deliberative democracy presupposes, rather than shows, a certain political framework.
Direct and representative democracy. The most basic form of democracy is direct democracy: you
take a given issue and everyone participates in the vote. The alternative, and the way the vast
majority of political decisions are made, is representative. Rather than deciding from case to case,
we vote for political candidates who ideally act as our representatives, and are mandated to act and
decide on our behalf. Much ink has been spilled on the issue of direct democracy, and whereas
forms of direct democracy might have a place on certain political levels e.g., municipality-level
decision-making, or regarding specific, important national questions e.g., whether or not a given
nation should join an international body such as the EU, direct democracy does not seem to have
much relevance as a standard model of democracy for modern societies. Here are some reasons. Let
us first note that a system of direct democracy may very well be technically feasible. This is not the
issue. So, imagine that you had the right to participate, via direct democracy, in any political
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decision in your community. Let us also suppose that, in general, we want people to have at least
some knowledge about the issues they are to decide upon. Now, imagine the time and effort you
would have to put into keeping up to date with the details of decisions regarding infrastructure,
fiscal policies, macro-economics etc. And the same goes for the rest of the population. In short, a
massive waste of energy compared to a system of representation in which we allow political experts
and parties to function in our place. Furthermore, the exhaustion caused by the workload of direct
democracy would in all probability soon cause people to abstain from voting on everything but their
own particular favorite causes, which will mean that the representativeness of direct democracy
would become rather casual and haphazard. A further and serious complication, pointed out by the
English philosopher Adam Swift, lies in the fact that we would have to vote about something but
who sets the agenda? We cannot vote about what we should vote on that would result in a never
ending regress. Someone has to decide. But deciding what should be put to vote is often as crucial
as the result of the vote. At some point, we would have to rely on representatives who are in charge
of the issues that are put to vote and then the difference between direct and representative
democracy becomes much less clear. Finally, one clear danger of direct democracy and a possible
advantage of representative democracy is that people are not normally motivated to vote against
their own immediate interests. To simplify: they are enthusiastic about voting for proposals that are
advantageous to them, but reluctant to vote for proposals that mean they themselves must foot the
bill. This is not to claim that this is impossible for people, for more often than is commonly
supposed, people do act altruistically. Nevertheless, unless we assume that people will quite
radically change their behaviour, from self-interested to altruistic, the point stands. If this is true, it
might mean that direct democracy would be a very bad procedure for decisions such as reasonable,
balanced budgets.

Pluralism, democracy and culture
There are several ways in which pluralism sharpens and complicates the issues. With a reasonably
uniform and socially cohesive electorate, the chances that democratic decisions will consistently
discriminate minorities are, relatively speaking, small. One does not want to make decisions that are
in disfavour of neighbours and friends. Under pluralism, we have less in common with each other,
and the risk that dominant groups will outvote minorities on crucial matters is more imminent. The
solution to this problem has always been to hem in the scope of democracy by granting equal and
uniform rights to citizens that makes the worst excesses of majoritarianism impossible. However,
recent developments in both political movements and in political philosophy have questioned
whether this is an adequate response. A way of depicting this development is through the use of a
three stage model for the struggle of the right of minorities or the disenfranchised:
The first battle was fought in the name of political equality proper. It was the fight for democratic
rights (to vote etc.) for women, non-whites, the property-less, etc. Here, the focus was on giving the
same rights to all. Political recognition encompassed the idea that, even though we are very
different in some respects such as sex, race, wealth, and abilities, all citizens should have the formal
opportunity to be equal participants in the political arena. This fight is largely over in Western
democracies, insofar as no Western countries have laws that openly discriminate or disenfranchise
people on the grounds of sex, race etc.
In the second fight, the picture was and is very different. Borrowing some terms from the previous
chapter, one might tentatively say that the first battle secured minorities a sort of formal political
equality with the dominant group: one man or woman, one vote. However, this formal equality is
entirely consistent with vast effective inequalities. That the law gives minorities the formal right of
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representation does not mean that they are effectively represented, politically, economically etc.
Under conditions of pluralism, all insist on their equal status, but some groups are systematically
under-scoring in terms of their political and economical power. This gave the impetus for
stronger forms of minority protection and affirmative action programs etc. In the first wave, the
fight was for the same rights. In the second, it was for different rights for different people, but still
in the name of equality.
The third and quite recent wave is the most radical and controversial. In brief, it is claimed that
even if we have formal and some sorts of effective political and economical equality, under
pluralism there is no guarantee for cultural equality. Different groups have different statuses
attached to them, and special rights or privileges or exemptions are needed, it is claimed, to counter
the inequalities that are independent of, or at least different from, political and economical
hierarchies. To name just one case, it seems that homosexuals, throughout the Western world at
least, are high-achievers in terms of economic power, but that it is still the case that homosexuals
are socially and culturally marginalized.
There are many questions involved here. One of them is just how plural societies can be. Do we,
for instance, really need the same law for all people, or should we rather differentiate, so that people
abide to the laws of their religious affiliation in certain matters, for example family law? Or do we,
in order to maintain a modicum of cohesiveness and civil solidarity, need to curtail certain
culturally embedded practices, such as arranged marriages? Another set of questions pertains to
what people owe each other. Do people have a positive right, that is, a right that implies positive
duties of assistance from others, to maintain their own culture? If so, what counts as a culture?
Many of these questions relate directly to the discussion of choices and circumstances: How far
should things such as cultural and religious affiliation be considered matters of choice, or are they
circumstances beyond the individuals control?
The stance you take regarding these issues has important implications for how you view the
democratic system, and especially concerning what you believe about the proper scope of
democratic decisions and vice versa. Even more importantly, your views on what rights we have,
and whether they are negative or positive, are tremendously important for your views on the right
democratic response to pluralism or they ought to be, if you want your views to be consistent. For
instance, you might believe that people should have the right to pursue the cultural lifestyle and
association of their choice. But you might not believe that people should be compensated for the
eventual costs of their choices, and if you see cultural and social phenomena as largely matters of
choice, you would be critical of the third wave mentioned above and at least moderately sceptical
about the second. You would then be sceptical in general about the legitimacy of laws that are
grounded in considerations of culture, majority or minority. Conversely, if you believe that people
have strong positive rights of assistance so they can follow their cultural preferences because, for
example, you believe that culture is a part of peoples circumstances, then you would be led towards
endorsing the third wave, at least if you are also an adherent of political equality. You would then
believe that certain policies can be legitimately grounded in culture (that is, policies that protect or
further vulnerable minority cultures), whereas you might be sceptical regarding policies that are
grounded in majority culture views. Or you might believe that it is important to maintain precisely
the majority culture on the grounds of its intrinsic superiority, or its ability to sustain social
cohesion, or to produce equality in the long run, and then you would be in favor of culturally
grounded policies, but only insofar as they protect and further the majority culture. As always, the
picture is complicated.

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Globalization and democracy
The final issue here concerns the scope of democracy: Who should be able to exercise democratic
influence over which decisions? A reasonable suggestion is that people should have the right to
exercise democratic influence over at least the most important political issues, which will affect his
or her wellbeing, or rights, or interests. Whereas some issues, actions or decisions that will affect us
deeply are surely not fit for democratic vote would you agree that things such as romantic
affection should be subject to democratic vote and distributed accordingly? it seems plausible to
say that all genuinely political decisions that will affect individuals to a significant degree ought to
be under democratic control, given a plausible framework of strong rights protecting all against
democratic tyranny etc., of course. Now, the question of what exactly counts as political is, of
course, both important and controversial, but let us not dwell on that point now. If you believe that
people should have a democratic say concerning important political decisions that will affect them,
consider the following: we live in an increasingly globalized reality. International trade, financial
policies, and levels of supply and demand in the marketplace affect your chances of taking up your
preferred trade and the revenue you can expect from whatever job you end up with. All the most
serious challenges of an environmental kind global warming, deforestation, pollution of the air
and water are global. More and more countries are bound by international regulations and laws
and institutions such as the EU, the UN, and various treaties and contracts. And information and
cultural products flow more or less freely on the internet. In short, we are all deeply affected by
decisions (and the absence of decisions) that are global, not local, in nature.
However, democratic decision is in almost every respect bound by national borders. Although it is
plausible to claim that citizens in democratic nations vote for representatives who can, or should,
represent their electorate in the relevant international institutions, it would be absurd to claim that
the aforementioned global issues are under democratic control, generally speaking. For concerning
many of the global issues there are no corresponding global institutions in which those
representatives can exert their influence or there are institutions, but they are not democratically
controlled! Even though we might all agree that it would be best if we limited global pollution, one
nation might democratically? decide to pursue their perceived narrow national interest and
continue to pollute. And that will contribute negatively to global pollution and give the country an
edge in international competition, as it is generally costly to reduce levels of pollution, at least in
the short run.
The rupture between the individuals rights to exercise democratic influence over important
political decisions, and the manifest lack of (powerful) global institutions in which this democratic
influence could take place, is perhaps the most pressing and formidable challenge for contemporary
democratic theory and it will, in all likelihood, continue to be so for generations to come. And if
pluralism poses a problem for democracies on a national level, it should not come as a surprise that
pluralism will be an even greater challenge on the global level.

Caney, Simon (2005): Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Held, David (2006): Models of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Pitkin, Hannah (1967): The Concept of Representation. Berkeley CA: University of California
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Again, we have borrowed many arguments, this time from part 5, Democracy of:
Swift, Adam (2006): Political Philosophy a Beginners Guide for Students and Politicians.
Cambridge: Polity Press.

Further reading
Macedo, Stephen (ed.) (1999): Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement.
New York: Oxford University Press.