The Good, the Right

& the Fair
– an introduction to ethics

By

Mickey Gjerris

Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen

Peter Sandøe












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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Contents


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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Introduction
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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 mouse´s
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
applications.

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
disagreements.
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 person’s preferences. It turns out that all the
candidates for a theory of welfare presented in the chapter have their characteristic problems and
advantages.
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
humans.
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
animals.
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
rights?
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.

Introduction
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 other’s 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 don´t 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
others.
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
us.


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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 individual’s EP is continuously
evolving and is influenced by the individual’s personality and surrounding environment. Here,
environment should be understood as being the historical, social, mental and physical environment
of a person. Thus, an individual’s 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
individual’s 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 isn´t 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 one’s own values, or spend time
understanding the values of others. Relativism (as understood here) simply says, ‘I´ll 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
st
Century. But when faced with suicide-bombers, racists and actions
which are founded on radically different values from our own, relativism suddenly seems less
appropriate.

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
2
-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
themselves.
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 one’s 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 one´s 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 one´s
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-
points?

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 colleague’s 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 Jürgen Habermas (1929-), that being able to
justify one´s 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
one´s 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 one´s 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 one’s 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.

KEY POINTS
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
counterpart’s 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.

References
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
th
edition).
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 one’s efforts. What is it all supposed to be good for? Let’s 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 individual’s 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. Africa—the continent where an estimated
90% of malaria occurs—has 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
2
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 ruler’s 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 Smart’s
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,
ones.
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 one’s 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 one’s 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 man’s 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 Bentham’s 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 Mill’s view, it may be intrinsically
more valuable to think about a philosophical issue, than to watch a soap opera.
Of course, adherents of Mill’s 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 Mill’s 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 Mill’s 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.
Mill’s view is probably in accordance with the priorities of many of his readers (if you don’t enjoy
higher pleasures, you probably won’t read a philosophy book). However, one may ask whether Mill
provides an argument for discarding Bentham’s relatively simple theory. And even if Mill’s theory
is accepted as being superior to Bentham’s 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 Nozick’s question, “Would you plug in?” with an
enthusiastic, “Yes, certainly I would.” Nozick’s 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 aren’t 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 Darwin’s theory of evolution does not demonstrate that
Darwin’s 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
unclear.
Secondly, an adherent of hedonism may question the first premise of Nozick’s 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 Nozick’s 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 Nozick’s 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 Nozick’s 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 one’s 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 one’s 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 person’s 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
fulfilled.
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 one’s 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
doesn’t 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 doesn’t like the experience at all and for the others who have to put up with the first
person’s dissatisfaction.
In this case, even though the person originally had a preference for a wildlife holiday, such a
holiday did not contribute to the person’s quality of life. So for the satisfaction of a preference to
count as positive contribution to a person’s 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 people’s 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 person’s quality of life. And rather severe policies to prevent
people from smoking seem to be warranted if the goal is to improve people’s welfare in the long
term.
So a closer look at the requirements that preferences should be considered and informed to
contribute to a person’s 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.

KEY POINTS
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.
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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 person’s preferences. This view seemingly has
the advantage that it leads to a close connection between a person’s 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.

References
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.
Patz,

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
th
edition).
Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. [1
st
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.
The Good, the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 34 

Sandøe, Peter (1999): Quality of life – Three competing views. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice
2 (1): 11–23.
Sumner, L.W. (1996): Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


The Good, the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 35 

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
way.
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 Council’s 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 child´s 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 don´t know can´t 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 man´s life, or rather hold thy peace, than by a virtuous and merciful lie to be
serviceable to his health.
(Jackson 2001)
1

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 today’s 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
decisions.
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:


1
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 President´s 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
unproblematic.
It is, however, not a very clear position to take. Whether one should lie or tell the truth becomes
dependent on the situation and one´s 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)
2

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


2
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 Kant´s 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.
Kant´s 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).
3
.

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 Kant’s 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
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


3
Immanuel Kant (1785): On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies From Benevolent Motives. Here quoted from Kant (1889).
The Good, the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 41 

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, one’s 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.

Smoking
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
hasn’t 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
individual’s 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 Department’s
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 one’s 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 individual’s freedom to protect him/her against making choices that the majority consider
wrong?
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
example.

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 individual’s 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.

KEY POINTS
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.

References
Jackson, Jennifer (2001): Truth, Trust and Medicine. London & New York: Routledge.
The President´s Council on Bioethics (2002): Human Cloning and Human Dignity. Washington
DC.
Kant, Immanuel (1889) [1785-1797]: Kant’s 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
Books.
Goodin, Robert E. (1989): The ethics of smoking. Ethics 99 (3): 574-624.
Kagan, Shelly (1998): Normative Ethics. Boulder CO:Westview Press.
Tânnsjö, Torbjörn (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
bears.

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 one´s
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 civilization’s 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 UN’s 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 one´s 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 mankind’s 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 Næss (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
2
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
2
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 it´s 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 ecocentrist’s 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
possible.

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
2
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
th
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. One’s view of nature and how one
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prioritizes between conflicting values depends on one’s ethical viewpoint, the clarification of which
becomes critical on an individual and a societal basis.

References
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-
338.
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
th
Anniversary Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt.
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
view?
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
outcomes.
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
2011.
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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
egoism.
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 individual’s 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
individual’s 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
protection).
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
one’s 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 one’s 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 one’s 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 one’s own preferences. In light of this
assumption, it is hard to imagine any kind of action that isn’t 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 one’s 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
th
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
fact.
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, let’s 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 doesn’t
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
‘prisoner’s dilemma.’

The prisoner’s dilemma
The prisoner’s 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?
(Wikipedia)
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 one’s 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? Aren’t there significant potential conflicts of
interest that could arise among the contractors concerning these norms? And therefore, doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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
strategies.
(Gauthier 1986, p. 201)
One may question whether the claim which is made here is really true. Why shouldn’t 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 Gauthier’s 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 shouldn’t I attempt to free ride? It seems as if the prisoner’s 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 one’s 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
individual’s 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 person’s 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
population.
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 one’s 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.

KEY POINTS
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 prisoner’s 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 Gauthier’s 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 Gauthier’s 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.

References
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
Press.
Narveson, Jan (1983): Animal rights revisited. In: Ethics and animals (eds.: H.B. Miller & W.H.
Williams). Clifton NJ: Humana Press.
Wikipedia (undated): Prisoner’s Dilemma. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner's_dilemma

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Further reading
Rachels, James (2003): The Elements of Moral Philosophy (4
th
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 one’s 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 doesn’t matter whether these good or bad things befall me or someone
else.
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 world’s 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 four‐year 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 one’s 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. One’s own good matters according
to consequentialism – but no more than any other person’s 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.

Utilitarianism
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 Bentham’s 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 Jim’s 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 Pedro’s
choice to kill the Indians. Why should Jim let himself get caught up into Pedro’s 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-
example:
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; don’t steal; don’t 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 don’t 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 people’s 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 one’s 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
nothing?
(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.

KEY POINTS
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 one’s 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
justice.
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.

References
Bentham, Jeremy (1789): An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
http://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML.html
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-
243.
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.
Let’s return to our gory story about Chuck. Many would assert that there is something deeply
flawed in the basic consequentialist way of thinking: isn’t it the case that we violate Chuck’s rights
here, specifically, his very fundamental right to live? Isn’t 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 it’s 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 Kant’s 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.
Let’s 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.
Let’s combine all these together and say that you do not take the person’s 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 Kant’s categorical
imperative is very different: as rational beings, capable of deliberation and of acting accordingly,
we are all equals. It’s 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
categorization.


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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
such.
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 latter’s 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
follows:
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;” “Don’t 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 friend’s “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
killing.
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
people’s (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 people’s 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 people’s 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 Nagel’s 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 lady’s grandchild and twist the child’s 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 child’s right to
bodily integrity) to safeguard another man’s right (your friend’s 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 person’s interests in order to promote another’s.
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 anyone’s 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
rights”.
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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
someone’s 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 someone’s 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,
“everybody’s 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 people’s 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.

References
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.
Tânnsjö, Torbjörn (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 one’s 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 philosophy’s “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
today).
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
plausibility.
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 people’s 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
another’s 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
means.
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
argument:
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!
3“Aha”, you might reply, “this is all very well, but isn’t 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
equality”).
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 poor’s
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. Here’s 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 Betty’s
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
person’s 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?

References
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
nd
edition). Oxford: Oxford
University Press.
Swift, Adam (2006): Political Philosophy – A Beginner’s 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 else’s 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
reasons.
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 today’s 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 state’s legitimate interference with individual freedom?
• What do we, as members of this or that political collective, owe to each other, as equal
citizens?
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
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 state’s “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
factors.

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, Dworkin’s 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 people’s 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 people’s 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 people’s 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
people’s 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 people’s 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 that’s 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 Abe’s
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.
Nozick’s 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
Nozick’s 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 (Wilt’s 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, Wilt’s circumstances are quite different from the others’. Wilt’s 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.

References
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.
http://www.publicliterature.org/books/leviathan/1
Kymlicka, Will (2002): Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction (2
nd
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
individual’s 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
government?

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 anyone’s 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?

Democracy
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 shouldn’t 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 individual’s 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 everyone’s 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 individual’s 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 individual’s 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.

References
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
Press.
The Good, the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 119 

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.

Contents

Introduction ..........................................................................................................................................3 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 About this book ........................................................................................................................4 Thinking about ethics .............................................................................................................10 Welfare ...................................................................................................................................23 More than welfare? .................................................................................................................35 What about nature? .................................................................................................................45 Contractarianism .....................................................................................................................59 Consequentialism ...................................................................................................................72 The Ethics of Rights ...............................................................................................................85 Equality...................................................................................................................................94

The Good ............................................................................................................................................22

The Right ............................................................................................................................................58

The Fair ..............................................................................................................................................93 10 Liberty and Equality .............................................................................................................103 11 Democracy and pluralism .....................................................................................................112

The Good, the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION

Side 2

Introduction

The Good, the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION 

Side 3 

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. Can it be ethically justifiable to use animals for research into human diseases? If so.1 About this book Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer. They need to be answered as part of the design of the experiment to increase the likelihood that the research will produce useful results. 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 mouse´s risk of developing cancer and which is being used in the study of breast cancer. nearly all women. which is typically granted once the applicant has participated in certain courses. The animals are often genetically modified. 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. and society at large. 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. A third group of questions concerns how the use of animals in research should be evaluated from an ethical point of view. which any research facility wishing to work on animals needs to become familiar with and adhere to. Large efforts are being made to understand and treat the disease. 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. or should there be limits? Can they be used for research into anything. a look at the wider public debate The Good. A first group of questions pertain to how the animals are used to obtain the knowledge that we are looking for. a large legal setup is in place. One method used to gain more knowledge of the disease is to develop animal models. 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.000 humans worldwide. The personnel who handle the animals (both researchers and care-takers) need permission to work with laboratory animals. Thus. ethical questions may be overlooked. are there any moral limits to their use? Can they be subjected to any kind of suffering. Animal models are animals (typically rodents) that are specially designed for scientific purposes. Another group of questions relates to the legal sphere. The OncoMouse. Sometimes. is routinely used in research into human diseases across the globe. died of breast cancer. In most countries and in all Western ones. However. In 2004. along with thousands of other animal models. research institutions. The use of these animals raises a number of questions for researchers. more than 500. Almost all of us have either been in contact with the disease directly or have relatives or friends who have. allowing researchers to examine the development of various diseases and to experiment with new treatments. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 4  .

A doctor might ask herself which medicine or procedure would cure a given disease most efficiently. we are going to present the most prominent ethical theories and arguments from normative ethics and political philosophy to the reader. then he can be punished. and if so. and still others use them as synonyms. even though some philosophers choose to define ethics as being the broader and more theoretical of the two. allows or restricts. and this is a conscious choice. In this book. doing something even though it might be both instrumentally and legally fine. Not doing what one ought to do in the instrumental sense will most often bring about some undesirable state of affairs. There is also a legal “ought to” or “should. even though doing otherwise would be more comfortable. Theorists and laymen alike have struggled to precisely define what is meant by “morally ought to. in general. or stop us from. we have chosen to follow the latter practice. some do it the other way round. “the moral ought to” and how to apply it in real-life choices and dilemmas. or we are compelled to do something. Pluralism and a sensible discussion of the ethical We speak about theories in the plural here. what the law demands. Note that throughout. if the doctor selects the wrong medicine. It simply boils down to a matter of taste. or must. it is like arguing whether or not coffee has a pleasant aroma. the patient might die.” However. Note that such questions always involves factual matters and that. can have legal consequences. whilst morals pertain to our everyday norms. most of the time there is an overlap between the different senses of ought to. But. For example. but there is much less agreement concerning what is the right account of what we ethically speaking ought to do. one way of using “ought to” concerns the instrumental or technical dimension. at times at least. Needless to say. If a doctor selects an illegal drug to test on an unknowing patient on purpose. profitable or convenient. The third. in the instrumental sense. This disagreement concerning ethics sometimes leads people to the sceptical conclusion that it is senseless to discuss ethics. forbids. Rather. or for some other affected party. one can say that the more knowledge one has about relevant data.” Most of us have been in a situation in which we consciously abstain from doing something. at least) the same original meaning. either for oneself.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 moral ‘ought to’ seems to kick in and compels us to. it concerns whether or not something is regulated by law(s). and it most often involves some consideration of efficiency. (Of course. mandates. it may be useful to distinguish the ethical definition of “ought to” from the technical and legal applications of the term. and to identify the specific nature of ethical questions. There is wide agreement about the importance of ethics. which would be a technical question.” Here. The term “ought to” seems to be involved in all three groups of questions.) This book is an introduction to some of the basic theories about what one ought to do morally speaking. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 5  . and for our purposes the central way of using “ought to” is the moral use. the question is rarely a matter of efficiency. not doing what the law demands you ought to. Normative ethics concerns the systematic attempt to provide us with a theory that explains. we believe that almost all individuals are quite familiar with the moral sense of “ought to. So. The Good. the more likely one is to actually do what one ought to do. Thus. Perhaps we do not follow the moral ‘ought to’ very often. we do not distinguish in any meaningful sense between the notions “moral” and “ethic”: The terms ’ethic’ and ’moral’ have (roughly.

and ethical absolutism. Nonetheless. on the one hand. we seek to provide the reader with some intellectual guidance so she can make up her own mind. Suppose that a person has firm ideas about both the good and the right. than just sticking to one such theory. and its differences and likenesses to individual morality. we do not provide the reader with specific answers to specific moral questions. where ethics is simply seen as unexplainable personal or cultural preferences. In chapter 2. Suggesting that ethical pluralism. This does not necessarily settle all questions about how to arrange society and its laws. where ethics is seen as an expression of eternal truths which are binding for all ethical agents. Even though we agree on what is valuable. And even though each of the authors has his own moral view. On a more general note. we do not claim to be fully neutral or impartial. The first major part of the book (chapters 3 to 5) presents some major theories about the good. we would like to stress that we take our starting point in the assumption of pluralism. 3) Is it at all possible to have a constructive ethical dialogue that avoids simply widening the gap between opposing view-points. but since we have devoted a whole chapter to how we can discuss ethics in a sensible way. or the relation between the morally good and society. or simply the question of (morally) right action.We disagree. where we will pursue the question about the rationality of thinking about and discussing ethics. we will not discuss it further here. for instance. The structure of the book The book is divided into three major parts plus an opening discussion. or what one might plausibly claim ought to be promoted or respected. Without a grasp of what ought to be promoted. Other people might. however. or protected. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 6  . it is hardly sensible to discuss ethical questions. indeed. more stimulating. a variety of theories and arguments about ethics are intellectually stimulating and worth considering and studying. This last part presents some important discussions about political or societal morality. such as our (eventual) moral duties towards the poor. we seek to find a middle road between ethical relativism. or towards the environment. because we cannot be. we may disagree concerning how far each of us ought to pursue what is valuable. Rather. 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 applications. of course. The opening discussion includes this short introductory chapter and the following chapter. a central theme in ethical theorizing. we do not advocate any specific moral theory in this book. in our sense of the word. Moreover. The third major part of the book (chapters 10 and 11) concerns political institutions. or respected. One can not present all the relevant positions and theories regarding ethics. To us. or what ought to be promoted. The Good. This is. and how to act (hopefully in the light of what is good) on the other. etc. 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?”. It is necessary to distinguish between the good. disagree with your favoured conception of 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.

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. namely those which insist that morality is best explained in terms of rights. It turns out that all the candidates for a theory of welfare presented in the chapter have their characteristic problems and advantages. 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.” According to this view. or do we have a responsibility for nature as well? In this chapter. the consequentialist principle is not a decision guide. In this chapter we address some of the most influential schools of moral thought. Chapter 8: The Ethics of Rights. ecosystems etc. namely “consequentialism. starting with hedonism. In the chapter.provides a foundation for fruitful societal debates on ethical dilemmas. A right The Good. according to which welfare is the good to be maximized. the way in which consequentialism has evolved in the light of different kinds of criticism is discussed. According to modern versions of the view. unless some of the agents happen to care for animals. This approach excludes animals from moral concern. How far should moral concern extend? In the light of climate change. we describe the four main positions within contemporary environmental ethics. the right action is the one which maximises good and minimises bad consequences – irrespective of who the beneficiaries are. But. We discuss an influential contender for the title of being the only thing which is good in its own right. we discuss two such examples in depth: Lying and self-governance both in relation to smoking and the GPStracking of mentally disabled patients. Chapter 6: In this chapter we ask. 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. The most famous version of this view is utilitarianism. Chapter 5: So far we have only discussed ethics as a phenomenon that takes place or “happens” between people. This view leads us on to so-called contractarian ethics. is the opposite view of egoism. Different theories of welfare are presented and discussed. In the chapter. rather it helps us to develop our ordinary moral norms so as to lead to the best possible consequences. a view called ethical egoism. what is the morally right way to act? The perspective of the acting person is central to the discussion. in a way. for example that in practice we can never overlook the consequences of what we do. plants. namely welfare. Another view which is discussed is that the welfare of a person consists of the satisfaction of that person’s preferences. In this chapter. which differ in terms of how different parties are affected. Chapter 3: In this chapter we start to explore what it is for something to be good or valuable. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 7  . or that the view imposes unreasonable demands on us. we discuss the view that I should only do what is good for me. But what about the rest of nature: Animals. The acting person has to prioritize between doing different things. we also suggest some minimum requirements for ethical arguments that leave the floor open for substantial disagreements. we discuss how the concept of “nature” can be understood and we discuss the problems that arise when the ethical community is expanded beyond humans. Most will probably agree with us that lying is wrong. Chapter 7: This chapter goes on to discuss what. according to which ethical norms are based on a hypothetical contract whereby rational and self-interested agents agree to collaborate to their mutual benefit. 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. 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.

we have mainly been discussing morality as a personal question – what ought I to do? But. but to equip the reader with a more qualified and broader understanding of how ethical issues are analyzed and discussed. But what. individual liberty. theoretically informed answers to this question are theories of social justice. In several places we have used case studies and examples from central philosophical texts to illustrate the points raised in the best possible way. because rights are often trumps against being sacrificed for some greater good. So. Moreover. Training in philosophy or related areas is definitely not a requirement for reading or understanding this book. or more commonly.here means. As we discussed equality in the previous chapter. equality.” The central question of the chapter concerns the relation between. in this chapter. How ought we to act? For example. which we believe serves the purposes of a general yet comprehensive introduction best. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 8  . morality essentially concerns outcomes that affect more than one person. we hope that the book will be used in groups or classes where there is the time and opportunity to discuss the various arguments. if anything. cases. 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. we address some of the most pertinent problems in political philosophy. treatment or good. for example. Chapter 11: Political Philosophy: Democracy and Pluralism. what kinds of tax policies should we have in relation to liberty and equality? In essence. we have avoided the historical approach (popular in some countries) as well as the “philosopher-centric” exegetical approach. and positions presented. Chapter 10: Political Philosophy: Liberty and Equality. we continue to focus on collective rather than individual problems. Accordingly. Again. In this chapter. how good and bad things are distributed across affected parties. we discuss various theories about the distribution of outcomes. Up to this point. justify such rights? Chapter 9: Equality – the importance of distributions. a trump which either says that a person has a right to some specific thing. first year university students. we have focused on a more thematic and analytical approach. However. but move on to what is termed “political philosophy. In this last chapter. we spend more time discussing liberty in this chapter. on the one hand. where a more or less complete and close reading of some famous philosophers takes centre stage. Here. we begin to move from an individualist to a societal perspective. that a person has a right to protection against some action or treatment. our intention is not to provide definite answers to moral problems. roughly. Most of us “believe” in democracy. the ethics of rights are in opposition to consequentialism. Instead. The Good. Whereas it is of course possible to read the book without engaging in discussions with other readers. and on the other. namely those of democracy and pluralism. 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.

which exemplifies some central problem or challenge relevant to the main theme(s) of the chapter. which may be helpful if you want to go deeper into the presented themes and discussions. Moreover. Do remember to give yourself time to reflect on the cases and introductions. if you lose track of what is going on in a chapter at times. remember that we are not providing the answers. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 9  .Some tips for each chapter Most chapters begin with a brief introduction of the main themes discussed. The Good. Each chapter ends with a short summary of the central points and with some suggestions for further reading. going back to the introductory remarks might be a help. This is followed by the presentation of a case.

but it ensures that those who care to discuss them follow the same basic rules for discussing ethics. Stem cell research involves the utilization of human cells. Disagreeing about ethics One of the pertinent ethical issues in the stem cell debate has been whether it is justifiable to do something. embryos that were destroyed in the process of obtaining so called totipotent cells. 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. 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. and developed the first human embryonic stem cell lines. not as a human being. This was exactly what caused all the controversy. This discussion of the The Good. but is also surrounded by ethical controversy. there are a lot of positions. whilst informing the decisionmaking process in such a way that as many stakeholders as possible are included. but as a biological resource to be utilized for the benefit of humans. in order to obtain something else that is considered good (medical development). although only some can have their way. In between these two radical views. 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. 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. which. We believe that by answering these three questions. but also recognize the potential of stem cell research for mankind. Others focus on the fact that the early human embryo is not yet recognizable as a human and has no central nervous system.2 Thinking about ethics Discussions about what is right and wrong can very easily turn into heated arguments. 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. So far research has been very dependent on obtaining these cell lines from human embryos. to varying degrees. acknowledge the fact that the early embryo can develop into a human being. which is seen by some as being morally wrong (destroying an embryo). 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. Introduction In 1998. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 10  . Often they end in disagreement and sometimes anger because the two parties cannot find any common ground. Ethical pluralism does not solve the problem of differing values. 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. the early human embryo constitutes an individual and its destruction is therefore tantamount to killing an innocent human being. The technology is not only full of potential. To some. which potentially can be manipulated to grow into cells of a prespecified nature. They view the embryo.

ethical debates should rather be seen as opportunities to take the time to understand not only the opinions of others. 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. The ethical debate about stem cell research does not seem to have created any kind of consensus between those discussing the subject in public. “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. without bringing the issue any closer to a consensus. although many experts are concerned with problems such as inheritable infertility. In this chapter. But this is not inevitable. One example is the opposing attitudes concerning stem cell research held in protestant and catholic oriented parts of Europe. which focuses on weighing outcomes against each other to find the one with the best overall consequences. In this context. we will place this normative ethical position in opposition to two extreme positions: fundamentalism and relativism. a The Good. At the same time. Today. Fundamentalism and relativism The interpretation of mutual understanding as one of the main goals of ethical discussion can be motivated by ethical pluralism. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 11  . in that they tend to clarify what it is that we disagree about. Just think of the controversy surrounding test-tube babies back in the 1970s. This leaves us with ethically charged decisions to be made in a climate of conflict and disagreement. In other words. but that does not mean that those who listen are not influenced by the arguments for and against the technology. As we will try to argue in this chapter. 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. one would be hard pressed to find anyone who objects to this technology in principle. Very often.relation between the means and the ends of a proposed action can be found within many areas of ethical discussion. the claim is that only by opposing new wrongs from the beginning. it is worth noting that there are huge geographical and cultural differences in what is deemed to be ethically and socially acceptable. but to a more respectful attitude towards the values of others and a better understanding of our own values. 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. but also the underlying values of those opinions. Other ethical debates in western societies exhibit a similar development. One explanation for this is that values change over time and. can we halt the process of desensitization and prevent new wrongs from becoming things that we are used to doing. 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. having experienced the technology and having found that most of the initial objections to the technology are unfounded. and a deontological school of ethics that focuses on the prohibition of certain actions (in this case destroying human embryos). which were originally met with scepticism and caution. Whatever the result of the debate on stem cell research so far. as well as the issue of stem cell research. to become socially acceptable after a few years. This would not necessarily lead to agreement. as it is one of the most controversial issues between two of the larger “schools” of ethics: a consequentialist school. it is yet another example of the perennial discussion about the ethical status of human existence. There seems to be a tendency for technological developments.

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. At the opposite end of the continuum we find the relativist. The sentence. which is related to how others evaluate our actions. Shame and guilt All human beings (unless psychopathic. but the next morning I might be ashamed of my actions. When we experience shame. guilt is the tool of our own conscience to inform us that we have fallen short of our own ethical values. A related but different emotion is that of shame. we need to begin by looking at two of the most basic feelings connected to ethics. and. claims that all values are subjective and particular to individuals. as the knowledge is absolute. we start to regret our actions and search for ways to make amends or at least mitigate their effects. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 12  . we feel outraged and indignant. It is impossible to discuss values in a rational way between different ethical viewpoints. by confirming each other of the “truths” of the group. as I worry that others might hold other values and react negatively to my escapades. The only task for the political or religious fundamentalist is to convince others of these values. When we personally fall short of the ethical standards we believe in.” is on par with the sentence. “I don´t like tomato soup. originate? To get there. let alone have our values criticized. but we cannot learn anything from each other. there is more than just a tendency for fundamentalists to use means to promote their cause. Whether we react to this and seek to make amends. All we can do is inform each other. We can inform each about our values and try to accommodate the values of others out of practical necessity. as a consequence of the empirical fact that different values have existed in different cultures and at different times. We demand that things are corrected and that the guilty parties are punished for their crimes. there is no point in having a discussion about ethics. very depressed or mentally disabled) understand the difference between what is right and wrong. which are violent and oppressing. is an open question. But what is not an open question is that we have ethical values. Facing up to our own ethical values can thus be very important to us. or whether we find an explanation and excuse that makes it possible for us to continue without feelings of guilt. and guilt for falling short of our own standards at the same time. When we experience others who violate what we think is right. 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. but ethical values are fundamentally matters of taste: expressions of non-justifiable preferences. who. Just think of a large corporation. due to the social judgment of others. which we use to make judgments on our compatriots and ourselves – although we often pass the hardest judgments on others. The fundamentalist has no need to listen to others as the truth is already known. Thus. The Good.” As with the fundamentalist.fundamentalist will belong to a group of people who share a similar conviction. they reinforce each other’s opinions and build an identity as members of the community. “I consider child abuse to be ethically wrong. we usually feel regret and our conscience makes evident to us that we have failed. which knowingly exposes its underpaid workers to toxic waste without proper safety equipment. But whereas shame is primarily an emotion rooted in our fear of the social judgment of others.

Sometimes we experience something that brings us into a crisis situation. much of this happens without us being aware of it. is therefore necessary if one is to make a choice in such a situation. job. Here. believes that it is wrong to destroy a human embryo. which demands that we consciously reflect on our EP. our EP is also our fall back option when presented with issues that we have not yet formed an opinion about. who are interested in these matters. rejecting others out of loathing of a childhood teacher etc. religion. 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. Philosophers and other scholars. gender and sexuality all have an influence on the ethical perspective.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. we find that we hold inconsistent values that easily come into conflict. but would object to dog fur or cat skin. An ethical perspective (EP) is the position from which we view and judge the world and ourselves. education. So. sorting out the values. This is important to understand. however. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 13  . To the fundamentalist. This can occur through listening to the clergy. choosing some over others. most of us have to do two things. the universe and everything. At other times. keeping some out of love for their mother. without requiring any special attention. The Good. We can imagine a person who. making us change our values or reject new ones. environment should be understood as being the historical. In short: Our Ethical Perspective (EP). Furthermore. social. mean that an EP is necessarily free from contradictions. the individual moves into action. family. From a more descriptive perspective. Many in the western world are happy to wear leather made from dead cows. and especially how it ought to be shaped. the EP is (or at least ought to be) shaped by their infallible knowledge about good and evil. mental and physical environment of a person. most of the time. friends. This does not. Thinking about our EP and evaluating the importance of the different values it consists of. Finally. shaping and reshaping our EP. or from inner conflict. our EP develops just as we as individuals develop through life. or by notions such as duty or utility. Thus. although it is very hard to point to any ethically relevant difference. 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. an individual’s upbringing. culture. at the same time. And they again refer back to our general attitude towards life. genes. it seems fair to say that an individual’s EP is continuously evolving and is influenced by the individual’s personality and surrounding environment. temper. Sometimes we experience these conflicts because we are inconsistent in our thinking. but also believes firmly that women have the right to decide over their own bodies when it comes to pregnancy and abortion. To rationalists. Others assert that the EP of an individual should be decided by the feelings that the world awakes in us. when asked for the first time whether stem cell research is ethically problematic. At some point. differ in their opinion as to how an EP is shaped. reading holy books or communicating directly with the divine. 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 process of sorting out usually continues for our whole live. However.

intellectuals. we are often able to see ourselves with greater clarity.” What if we are in doubt? We are seldom in doubt about what we think is right and wrong. mean that ethical value differences will be solved by understanding the ethical perspectives of ourselves and others. which expresses integrity and solidity. We pass judgment on the world (and ourselves) with great efficiency most of the time. B) We cannot change our EP as easily as we change our clothes – it is an integral part of who we are. And this strategy works well most of the times. We might be in a difficult situation in life. as long as we stay within most everyday experiences. whilst also making the views of others more understandable. seem like war zones. we find ourselves in a situation. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 14  . 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? The Good. We hesitate when confronted by certain choices. It is like travelling. D) If we take the time to do this then ethical dialogue improves immensely since a partial understanding of another individual’s EP is a prerequisite for discussing value differences in a fruitful way. or perhaps the issue at hand is unfamiliar to us. we automatically follow the norms that govern our lives. “I say. it is important to remember a few of things about ethical perspectives. This does not. however. But sometimes we are unsure of what is right and wrong. But it could also be interpreted as the words of an inflexible mind. In other words. We do not stop to think about ethics every time we are confronted by an ethical situation. This is regrettable as such an understanding both puts a sobering disclaimer on our own assertions for ethical infallibility. perhaps we realize that we hold conflicting values. thus gaining a deeper understanding of others and ourselves through dialogue. A) Everybody has an EP – although some may not have thought much about it. 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. at times. we can create the foundation for a dialogue and move beyond the mutual monologues that characterize many ethical debates and make them. which causes us to re-evaluate our EP. And we may even decide to modify our EP in the light of the particular situation. What it means is that if we take the time. Perhaps the situation is very complex. inspiring trust in the speaker. 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. Whether one views it one or the other way. I have always said and I will continue to say” is thus considered to be a phrase. We have an everyday perspective that enables us to follow the norms of our culture and society without much hesitation. or we may be facing a complex technological development. we are forced to articulate our own EP.Do you know your EP? For some politicians. 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. Instead of reflecting on the particular situation. stagnating with obstinate interpretations of life and unable to learn from experiences. In this way. As the British philosopher Simon Blackburn remarks: “Travelling broadens the mind. Then we might start to reflect on our EP in an attempt to seek guidance as to how to respond in the situation. We are not only confronted by other individuals out there in the unknown territory – we are also confronted by ourselves. In the attempt to understand the EP of another person. E) Seeking to understand others is also a way of gaining self-knowledge.

but next we will discuss what some consider be the logical consequence of not being able to find the view from nowhere. 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. but to others it is a necessity. As previously mentioned. but for some of us.Evaluating ethical values As mentioned previously. some of us do not concern ourselves with this. or just not listening. We will return to this a little later. tribes or organizations. we are less prone to thinking that we are necessarily right and that those who disagree with us are either stupid. relativism seems like a good solution to the endless ethical debates. it is important to know the background of the myriad of ethical judgments. such a position is known as relativism. which we carry around with us. Relativism is the flip-side of fundamentalism. We want to be able to do more than just explain the genesis of our EP. an historical explanation is not enough. Some believe that relativism finds support in the fact that. are ethically wrong. both looking at their historical origins and their philosophical implications. 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. Obviously. ‘how can we evaluate our ethical perspective. view-points and attitudes. If fundamentalism is a belief in infallible ethical values and indisputable truths. ‘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.’ thus remains – at least for some of us. some people do not share this urge and consider it to be an annoying over-intellectualization of something very simple. But isn´t everything just a matter of taste. It The Good. if they are to feel in any way consistent about their view-points. Individual subjectivity thus gives way to cultural relativism and the notion that just because contemporary culture adheres to certain values. also entails consequences that few of us are willing to accept. By understanding how we ended up with our own values and how others ended up with theirs. But relativism. allowing us to determine which ethical values are the most important. Whether one adheres to one or the other value cannot be the subject of any rational (in the broadest sense) discussion. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 15  . for instance protecting the rights of the individual. when taken to its logical conclusion. a plurality of different and even mutually exclusive values has existed. then it makes no sense to believe that we can somehow ignore it and evaluate it from the outside. throughout human history. If it is true that our EP is as inherent to us as we have hitherto claimed. and throughout different human cultures. which are misunderstood and which are simply wrong? Is there. Initially. However. 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. Is there some sort of standard according to which we can compare our EP. it does not follow that cultures in which this is not the case. 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. as the philosopher Thomas Nagel put it. It acknowledges that there is a reason we cannot come to a conclusion and enables us to move on. both in relation to ourselves and in relation to others. as values are subjectively held judgments that cannot be argued in a way that could obligate anyone else to adhere to them. We want to be able to demonstrate that we are justified in holding the values we do. We all have an EP and we could easily spend a lot of time becoming all the wiser as to how it has developed. The question. then relativism is the belief that values are relative to different groups. Clearly.

base for discussing ethics. almost becomes a fundamentalist in regard to the values held by individuals. that it is ethically unproblematic to suppress a black woman because of the colour of her skin. Ethical pluralism as the middle ground It seems that even though we cannot find the view from nowhere. we will see whether this can be justified. a relativistic outlook denies us the right to speak out about apartheid in South Africa. However. You might say that the relativist. It is the room where. What we have done in the following is to single out The Good. Taleban fundamentalism in Afghanistan. as relativists are located outside the sphere of discussion and justification. to some degree at least. although admittedly they are rather broad. According to the relativist there is nothing to talk about. (b) a set of ethical principles relevant to the cases. if you leave me alone’ – an ideology with seems to suit us well in the postmodern societies of the western world of the 21st Century. pass judgment on them. accepts that mutually exclusive values can exist at the same time without there being any way of deciding which one is the better. as there is no way one can justify a view-point and thereby obligate others to adhere to it. 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. Somewhere in between fundamentalism and relativism. Relativism (as understood here) simply says. At least it is apparent that we do so. Relativism is therefore very convenient in everyday life in a homogenous society. and (c) the relevant background information that influenced the judgments made in (a).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. for example. 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. If an individual is a racist. on the one hand. and when we turn to ethical pluralism. ethical pluralism maintains that there are limits to what can be claimed as being ethical. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 16  . ethnicity or sexual orientation. 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. Ethical pluralism. in being relativistic about the reasons we can provide for our values. or the oppression of basic human rights in China. there is a room where we can reflect on values and ideals and. is not too great. one does not need to defend one’s own values. racists and actions which are founded on radically different values from our own. If we examine other cultures. It is socially prudent to be tolerant of the values of others and by claiming relativism. it is easy to claim that there are no common ethical values when the different values we hold are very similar. ‘I´ll leave you alone. and it is here we go in order to pass judgment on others. or at least inter-subjective. through careful thinking (in the broadest sense). or spend time understanding the values of others. few of us are willing to accept. Many suggestions as to how to evaluate ethical values and systems have been proposed. But when faced with suicide-bombers. then one could not oppose him on ethical grounds. (a) a set of reflected ethical judgments. After all. we can find some common ground from where we can at least judge whether some values and actions are ethical or otherwise. relativism suddenly seems less appropriate. On the other hand. This is not the place to give a detailed account of the attempts to provide an objective. we do make evaluations by some standards that exclude at least some values on ethical grounds. The task is to produce coherence between three areas of knowledge held by a person. just because it takes place within the framework of different ethical values.

Lawrence in Canada is ethically problematic. 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. thereby killing the seal almost instantly. 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. you either have to accept seal fur production. there is no need to eat meat for other reasons than aesthetic (the taste). for example. Vegetarianism is the obvious choice – and a choice which benefits individual health. but in theory at least. which are left behind and quickly return to the food chain in nature. They serve as a foundation. as feed for fur production animals. By the term consistency we simply mean that one should accept that equal situations are evaluated on equal terms. 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. We are well aware that this method of slaughtering seals is not always carried out with precision. or produce an argument for why there is a relevant difference. Such differences might be found if. the production of seal fur? If none are to be found. These are consistency and openness. The ethical tape measure. We do not suggest here that it cannot be argued that there are relevant differences.g.g.000. That only part of the seal is utilized for human consumption is not so different from what happens at a slaughter house. In 2009. from the point of view of consistency. but are utilized in different ways. the demand for consistency claims that you either oppose both the slaughtering of young seals and conventional meat production. The method of killing the seals is. part 1: Consistency The first basic demand for participating in the moral game is that one accepts some degree of consistency. The question thus remains: what is the relevant ethical difference between traditional animal production and.g.what to our minds are the two most important criteria when evaluating ethical values and principles. meat production. more specifically. At least in the lifetime of a typical western consumer. as the relatively soft skull of the young seal is easily crushed by a hard precise blow. where large parts of animals are discarded and never used for human consumption. the practice of slaughtering 14 days old seals in the Bay of St. Some claim that the difference is that the seals are only used for luxury products in the form of fur. one of the more humane ways of dispatching an animal.g. whereas e. from a strict animal welfare perspective. but can be further supplemented by others. The hunting of the animals is regulated by the Canadian government to ensure the sustainability of the seal population. e. The problem here is that meat is not a necessity in a human diet. which is considered to be much more useful. the total number of animals that can be killed was set to 275. the environment in general and. reduces CO2-emissions from the agricultural sector. or oppose also e. 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. as killing is an integral part of almost all animal production. This does not happen with the remains of the seals. chickens are used for food. or that it is argued why the two situations are not equal. For many people. Baby seal bacon? The act of killing the seals in itself can hardly be said to be a crucial difference. the industrialized production of bacon. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 17  . the method of The Good. What happens if we look at this case through the perspective of consistency? The question thus becomes.

in relation to their opportunity to have political influence. which is insulated from the reality of human existence. As an example. This would mean that the person would be unable to reinterpret ethical values due to lifetime experiences. if the knowledge gained from evolutionary theory is taken into consideration. reinterpreting principles and values if necessary. place. 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. But the burden of evidence is always on those who wish to distinguish between things that are otherwise considered equal.if you wish to participate at all in the moral game. they are not equal. colour etc. technology. Through the life of a human being. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 18  . for example. We consider it to be a requirement of the moral game that participants reflect upon their values. with regards to their mental faculties. time. If an EP entails that people of different religions. the distress felt by the parent animals when witnessing the slaughtering was more in focus. to cheat at exams. Some may argue that it is impossible to change one’s ethical perspective. for example. thus exhibiting a small degree of humility in the face of the absoluteness of their values. It is not enough to point to differences in name. An ethical perspective that distinguishes between the legal responsibility of a mentally disabled person and a “normal” adult obviously treats the two individuals differently. the difference between wildlife and farmed animals was more clearly explored. Such an ethical perspective. genders or sexual orientations are treated differently. or what knowledge is important enough for humans to reinterpret their ethical perspective. is problematic. it is obvious that things may change. or at least not totally right. It is impossible to say anything in general about what experiences. races. If anthropocentrism is part of one´s EP. take anthropocentrism (the notion that all humans and only humans are ethically relevant beings). engage in dialogue about them and remain open to the possibility that they might be wrong. but not for anyone else. the claim that the meat is utilized by other animals was more closely examined. gender. Notice that it is not impossible to identify valid reasons as to why only some individuals should be allowed to do something. The Good. the criterion of openness demands that the idea is scrutinized and any arguments against anthropocentrism are taken seriously. Anthropocentrism is hard to defend by claiming that humans are somehow distinctly different from all other living organisms on the Earth. then you have to accept that the same rules apply to all . Such differences are not ethically relevant in themselves. The ethical tape measure. An ethical perspective asserting that it is ethically acceptable for me.slaughtering was brought more into question. But most would accept this since the reason is that. which constitutes an ethically relevant difference in relation to whether they should be held legally responsible for their actions. part 2: Openness A person should be able to incorporate new knowledge and new ethical experiences into her ethical perspective. An ethical perspective should only accept that equal beings are treated differently if there are ethically relevant reasons to do so. If there are no relevant differences. has to be able to identify a relevant ethical difference between me and everyone else. because they believe it is handed down from God. or the person in question might have experiences that make them question their beliefs. 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. New opportunities might arise due to. In philosophical terms: You have to accept a principle of universability. one has to explain why the differences are relevant.

In this form. they set the stage for the moral discussion and rule out arbitrary and poorly thought-out positions. The normative perspective means trying to understand individuals’ justifications for their values. 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 viewpoints? What can be gained by discussing values? As mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. to a large extent. It would be difficult to imagine a believer in the ideology of Nazism fulfilling the criteria. Rather. The Good. which we would have to clarify during the debate. as already mentioned. 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. consistency and openness. ethical discussions today seem to result in the further entrenchment of values and the widening of the gap between opposing viewpoints. can be used to evaluate the ethical perspectives that we meet in our lives. but which. And it means reciprocating and justifying our own values. It would be hard to argue for the relevant differences between humans that would justify the atrocious inequalities within Nazism. as happens all too often. But so would a radical socialDarwinist 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. Finally. But they will not solve all ethical disagreements. But there are still many different perspectives left that fulfil the demands of the two criteria mentioned here. The task from then on is to enter into the moral game and put one´s values up for discussion. Rather. lead to different conclusions about what ethical values should be pursued. both from an historic and a normative perspective. that being able to justify one´s actions in the light of certain values and principles is also a way of showing respect towards other human beings. 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 colleague’s position. by the assumed underlying aim of many ethical debates: that they should end up with a consensus. First and foremost. We believe that this can be explained. ethical discussions represent an opportunity to understand the values of others. 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. and a lack of critical thinking or plain stupidity. we claim. instead of acting like a wedge driving two parties further apart. acts as a flash light that illuminates the discussion. along with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1929-). but also to gain knowledge of the ethical perspectives involved in the debate. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 19  . they enable us to identify the EPs that rely heavily on prejudices. This does not. The demands suggested here for participants in the moral game do not predetermine which values will be the right ones. It means that we take them seriously enough to feel obliged to give reasons for our actions. The historic perspective means listening to the ethical values of others and the stories that created those values bringing them into their lives. nonetheless. ethical discussion.These two criteria. necessarily lead to any kind of agreement. just as the openness of the ideology can be seriously questioned. as well as our own ethical perspective. egoism. or at least a compromise.

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. At this point. we should be able to gain a better understanding of each other and the ethical disagreements that abound in our societies today. By engaging in ethical debates in a reflective manner and considering one’s own and others’ values in a critical light. or at least tolerated this way. we have to do one thing or another. Such a situation is impossible to avoid in a democratic society. Thus. Our EPs are the result of many factors such as upbringing. as long as we seek to respect the agreed facts of a situation and try to give reasons for our view-points. ultimately. 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. we could take the fact that there are those in society who find this kind of research ethically problematic. But not all disagreements can be peacefully settled. which seeks to alienate as few as possible in society. cultural and religious background. and to respect those whose values could not be taken into consideration. and do our utmost to search for alternatives. Each and every one of us gathers these basic values together to form our own ethical perspective (EP). In the subsequent chapters. as previously discussed. it is still possible to live peacefully together. Controversial issues such as stem cell research are eagerly discussed. This will probably not satisfy everyone. but it is a way of creating a socially robust solution to our ethical disagreements. Not only do ethical discussions enable us to understand the values of ourselves and others. is to turn to relativism and declare that ethical values cannot be discussed. However. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 20  . but it also helps us to evaluate those values and. since they are nothing but The Good. whilst remembering that our ethical values are a result of both an historical processes and normative arguments. We cannot help but become involved since we all have ideas about what is right and wrong. into consideration. A common response to the multitude of sometimes even mutually exclusive ethical perspectives. while progressing with the research in as careful a manner as possible. to arrive at decisions in ethical matters that seek to incorporate the values of as many as possible. or not. 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. At some point we usually have to make a decision. which acts as a platform from which we view and judge the world in ethical terms. but at some point we need to make societal decisions about whether to proceed with the research. Often. or not. social. Even though we might disagree on basic values. And this respect can be used afterwards in the decision-making process. but it seems that often the result is that those who already agree just rally closer together. But it is quite another to live in a society in which one´s values are not even heard and in which no attempt is made to understand them by the majority. discussing ethical values can be important even though the discussions rarely lead us to agree on the matters we discuss. It is one thing to live in a society in which one´s values are not shared by the majority. common sense etc. We either have to decide to proceed with stem cell research. we will consider how far we can get with this basic attitude and identify what should be done when it is not enough. Often people just state and restate their values in an attempt to get their way. We could discuss the ethical issues related to stem cell research for a long time. KEY POINTS Discussions about values are often very heated and it can be hard to see that they lead to any progress. education.

Harvard University Press. Michael & Pynes. 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. 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. Hinman. John (1999): A Theory of Justice (Revised edition).personal preferences with no more substance than our partiality for certain kinds of food. Ethical pluralism means respecting the fact that a plurality of values exists. Robert (1998): A Theory of International Bioethics: Multiculturalism. Here. there will still be a plurality of sometimes mutually exclusive values. Joas. Cambridge University Press. but quite another to have to acknowledge that there is nothing ethically wrong with molesting children. for example. Through mutual understanding. Norman (1979): Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics. Oxford & Carlton Victoria: Blackwell Publishing. Driver. ethical pluralism suggests using ethics as a method of dialogue to gain an understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) (2006): The Stem Cell Controversy: Debating the Issues. Julia (2007): Ethics: The Fundamentals. The chapter suggests that ethical pluralism is a way to avoid relativism without slipping into its counterpart: fundamentalism. The Good. Williams. not only of the viewpoints of our counterpart in a discussion on. Nagel. Lawrence M. Bernard (1985): Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Hans (2000): The Genesis of Values. Christopher A. Thomas (1986): The View from Nowhere. Rawls. MacIntyre. Postmodernism. Even after having identified the ethical perspectives that do not live up to these two criteria. although not everybody can have it their own way. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thomson Wadsworth Press. It is one thing to admit that there is no way to decide whether strawberries or blackberries are best. (2008): Ethics: a pluralistic approach to moral theory (4th edition). References Daniels. Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (Question No EFSA-Q-2007118). (eds. Further reading Baker. Here we suggest just two: consistency and openness. European Food Safety Authority (2007): Animal Welfare aspects of the killing and skinning of seals. Alasdair (2007): After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Third Edition). However. Ruse. stem cell research. the consequences of relativism do seem too harsh for most people. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 8 (3): 201-231. European Food Safety Authority. The Journal of Philosophy 76 (5): 256-282. and the Bankruptcy of Fundamentalism. Maldon MA. but also of the background of our counterpart’s EP. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 21  .

The Good The Good. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 22  .

3 5B 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. Such an appeal to negative welfare is found in the following quotation from a paper published in the very prestigious scientific Journal. Africa—the continent where an estimated 90% of malaria occurs—has some of the lowest per capita emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. However. hunger and other negative states which stand in the way of an individual’s welfare does not matter. negative welfare. This controversy will be the subject of some of the subsequent chapters. She or he may try to develop. A further controversy. italics by the authors of the present book) The premises. i. 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. 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. to altered transmission of infectious diseases and malnutrition from crop failures. And so on with a long series of specific goals and efforts. And it would be even stranger and misanthropic to claim that the avoidance of pain. is whether welfare is the only thing that matters from an ethical point of view. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 23  . upon which the authors concluded that climate change constitutes a global ethical challenge and the initiatives that are needed to limit emissions of CO2 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.e. But what is the overarching aim of all these activities? One influential answer is that the aim is.000 lives annually. but also a global ethical challenge. or maintain a relationship with a close friend. or at least should be. precautionary approaches to mitigating anthropogenic greenhouse gases will be necessary … (Patz et al. this idea appears to be rather uncontroversial. To meet this challenge. What is it all supposed to be good for? Let’s try to explore this issue a little bit. global climate change not only presents new region-specific health risks. 2005. On the face of it. She or he may spend time with her or his family. exactly how the good life should be defined is a matter of some philosophical controversy. to achieve a good life – both for oneself and for others on whom one may have an influence. In this sense. the idea can be expressed by saying that welfare is what ultimately matters. 2) A number of serious diseases have The Good. or a political party. 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. In philosophical terms. which are extremely diverse. This controversy is the subject of the present chapter. The typical reader of this book probably wants to attain a good education. from cardiovascular mortality and respiratory illnesses due to heatwaves. which will be touched upon at the end of the chapter. disease. … The regions with the greatest burden of climate-sensitive diseases are also the regions with the lowest capacity to adapt to the new risks. Many prevalent human diseases are linked to climate fluctuations. She or he may be engaged in some sort of political movement. Rather it concerns the overarching aim of one’s efforts.

anxious or experiences any other mental state which is unpleasant. lead to poverty which in itself has numerous unpleasant consequences. malaria prevents the sufferer from working while he/she is ill. Whereas almost everyone would immediately agree that it is ethically problematic if a group of people suffer because. the individual experiences negative welfare. then what is positive welfare? Is it the absence of painful or unpleasant states – or is it the presence of positive states. when there is no unpleasant feeling. What is suggested here is that negative welfare is defined in terms of mental states. it often leaves them weakened and possibly handicapped for life. such as an opportunity to watch television. which does make sense. and subsequently. often in combination with other diseases. from an ethical point of view. in turn. Of course. The Good. 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. where there are limited resources for. 4) Anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are mainly caused by people who live in the developed world. it is a problem if people become ill with malaria. people in the developed world have a special obligation to do something. it is indeed bad. there is no negative welfare. Secondly. if any. which have similar unpleasant symptoms. and access to. which may be considered problematic in itself (more about this later in the book) but which will typically also lead to negative welfare.” If negative welfare is defined as the presence of pain and/or other unpleasant states. notably Sub-Saharan Africa. feels nauseous. the injunction that we should aim to promote happiness and prevent suffering from an ethical point of view is likely to be controversial. Thirdly. 3) These diseases will affect poor countries in particular. would disagree with the above argument that an increased level of malaria is bad because it leads to increased negative welfare. effective medical care. Firstly. of course. 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. which cannot be treated effectively. the flu-like symptoms of malaria are very unpleasant. but what is it that makes it bad?” One answer to this question.increased as a consequence of climate change. can result in death. malaria. Finally. therefore. When an individual is in pain. and conversely. but it is the poor regions. for example. malaria can lead to a number of other diseases. they become infected with malaria. as soon as one introduces the notion of “negative welfare” it seems clear that there must also be something called “positive welfare. and that is to ask the more philosophical question: “Yes. However. for example the feeling of joy? Is positive welfare then the same as happiness? However. in a way unable to see the obvious. 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. According to this definition. However. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 24  . it is much more controversial to say that it is ethically problematic if people miss out on something which would make them happy. which are intrinsically unpleasant. negative welfare is equivalent to feeling bad. 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. there is another way of asking why. which can. severely limiting their ability to work in the future. which has been very influential. Nowhere in the above argument is it explicitly stated that. that will bear the brunt of the resulting climate change and. What about positive welfare? Positive and negative welfare Very few people.

However. This is certainly a tempting idea. Even in the happiest of lives will there be periods of suffering due to disease. Indeed. According to Popper. Smart. we cannot forget about promoting happiness. it shows that in ethics. as a matter of fact. most of us still get up in the morning. p. And. 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. whilst the normative theory says that pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only things which are ultimately worth striving for. according to Smart. everything that one does can be permeated by a feeling of joy. 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. 542) The point here is that not only would the mass killing lead to an end to all suffering. On a good day. then we would be obliged to take the lives of everyone painlessly if we could. However. “it adds to the clarity of ethics if we formulate our demands negatively. moments over the bad. 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. the highly influential Austrian-British philosopher. 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. it must be over-all and long-term. of course. There is something immediately implausible about psychological hedonism. The theory may be viewed as being both psychological and normative. if the pursuit of pleasure is a psychological motivation. because then we would eliminate all suffering once and for all. Therefore. which involves the survival of people. it will help us to The Good. The psychological theory says that. or unpleasant ones. ones. this certainly does not mean that it would be morally right to kill the entire human race. i. 285). at the end of the day. 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. 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 Smart’s argument against Popper. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 25  . if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness” (Popper 1966. the kind of theory which says that we do what we do because we believe that. would lead to at least some suffering. p.In light of this.e. even though it would be much nicer to stay in bed. p. it suffers from a major problem which has been pointed out by the British philosopher R. Psychological hedonism Smart appears to adhere to a view about welfare and its ethical significance called hedonism. grief and the like. painful. 542). but we also experience gray Monday mornings. If our sole aim was to eliminate suffering. according to Smart. Rather. and it seems that no cause of action will be as efficient as mass killing in preventing suffering. humans tend to strive to obtain pleasure and to avoid pain. Consequently the use of the weapon is bound to diminish suffering. pleasurable. Karl Popper (1902-1994).N. but any alternative course of action. and would be the ruler’s duty … (Smart 1958. 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. when the most pleasurable thing one could do would be to stay in bed. However. 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.

Secondly. even though this kind of education actually left a lot of young people frustrated and unhappy. it is very much in line with the more cynical or reductionist views of man’s nature. Firstly. we pursue other things than just pleasure. On the other hand. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 26  . Prejudice apart. some of the things that can give to rise to very positive experiences in the long run. for example dining at a good restaurant. an indulgent lifestyle may for example involve masses of rich food and alcohol which is likely to have some severe negative.gain pleasure and avoid pain may have something to say for itself. The idea that a search for pleasure is the underlying motivation behind everything people do may seem provocative to some. is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Normative hedonism The normative version of hedonism.I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity. whether one likes the idea or not. Here the point is not that the pursuit of pleasure is our main underlying aim in life. For example. not about the value of different kinds of pleasures. will typically not be achievable if one is not sometimes able to forget about one’s own immediate needs. 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 The Good.the value which they possess. p. . … If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin. and very painful. inspired by thinkers such as Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). One example is education and the belief that teaching children and young people arts and sciences was of high value. However. according to Bentham. on the other hand. who lives a life in the grip of immediate pleasures. there may be good indirect reasons why it is worthwhile to teach these subjects. it is bound to be very difficult to test and it should at best be considered a questionable hypothesis. then clearly the indulgent individual may in the long-run miss out in terms of pleasure. The classic formulation of this normative stance was developed by the English lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Finally. However. is not vulnerable to the objection that. as a matter of fact. but rather that it ought to be. (Bentham 1830. . 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. 206) Here Bentham concedes that for some people poetry and music may be more gratifying than playing games. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure. 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. Of course. or travelling abroad. it is more valuable than either. the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. side-effects on one’s mental and physical health in the long run. 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. Against the prevailing norms of his time. the indulgent individual will typically be less well-off and therefore be less able to purchase goods that generate pleasure. such as a rich family life and lasting friendships. this only says something about the people in question. If one compares an individual with a conventional lifestyle with an individual with a very indulgent lifestyle. Everybody can play at pushpin: poetry and music are relished only by a few. it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.

Of course. Is it better to be a sad Socrates than a happy pig? For Bentham. However. as for other adherents of normative hedonism. On the other hand. as far as possible. According to Bentham. So mathematics teaching may be justified by its ultimate contribution to for example health care. a lot of the punishment he saw could not be justified in this way. Of course. should count or not. we ought to arrange things so that we. the only thing that matters is the amount of welfare. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 27  . then according to Bentham. according to Bentham. this kind of thinking about punishment is highly influential in most of the Western world. which is justified by its ability to prevent pain. felt by the victims of a crime when they see the criminal suffer. but not unanimously accepted (Also.perform the job. or deterring others from committing similar crimes. then it should be removed. at the end of the day. punishment itself just adds more suffering. rather than reading novels or philosophy. with his background as a lawyer. long distance running and other forms of severe exercise may be quite unpleasant in the short term. whether this would modify the reformist view on punishment defended by Bentham and his followers. this kind of teaching may be justified by the consequences in terms of pleasure and avoidance of pain for other individuals. Pain and other forms of negative welfare must be avoided. Even though the person does not get any pleasure out of learning mathematics. If one experiences joy from watching soap-operas on TV. and if so. However. it can be rational to accept some amounts of negative welfare if it is a means to avoid larger amounts of negative welfare. And Bentham was instrumental in promoting the kind of thinking about punishment which focuses on prevention. rather than revenge. there are also counter-reactions. or relief. and those affected by what we do. was keen to reform the legal system of punishment. punishment can only be justified if it has good consequences such as preventing the perpetrator from committing further crimes. 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. 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. everything we do or require must ultimately contribute to pleasure and the avoidance of pain. such exercise may prevent one from suffering from poor health later in life. Rather it is that. to be of value. and some even claim that after some habituation. liberal societies. According to Bentham. Today.) In general. 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. It is important to realize that this kind of thinking has already had a profound effect on the morality of modern. 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 The Good. there is no reason to start reading such literature – even if one has the mental capacity to benefit from heavy reading. the victims of the crime normally suffer. severe exercise can actually be quite pleasant. Bentham himself. We will now turn to this question. under a hedonist perspective it can be discussed whether the pleasure. in this case the future patients who will be treated. So Bentham’s view is influential. or if it is a means to gain a larger amount of positive welfare. However. For example. achieve the highest possible amount of positive welfare in the form of pleasure. but now to the perpetrator. When a crime has been committed. 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.

be pursued if one is going to achieve a good human life. And if the fool. Indeed. but rather to get the right kind of mix of pleasures. In a famous passage. This means that what matters is not only to get the highest possible amount of pleasure against pain. the positive goals consist of experiencing various forms of pleasant mental states. a young person who spends his entire youth watching TV. and the negative goals entail avoiding various The Good. it may be intrinsically more valuable to think about a philosophical issue. to many the idea that all pleasures should be equal may still be quite provoking. For example. according to Mill’s 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. Mill’s view is probably in accordance with the priorities of many of his readers (if you don’t enjoy higher pleasures. However. one may ask whether it really qualifies as a form of hedonism. he may. Some pleasures are intrinsically more valuable than others. if one had the choice between an intellectually challenging life and a life in the grip of more mundane pleasures. Of course. Rather. adherents of Mill’s view need not claim that it is better to think about philosophy than to watch a trivial show on TV. Sometimes it may even be worthwhile sacrificing some lower pleasures to get some higher ones – i. The main point of Mill’s qualitative hedonism is that a pleasure is not just a pleasure. This may matter in situations in which we make choices regarding future lives. according to Mill’s view. it may be better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 28  . or the pig. accept the popular hierarchy of needs developed by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). For example. pleasure.run. If Mill was alive today. According to this kind of theory. And even if Mill’s theory is accepted as being superior to Bentham’s hedonism. it is because they only know their own side of the question. if possible. However. you probably won’t read a philosophy book). Whereas Bentham claimed that there is essentially only one thing which has positive value. there is a list of goals which must.e. rather than reading good books. Mill argued that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. and that the only morally relevant distinction which can be made between different pleasures is their duration and intensity. Mill would probably insist that even if his theory allows for different kinds of goals contributing to a good life. even for people with limited intellectual abilities. Mill seems to claim that some kinds of pleasures are simply more valuable than others. for example. Also. disagreed with Bentham on this point. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). one would be well advised to choose the former life. One may rather view it as a form of what has been called the objective list theory of the good life. better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. 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. than to watch a soap opera. one may ask whether Mill provides an argument for discarding Bentham’s relatively simple theory. are of a different opinion. 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. they all have one thing in common. including pleasures connected to aesthetic and intellectual activities in order to get the most out of life." What Mill seems to have in mind here is that we make qualitative distinctions between the things that matter in our lives. when bringing up children and considering educational policy for example. who was a follower of Bentham in many respects. However.

Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel. Mill is still a hedonist in the sense that welfare is about mental states and experiences. even though no-one believes it.forms of unpleasant mental states. Therefore. An adherent of hedonism may react in several ways to this argument. or reading an interesting book. Strictly speaking. and an ethical theory. Secondly. 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. certainly I would. preprogramming your life's desires? . besides being sceptical of hedonism. The American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) is an advocate of this argument. are not analogous in this respect. 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. very appealing. we do not believe in hedonism. “Would you plug in?” with an enthusiastic.” Nozick’s argument is. So. Of course. rather than what happens in our minds. To back up this claim. Firstly. an adherent of hedonism may question the first premise of Nozick’s argument. However. healthy scepticism as to whether an experience machine would actually work may explain why people are reluctant. some hedonists may question the second premise of Nozick’s argument. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in. Ethical theories on the other hand are not about a mind-independent reality. The Good. you'll think it's all actually happening. such as the theory of evolution. it can be argued that welfare should be more about what happens in the world. therefore. while in the tank you won't know that you're there. with electrodes attached to your brain. 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. what it means to say that normative hedonism is true. Should you plug into this machine for life. despite all the promises to the contrary. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want. Thus.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us. we aren’t willing to plug in to the experience machine. However. or making a friend. other than how our lives feel from the inside? (Nozick 1974. 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 Darwin’s theory of evolution does not demonstrate that Darwin’s theory is false. we would gladly plug in to the experience machine. most people would hook up to the machine if it really was available. such as hedonism. “Yes. it seems that a scientific theory. She may say that there are a number of reasons why someone may be reluctant to plug in to the experience machine. The question then is whether Bentham and Mill are right in thinking that welfare is really only about experiences.. p. (3) Therefore.. (2) However. 43) Very few people would probably answer Nozick’s question. of course. We shall now turn to this question. The experience machine According to hedonism as long as we feel good – everything is good. Formally speaking. is unclear. Finally. Rather they attempt to rationalize what is in our minds when we make ethical choices. which he elucidates by way of the following thought-experiment: Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 29  . so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. One obvious reason is a lack of trust in whether the machine is actually going to deliver the promised goods. All the time you would be floating in a tank. They may claim that. the argument can be reconstructed in the following way: (1) If we believed in hedonism.

when what we actually prefer is something else – living a real life during which we pursue a multitude of goals. 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. And if this is the case. what an individual seems to demand through their behaviour on the market. 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. 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 Nozick’s argument against hedonism on the basis of his thought experiment about the experience machine. A good life is one in which the person in question gets what she or he wants.e. according The Good. The one feature that these goals seem to have in common is that they are personal goals. is to move towards a preference theory of welfare. which avoids this consequence. the maximum amount of pleasure.. of course. I cannot deny that for me. This view has several advantages. One reason for this could be that people care about a lot of things and not just their own inner lives. 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. A third advantage of the view is that it is not vulnerable to Nozick’s argument and other related arguments which say that we actually prefer something different from what the theory says we ought to prefer. 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. it is very simple. If I hold this judgment in a form that makes no particular reference to myself – as I must. they are what the individual prefers to strive for. what he considers a good life in his own case is when his preferences are satisfied as much as possible. This then establishes a clear link between the good life and personal autonomy. But there are other factors.. which are incompatible with a life spent in an experience machine. as suggested in the previous section. other things being equal. Another way. And if he has this view regarding his own life. Secondly.However. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 30  . this is the main attraction of the theory: . to move towards an objective list of what matters in life. This is the core of the so-called preference theory of welfare. there are two ways one can move beyond classical hedonism of the sort proposed by Jeremy Bentham. such as achievement and close personal relationships. One way is. No one. Such a theory might concede that pleasant mental states are. if this is the point. 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. a good life is one in which my own considered. one of the leading proponents of the preference theory of welfare. However. informed preferences are maximally satisfied. Achievement and close personal relationships are typically things which lead to pleasant mental states. Following this path would mean having to abandon the ambition of Bentham to deliver a simple and clear cut account of what matters. the good life is defined in terms of preference-satisfaction. (Singer 2002) According to Singer. only some of which entail experiencing pleasure. why not say that what really matters is that each and every one of us should get what we prefer. important for a good life in line with hedonism. According to the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (1946-). 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 one’s personal preferences. Firstly. Preference theory of welfare According to the preference theory. i.

is in a position to tell a person that he is wrong when he says that certain things matter in his life. Regarding the other qualification made by Singer. Today most people are fully aware that smoking may cause lung cancer and other serious diseases. With these two qualifications. which supports preference theory. However. sleeping in a tent and living on freeze dried meals. whereas others have a high pain threshold and only care about very intense pain. Thus. think about smoking. However. since it is the severity of one’s negative preference. but only those which are considered and informed. Another argument. they considerably modify one’s immediate understanding and assessment of preference theories. These two qualifications appear to be very simple and well motivated. In practice it can be really difficult to find out what one really prefers. 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. However. Therefore the holiday turns out to be a complete disaster both for the person in question who doesn’t like the experience at all and for the others who have to put up with the first person’s dissatisfaction. which matters. that preferences should be informed. some people a have low pain threshold and care a lot about relatively mild forms of pain. According to the preference theory. It is. as will become clear in the following section. In the grip of the documentary the person cheerfully accepts the invitation. And before acting on a preference it is therefore important to consider whether it is something that one really wants. much easier to say than to do. or a whim. even though the person originally had a preference for a wildlife holiday. of course. it turns out that the person doesn’t really like the kind of simple living connected with a wilderness holiday. In this case.to Singer. 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. The first is when a preference is not stable because the person is in the grip of a mood. 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. Actually. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 31  . rather than the mental state itself. this is not a problem at all. People who were young at that time would most likely not have been told that smoking posed a danger. Not all preferences count. So for the satisfaction of a preference to count as positive contribution to a person’s quality of life the preference must at least be stable over the time needed for preference to be satisfied. The Good. such a holiday did not contribute to the person’s quality of life. The second is when the person lacks information about the consequences of having the preference fulfilled. Immediately after a friend comes by and asks her whether she would like to join in on a one week holiday in the wilderness. Quite to the contrary. is that it is able to deal with the problem faced by hedonism that different people seem to care differently about mental states. important to note that Singer makes two qualifications to the link between the good life and the satisfaction of preferences. however. after a little reflection. Singer wants to exclude the possibility that preference satisfaction could contribute to a person’s quality of life in two types of situation. 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. This is. this was not the case 50 or 60 years ago.

even in the light of relevant information. Also the obvious link to personal autonomy will be lost.Most old people who now suffer from tobacco related diseases probably now strongly regret having started to smoke when they were young. However it seems to lose some of the simplicity it had on a first glance. how to balance welfare against other goods or concerns. 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. still many people smoke. KEY POINTS The aim of this chapter is to discuss what welfare is and how it matters. 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. Does that then mean that following a preference theory one should say that. 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. it is argued that this position leads to paradoxical consequences. The Good. So in their case. And rather severe policies to prevent people from smoking seem to be warranted if the goal is to improve people’s welfare in the long term. Some have argued that our only concern should be to avoid negative welfare and that we should not at all focus on positive welfare. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 32  . they did not do what was best for them because of lack of information. However. since people choose to smoke. So a closer look at the requirements that preferences should be considered and informed to contribute to a person’s welfare take away some of the simplicity and intuitive appeal of the preference theory of welfare. So far no theory sticks out as the obvious candidate for a simple and intuitively appealing theory of welfare. However. However. Even though many less people in the Western world smoke today than did in the past. 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. As we have seen in this chapter all main theories of welfare have their problems. Now there is no longer a simple link between what people choose. and many young people start to smoke. and if not. Or should one say that in many or all cases smoking does not contribute to people’s 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. Whether this means that the theory should be given up depends on how well if fares compared to alternative theories. 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 person’s quality of life. even though they just followed their preferences and did not ignore readily available information. This will be discussed in some of the following chapters. smoking makes a positive contribution to their quality of life? If one gives a positive answer to this question the theory becomes rather implausible. The starting point is to argue that it matters to prevent pain and other forms of negative welfare. and what is good for them. even if information is available people may ignore it.

Tracey & Foley. The Spell of Plato (5th edition). This view seemingly has the advantage that it leads to a close connection between a person’s welfare and what person chooses to do. and Dyer. Karl R. Kraut. Varieties. Peter (2002): Reply to Martha Nussbaum. Miller. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. Nature 438: 310-317. Martha & Sen. Jeffrey (eds. Measurement and Moral Importance. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Feldman. James (1986): Well-being: Its Meaning. 1. Fred D. 2002. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Popper.) (1993): The Quality of Life. Green. & Paul. R. Nozick. London: Robert Heward. Jonathan A. 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. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [1st edition 1945] Singer. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 33  . The Tanner Lectures on Human Values November 13. (1966): The Open Society and its Enemies. Campbell-Lendrum. Amartya (eds.) (1992): The Good Life and the Human Good. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. Jeremy (1830): The Rationale of Reward. So the candidates for a theory of welfare presented in this chapter all have their characteristic problems and advantages. Diarmid. The Good. the requirement that preferences should be considered and informed actually makes that connection much less tight that it first seems. Jonathan A. Robert (1974): Anarchy. Vol. which can both be interpreted as a psychological and a normative theory.When it comes to the definition of welfare the starting point is hedonism. Paul.N. London: Longmans. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Roger (2006): Reasons and the Good. In light of these criticisms an alternative definition of welfare is suggested. Further reading Crisp. Griffin. Nussbaum. (2005): Impact of regional climate change on human health.. state and utopia. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Jr. Patz. (1958): Negative Utilitarianism. Richard (2007): What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being. according to which the welfare of a person consists in the satisfaction of that person’s preferences. 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. References Bentham. 'Justice for Non-Human Animals'. Fred (2004): Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature. Two kinds of criticisms against this view are discussed. However. Reader. Holloway. 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. and Plausibility of Hedonism. Ellen Frankel. Smart. Mill. New York: Basic Books. Mind 67: 542-543. John Stuart (1863): Utilitarianism.

Happiness. (1996): Welfare. Peter (1999): Quality of life – Three competing views. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Sumner.W. and Ethics. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 34  . The Good. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (1): 11–23.Sandøe. L.

death is something we try to avoid thinking about. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 35  . there is kind of a taboo against considering such practical matters in the face of death. even though they may not contribute to our general welfare. The other reason. The coherent reasoning of the Council did not make the uneasiness disappear. even though they apparently do not contribute to our welfare. Insisting that doctors and our partners tell the truth is another. whilst the freedom to make our own choices. is a third. by following the debate in the Danish newspapers. are more important than welfare. 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. it soon became apparent that many people felt that there was something not right about the practice. Showing our respect to the dead – even though for them it is impossible to care is just one example. It is frightening. It may seem hard to disagree with such well-founded and practical arguments. The Good. Rather. Finally. 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. as long as the dead body. the discussion serves to highlight the uneasiness that accompanies the decision. even though they understood the reasoning and ethical arguments behind the Council’s conclusion. the wishes of the deceased and the bereaved were treated with respect. in the present situation in which the living are being threatened by climate change due to the excessive use of fossil fuels. honesty and autonomy are examples of traits and modes of existence that we usually find admirable. Furthermore. inevitable and the most undeniable sign of our mortality. But perhaps they do actually increase our welfare in the long run? Or perhaps some things. we often find ourselves in situations whereby other things have an influence on our ethical deliberations. the council decided that. This does not necessarily mean that we should not utilize the heat from cremations in this way. Thus. it would be wise to utilize the heat from the crematorium ovens in this way. We would just have to focus on doing whatever creates the most welfare. The Council concluded that it was an ethically acceptable practice. However. The need to respect the deceased and the mourners seems to forbid such mundane considerations. the council found that the practice would create a symbolic link between the individual and the processes of nature. which is the one that we will be concerned with here. However. felt so uneasy that he asked the Danish Ethical Council to discuss the subject back in 2006. and if this is the case: Do such concepts always trump welfare considerations. such as honesty and autonomy. even this can be hard enough to find out in itself and to further complicate matters. or do they comprise additional factors. even the ones that jeopardize or even reduce our welfare.4 More than welfare? If ethics was only about welfare. is that it seems disrespectful to utilize the earthly remains of our loved ones in this way. The Danish minister for religious affairs at that time. Even though the practice might be environmentally friendly and economically efficient. Bertel Haarder. we nevertheless find ethically important. in general. The first is that. We believe that there are mainly two reasons for this. things that. our ethical lives would in some ways be simpler.

since her partner The Good. the lie will benefit someone else. This does not mean that we cannot take pride in lying as well. 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. we need to prove that lying accomplished something good. 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. The truth speaks for itself. From this follows one of the important ideals in this context: If you are caught cheating on your partner. if not outright demanded. the whole truth and nothing but truth has become almost iconographic. if for example. 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. we consider telling the truth to be the right thing to do. Furthermore. 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. However. at least with their partner present. 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. but also from a more integral perspective. we usually take pride in being honest and find it embarrassing to be caught in a lie. infidelity seems to be ethically wrong. We consider it to be ethically correct. under which circumstances we usually feel the need to justify the lie by pointing out the benefits that it created. Therefore. in most situations. even though telling the truth might not do the woman any good. but not in all as we will discuss shortly. 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. honesty is important to us: both from a social perspective. Lying about sex Is it ethically acceptable to cheat on your partner? This is a question that few would give an affirmative answer to. Here it becomes very clear that lying about cheating is seen as a cowardly attempt at self-protection. then you should act honourably and be honest and accept the consequences. that we tell the truth. However. In other words. If we assume that a woman has cheated on her boyfriend. which is clearly reflected in its more common name: cheating. the whole truth and nothing but the truth – so help you.The truth. in that it seems to carry its own justification. indeed a number of studies can be found in the wiki entry on infidelity. at the same time we know from social studies that it is a common phenomenon. but are treated as liars. Thus. few of us feel the need to do the same when we tell the truth. Look at the pain in a child´s eyes when it is wrongfully disbelieved or think of our own capacity for self-righteousness of almost galactic proportions when we tell the truth. And there are not many things that provoke as much outrage in us as being unfairly accused of being a liar. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 36  . So. Lying can sometimes produce worthy results. God! For most of us being honest is important. because we value the truth for its own sake. But what is wrong with lying about infidelity? An initial answer could be that in many ways it hurts the partner. whereby our reputation for honesty is crucial for our status and opportunities. Initially. But why is this so? Is it because being honest is intrinsically the right thing to do.

Others would say that using honesty and dishonesty simply as neutral tools to promote welfare is problematic and they would need some justification. The Good. does not mean that no one lies about their affairs. since the truth would enable him to act in a more informed way. we might assume that her partner will actually have a better life if he is not told about what has taken place. one-night stands etc. 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. In this case. Let us imagine that the girlfriend. by being dishonest. whereas still others would consider dishonesty to be ethically unjustifiable whatever the reasons. What we are arguing for here. 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. or should she take the circumstances into account before deciding what to do? In this hypothetical scenario. or by just keeping quiet. can not only save her own skin. so that doing what benefits ourselves the most. This would then lead us to formulate a rule about lying along these lines: “In general.might leave her if told about the incident. we ought to tell the truth. It just means that we do not judge it as being the ethically right thing to do. In other words: Lying does not matter. 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. is true. is not that one should always tell the truth. if the lie was told. it would certainly benefit her boyfriend. also seems to be the most beneficial thing to do for everyone involved. so that telling the truth might cause more grief than just forgetting about the whole miserable affair. What if the affair was just an unmemorable fling for the girlfriend. 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. Rather. Everybody would be better off. Would that be a good enough reason for not telling the truth? Let us imagine for now that the old saying.all else being equal – we are ethically obliged to tell a lie”. Returning to the unfaithful girlfriend. However. in the real world we have an almost devilish ability to reconstruct reality around us. 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. We are experts at lying to ourselves in order to cast ourselves in a positive light. but also the relationship in the long run. of course. as long as it benefits someone in a way that is ethically important. let us make some assumptions about the situation and see whether they change our intuitive understanding of it. just as we are not attempting to identify particular situations in which one should tell the truth or lie. but sometimes the situation is such that . the girlfriend could spare her partner from the painful knowledge of her infidelity by lying. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 37  . The welfarist from the previous chapter would certainly think so. ‘what you don´t know can´t hurt you’. This. Is there such a thing as a ‘white lie’? Even though we might initially think that the truth is important in itself. Thus initially. Should she still tell the truth no matter what. The answers to these questions will vary from person to person depending on their personal values and how they interpret the situation.

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 man´s life, or rather hold thy peace, than by a virtuous and merciful lie to be serviceable to his health. (Jackson 2001) 1

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 today’s western medical system, the principles of autonomy (selfgoverning) 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 decisions. 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:

1

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 President´s 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 unproblematic. It is, however, not a very clear position to take. Whether one should lie or tell the truth becomes dependent on the situation and one´s 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) 2

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

2

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 Kant´s 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. Kant´s 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). 3
F .

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 Kant’s 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 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

3

Immanuel Kant (1785): On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies From Benevolent Motives. Here quoted from Kant (1889).

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influenced by our upbringing. to ban smoking outright would be to meddle too much in peoples’ lives. for instance. But why hasn’t 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. job. such as committing a crime under the threat of violence. The influences which are acceptable with regards to our freedom and those which are not are not easily identified. even though placing more restrictions on peoples’ choices may result in higher welfare. However. 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. 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. has changed because today the health dangers involved are generally accepted and very few would claim that smoking is not a very unhealthy habit. In most western countries today. or reject them. Therefore. And just as it is not forbidden to do a bungee jump. respecting the freedom of humans to make their own life-choices is important. regardless of the consequences for society as a whole. Smoking As hard as it may be to believe. then in this situation I did not have freedom of choice. As with honesty. Thus. to some extent at least. smoking is more or less prohibited except for outdoors and in private homes. but nevertheless the upbringing we experienced influences our decisions as adults. The right to make important decisions about education. such individuals consider such a choice to be an expression of freedom. as people have a right to do what they want as long as they do not put others in danger. The position regarding smoking. the freedom of smokers has been limited in that they are only permitted to smoke in designated areas. one’s spouse. children etc. or the values our parents tried to instil in us. there was a time when smoking in public spaces was totally acceptable. is something that most of us consider to be valuable. It may be that we will see further restrictions on the freedom of smokers in the future justified by the health The Good. to ski down steep hills or to swim in the ocean even though all these activities are dangerous. far from being an example of suppression. to eat unhealthy food. there are influences on our lives that contradict our freedom. All else being equal. We did not choose how we were brought up.by anyone or anything. trains and movie theatres were full of smokers and children made ashtrays out of clay for their parents in kindergarten. On the other hand. Restaurants. Here. 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. to decide whether we wish to live by these values. But what happens when the choices we make do not increase. 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. and indeed passive smoking. If I am physically threatened to do something I would not normally do. freedom seems to be a concept that we cannot leave aside without a good reason. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 41  . All of us are. To some the dress code is a manifestation of the unacceptable suppression of the freedom of women to dress as they please. we have the freedom to critically evaluate our upbringing and. That freedom is ethically valuable when it increases our welfare is probably an uncontroversial statement.

S. It may seem far-fetched to imagine a situation in which western societies impose a total ban on smoking. There seems to be three positions in the debate about smoking and personal freedom. (U. but it risks creating a ‘black market’ with cigarettes becoming part of organized crime. as long as it does not affect others. The welfarist needs to balance such considerations before passing judgment on what should be done. 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. Selling one’s internal organs. although in fewer and fewer places and at a higher and higher price. the Department is encouraging PHAs to adopt non-smoking policies. To others it may seem natural to increase the protection of the public against passive smoking to this level. 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. The first says that smoking is a personal choice and people should be allowed to smoke. a total ban on smoking might increase welfare. From a welfarist perspective. In the USA. whilst prostitution is prohibited in many countries. And perhaps restrictions on the consumption of alcohol and unhealthy food may follow. the freedom of the individual is The Good.interests of the public and the costs to the health service. even when it poses no danger to anyone other than the smoker himself. In many instances. 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 individual’s choice to smoke is not interfered with. whilst the U. even when addiction to nicotine could be said to infringe heavily on the freedom of the users. this notice will enhance the effectiveness of the Department’s efforts to provide increased public health protection for residents of public housing. it is far from uncontroversial to intervene in peoples’ personal choices. Western societies today seem to opt for a middle solution. as smokers are essentially drug addicts who are unable to control their behaviour in a rational way.S. and other adverse health effects in neighboring families. in Seattle and New York. and certain drugs are illegal. Many would argue that such intervention into peoples’ lives is in the interests of welfare for individuals and society as a whole. Smoking should therefore be banned and smokers helped to quit their habit. Smoking is being prohibited in public areas because it damages the health of others. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 42  . one can still be subjected to passive smoking if your neighbour chooses to smoke in his or her private home. a complete ban on smoking has already been introduced in some building blocks e. heart disease.g. Such a weighing of the pros and cons could very well lie behind smoking policies in the western societies where you can still smoke. 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). if you want to. such as a kidney. 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. thereby reducing societal welfare in the long run. But as can be learned by reference to the discussions about smoking around the globe. This means that even if there are no open doors or windows between two apartments. cancer. By reducing the public health risks associated with tobacco use. What remains to be seen is whether smoking will be banned outright. At the other end of the spectrum we find those who argue that smoking cannot be considered an act of personal freedom. or whether this will still be considered as an individual choice. 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.

. whilst to others it represents only one factor The Good. the use of a GPS tracking device requires written approval from the sick individual’s next of kin and official approval from the social authorities. plants and nature as a whole should be ethically relevant and not just human beings. which can be disregarded when it does not. Previously it was necessary to either lock the doors to prevent residents from leaving. which increases their freedom of movement and allows the staff to treat them more like adult human beings and less like small children. The question here is not whether the right of freedom should trump safety every time. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 43  . or whether personal freedom is ethically important in its own right. is a misunderstanding. and using it to control patients in a way that is potentially unethical. on the one hand. 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. where we will discuss whether animals. we often find ourselves in situations in which it seems that it is not the only thing that matters. However. We will continue this debate in the next chapter. 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. The dilemma is thus between the safety and the freedom of the patient – here expressed as the basic freedom of movement. perhaps each and every one of the cases. This is why it is illegal to rob banks. But why is this the case when there is such a clear benefit. But is it ethically justifiable to take away an individual’s freedom to protect him/her against making choices that the majority consider wrong? Even non-smokers will probably pause here to consider whether the freedom of the individual is just a tool to create welfare. just as telling the truth seemed to be in the previous example. KEY POINTS Within ethics. there are strict rules which regulate the use of these tracking devices. a recurring problem is that the residents sometimes leave the home and get lost and cannot find their way back. On the other hand. but also for the care staff? It is because the situation involves restricting the personal freedom of the individual. Today. where people have lost the ability to take care of themselves because of dementia. it seems that we are also trying to protect individuals from their own choices. residents who leave the premises and become lost can easily be located with the use of a simple GPS tracking device.restricted to protect fellow citizens. To some it is the only thing that counts when ethically evaluating an action. which we have discussed in this chapter. There is a fine line between using such technology responsibly to improve the care provided to people suffering from dementia. not only for the individual who is suffering from dementia. or vice versa. In Denmark. there is an ongoing discussion about the importance of welfare. At nursing homes. Once again we will see that although welfare is an important concept. in the above mentioned cases. Nonetheless. 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. or search for them when they wandered off. kill people that annoy us and drive as fast as we like on the high way.

S. Torbjörn (2002): Understanding ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory. 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. Thus. The Good. On the other hand. In the case of infidelity. The President´s Council on Bioethics (2002): Human Cloning and Human Dignity. References Jackson. New York: Vintage Books. But the question. Kant. In all three cases. Washington DC.21 (HA)). the reason why we should protect the freedom of individuals. dignity. tell the truth and treat the dead with respect is that this kind of behaviour creates the most welfare. Goodin. Kagan. Immanuel (1889) [1785-1797]: Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics (translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott. New York & Bombay: Longmans. Tânnsjö. But to many we do not just tell the truth because it will eventually lead to the best outcome. The question is whether our initial positive understanding of these concepts is due to their inherent ethical nature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. In this chapter. It is not easy to decide who is right. U.. ‘Is there more than welfare at stake?’ remains important when trying to navigate through life. which is worth saving. and thereby increase the welfare of everyone involved. Further reading Bok. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Non-Smoking Policies in Public Housing (NOTICE: PIH-2009. or long term. (1989): The ethics of smoking. welfare considerations are important. Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. we discussed three examples of when it seems that welfare is not all that matters: utilizing human remains as biofuel. suffers from the same problem. Washington. London & New York: Routledge. even though a lie might save a relationship. Shelly (1998): Normative Ethics. treating a concept such as lying as a neutral tool to create welfare seems to go against some deeply held intuition about ethics. Ethics 99 (3): 574-624. USA. London. or whether it is just because they benefit the welfare of humans in the short. but there also seems to be something else at stake. but because we are somehow obliged to do so. Robert E. From a welfarist perspective. Jennifer (2001): Truth. Boulder CO:Westview Press.among several. honesty and autonomy. lying and limiting the personal freedom of individuals. Green and Co. Sissela (1989) [1978]: Lying. Trust and Medicine. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 44  . one may never lie. Some of the values besides welfare that may be relevant in themselves are: Respect for others. the other extreme view that. 4th revised edition). it still seems problematic to lie.

untouched nature and a bit of nature that has been culturalized through millennia such as a dairy cow? Finally. the snow is too shallow and too soft for the seal mother to dig a cave for its pup. when it finds it. This is the way evolution works. it relies on its phenomenal olfactory sense to catch its prey. sniffing its way to the cave and. it is doubtful whether there are any ethical questions at stake here. we discuss the many ethical conflicts and dilemmas that arise if the ethical community is expanded beyond the human sphere.5 7B What about nature? So far we have been discussing in what ways humans are ethically obligated to each other in interpersonal matters. 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. Normally. but now it is at a loss as to what to do. invisible to its enemies. Climate change has put a stop to this parental protection behaviour and the seal is forced to raise its pup out in the open. If we strip the problem down to its basic scientific components. 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 The Good. Now. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 45  . In this chapter. this is not an advantage for the polar bear. Thus. the seals can see the bear approaching and they have plenty of time to slide into the water and make their escape. is lying on the ice with its mother close by. However. there is more than just science to the world. The polar bear typically has to search around. Contrary to what one might initially believe.’ Is there an ethical difference between wild.000 to 250. What we have is just a natural phenomenon unfolding. we will discuss what happens when nature is brought into the discussion.000 years ago. 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. the polar bear was originally a brown bear or grizzly that got caught by glaciers in the midPleistocene age somewhere between 100. Usually. Should we take care of nature for the sake of humans. or be replaced by its old relatives in the new arctic environment that is developing. but also on the living conditions for many species of animals. This is nothing new from a purely evolutionary point of view. although one can obviously discuss whether the underlying causes (human induced climate change) can be described as natural. the polar bear will have to adapt to a more terrestrial life style. it breaks in and catches the seal. But. plants and many ecosystems. The environment changes and organisms are forced to either adapt and survive or become extinct. What confuses this white furry giant is that its prey. the seal pup. After all. the seal pup would be in a snow cave dug out by its mother. Why care about the polar bear? Somewhere not that far from the North Pole stands a bewildered polar bear (Ursus maritimus). to most people. 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. 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.

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. or sometimes the Ethics of Nature. For example. What is important? In this chapter. we will probably not prioritize the preservation of the animal very highly.the daily trivialities of our lives once more. whereas if we believe that it is a creature that has ethical importance in itself. Since the 1970s. flowers and mosses and non-living things such as mountains. Can and should they be included in the ethical game somehow? Climate change raises a lot of questions of a scientific nature. the importance of this discussion becomes clear. that followed it. we will describe the four main positions within environmental ethics and discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Agents. The first group consists of ethical agents. plants and trees. These are beings that are able to understand the idea of ethics and that they have ethical obligations and that they should act accordingly. it is useful to divide the world into three groups of entities. An ethical agent is thus a person whom we would hold accountable for his or her actions. Basically. 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. Even though we might be able to imagine that there The Good. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 46  . what about animals such as shrimps and spiders. Questions such as these have been discussed within philosophy and theology throughout human history. If the only reason for saving the polar bear is our own aesthetic preferences. But – as in the case of the polar bear – climate change also raises ethical issues and emphasizes perennial questions in new ways. does causing such a drastic change on an ecosystem constitute a loss of value in itself? These are not easy questions to answer. an ethical agent is a being whom we would be justified in expecting to act in an ethical way. or because it is wrong to destroy an animal species? Alternatively. In the case of the polar bear. 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. rivers and ecosystems. we will extend the discussion of ethics beyond the purely human sphere to include the rest of nature. 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. subjects and objects To understand the discussion taking place within ethics about the ethical status of different beings. If we return to the example 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. then we may well consider its preservation to be very important. such issues have formed the foundation of the environmental movement and the new academic discipline: Environmental Ethics. far away from the melting ice and the hungry polar bears. 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. In the following. 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.

this means that ethical agents can be seen as a subgroup within the larger group of ethical subjects. therefore. because they might have an effect on someone or something that is an ethical subject. 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. the mentally disabled. At the same time. we can correlate the group of ethical agents with the group of humans that we would drag to court for doing something wrong. They are. The final group of entities that exists is comprised of ethical objects.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. Ethical objects Ethical subjects Ethical agents The Good. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 47  . The vase is merely an object that is only relevant to the extent that it has an effect on ethical subjects. It is widely accepted that there are ethical subjects that do not belong to the group of ethical agents. it is not the vase itself that is at the centre of the ethical considerations. so to speak. including children. Thus. which means that they not only have ethical obligations. but that they should be treated ethically. However. the act may be wrong because of the effect it may have on the owner of the vase. An ethical agent is someone who we rightfully expect to behave in an ethical way. Whether it is one or the other. To be an ethical subject simply means that ethical agents are obliged to take one´s interests into consideration when deciding what to do. chimpanzees and dolphins. ethical agents and subjects can be said to constitute the ethical community. the act of destroying the vase is not ethically wrong in itself. They have moral standing. These are entities which have no ethical importance in themselves. The term ‘subject’ is chosen to indicate that they are involved in the decision process as beings that cannot be reduced to mere objects. but ethical agents still have to take them into consideration. I might consider flowers to be ethical subjects. whereas ethical objects are not members of this community. people who are in a coma etc. for all practical purposes. In this case. they are only relevant in so far as they are means for the members to reach their goals. Ethical subjects are beings who have ethical importance in themselves. As illustrated in the figure below. Taken together. ethical agents are ethical subjects.g. Alternatively. e. at the centre of the decision in so far as they have to be taken into account in their own right. Ethical subjects are worthy of moral consideration. who therefore demand my ethical respect. people with senile dementia. very few would claim that a beautiful vase is an ethical subject and.

then they are beings with moral importance and they should be treated as such in agricultural production systems. four more or less distinct positions have crystallized that can be used to obtain an overview of the ethical landscape. this discussion might seem rather academic. there will be limits to how much pressure we can exert on animals to reach our own goals. and has had a major influence on the Western civilization’s view of the natural world. In the past 20 years. However. which in turn feed on fish. all use and protection of the natural world is conducted out of consideration for human needs and interests. However. for example in connection with energy consumption.If we use this conceptual scheme to organize the discussions within environmental ethics. From an anthropocentric sustainability perspective. This approach does not preclude taking nature and the environment into consideration. Initially. If animals are just ethical objects. An extended version of this view is found in the UN’s so-called Brundtland Report. If this is the case. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 48  . We would be able to do anything. but here we will treat them as uniform positions and only mention larger differences. and finally. controversy surrounds who or what belongs to the two other groups. this approach has had a notable impact on environmental and nature management. black people. ‘Our Common Future’ from 1987. i. Then there is the sentientist og zoocentric position which claims that all sentient beings are ethical subjects. women and sexual minorities) to understand the significance of the debate for our treatment of agricultural animals.g. the ecocentric position seeks to also include non-living entities such as mountains. which would then have a negative impact on The Good. humans are the only ethical subjects. waste policies and the protection of animal and plant species. rivers and more systemic entities such as species. e. as long as it allows us to produce more meat for less money. then the overarching question becomes: What belongs to each category? The discussion regarding which entities belong to the group of ethical agents is uncontroversial. if animals are ethical subjects. efficiency becomes the only limitation on our exploitation of animals in the agricultural production system. as it is basically humans of an age and mental capacity which means they can be held responsible for their actions.g. several sub-positions can be identified. Out of these efforts. Four ‘centrisms’ that explain it all As mentioned earlier. Within each category. It is predominant within the Christian philosophy of nature. 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. But. but it assumes that the consideration is indirect.e. Only humans allowed Anthropocentrism (from the Greek antropos: man) is an attitude which is prevalent throughout much of the Western world. because polar bears feed on seals. in which consideration for the needs of future generations is emphasized as the reason why we should change our behaviour towards the environment. the possible extinction of polar bears becomes interesting for a number of reasons. According to this view. fewer polar bears would mean fewer fish. ecosystems and landscapes. The biocentric position seeks to include all living beings (including plants) in the group of ethical subjects. 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. 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.

language. have developed through the evolutionary process and can thus be recognized in different animal species. birds use tools and the behaviour of elephants when one of their kind dies is very complex. Also. why this feature should be so ethically relevant as to be the sole criterion for entry into the ethical community would require justification. Thus. who boost local economies. anthropocentrists are still left with challenges: All human abilities. 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. and increasing criticism has been levelled at the anthropocentric viewpoint. According to welfarism. will have. This point of view is closely related to the welfarist perspective where the focus is solely on welfare. John Rawls (1921-2002). 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. One of the challenges for the anthropocentric perspective is to explain why it is only people who are ethically significant. If we strictly adhere to philosophical reasoning.fisheries within the region and local economies. as far as we know. or could have them because they belong to the species Homo sapiens.. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 49  . the criterion for being part of the ethical The Good. it is illegitimate to base one´s understanding of the relationship between humans and nature on scripture. but not only human beings. 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. 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. 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. the ability to use tools etc. Whales communicate. known as the argument form marginal cases has been put forward by. for example. the mentally disabled and people suffering from dementia. chimpanzees engage in social behaviour that can be interpreted as being moral in a rudimentary sense. thereby adversely affecting vulnerable human populations. and while only human beings are capable of solving complex mathematical problems. albeit to a far less developed degree. answered this challenge by pointing to the potential for these people to obtain the necessary abilities to be included in the anthropocentric ethical community. Whether or not one considers this to be a convincing answer to the challenge made by Singer. U U Now also accepting animals Since the 1960s. but others have had. logical thinking. many different qualities have been proposed such as reason. not all humans can do this. some of us actually have the necessary abilities. not all people possess these abilities such as children. are capable of feeling pain. However. The criticism which has had the most impact has come from the sentient (meaning having the power of sense perception or sensation) perspective. Why then draw a sharp dividing line between the human species and animals? Even if some unique human feature could be identified. polar bears attract tourists. more and more attention has been given to mankind’s relationship with nature. What about these individuals? This argument. all human beings. (Singer 2002) Another philosopher. For example. Therefore. 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.

have a good of its own.’ as criteria for moral standing. If you forget the whole you lose the parts Although Anthropocentrism. published the book. Taylor. supporters of a The Good. For Taylor. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 50  . Those beings are beings that. can feel empathy with all living things that is where the line is. As mentioned. your experiences contribute either positively or negatively to the combined quality of life and must therefore be taken into account. Stone. However. bushes and vegetables are thus not excluded from the moral realm. in which he argued in favour of a biocentric perspective based on the idea of a good of its own. few people will (or can) argue that the suffering of animals is ethically irrelevant. that the ability of humans to identify with ‘the other’ must be what defines the boundary of the ethical community. is only important in so far as it influences the individual. whilst Sentientism identifies the ability to feel pain and Biocentrism whether an entity is ‘living. Paul W. on the basis of our human experiences. do not share the same basic conditions with us in the same way and thus only have indirect ethical significance (i. 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. resulted in a growing focus on animal welfare in commercial livestock production and vivisection. according to Taylor. Thus follows that a thing that has a good of its own is an ethical subject. One of the first academic works to struggle with this question was written by Christopher D. It is the experience or good of the singular individual that is important. What happens to the community. Other biocentric positions argue. Respect for Nature. Sentientism and Biocentrism are very different in many ways. All living organisms – whatever their level of consciousness – should be considered ethical subjects and included in all ethical reflections.community is therefore the ability to feel comfort or pain. and one might claim that human beings should take precedence over animals. The claim is that the limits of the ethical community are drawn by the human ability to identification. Therefore. In 1986. all living beings – fauna and flora – belong to the ethical community. However. they are ethical objects). 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. or a purely biological affiliation with the species Homo sapiens. not many people today will claim that experiences of pain or pleasure are ethically irrelevant. This way of thinking has.e. Trees. who discussed the moral and legal status of non-sentient entities in his book: Should Trees Have Standing. Things and events can either help or damage it. “Trees have moral standing” Biocentric or life-centred ethical theories reject such an ethical distinction. whether it is human or ecologically understood. generally speaking. they share one common feature: all focus on the individual. One can discuss the extent to which different creatures should be part of ethical considerations. while. an American professor of law. mountains etc. among other things. A Theory of Environmental Ethics. rivers. Anthropocentrism identifies abilities which are deemed unique to humans. Taylor then made having a good of its own a condition for having an ethical value irrespective of everything else. animal welfare is also higher on the public agenda today than at any time previously. Inanimate objects such as rocks. Rather. 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. the American environmental ethicist. but should be considered alongside humans and animals when ethical questions arise.

. In other words. in the extreme sense. Therefore. its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals. you could argue that as long as the trees can be used for our benefit. . With fewer nutrients. Only the quality of the wood and the size of the trees are of interest. when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks. Leopold attempted to identify the ideals that should inform human interaction with nature: This song of the waters is audible to every ear. Humans are part of the natural world and are so closely associated with the rest of it that. Arne Næss (1912-2009). The so-called deep ecologists point out that current environmental problems. it makes no sense to distinguish between humans and nature. The Norwegian philosopher. such as air pollution and what they consider to be the ruthless exploitation of the natural world. the only mammal that relies on eucalyptus leaves as a source of food and water. The view of nature that governs our thinking is very important when discussing how humans ought to relate to nature. but there is other music in these hills. which have direct ethical significance. In the book. A small example can be used to illustrate the different ethical approaches in relation to climate change. Implicit in this argument is the belief that the natural world should be regarded as an instrument. . from an anthropocentric viewpoint. the value of the leaves as a food source is reduced. ecologist and forester. there are a number of competing views of nature which range from anthropocentrism. On a still night. but also magnitudes such as species and ecosystems. ethically speaking. He was an American environmentalist. Australian researchers discovered that an increased level of CO2 in the atmosphere reduces the nutrient content of the leaves of the eucalyptus tree while also increasing the number of naturally occurring toxins. require a rethinking of our role in the natural world and the environment. (Leopold 1949) Who cares about the koala? From a philosophical point of view. A Sand County Almanac (1949) has achieved an almost iconic status within wilderness conservation circles. . 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. are embedded in a larger ecosystem so that everything is interconnected. 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. other things being equal. Recently. together with other living individual organisms. the human exploitation of the natural world is a symptom of the fact that humans have forgotten the fundamental truth that they. 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. sit quietly and listen . where only people have ethical value. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 51  . which has implications for the koala bear. . Indeed. it is not only individual organisms. and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. via sentientism and biocentrism to ecocentrism. The individual in a certain sense is also all the ecological processes that it takes part in.holistic approach do not consider the above to be sufficiently far-reaching. Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is one of the most quoted thinkers within the ecocentric framework. may be understood as the ecosphere. by no means audible to all.its score inscribed on a thousand hills. whose book.a vast pulsing harmony . whereby the latter. which includes all living matter in the ethical community. The Good. The boundary of the individual is not the thin layer of skin covering the body. its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries. thus talks about the difference between the individual self and the ecological self. this development presents no ethical problem for humans now or in future. Then you may hear it . According to this perspective. 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.

along with others from the growing field of environmental psychology. Regardless of whether one adheres to one or the other kind of sentientism. like people. However. people have other needs such as an interest in. Biocentrism would maintain that such organisms are entitled to moral consideration. be counted as nature? What about old oak trees planted in fields? Or animals. what is actually meant by ‘nature’ is difficult to define.Therefore. you can justify the consequences of global warming for eucalyptus trees and koala bears. More far-reaching ethical viewpoints. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 52  . which has been created through human intervention. Culture is produced by humans and usually for humans. whether there is an ethical issue or not depends on whether the natural world serves our human interests or otherwise. water and shelter. ecocentrics would also consider how the changes in the nutritional values of the leaves would affect the overall ecosystem and the species within it. see the koala as being ethically important as an individual and as a species due to its role and niche in evolutionary development. such as biocentrism. To get a grasp on the concept of nature. or a desire to care for plants and animals. The opposite of culture is nature. it is clear that koalas need to be taken into consideration in their own right. With this enlarged welfare concept. to culturalize them. regardless of whether they benefit us directly or indirectly. Culture is the way in which humans shape the world socially. Nature is thus everything that is independent of humans: It is what is The Good. cheesecake. astronomy. as something which we humans appreciate – koala bears in Australia – would be threatened with extinction. Chairs are part of culture as is democracy. But what is nature? Even though the idea of nature plays a large role within discussions of environmental ethics. some other creature will almost certainly fill its ecological niche. namely culture. the declining nutritional value of the eucalyptus tree would become an ethical problem. who think more in an historical and individual context. Culture is what humans make. David Abram – an American ecologist and magician. from an anthropocentric point of view. but they are rarely clear about what should count as nature and what should not. 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. And to some philosophers it is not the individual being that counts. if the koala bear becomes extinct. would also be concerned about organisms which may be harmed through the effects of increased CO2 levels on the leaves. In addition to our need for food. soccer and writing. From a sentient viewpoint. One can of course argue that. practically and ideologically. It can take many different shapes and it can have both mental and physical qualities. this does not necessarily mean that. it is helpful to begin with the opposite of the concept. koala bears are entitled to consideration. 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. which is then everything that exists before humans begin to change things. Finally. Others. such as the dairy cow. On the other hand. so to speak. Most people adhere to the view that ‘nature’ should be protected. but the overall amount of joy and happiness in the world. as they are higher animals that are capable of feeling pain or happiness. according to the anthropocentric point of view the koala cannot expect consideration itself. Should a landscape such as the Danish heath land. have argued that humans basically need to maintain a relationship with plants and animals to be fully human. We should therefore show consideration for the koala out of regard for other people.

most living beings would (which may make you feel guilty for being such a lousy neighbour). To say that we should respect nature and then take care not to wipe out a certain species of birds. Even the most remote parts of the planet have been visited by humans. orcas. have been tamed and bred to serve humans needs. many people are thinking about something else when they describe something as being “nature” and therefore worthy of ethical consideration. desert sand. golf courses and parking lots. This criterion actually works very well as long as one stays within simple limits. fire and forest trees would do very well without humans around. Because humans have interfered and exercised power over increasingly large parts of nature. Here. The distinction between culture and nature has become more and more blurred as human cultures have evolved on the planet for the last 10. In the case of the parking lot. in this sense. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 53  . Nature and culture have been mixed in many different ways. it is very difficult to identify any remaining nature. So. 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. The air is nature as are spiders. it seems as if the nature ‘part’ of the animal is easy to discern. Nature is that which does not need us to unfold it´s potential. today it can be very difficult indeed to find something on the planet that is fully independent of humans. in both cases. As a matter of fact. The Good. drinkable water and edible food. Animals. lamas and chickens. such as climate change. what is there when we begin. are all-embracing. with all the mixed entities that humans have produced during the past millennia. 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. such as cows.000 years. The only question the anthropocentric has to answer is what kind of effects on human are relevant to take into consideration. The crucial factor for deciding what is ‘nature’ and what is ‘culture’ could thus be the independence of the phenomenon to humans. death. How to deal with mixed entities? But. The orca. whilst chemical compounds produced and used by humans can be found in nearly all living creatures and in general the effects of human pollution. it can be hard to find any “nature” today. however. However. pigs. 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. This sometimes means that we have to protect nature (non-human entities) since humans depend on it. But unfortunately the world is rarely that simple. forest strawberries. whereas if we look at the Sami way of breeding reindeer. 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. Strong anthropocentrism focuses solely on physical needs such as protecting nature so that it can provide us with breathable air. Here nature is seen as “the wild” or “wilderness”. therefore. and mountains. gradually gaining more and more power over the natural world through various technologies from the first ploughshare to cloning. This does not solve the problem. one can distinguish between two positions: strong and weak anthropocentrism. All we have to do is protect humans. 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.given. The weak anthropocentric position is broader and includes human needs for nature experiences and possibilities to bond with other living beings. but not extend those considerations to a certain brand of shoes seems initially right and can be explained by using this criteria.

A subject that is only becoming more and more pressing as the consequences of climate change are becoming clearer. for the biocentrist. we have an ethical obligation to minimize this. a cow is not an animal. Earlier. Some ecosystems. But at the same time. 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. Paul Taylor. as more and more nature becomes culturalized. Relatives that would feel they would not only loose the live of their loved one. But.The sentientist is not bothered by the indistinct the concept of nature either. are not natural in the sense that they are independent from humans. or at least show how their suffering is justified by a higher gain in quality of life elsewhere. such as those that have developed around agricultural production. To her. “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 possible. but already here we can face situations in which we cannot fulfil our ethical obligations to all involved at the same time. 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. What should we strive to preserve and what can we abandon? But. 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. this does not apply to domesticated animals as they have become so culturalized as to lose their independence of humans. The medical developments within organ transplantation mean that we can prolong human lives that would have been lost just a few years ago. a telos. the ecocentrist views cultural phenomena in nature as an unnatural disturbance that threatens the ecological balance of “wild” ecosystems. what we need to know about an entity is whether or not it can feel pain. it becomes increasingly difficult to uphold the distinction between nature and culture. according to Paul Taylor. Ethical dilemmas The discussion regarding what should belong to nature and what should belong to culture has great importance when we discuss environmental protection. Once we have decided what nature is. Such animals are no longer nature. whereas if the entity cannot experience pain. 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 her or his The Good. But. As cows are quite capable of feeling pain and mental distress. Therefore. as they are now so far from their original independent state that they have become a mere means to human ends. Very often. However. From an anthropocentric viewpoint. that is independent of humans. it belongs to the category of ethical objects and is thus only indirectly ethically relevant. but a biological factory. To the ecocentrist. we mentioned the American environmental philosopher. how should we go about prioritizing. but does this mean that we have no duty to take care of them? The ecocentrist’s 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. Whether the cow is considered to be mostly nature or mostly culture is unimportant. problems abound with the distinction between nature and culture. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 54  . independence (or rather lack of it) can lead to surprising conclusions. If it can. another complex issue lies before us as well. but also the death. only humans have ethical importance. these developments have resulted in additional pressure and discomfort for the relatives of the donor. and what should be considered members of the ethical community. He argues that all living beings have an ethical importance because they have a good of their own. but culture and therefore cannot claim membership of the ethical community. then we should include its interests in our attempt to maximize the overall quality of life.

but it is clear that if human interests always carry the most weight when it comes to the practical decision-making. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 55  . for example.organs were used for transplantation. Baird Callicott (1941-). where the individual animal is of no interest in itself. how one should navigate ethically in a landscape where beings other than humans should be taken into ethical consideration remains an open question. or leave it to evolve by itself etc. Very few are fanatics who would sacrifice human lives to protect nature. the French philosopher Luc Ferry (1951-). Therefore. but only its contribution to the overall amount of joy or suffering. thinkers such as the American. The use of animals in medical experiments. understood as that which results in the highest overall quality of life for all concerned parties. Should we cull the number of animals in National Parks. Within such a framework. In such a situation we cannot take heed of all the ethical demands involved. 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. There are no easy answers. 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. Although the criticism is often directed at the positions without an understanding of their complexity. 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 The Good. the destruction of rainforests to create more arable land. 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. whether we should actively meddle with nature. we have to decide what is important to protect. 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. Usually humans are deemed more important that animals. a critique levelled by. This is closely connected to the sentientistic welfarist perspective discussed above. Here the goal is to select the best available outcome. which in turn are considered more important than plants. 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. became notorious for claiming that it was more important to protect ecosystemic health than to save humans. but must prioritize. whilst deep ecologists claimed that the ecologically sustainable number of humans on the planet was around 250 million. J. but there are many conflicts regarding whose interests should carry the most weight. 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. any talk of the value of nature in itself or the rights of animals rings hollow. the destruction of coral reefs around the world due to pollution and rising ocean temperatures that are again linked to industrial production and CO2 emissions. Such claims led to a harsh criticism of these positions as being misanthropic.

Often taking care of nature also means taking care of humans. human influence has increased to such an extent that we now threaten most species on the planet. if we are not to destroy their very foundation. 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. at the same time. iv) Ecocentrism. Pollution of the air. Nature has always been a theme within philosophy and religion.e. A good way to structure the different positions within environmental ethics is to ask what should be considered an ethical agent. ii) Sentientism. if it is understood as that which is independent of humans in that it does not need us to flourish. The most obvious example of the detrimental impact of humans on the environment is climate change. Within environmental ethics. but it does not always result in a win-win situation. or if we want to avoid simply putting out the fires that attract the most media attention. ecosystems and species to be included in the ethical community The concept of Nature is not easy to define. not least because the authors disagree vehemently on this issue. increasing pressure on the welfare of production animals and climate change are all issues that bring this to the forefront of ethical debates. What is it we seek to preserve and why? As we have shown in this chapter. subject or object. 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. If the ethical community is expanded beyond the realm of humans. This. designed landscapes. Ethical agents can be held responsible for their actions. where non-living entities such as rocks. where all living beings are considered ethically important in themselves. 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. To some this is a clear sign that something must be done immediately. We will leave the question of which ethical view should prevail as open. but nevertheless might play a role to the extent that the use ethical agents make of them has an impact on ethical subjects. four main positions can be identified: i) Anthropocentrism where only humans are considered ethical subjects. but with the technological development since the start of the 19th Century. where animals are included in the ethical community since the ability to experience pain and joy is the central requirement here. rivers etc. soil and water. since life is the criterion to enter the ethical community and finally. then there is hardly any left on the planet. will increase. iii) Biocentrism. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 56  . One’s view of nature and how one The Good. we need to clearly think about which values we wish to act upon. however. 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. If it is understood as that which has not been influenced by humans. this needs clarification if we are not to act in the dark. Different ethical positions view these entities differently. are also considered ethical subjects along with more systemic entities such as landscapes. then more can be found. 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. animals that have been bred for millennia and plants that are utilized by humans. but also make quick decisions about how to organize our societies. However. In contrast.hard. However.

A Map. David (1996): The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-ThanHuman World. Rawls. Taylor. Peter (2002): Animal Liberation. Singer.prioritizes between conflicting values depends on one’s ethical viewpoint. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. Holmes III (1994): Conserving Natural Value. Leopold. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press. Warren. and the Environment (third edition). Further reading Carson. Mary Anne (1997): Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. Rolston. (1986): Respect for Nature. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press. Callicott. United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (1987): Our Common Future.. Norton. John (1999): A Theory of Justice (revised edition). the clarification of which becomes critical on an individual and a societal basis. Krebs. Oxford University Press. Environmental Ethics 6: 134-135. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Baird (1980): Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair. Angelika (1999): Ethics of Nature. Aldo (1949): A Sand County Almanac. Roderick Frazier (1989): The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. HU UH HU UH Ferry. New York: Columbia University Press. Bryan G. Christopher D. Luc (1992): The New Ecological Order. A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Morality. The University of Chicago Press. community and lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy (translated and revised by David Rothenberg). Nash. Naess. (2010): Should Trees Have Standing? Law. References Abram. Midgley. Mary (1983): Animals and Why They Matter. (1984): Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism. Environmental Ethics 2: 311338. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 57  . Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oxford University Press. Arne (1989): Ecology. Paul W. New York: Vintage Books. The Good. Rachel (2002): The Silent Spring 40th Anniversary Edition. United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development HU UH HU UH HU UH HU U. Stone. New York: HarperCollins. J.

 the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 58  .The Right 1B The Good.

Many ethical issues can involve potential conflicts between what is valuable and what is in the self-interest of people who. or spend. The Good. When I want to do what is best for me. 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. However. closely linked to action: I can make the world a better. promotes my individual interests. However. malnutrition and disease among the more than 1 billion very poor people living on the earth in 2011. approach to these questions. the authors of this book and many of our readers are in a position in which we could perform very worthy deeds. So the contractarian approach discussed in this chapter is not only theoretically simple. the argument is that complying with these duties indirectly. allowing moral behaviour to be viewed as a form of self-interest. for example. of course. However. The question then is how should I handle this conflict from an ethical point of view? 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. fully or partly. but choose not to out of convenience or self-interest. I try to find out what matters most to me in the long run. Thus. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 59  . about what matters. According to this approach. and knowing about what matters is therefore relevant to my deliberations on how to act in various situations. in to ground wider ethical duties. One obvious issue where this is relevant is helping poor people in the developing world. This is. minimalistic.6 8B Contractarianism So far in this book we have been talking about values. there is a very simple link between what matters and what one should do. it also allows for an easy moral life. in this chapter we will discuss an influential. Sometimes. And there is often a conflict between what matters to me and what matters to others or to the world at large. 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. which could channel our money into projects which alleviate hunger. Thus. 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. and if so. are in a position to generate valuable outcomes. 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. The good (or bad) consequences that follow from my actions may affect different individuals. Thus. or a worse place through what I do. Thus. our focus will be on the questions: Do I have a duty to help others. at the end of the chapter we will discuss why some people think that it is too easy. individually or collectively. on helping poor people who would live in utter misery without help. or in the long run. contractarianism is morality made easy. my only fundamental duty as an individual is to look after my own interests and. groups or the world in different ways. the situation is usually not that simple.

a bit like saying I only care about myself. Therefore. there is a way of supporting the answer with a principle which is in accordance with the requirement of universalizability. On the face of it.” I am implying that there is a more general ethical principle in play. However. 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. which. it may be a good idea to help if helping prevents poor people from doing things which may harm my interests. The short term interest of every person is to live out these selfish passions. I am not just claiming that I want to do this. which can be labelled ethical egoism. Rather. This can be done by saying that ethically speaking. which is based on the idea of the social contract. There was a very real and grim background to Thomas Hobbes’ reflections on why one should obey a political authority.However. in its present form. Hare (1919-2002) in his book Freedom and Reason from 1963. by formulating the principle in this way. When I adopt an ethical perspective. rather than on projects aimed at alleviating poverty in the poor parts of the world. or at least limit. rather I am putting forward a general view. to do this would run counter to a willingness to obey a king or any other political authority. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 60  . 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. The Good. was most forcefully advanced by the British philosopher R. Rather. everybody ought to prioritize helping themselves and those they care about. Everybody ought to look after her or his own interests. Thus. I am not just pleading for myself. I am saying that I ought to do this or that.M. we will begin by giving a brief introduction to Hobbes and his development of the approach. So. it follows that I should only help others if I and those dear to me will ultimately benefit. according to this approach to ethics. piracy or terrorism. aggression and envy. this answer sounds very selfish. By using the word “ought to. our ethical duties must ultimately be derived from selfinterest. about why an individual should do anything other than what benefits him. place or time. even though they may be exactly like me in all relevant respects. Therefore. that I should not help anyone apart from myself and those that I care about does not follow from ethical egoism. or that. His starting point was a very pessimistic view on human nature: Man is a selfish creature driven by passions such as dominance. For example. He lived in England in a period of civil war and unrest. I fail to take that principled stance. However. illegal immigration. where no special reference is made to a specific person. or those close to him. which is characteristic of taking an ethical perspective on things. However. to donate relatively little or to vote for politicians who prioritize spending money for the good of their electorate. donating money to developing countries may be seen as a means to prevent. for example. 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. Thus. many of us choose not to donate. This is a version of the so-called requirement of universalizability. 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. This approach to ethics dates back to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). raised above. I appear to be giving myself a special status that I am unwilling to grant other people.

that people are of more or less equal strength.e. he imagines two potential states in which a person can choose to live. that we ought to do what in the long run best serves our self-interest. which would limit the individual’s opportunities for fulfilling her short term interests. it is much more likely that most people will end up in a very poor position. poor. Hobbes thought that the only stable society would be a form of dictatorship governed by an absolute ruler. firstly whether this view is actually true. one can question. we will first take a closer at the premise of self-interest: Is it really true that we are all selfish. By starting with the premise of self-interest in combination with the requirement of rationality. that we only ought to be motivated by self-interest. Living in a state of nature has the advantage that the individual can follow her own inclinations. Assuming. The psychological version of this view claims that as a matter of fact human beings are always motivated by self-interest when they act. i. We will not analyze the details of Hobbes’ political thinking here. forces us to accept ethical egoism. then the individual has rather poor prospects of achieving a dominant position. the situation will turn into what Hobbes calls a "war of all against all". Psychological egoism seems to be the starting premise for Hobbes. So Hobbes adopts a contractarian approach to answering the question of why one should obey an external political authority. However. In the words of Hobbes. 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 one’s promises. and short". Since everyone else is doing the same. they will live lives that are "solitary. along with Hobbes. the focus is not on why one should do what the state requires. 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. if true. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 61  . this comes at a price. Here. whereas the ethical version of the view claims that one only ought to pursue one’s own interests. Indeed. and how does this relate to ethics? Psychological egoism The view that only self-interest matters is often labelled egoism. This society would be founded on a social contract whereby the ruler is granted power on the condition that he guarantees a social order.According to Hobbes. In this experiment.e. 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. Hobbes sets up a thought experiment to argue the point that it is indeed in an individual’s interest to sacrifice her short term interests for the sake of a social order. Before looking at how this is done. i. By comparison. The Good. One is a state of nature where each and every person lives according to her own selfish inclinations. and secondly whether the view. is if it is in her long term self-interest. 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. However. but on why one should abide by moral norms. the only reason an individual can have for obeying an authority. which require one to consider the interests of others – even when this goes against one’s own short term interests. brutish. 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 protection). individuals may still have egoistic reasons to abide by orders issued by a political authority. the state of society will be a much better deal. nasty. and normally a distinction is drawn between a psychological and an ethical version of this view.

Mother Teresa (1910-1997) who spent more 45 years of her life caring for the poor. 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. Given that our preferences show themselves through the way we act. One problem is that psychological egoism turns into a view that is true by definition. but that their ultimate motive is always self-interest: When we do something for others. expends his energy on securing his own financial position rather than looking after the interests of the shareholders and the costumers. for example. which goes against his personal inclination. This kind of behaviour is not uncommon. it is hard to imagine any kind of action that isn’t selfish. where not all acts need to be selfish. an architect who worked at the Twin Towers in New York. an effort for which she received many honours. However. 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. there are also examples of people who act in a way that most would consider unselfish. it is always so that we can feel good and/or obtain personal benefits. He only performs the act because it is what he is motivated to do − and not because of some call of duty. or get any personal benefits as a result of his deed. This reply may be difficult to refute in the case of Mother Teresa. it is possible to come up with other examples. Let us try to elaborate on this problem further. However. In light of this assumption. One such example is the many reports of soldiers saving fellow soldiers by throwing themselves on grenades. which are not susceptible to this kind of response. When a boss of a large bank.To say that we are all egoists. the soldier only does what is in his own personal interest. In this respect. sick. among other things the Nobel peace prize in 1979. orphaned. This may seem to be a positive thing for the adherent of psychological egoism – if one’s view is true by definition then it is not possible to argue against the view. for example. It assumes that selfish action is defined as action where one acts according to one’s own preferences. who seems to have been driven by a strong religious motivation. this advantage comes at a very high price. about the nun. However. this reply suffers from two closely related problems. However. 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. Think. One dramatic example was provided by Frank De Martini. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 62  . Such a soldier will immediately die and therefore cannot expect to feel good. critics have questioned whether Mother Teresa actually managed to help the people in her care in the best way possible. Predominant egoism Normally. then all voluntary acts are by definition selfish. 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. which is the second problem: That the view becomes irrelevant to the discussion about egoism in the ordinary meaning of the word. and who received huge personal benefits in terms of personal honours and recognition. whereby personal salvation may well have been part of the equation. is to make a very strong claim which seems very easy to falsify. in the sense that the only thing which motivates us to act is selfinterest. Also. we consider it to be selfish behaviour. which result from being seen as a person who is willing to help others. During the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 he was The Good. and dying people in the slums of Calcutta and in other parts of the world.

where the person in question has preferences which include what is good for others. and may serve as a starting point for a discussion of ethical egoism. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 63  . all sorts of motives may have been involved. the adherent of psychological egoism may claim that in most cases people act in a selfish way. However. non-self-interested motives usually give way to self-interested motives when there is a conflict.working with his wife Nicole in the North Tower when it was hit by the first airplane. and the soldier who pushes his friend onto the grenade. According to the New York Times (1 December 2001): “When the north tower was struck. where the person in question only acts for his own good and unselfish acts. we need to be able to distinguish between selfish acts. As a result. it is a wise move for the adherent of psychological egoism to abandon protecting her position by making it true by definition. and therefore he may have felt some personal responsibility. Nicole De Martini was just leaving her husband's office on the 88th floor. Finding a stairway that was still intact. This means that allowance must be made for the occurrence of some actions which are unselfish. he was by all normal standards acting in an unselfish. we may say that human action in general is predominantly motivated by self-interest. So. Predominant Egoism says that self-interested motives tend to take precedence over non-self-interested motives in determining human actions. let’s assume that psychological egoism. is true and that therefore human beings as a matter of fact are predominantly motivated by self-interest. 64) This view has some initial plausibility at least. so therefore it follows that I should only care about myself – no reason for feelings of guilt or second The Good. between the soldier who jumps on the grenade. way because he risked (and lost) his own life to help others in a situation in which he could easily have chosen to escape. before the event he had given public testimony saying that the towers would be able to withstand a collision from a modern airplane. e. So. However. if not heroic. at the end of the day. Suppose someone says: “I am the kind of person who. 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. Thus. psychological egoism as defined above prevents one from making useful distinctions between different behaviours. 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. for the sake of argument. now defined as predominant egoism. That is.g. 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 fact. in light of the risk of becoming irrelevant to the ordinary discussion concerning selfishness. p. Of course. (Kavka 1986. he ushered her to safety. only cares about myself and my own interests. He and his helpers all died. It would be difficult to argue that De Martini was acting in a selfish way. For example. Thus. In contrast.” De Martini went back with three helpers and was instrumental in helping more than 50 people to escape. But he refused to follow just then because others needed help. The adherent of psychological egoism would endorse what the American philosopher Gregory Kavka (1947-1994) has called “predominant egoism”: In most general form. instead of saying that all acts are by definition selfish.

And this doesn’t appear plausible in the light of the version of psychological egoism under consideration here. To get from psychological to ethical egoism. and. and we may even have to abide by moral principles which run counter to what at first glance seems to be our self-interest. one may start by noticing that the inference from psychological to ethical egoism is not logically valid. we may sometimes have to forego short-term benefits.” Looking at matters from a more theoretical and less personal point of view. If each betrays the other. How should the prisoners act? (Wikipedia) Assume that the self-interested goal of both prisoners is to serve as short a time as possible in prison. 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). So. so say that we are simply unable to do anything more than just looking after our own self-interest. To fulfil this requirement. ethical egoism. To get to an “ought” one would need at least one ethical statement among the premises. we are required to consider the interests of others. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation.thoughts. Following the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and his many later followers. Assume. one could say that any sort of ethical “ought. HU UH However. The main argument in favour of this makes use of the so-called ‘prisoner’s dilemma. the point is that to reach the optimum result. is asking us to do something we are unable to. Then. each of us pursuing our self-interest is insufficient – some additional norms or principles are required. one need not go so far as to require that one does not give oneself any sort of preferential treatment. or to some extent. having separated both prisoners. by denying ethical egoism. If both remain silent. visit each of them to offer the same deal. is the only tenable ethical position. that there is no point in saying that we ought to do something if we are not able to. the argument goes. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction. each receives a five-year sentence. both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. To deny ethical egoism. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other). 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). One way to try to fill the gap is by appealing to the principle that “ought implies can”. The point here is that ethical egoism requires us to pursue our self-interest in the long run. The Good.” which asks us to do more than just look after our own self-interest. 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. The dilemma can be presented in the following way: Two suspects are arrested by the police. furthermore. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. 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 betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence.” 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. one only has to claim that sometimes.e. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 64  .’ The prisoner’s dilemma The prisoner’s dilemma is a part of game theory which is a form of applied mathematics that aims to model behaviour in strategic situations. Therefore. i. predominant egoism.

To establish moral limits on our individual attempts to maximize our welfare. generate better outcomes for us than a strategy where we pursue our own self-interest. it will rational for A to betray B. In this case. depending on the decisions of the two prisoners: Prisoner B Remains Silent Prisoner A Remains Silent Each serves 6 months Prisoner A Betrays Prisoner A: goes free Prisoner B: 10 years Prisoner B Betrays Prisoner A: 10 years Prisoner B: goes free 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. it will also be in the self-interest of A to betray. The clear advantage of this approach. This serves to illustrate that sometimes the best result. he defends a specific contractarian foundation of morality and tries to argue that rationality requires one to act in accordance with moral norms. he imagines a hypothetical bargaining situation in which we all meet and try to negotiate a deal. The hypothesis pursued by contractarian philosophers is that a strategy. in the long run. is that it is closely linked to human motivation. Gauthier takes his starting point in the assumption that we are all concerned with maximizing our individual welfare. it will be rational for each prisoner to betray the other. since this will reduce the sentence from 10 to 5 years. the result will be that they will each end up serving a 5 year prison sentence. However. while they could have got away with only 6 months had they both remained silent. The outcome of The Good. Contractarian ethics The most prominent proponent of contractarian ethics is the Canadian-American philosopher David Gauthier (1932-). is not achieved if everyone just does what is rationally necessary in the pursuit of personal interests.according to normal standards of rationality. because it is founded on self-interest. then each would only have had to serve a 6 month sentence instead of 5 years in prison. So to betray is what is known as the dominant strategy in game theory. involving concern for others may. So whatever B does. Thus. if both A and B act rationally according their own self-interests. In his book Morals by Agreement from 1986. According to contractarian ethics. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 65  . 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. including a number of ethical norms and principles. Assume then that prisoner B betrays. ethical norms and principles can be viewed as elements of strategies we set up to get the most out of our lives. from a purely selfish point of view. That this is the case can be inferred from the following diagram which outlines the different possible outcomes. according to ethics. if both prisoners had followed at strategy that under normal circumstances one should never betray a fellow prisoner. We shall now turn to this approach. where he defines welfare in terms of preference satisfaction (see chapter 3).

there are positive gains in the form of benefits of direct collaboration with others. p. but no more than this. Even though the outcome will be less than ideal. are to be defended by showing that adherence to them permits persons to cooperate in ways that may be expected to equalize. fair dealing. “minimax relative concession”. we are only motivated by self-interest. 14). For example. 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. there is what one might call “negative gains”. However. the person will try to minimize the difference between. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 66  . There are two kinds of gains that may follow from the widespread acceptance of moral norms. Firstly. 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. and. doesn’t it The Good. in that others refrain from robbing. p. in the hypothetical bargaining situation. you. So each person will try to minimize the price she or he has to pay. However. what about norms for the sharing of goods? Aren’t there significant potential conflicts of interest that could arise among the contractors concerning these norms? And therefore. The norms mentioned by Gauthier. on the other hand. 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. Secondly. promise keeping. Each person must make a bid with is good enough to convince others to strike a deal and to comply with it. We may suppose that promise-keeping. at least roughly. More specifically. Because each individual is only willing to sacrifice the minimum in order to strike a functioning deal. as long as they trust others to do the same. in the spirit of Hobbes. Of course. while others obey moral rules and thereby limit the pursuit of their short-term interests. These norms will serve as constraints on the ability of each to satisfy short-term interests. on the one hand. by combining their talents. the outcome whereby the individual also has to comply with a set of moral norms. Gauthier asserts that the so-called principle of. they can achieve much more than if they had acted on their own. However. These are among the core practices of the morality that we may commend to each individual by showing that it commands his rational agreement. truth-telling and fair dealing. the market cannot stand alone – it only functions within the framework of a well-functioning society. we will all try to obtain the gains at the least possible individual price. seem useful from any perspective. there will also be gains. 156) Thus. Since according to the assumptions made by Gauthier. This is fully in the spirit of Gauthier. murdering. 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. which is that everyone pursues their own short-term interests without any constraints.the deal is a set of moral norms that everyone will agree to comply with. the relative benefits afforded by interaction. (Gauthier 1986. the idea is that everyone will consider it to be worth the effort to comply with certain basic moral norms. truthtelling. it will still be much better than the fall-back option. which is to be able to pursue one’s own interests without any limitations. who claims that “markets and morals share the non-coercive reconciliation of individual interest with mutual benefit” (Gauthier 1986. two persons can set up a firm and. the ideal outcome. raping and in other ways assaulting you in pursuit of their individual interests. So.

(Gauthier 1986. The argument for this is as follows: Otherwise those who consider themselves taken advantage of in initial acquisition will perceive society as unfair. even in situations in which non-compliance seems to be more beneficial from the point of view of the individual. but the step from hypothetical agreement to actual moral constraint. (Gauthier 1986. these principles as constraining his choices? A theory of morals by agreement must answer this question. in demanding payments from them without offering a compensating return. 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. will probably be against. the answer to this question will depend on why there is this difference between the two of us. and if the other The Good. why should I then comply when a deal has been made? Why shouldn’t I attempt to free ride? It seems as if the prisoner’s dilemma reappears here. However. there is justification for re-distribution. p. this kind of reply raises some very fundamental questions about Gauthier’s contractarian project. How should this conflict be solved? According to Gauthier. Why need he accept. If the other person complies. Such principles may also play a role in solving the problem about why people should comply when a deal has been struck. In this case. if you are poor because I (or my ancestors) have taken advantage of you (or your ancestors) then. according to Gauthier. 201) One may question whether the claim which is made here is really true. concerns about fairness do not seem to have any role to play. and will lack sufficient reason to accept market arrangements or to comply voluntarily with co-operative joint strategies. So. had he found himself among them in a context initially devoid of moral constraint. Here. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 67  . p. Suppose that each person recognizes himself as one of the parties to agreement. However. during negotiations for a moral contract. The principles forming the object of agreement are those that he would have accepted ex ante in bargaining with his fellows. it is as if Gauthier smuggles in the assumption that people are not only motivated by self-interest. The main idea of the project. that the poor will still fail to comply. If there is no relation between you being poor and me being rich then it doesn’t matter. according to the quotation. but they are also guided by some moral principles about what is “fair” and “reasonable”. then I may benefit from not complying.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. 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. to which I. the rich person. ex post in his actual situation. which does not include the re-distribution of wealth. 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. because they find the arrangement “unfair”. Why shouldn’t poor people think that a limited deal. To this Gauthier would reply. 9) If I am merely driven by concern for my own self-interest. you may opt for norms which require rich people to share their possessions with poor people. as described above. Gauthier is fully aware of this problem: The genuinely problematic element in a contractarian theory is not the introduction of the idea of morality. is better than no deal? Relatively speaking.

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. “animals. humans have nothing generally to gain by voluntarily refraining from (for instance) killing animals or ‘treating them as mere means’.e. If the critics are right. the congenitally handicapped and defective. compared with not doing so. the unborn.e. 268). to become what Gauthier calls “constrained maximizers” of self-interest. So free riding seems to be the rational choice in both scenarios. we only have to consider the interests of those on whose collaboration we depend. i. at least in the long run. fall beyond the pale of a morality tied to mutuality” (Gauthier 1986. Therefore. For there are evident shortcomings on both scores. smuggled in the moral point of view that the contractarian theory was supposed to ground. people who have internalized the relevant moral principles and who are therefore disposed to do what morality requires. Critics of this solution to the problem of free riding have argued that Gauthier has. we will look at one example of how the theory deals with one kind of being which cannot enter into a contract. this does not mean that the whole contractarian project has to be discarded. to be able to pursue our own long term self-interest. it will be clear why animals do not have rights. 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. we need to train ourselves (or more realistically. i.person does not comply. Thus. we must stop merely thinking about our own self-interest and instead internalize moral norms. morally speaking. Therefore. Thus. 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. and 2) they are capable of entering into (and keeping) an agreement. which is to claim that moral requirements should be minimal and based on mutual advantages to those who are part of the moral community. according to Gauthier for example. In the remainder of this chapter. On the one hand. animals. And on the other. according to the critics. People are dependent on the The Good. in a way. And. Limits of moral consideration: The case of animals Contractarian morality only applies to individuals who can enter into a ‘contract’ with the moral community. There is also another side to the project. the idea is that in order to do what is in our individual best interests in the long run. which limit the immediate pursuit of one’s own interests. I will certainly benefit by not complying. the consequence of this is that it takes more than selfishness and rationality to motivate someone to act morally. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 68  . morality is a sort of agreement among rational. even if we wanted to have them do so… (Narveson 1983. 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. However. p. On this basis. there is clearly a morally relevant difference between an individual’s relationship with other human beings and with animals. according to contractarianism. independent. the contractarian philosopher Jan Narveson (1936-) has argued that animals have no moral rights: On the contract view of morality. animals cannot generally make agreements with us anyway. or at least most us. We have it for reasons of long-term self-interest. pp. […] Given these requirements. selfinterested persons. rather than do what seems best from a narrow rational point of view. then the idea of founding a certain form of morality purely on selfishness and rationality breaks down. 56-58) According to the contractarian view.

KEY POINTS The aim of this chapter has been to start a discussion of what is the morally right way to act. even though there may be negative side-effects both for the environment and human health. in this respect. less popular. animal use can become an ethical issue. through animal experimentation. but who in turn are entirely dependent on us. which we will do in the next chapter. 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 population. the animal community will not strike back if. an individual only needs to treat animals well enough for them to be fit for his or her own purposes. The contractarian view accords with attitudes to animal treatment which are common across many societies. species such as rats and pigs. levels of protection will differ across different species of animals. a source of convenient and delicious food. For example.respect and cooperation of other people. human concerns. for example. Can it really be correct to assert that causing suffering to animals. For the contractarian. 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. non-human animals cannot enter into a contract. From a selfish point of view. be it animals or humans. it is possible to develop new medicines and other ways to cure. because most people like cats and dogs more than rats and mice. By contrast. Similarly. will always depend on. Inevitably. contractarianism makes our moral life easy. and be secondary to. However. or agreement. And for this reason. since neither animal suffering nor the killing of animals is an ethical problem per se. People are generally more troubled by the suffering of their favourite animals. governing future conduct. even for a trivial reason or for no reason at all. prevent or alleviate human diseases. most people tend to like some types of animals more than others. Also. since any rights to protection which animals might have. these will respond by treating him or her badly in return. any form of animal use is in itself ethically acceptable. so they therefore cannot join the moral community. for example. In view of this. whether one’s victim is a human being or an animal. animal production is an important source of income for many people. which is in contrast to the discussion The Good. 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. because it is in a person’s interests to get what he or she likes. If someone treats their fellow humans badly. Our use of animals may even be ethically desirable. one may wonder whether it becomes too easy. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 69  . Thus. such as cats and dogs. For example. and dislike the practice of their being used in this or that way. is usually of greater concern than our treatment of other. it serves to explain why our treatment of species which many people feel close to. it is. they may prefer a moral theory that gives weight to a concern for the wellbeing of these vulnerable beings from the outset. And in any case. on whose collaboration we do not depend. of course. since it often brings human benefits. To many more people. some of its members are used in painful experiments. Central to this discussion is the perspective of the acting individual. as Narveson points out. But the contractarian view of animals is highly anthropocentric. One way of catering for such a preference is by shifting from a contractarian to a consequentialist point of view.

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 prisoner’s 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 Gauthier’s 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 selfinterested reason to accept the contract. An influential criticism of Gauthier’s 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. References 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 Press. Narveson, Jan (1983): Animal rights revisited. In: Ethics and animals (eds.: H.B. Miller & W.H. Williams). Clifton NJ: Humana Press. Wikipedia (undated): Prisoner’s Dilemma. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner's_dilemma

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Further reading Rachels, James (2003): The Elements of Moral Philosophy (4th 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 one’s 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 doesn’t matter whether these good or bad things befall me or someone else. 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 world’s 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 four‐year 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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In this respect. the ethical principle which will be discussed in this chapter. Ethical egoism. not artificial at all. as described in the previous chapter. discuss the factual claims on the base of which these conclusions are drawn – as many people have done. 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. is partial in the sense that one person benefits. The kind of moral thinking applied by the Copenhagen Consensus.benefits compared to costs”. better to spend money on providing vitamin supplements to children than to spend the same amount of money on initiatives to prevent climate change. Thus. Many more children suffer from a lack of mental development as a consequence of vitamin A deficiency. each of us should always act so as to generate the best possible total outcome. according to the economists. but according to the experts. Rather. 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. such as vitamin A and zinc. The consequentialist idea According to consequentialism. These resources can be turned into money if one takes a paid job for example. So. The consequentialist view. It does not distinguish between who receives the benefits.e. according to the panel. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 73  . that we should always use scarce resources so as to do the maximum amount of good. is impartial. according to consequentialism. money is just a currency which allows us to measure the effects of our efforts. is not only a problem which is cheap to solve – if it is not solved it leads to severe problems for children. A deficiency of micronutrients. The rather artificial sounding situation imagined by the Copenhagen Consensus. this is how our whole moral life should be. it is it is important to see that there is also an ethical side to the discussion. Up to half a million of these children go blind every year – half of them dying within 12 months of losing their eyesight. Thus. 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. of course. all that matters is the total extent of the benefit. among other things. there is scope to do much more at the cost of only a few dollars per child. A lot has already been done to prevent micronutrient deficiency in children living in the poor parts of the world. This is because attempting to prevent climate change will be much more expensive and the effects of the initiatives are much more uncertain. However. on the other hand.e. i. Thus. the benefits attributed to the person who is acting are given priority. according to consequentialism. One may. either by doing something good or preventing something bad from happening. consequentialism can be seen as the opposite of contractarianism. only about the total The Good. a key feature of consequentialism is impartiality – all potential beneficiaries matter equally . it is still. Each and every person possesses a certain amount of resources in terms of what that person can do. whilst a lack of zinc is. even though malnutrition in children is a smaller problem than climate change. Let us try to unpack this idea. related to increased susceptibility to diarrhoea from which nearly 2 million children die annually.it does not matter who benefits. i. 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. exemplifies consequentialism. However. 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.

according to which pleasure and the absence of pain is what matters. Before the trip. Therefore. What immediately becomes clear from this definition is that consequentialism utilizes an account of what is valuable in its own right. Yet this is a controversial claim as we shall see later in this chapter.at least in some cases. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or. hedonism. is Jeremy Bentham. most people hold a consequentialist point of view . let us try to define consequentialism a little more precisely. or in other words. Imagine. warm clothes and sleeping bags (just in case of an emergency). As we have seen in chapters 3-5. 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. The founding father of utilitarianism. 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 we discuss this claim in more detail. they are stuck in the hut with nothing to eat or drink or anything to keep them warm. which claims that the morally right action is the one which brings about the highest possible amount of welfare. This does not mean that one’s own benefit does not matter from a consequentialist point of view. through their own fault. therefore. One’s own good matters according to consequentialism – but no more than any other person’s benefit. there is not one generally agreed upon view as to what is valuable in its own right and. In chapter 3. The classical version of consequentialism is utilitarianism. that you are trekking in the mountains with some friends when you are suddenly caught in bad weather. However. if they share their resources they will still survive. the other half of the group has sufficient food and water and they are able to keep themselves warm. we saw how he defended a specific account of welfare. In light of this. or is what is valuable in its own right. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 74  . but they will be hungry. consequentialism can be defined as the view that the right thing to do is to always maximize the good. Utilitarianism 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. therefore. 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. there will also be different varieties of consequentialism depending on what account is given of the good. what is the same thing in other words. Unfortunately. However. 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.extent of the benefit. half the participants have not brought these things with them and so. consequentialism is not the same as pure altruism. who also coined the phrase utilitarian. to promote or to oppose The Good. He therefore gave the following account of his version of consequentialism. However. However. each participant agreed to bring food and water for a whole week. which he calls the principle of utility: By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. we should always do whatever results in the maximum outcome of what is valuable in its own right. for example. thirsty and very cold. the consequences of not helping are so serious that it is simply not a viable option. according to which one should only be concerned about others. Most people would probably agree with this decision and. The optimal balance of pleasure and pain is what he calls happiness.

according to Bentham. 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. The same is true in the case of collective action taken by political institutions. but of every measure of government. be it through a fine. but it contains a serious ambiguity. Bentham was trained as a lawyer and he considered the system of punishment in England at that time to be irrational and immoral. Peter Singer and other contemporary consequentialist philosophers. the slogan of utilitarianism should only be. whereby it is used to prevent crime in the long or the short run. and therefore not only of every action of a private individual.that happiness. (Bentham 1789) So. This may happen either directly.” As we saw in chapter 3. the goal of everyone should be to create happiness. “the greatest happiness” whilst the slogan of consequentialism should be. First harm is caused through a crime and then more harm is added by punishing the perpetrator. either by reforming the character of the criminal or by deterring potential criminals from engaging in criminal activities. defended a form of utilitarianism which holds that the satisfaction of higher pleasures matters more than the satisfaction of lower pleasures. will often give the highest total welfare. It speaks both about the greatest sum of happiness and the greatest number of people affected. that many people do not share this view. Mill. 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. “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the measure of right and wrong. medicine or equipment. During wars and disasters. since spreading resources between many needy people. but rather to focus on a smaller group comprised of those who are most likely to survive if treated. “the greatest good. Often these two things will go hand in hand. In some places. One political area in which Bentham himself invested a lot of energy was the criminal code. According to utilitarian thinking. the norm is to opt for the larger good in terms of the number of people surviving. This is a nice slogan for utilitarianism. Many often argue for punishment in the form of retribution. that it is better to be a sad Socrates than a happy pig. 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. is accepted by most of those who work professionally in the area of punishment and crime prevention. who was also a consequentialist. Bentham claims that according to utilitarianism. for example if a criminal is held in jail and thereby prevented from committing more crimes. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 75  . 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.g. This view of punishment. John Stuart Mill argued for a modified hedonistic view according to which higher pleasures matter more than lower ones – e. I say of every action whatsoever. imprisonment or capital punishment. So in reality. rather than focusing on a few. 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. However. or indirectly. Similarly. simple hedonism is not the only account of what is meant by welfare. in such a situation. This is a tough decision for the doctors to make. punishment as such just adds more misery to misery. 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 Bentham’s version increase pleasure and limit pain). But. Based on this. defend an account of welfare in terms of The Good. according to utilitarian thinking. punishment can only be justified if it prevents more harm than it creates. However. However. it is not difficult to come up with examples where this is not the case. at least as part of the justification for punishment.

However. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 76  . then as a special mark of the occasion. 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. This aside.preference satisfaction. then there is no special occasion. if Jim refuses. whilst there may also be some legal issues here. “preference utilitarianism”. in terms of pleasure and pain with a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. If he does not shoot the Indian. and himself. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians. but he is likely to feel at least as guilty if. explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who. understand the situation. The men against the wall. and are obviously begging him to accept. or in terms of preference satisfaction. What should he do? (Smart & Williams 1973. shoot the person. The British philosopher. in front of them several armed men in uniform. by refusing to kill the Indian. after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition. after recent acts of protest against the government. consequentialists are those who focus solely on achieving the maximum valuable outcome. since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land. Moore (1873-1958). with some desperate recollection of schoolboy action. To illustrate. he ends up feeling responsible for nineteen unnecessary deaths. or does not. Bernard Williams (1929-2003): Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. In contrast. one person will die. Jim should kill the Indian. wonders whether if he got hold of a gun. most terrified. However. a few defiant. If he does. there is bound to be some uncertainty about what will actually happen if Jim does. 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. Of course. he could hold the captain Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat. According to this view. 98-99) Of course. is the one that results in the highest level of preference satisfaction. more commonly. the captain is happy to offer him a guest's privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. Jim will feel guilty for the rest of his life if he kills an innocent person. G. but nineteen will survive. The main distinction between the different forms of utilitarianism concerns the way in which welfare is defined. Thus. consider the following example provided by the British philosopher. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and. what should be done is clear from a consequentialist perspective: Jim should of course shoot one Indian. when viewed from a consequentialist perspective the decision is obvious. for example to prevent innocent people from being killed. be it simply in terms of pleasure and pain. the other Indians will be let off. or minimizing a negative outcome. Here. and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived. If Jim accepts. 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. the individual in question will still be killed and so will his comrades. 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. non-consequentialists are those who focus on things other than just the outcome. who would otherwise go on living a good life. Jim.E. pp. The Good. the right action. in relation to the affected persons (and animals – to the extent that they also have preferences). Their view is therefore labelled. are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. 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. and kill them all. and the other villagers.

as described by Bernard Williams. other things being equal. for the consequentialist. but he personally will not shoot any of them. However. which allows the end to justify the means. according to some moral views. Something like this a non-consequentialist may argue in this case. according to other agent-relative positions. The morally preferred line of action does not depend on whether you see the situation from the point of view of the acting person. can be problematic. Now Jim has the choice to either kill one of the Indians. To illustrate the point. As we shall see. . in this case Jim. Here. then twenty Indians will be shot. what matters is whether an outcome is intentionally caused by the actions of the agent or by someone else. it might be considered mitigating circumstances if the Indian who Jim is considering killing is begging to be killed. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 77  . whether or not Jim should kill the Indian in this situation depends on how the consequences add up. the decision that Jim should abstain from killing the Indian cannot be taken for granted. Legal issues aside. Why should Jim let himself get caught up into Pedro’s murderous schemes? Jim is not responsible for what Pedro does. They may very well add up in such a way that Jim should not kill the Indian. or let another person kill the Indian and beat another very badly. or a third party. Thus. for example. the position of the agent makes a difference as to what is morally right to do. However. the end (preventing innocent people from being killed) justifies the means (killing an innocent person). In the case of Jim. 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. It all depends on how the consequences add up. An alternative view could be that what matters from a moral point of view is not only the consequences of what we do. there may be other cases in which there are no such mitigating circumstances and so the consequentialist view. However. but because killing someone is something one should only do in very extreme situations. because the harm he will suffer by killing the Indian will be more than that experienced by the Indian who is beaten up. However. as we saw. 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. In principle. in this instance. One such case The Good. as in Jim’s case. It is Pedro’s choice to kill the Indians. there may be a moral difference between doing something and causing something to happen as a consequence of not doing something.Bernard Williams tends to agree with this conclusion. As we shall see later in this book. many people would say that of course Jim should not kill the Indian. If Jim does not shoot one Indian. he strongly disagrees that the conclusion is obvious. it may be right for someone to kill an innocent person if it is the only way to prevent someone from doing something worse. or from the point of view of a benevolent spectator for example. 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. is an ethically wrong thing to do. and where the right decision may be to do what brings about the worst consequences. This would be an example of what is called an agent-relative morality: Here. Not because of the way the consequences add up. He argues that there are similar situations in which the contrast between the possible outcomes is less stark. An important point to notice here is that. it was assumed that killing an innocent person. The kind of ethical egoism discussed in the previous chapter is an example of a form of agentrelative moral view. For the consequentialist on the other hand. but what we do in itself. Does the end always justify the means? In the case described above. consequentialism is a form of agent-neutral morality. Therefore. suppose we change the example of Jim and the Indians slightly. as far as a consequentialist is concerned.

But. The fact that people trust the legal system is an important prerequisite for the smooth functioning of modern society. of the potentially very harmful consequences of not doing so. but instead bend it to fit the circumstances. Only in highly exceptional cases might going against generally accepted norms of justice be justified because. The consequentialist may argue that in real-life cases of this sort. will probably end in a loss of life. A number of people were convicted for collaborating with the German occupational forces during the war. perhaps sometimes in the 1960s. in normal cases at least. according to McCloskey. who is faced with a difficult dilemma: A white girl has been raped. Therefore. therefore. he also knows that if he does not press charges against the man. but not entirely unrealistic. a consequentialist line of thinking is actually often applied. 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. it is widely believed that a certain black man is guilty of committing the crime. a lot of cases were dropped. this goes against widely held views about justice and fairness and.has been presented by the Australian philosopher H. However. which could have exploded and resulted in people taking the law into their own hands resulting in much worse consequences. a practice which contradicts normal norms of legal justice. 180-181). However. 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. 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. There are roughly two ways in which a consequentialist can respond to this kind of counterexample: The first response is to point to the potential indirect negative consequences which may follow if those who are responsible for upholding the law. given the very tense situation. riots against black people will probably break out and these riots. pp. the sheriff knows that the man is innocent. 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. The Good. He asks us to imagine a sheriff in a town in the southern part of the USA. The problem as McCloskey sees it is that utilitarianism allows the end to justify unjust means. 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. However. do not show respect for the law. the case may be specified in various ways so that this kind of response will not do the job. In the local community. What would we want the sheriff to do in this fictional. McCloskey (1969.J. However. Later. as happened in some other European countries. the collaboration was not illegal according to the law that was in force during the war. case? From a consequentialist point of view. 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. people were convicted according to retrospective laws. like the sheriff in the case. Therefore. when things had calmed down. for example. 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. This was seemingly accepted by the political and legal system because of the very tense situation just after the war. shows that utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism are unacceptable moral views. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 78  .

don’t be violent towards people etc. Such norms play an important role in human life. if you decide to visit someone. 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. you would have to outline all the alternative courses of action which are open to you during the day. don’t steal. From a welfarist utilitarian point of view. Secondly. In short. for example going to work or university. the The Good. and so on. which could have significant negative consequences for a lot of people. a welfarist utilitarian for example who tries to act directly as dictated by the consequentialist principle. Instead of doing what you normally do. B or C. and so on. you could volunteer to work for a humanitarian organization. from a consequentialist point of view. or whatever set of rules that bring about the best expected overall consequences. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 79  . This alone would be a massive task. of course. not only complicated. if you tried to perform this exercise you would probably never get out of bed. Finally. such as going to the fitness centre. Each of these main courses of action could then be subdivided into a number of alternative sub-courses of action. whereby the role of consequentialist thinking is not to assess individual acts. you would have to estimate all the consequences in terms of welfare for all the affected parties for the entire future. Rather. it is also very uncertain and time-consuming if you want to do it well. Imagine that you as a consequentialist. confused and very frustrated. for each course of action. in the specific example. Bentham and Mill recognized the need for “rules of thumb” to be able to practically apply the principle of utility. For example. This whole exercise is. So. First. Later discussions have put even more emphasis on the role of rules. but even if you did manage to get out of bed. you could either visit A. On top of this. would be the better option in terms of direct consequences. not only by helping to create some order in our lives and making social life reasonably predictable. 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. you would have to first consider the myriad courses of action are open to you. you could stay home and write a letter to a newspaper. but also by simplifying everyday decisions about how to act. Thus. there will be a huge number of possible courses of action to consider. What is at play here are indirect consequences – in this case negative consequences. from a consequentialist point of view. you may be able to do less good in the afternoon. such as those mentioned previously. if you do something very exhausting in the morning. for the sheriff to comply with the accepted norm of legal justice could have positive value despite the fact that acting otherwise. Some thinkers have defended what they call “rule-utilitarianism”. but rather to assess general rules for action. one can conclude that it is not a good idea to try to think in consequentialist terms all the time. it appears to be a better strategy to think in terms of simple common sense moral norms most of the time. which may result if citizens discover that those in charge of upholding the law do not respect it. you might even have to consider how doing one thing in the morning might affect your opportunities for doing things in the afternoon. You could go and visit someone. The same could be said for common sense norms of good moral behaviour such as keep your promises. this would not be a good situation at all. This could undermine respect for the law amongst the general population. For example.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. you would probably be exhausted. So.

as a consequentialist. Animal ethics: Reform or radical change? The use of animals for the production of food is an integral part of Western culture. the consequentialist principle serves as a criterion against which we can assess and adjust the moral norms and strategies which normally guide our actions. On the everyday. And then nothing much is gained. Today.. awareness regarding the effects of intensive animal production on animal welfare has been increasing. 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. when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. will result in an outcome which would be better than any other outcomes resulting from alternative sets of rules. Secondly. put the point in this way: “The good of any one individual is of no more importance. intuitive level. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to override the greater interests of members of other species.The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race. one can ask why we should follow the rules which would give the best outcome as long as all comply. Firstly. . hens in small cages. Until recently. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 80  . 152-153) For a utilitarian like Peter Singer. most viewed it as a necessity and not a matter for moral debate.” In other words. Sometimes. few consequentialists believe in rule-utilitarianism. and tethered or stalled sows are some of the images which have given rise to public concern. from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe. we use current moral norms and rules as a guide. the idea that. We will now again look at the case of animal ethics to see how moral strategies should be worked out from a consequentialist perspective. The Good. However. if people follow them. 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. Henry Sidgwick. A later utilitarian. The pattern is the same in each case.consequentialist principle should be used to select a set of rules which. pp. mainly for two reasons. However. than the good of any other. in a quiet moment of reflection perhaps.. when we know that there will always be a significant number of people who will not comply.. we step back from our ordinary moral practice and switch to a critical level of moral thinking and assess and adjust everyday rules. we need two levels of moral thinking.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. it is difficult to specify which rules would qualify – apart from a rule which says that one should strive to generate the best outcome. Thus. norms and policies in the light of the consequentialist principle. 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. 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. This idea of rule-utilitarianism has been widely criticized. one often needs some simple norms or rules for guidance has survived. since at least the 1960s.. According to an influential version of this idea. (Singer 1989.” . Calves in veal crates.

in Europe during the last four decades. since if we all stop eating consuming animal products. This can be achieved. He asserts that if we don’t stop eating meat. for most people in affluent parts of the world. Peter Singer agrees in principles.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. later at the EU level. would have more influence by adopting a more pragmatic and piecemeal approach to changing people’s behaviour in this respect. However. humans are able to enjoy animal products. As the example of animal production illustrates. from a consequentialist point of view. one could ask whether a utilitarian. However. a consequentialist with a strong conviction about a goal. there are two obvious problems with this approach. first in individual countries. there would be no farm animals around to suffer. and tethering or keeping pregnant sows in confinement. Peter Singer argues that we should all stop eating meat. by means of animal welfare legislation. Thus. On top of this. Therefore. this is not how things would work out. Thus. Would this not be better viewed from a utilitarian point of view? Of course. this approach looks for ways to reform animal production. at the same time. someone who. animal production will continue more or less unaffected by concerns about animal welfare. who is convinced that we ought to make radical changes to the way farm animals are treated. between 30 and 40 per cent of eggs and milk consumed in 2010 came from alternative production systems. laws have been passed. this leads to the second problem: Despite approximately 50 years of discussion concerning the way farm animals are treated. This would solve the problem of animals suffering in intensive animal production. This approach has been reasonably successful in some areas. minimum requirements for space and other resources such as provision of straw have been established by means of legislation. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 81  . or another kind of consequentialist. keeping laying hens in cages. in some cases. whilst the consumption of meat increases steadily in line with the increase in general wealth. If large numbers of consumers request products from animals reared in ways that are perceived as being welfare-friendly. However. to some extent. only a very small fraction of people in our part of the world have become vegetarians. wants to improve the conditions for farm animals could pursue the strategy of animal welfare. these cheap products are not of vital importance for their welfare – they could easily manage without meat and other animal products. 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. it is possible to appeal to highly motivated consumers to buy special animal products that have been produced in a welfare-friendly manner. such as keeping veal calves in confinement without access to straw. to outlaw certain forms of animal production which are perceived as being cruel. Also. in this case an end to cruel forms of animal production. In light of this. a knock-on effect on the manner in which other animals are treated is likely. In Denmark for example. 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. will still have a difficult choice to make about the strategy for achieving the goal. attempting to achieve gradual reform may be more effective than trying to achieve a radical change. Instead of defending moral vegetarianism. but argues that in practice. The Good. The first problem is that there could be an alternative approach whereby farm animals live good lives and.

one needs to consider that not all individuals are consequentialists and therefore. For example. I admit that there is a psychological difference between the cases. and is less demanding than most forms of consequentialism as it only requires the prevention of bad things. 231-233) Therefore. consequentialism may appear to be a view which allows people to do things which other moral standpoints would not allow. In the short run. who have also noticed the child but are doing nothing? (Singer 1972. he presents the following line of reasoning: … if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations. In a paper from 1972. Of course one can ask whether others are also obliged to help. while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing. then you should do this before most of the things that you presently do to benefit yourself and your family. similarly placed. small steps may be needed to move things in the right direction. In order to comply with the principle. [as regards the opportunity to help starving people]. the consequentialist principle would have very profound effects on the lives of individuals. if you can find a charity that will efficiently channel your donation into programs which help starving families. But. it is also a very demanding view in some respects. one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others. to do it”. However. who have also done nothing. Literally speaking. This is known as. as I am. which prevents people from taking a moral leap. 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. 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. 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. “the minimal principle”. “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening. you should spend them in such a way that you generate the largest return in terms of doing good or preventing bad. Nevertheless. 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. according to consequentialism. one is always obliged to do everything in one’s power to bring about good outcomes and to prevent bad outcomes – no matter who benefits. pp. the reformist strategy often seems to work best. there is the danger that the reformist strategy is just the easy option. This means that whenever you spend your time or your money. but he does not consider the fact that many will not help to be a valid excuse for not helping. Again. I ought to wade in and pull the child out. Peter Singer thinks that they are. not the promotion of good ones. On the other hand. Singer did this by proposing the following innocuous sounding principle. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 82  . morally. 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. we ought. no further away than I am. without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. This will mean getting my clothes muddy. To support this argument. but this is insignificant. it can still be quite demanding. 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. Of the The Good.… the fact that there are millions of other people in the same position. of course.It is of course not always easy to decide which strategy is the most efficient.

all that matters is the total size of the benefit. follow the consequentialist principle to the extent that it provides the best consequences. 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. argued that consequentialism needs to allow for an agent centred prerogative. Singer suggests some much more easily achievable goals. They have. is that it always allows the end to justify the means – even if the means are highly unjust.to be able to achieve the best possible consequences. we should give up certain luxuries such as bottled water and instead give what is thereby saved to efficient charities. 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). The application of the consequentialist principle is clearly flexible. However. It is. ad hoc solution. For example. And sometimes we need a break from moral commitments .income you generate. then utilitarianism follows. me killing someone or me not preventing someone else from killing the same person. a problem for consequentialism if the demands it makes on people are so high that they give up. to some this kind of half baked consequentialism may sound too much of an arbitrary. The key feature here is impartiality – who benefits is of no importance. An important feature of consequentialism is that it adopts an agent-neutral perspective to our actions whereby. KEY POINTS The aim of this chapter was to describe and discuss the consequentialist principle that we should always aim to bring about the best outcome. there is no moral distinction between. If the good is defined in terms of welfare. In a recent book about how to help the poor. for example. 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. Consequentialism presupposes a definition of the good which should be aimed for. in practice. which has attracted a lot of attention. it would probably be a difficult philosophy to sell to anyone – apart from the odd individual who aspires to canonization. as we have seen here. of course. Some adherents of consequentialism have recently come to the conclusion that the standard form consequentialism presented above is indeed too demanding. But what kind of life is that? With this kind of prospect. 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. to use a term invented by the American philosopher Samuel Scheffler. The Life You Can Save (2009). And they would want to look for a new theoretical starting point as we shall also do in the next chapter. but rather to change the way it is promoted. There are different forms of utilitarianism depending on one’s definition of welfare. The consequentialist can partly The Good. The conclusion for the devoted consequentialist like Peter Singer has not been to abandon the principle. 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. in principle. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 83  . but it is still driven by the principle itself: We should. Another feature of consequentialism.

consequentialists tend to agree that in normal situations.econlib. Jeremy (1789): An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. To live in accordance with the consequentialist principle would be very laborious and certainly not very efficient. J. H. Singer. which most people would not be able to fulfil. Further reading Scheffler. Here. 148-162. we should act in accordance with current moral norms. we discussed the problem that consequentialism makes some very demanding requirements. Oxford: Blackwell. Samuel (1988): Consequentialism and its Critics. Peter (1972): Famine. Peter (1989) All Animals are Equal. or one can adopt a more pragmatic stance and argue for piecemeal reform. In: Tom Regan & Peter Singer (eds.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML. References Bentham. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.) Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Affluence.J. from a consequentialist point of view. Julia (2007): Ethics. & Williams. The fundamentals. Therefore. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 84  . there are further reasons for adopting a more pragmatic stance. The Good.C.deal with unjust means by pointing to the positive indirect consequences of upholding norms of justice.html McCloskey. http://www. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (1969): Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics. Singer. The role of the consequentialist principle is rather to critically assess and adjust these norms. Therefore. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. Finally. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(3): 229243. Smart. Debates often arise in consequentialism concerning what is the right moral strategy – particularly when most people do not seem to share the consequentialist view. and Morality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Bernard (1973): Utilitarianism: For and against. Driver.J. pp. one can either be a radical and argue for dramatic changes to our way of life.

forbids such a way of promoting welfare. We now turn from consequentialism to its main contender in philosophical ethics. 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. even if they promote the overall good. At the hospital there are five patients all of whom are in dire need of an organ transplant. but the constraint on sacrificing people. we should “chop up Chuck” and use his organs to save the five patients. But what about peoples’ rights? In a famous example. What we call the “ethics of rights” is in some ways a rather diverse set of ethical theories. they would point to the potentially catastrophic results if the public became wary about visiting hospitals out of a fear of being “chopped up”. This clashes with a very widespread idea. It might be that chopping up Chuck promotes overall welfare. that the essence of ethics is the inviolability of people. After all. namely.8 B The Ethics of Rights In the previous chapter. and nothing else. Consequentialism would say that. Against this. his very fundamental right to live? Isn’t it simply morally wrong to kill Chuck because his rights are violated. consequentialism takes many forms. Let’s return to our gory story about Chuck. 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. the proponent of the ethics of rights tradition will insist that there are constraints against doing so. For instance. not legal duty) to respect your right. expressed in their right to live. that of rights. then that action is the morally correct one. most welfarist consequentialists would disagree that we should chop up Chuck. compared with the situation where we let Chuck live and five die. other things being equal. Some would definitely believe that a moral theory demands that we kill Chuck. That is. That is. we discussed how consequentialism demands that we should act so as to produce the best overall consequences. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion means that there are no constraints on the promotion of the good: for the consequentialist. The ethics of rights tradition tries to provide an alternative to consequentialism. we would be saving five lives and losing only one. As we have seen. and if other people ignore the claim. these theories hold that there are constraints on the promotion of the good. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 85  . Many would assert that there is something deeply flawed in the basic consequentialist way of thinking: isn’t it the case that we violate Chuck’s rights here. the maximizing consequentialist is committed to the view that you The Good. the rightsbased approach. specifically. this set has one defining feature. Gilbert Harman asks us to imagine the following case: Chuck is an innocent and healthy young man visiting a hospital. which makes it clear that we indeed should not “Chop up Chuck”. To be sure. A right is commonly held to be a sort of “trump”: it is something which you can claim against other people. but something is fundamentally wrong about this kind of morality. they are bound by duty (moral. which should be protected by rights? The ethics of rights is an attempt to encapsulate such ideas. Moreover. They will die very soon if they do not receive one. namely that all the theories subsumed here hold that there are ways to promote the good that are morally impermissible. However. It just so happens that Chuck has these organs. they are morally wrong. if an action overall promotes (expected) welfare maximally.

” What does it mean to treat another person as an end. However. you have a right that I do so. this is compatible with sacrificing one or some for the greater good. or that you use that person as a vehicle to reach some other goal. However. or as a means to an end? Treating someone “as a means” implies that either you act selfishly. it means ignoring that the person is someone with his or her own goals. It’s the same categorical imperatives for all. In short.. 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. a defining moment can be attributed to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his idea of categorical imperatives. integrity. We therefore owe the same kind of respect to all rational beings. we are all equals. famously argued against utilitarianism claiming that it does not give equal protection to all: only the abstract “good” counts and we are. Consequentialism is. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 86  . This all connects the ethics of rights-tradition with a certain kind of ideal of moral equality.must promote the good. John Rawls. and never merely as a means to an end. there is not much difference between theories that emphasize duties. In practice. as long as overall welfare is maximized. So it’s not just the case that you can chop up chuck. Kant is portrayed as being the great forefather of deontological ethics. Let’s try to unpack what it is Kant is saying here. is by protecting individuals with strong rights. capable of deliberation and of acting accordingly. This is the only sense in which we are “equals” in utilitarianism. Kant spoke more of duties than rights.e. some will argue that this should not be our motive in the first place. a direct translation of which is the “ethics of duty”. indeed. one way of trying to respect moral equality. The Good.) Against this. So our categorization of Kant as belonging to the ethics of rights-tradition might be non-canonical. you are obliged to as there are no options (i. Indeed. because the laws and conditions for rational thought are the same for all rational beings. The ideal of moral equality expressed or encompassed by Kant’s categorical imperative is very different: as rational beings. Let’s combine all these together and say that you do not take the person’s interests (as a rational and moral being) into account. and conversely.) The ethics of rights has a long and complex history. the way the ethics of rights-tradition asserts that our equality as rational beings should be protected. On the contrary. The welfare of every individual counts for as much as any other individual. will and freedom. dignity. Conversely. Still. maximally. 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. whether in your own person or in the person of any other. In much of the literature. options other than promoting the good. always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end. In sum: the proponent of an ethics of rights will hold that there are. and those that emphasize rights on the other. or can be. which is not shared by the person. in a certain sense. all “means” to the end of promoting the good. but nothing important hinges on this categorization. on the one hand. 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. who we will encounter again in a later chapter. What follows is probably the most trenchant version of Kant’s various formulations of the basic moral categorical imperative: Act in such a way that you treat humanity. at a minimum in some cases. some proponents of the ethics of rights will claim that you may have options which involve not promoting the good. If I have a duty to take your interests into account when I act.

there is a close affinity between the idea of natural and human rights.a fundamental right. its close connotations. Within the ethics of rights-tradition. But it is quite another to say that we all have the same rights. it merely entails that others are obliged to not do something. are misleading. However. And this returns us to the crucial point of difference between the ethics of rights tradition and consequentialism: the former disputes the latter’s idea that morality consists of maximizing welfare. This equality concerns our standing as free. Angus’ right does not entail that others should do anything (build a hospital. The most prominent one is the idea of “natural rights”. namely obstruct Angus’ pursuit of health care. no one is allowed to interfere with P doing R And all this under the condition that. for example. 3. or “self-evident”. and these rights sometimes block any move toward maximizing welfare.: by giving – or acknowledging . A good way of conceptualizing rights is to conceive them as follows: If a person P has a right. It means that we all possess the same dignity or integrity or value – we are all equal as moral beings. However. then. come what may. say.” Then.).From Equal Moral Standing to Rights The ethics of rights. That is. and 2. R. Now. cannot have any) further grounding. An important implication is that everyone should be treated equally. What is a right? Now let us try to define the subject. or that we all possess the same moral worth. serve as doctors. P is allowed to do R. it means that: 1. you cannot be sacrificed for the sake of others: you are worth as much as they are – and vice versa. Nevertheless. no one is allowed to obstruct Angus from going to hospital and seeking a doctor. simply in virtue of our status as human beings. it certainly does not mean that we all should have the same income or possessions. no one is obliged to assist Angus. That is. can be seen as a particular way of fleshing out an ideal of moral equality. what is meant by natural rights is simply fundamental rights that need no (indeed. He is allowed to “do R. to your life and possessions. or we have the same worth as rational beings. In the present context. race. according to some adherents of the natural rights idea. there are other ways of conceptualizing our equal moral worth. 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. The phrase “natural” is quite unfortunate. What is important is rather that the rights of individuals are respected. always. The Good. rights seem to be a straightforward expression of our equal worth etc. as they are put forward by the United Nations declaration of human rights. These fundamental rights are something we all have as human beings. give him medicine etc. effort. Nevertheless. such as “nature”. sex or anything else. rational beings. no one is allowed to interfere with his going to hospital. if the right to health care is a purely negative right. Of course. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 87  . P does not violate the rights of other people To exemplify: Let us say that Angus has the right to health care. an important point: it is one thing to say that we are on the same moral footing. “treated equally” is an equivocal statement. and we have the right to be treated as such. by doing R. and not in virtue of our nationality.

holidays. you might have some (modest) claims against others to ensure your survival. obviously. understood in falling degrees from the negative to the positive. The card game metaphor with an emphasis on trumps nicely illustrates the logic of a rights discourse. How do rights do their job? The American philosopher Ronald Dworkin introduced a powerful metaphor to explain how rights work. (for positive rights) Others have a duty to assist P in doing R.A positive right. It also illustrates a fundamental problem: what are we to do when two trumps are played? We will return to this below. there has been much more emphasis on positive rights. the killer would have committed a moral wrong because there is a constraint against promoting the good in some ways. Rights function as trumps in this card game: they override all other claims. we would probably want more than just one trump. is much stronger. and the other friend asks you to come over just for a social visit. we might add a fourth point to rights. Some cards have more moral value than others. it looks like any situation that does not involve trumps does not involve morality. if someone just went ahead and killed you in order to promote the good. the whole deck cannot consist of trumps: then all social interaction would immediately be deadlocked. possibilities. food and shelter. Nevertheless. This corresponds to what we earlier called an option: an option not to promote the good. Historically. Conversely. the ethics of rights tradition has been quite moderate in its claims and concentrated on some very basic necessities: life. liberties. Imagine that all our various claims towards others (“Do that for me. and rights function as trumps. liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Trumps are equivalent to. “positively”.) form a deck of cards. etc. then probably. pay close attention to 3 in the list. it might be very nice of you to do so – but you have a strong right not to do so. Furthermore. that right trumps other claims. Let us say that Angus does have a right to health care.” “Don’t interfere with me doing this. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 88  . it means that there are some situations where trumps do not come into play. if our basic moral standing is expressed in rights. This simple. This does not entail that Angus has the right to run over Bonnie on his way to hospital. e. which we will expand on here. If you have a positive right to medical assistance in some situation.g. the claim that your municipality could save a lot of money by not treating patients who will not or cannot pay for themselves. because Bonnie has a right to her life and limbs. yet far-reaching. just about anything can be claimed as rights: life. your liberty is mainly “negatively” protected.. especially in the human rights field. more say than the negative right to life. including promoting by killing. On the other hand. or expressions of. and crucially. It entails that others are obliged to help Angus. Adherents of the ethics of rights disagree on this The Good. If the community asks you to give up your organs because it would save the lives of five individuals. a right against being sacrificed for the greater good. In theory.” “assist me with…” etc. In contemporary parlance. for example. the basic idea in the ethics of rights tradition that individuals have strong rights against others. when we are talking about positive rights: 4. So. 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. the first friend’s “card” is of higher value. Naturally. As the whole deck cannot consist of trumps. distinction is all too often overlooked. Does this mean that morality does not come into play? After all. Your right to life functions as a trump against the claims of others.

consequentialist notions such as welfare. Only very few ethics of rights proponents have proposed pacifism. Nevertheless. for example. that it is necessary to bring about some morally justified goal. the killing of soldiers in battle (who are not supposed to be innocent). other moral considerations take over e. such radical pacifism appeals to only very few for the obvious fact that. the inevitability of conflict and the dark sides of the human psyche is truly necessary. and hence. it is not always the case that rights conform as snugly to common beliefs as they do in the case of Chuck. if the harm is “merely foreseen. Rather. the doctrine of double effect maintains that sometimes it is morally permissible to bring about harm. we still have to deal with the reality of conflicts and the temptation for warmongering nations to enter into war. the main thrust of the ethics of rights position is to say that once rights are out of the picture.” and “not intended” as a goal in itself and. Some problems with rights However. one-sided pacifism runs the risk of being even worse. 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. Indeed. 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. But it is not a morally obligatory thing to do. This could be. for warfare. Warfare almost inevitably means that we kill or maim innocent people. And whereas war is indeed hell. there is no “moral truth” to be found. In this last section. the attainment of which outweighs the harm done. In brief. we will discuss two important counterpoints. So there is no justification for collateral damage. This might sound appealing as it enables you to justify a measure of self-defence: if you are to protect your life. The most important is the doctrine of double effect.g. furthermore. saving civilian lives. you are justified in blowing up a tank that is driving straight towards you. “true” or “mandatory” morality is at rest. 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 people’s basic rights. however. This probably conforms to many people’s (by the way strongly anti-consequentialist) intuition that at least some areas of our lives must be free from moral considerations and demands. such as wars. even death. Morality takes a holiday. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 89  . Even philosophers must sometimes be realists – and this is one of the cases in which realism about. and not because you believe there are trumps – rights – involved. 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. The Good. The morality of killing and the ethics of rights tradition: Some believe that extreme situations. it is controversial to say that the demands of morality are suspended just because circumstances are adversarial. Indeed. to people. this seems to undermine the whole point of having rights or acting morally. But some would say that. In war we often encounter the problem of so-called collateral damage. Or in plain words: the killing of innocent civilians. This is probably empirically and psychologically true. whereas mutual and universal pacifism would indeed be nice.matter. 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. a variety of other attempts to solve the conundrum have been raised. This is not to say that making unselfish contributions to the welfare of others is not a commendable or praiseworthy act. once trumps are out of play. Some would indeed be prepared to say that insofar as no rights are involved in a situation. suspend our day-to-day morality. among other things. However.

However. and then opt for the lesser of two or more evils. or maximize the number of rights-respecting acts. If you only had the right to life.However. where we can make judgments such as “a minor or major infringement of rights”. The problem is. You enter a house asking for help. defenders of the doctrine of double effect will say. It is your duty to make sure that you do not infringe upon anyone’s rights. it creates more good than the alternative is a straightforward example of consequentialist thought. Here. Rather. there would be nothing wrong with hitting you repeatedly on the head with a hammer. 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. we need a measure of gravity. but as noted. Conflicts of rights: Another problem for the ethics of rights tradition is when rights conflict which one another. Your only option is to grab the lady’s grandchild and twist the child’s arm. that you are violating at least one right (the innocent child’s right to bodily integrity) to safeguard another man’s right (your friend’s right to life. It is hardly an excuse that we “only foresee” and “do not intend” to harm anyone. put it. no. the right to bodily integrity. just because the harm done to them is “merely foreseen” and “not intended”. what is morally relevant is only how you behave. he will die very soon if he does not get to a hospital. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 90  . if not downright self-defeating. it implies that we can sacrifice one person’s interests in order to promote another’s. But that leads us to the slippery slope down to the measurement of welfare. critics maintain that this is not truly compatible with the ethics of rights. this is not a satisfactory answer. overall. as long as you did not die. It is not your duty to act so as to minimize the number of violations. your friend is in dire need of medical treatment. After all. One of the classic rights belonging to this tradition. The Good. if we are to compare violations in the first place. The old lady is also the owner of a mint condition Ferrari Testarossa. Adapting a famous example of Thomas Nagel’s in his The View from Nowhere (1986) imagine that you and your friend survive a car crash. As Robert Nozick. of course. First. not what happens in the big picture.” But this reply only gets the double doctrine defender out of the fire and into the frying pan. However. In fact. but still different from. saying that it will harm people in the future. and of course. the right to life. the car you were driving is smashed to pieces. Some proponents of the ethics of rights opt for the radical solution: they say. We have concentrated on the basic right to life. a philosopher and proponent of the ethics of rights.) The intuitive answer is to compare the gravity of each potential violation of rights. there is no place for a “utilitarianism of rights”. we would probably want other rights as well. is in one sense related to. which will surely get your friend to hospital in good time. locking the door behind her. The doctrine says that that there must be a good goal which outweighs the harm done. Let us assume that people have this right to bodily integrity. This is because defending an action because. Second. but frighten the elderly woman who lives there and she runs into the bathroom to hide. Let us say that we dump dangerous nuclear waste in the sea and people protest. “Aha! But dumping the nuclear waste is illegitimate because the act did not have a justified productive goal. forcing the woman to hand over the key to the Ferrari. or “the total sum of rights violations”. 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. The whole rights-edifice then seems to be redundant. we should not allow for comparisons of welfare. It appears too convenient that people’s rights are suddenly dispelled. This is exactly the kind of move that the ethics of rights wants to preclude.

On the downside. “everybody’s interests are taken into account – but it might mean sacrificing your interests entirely” kind of moral equality and respect espoused by consequentialism. But it comes at a high price. It might be the case that ethics. or at least do not enter with full force. if one insists that borrowing someone’s rowboat without permission is a greater moral wrong than allowing three children to die. if one of the points of the ethics of rights tradition is to express a robust kind of respect for people. References Dworkin. in virtue not of our incompetency. A third alternative should be noted: Maybe we should be guided by rights and duties as far as possible. Harman. it creates a kind of free haven where the demands of morality do not enter. it seems to overcome many of the difficulties philosophers have identified in the discussion of the ethics of rights tradition. than the highly abstract. On the plus side. This threatens to undermine the whole construction and turn the ethics of rights into a circular form of consequentialism.” Summary: the ethics of rights in perspective As you have hopefully seen. then it seems odd to ignore the plight of people in order to respect an abstract moral concept such as “rights. Moreover. it is an intuitively much more palatable way of fleshing out the ideal of moral equality and respect. pp. Finally. However. Sometimes we face tragic choices.This might solve the immediate theoretical problem. has its strengths and weaknesses. but when they are in conflict. However. Ronald (1984): Rights as Trumps. or when violations of the same kind of right are of a different gravity. it allows much worse tragedies to happen. which accords well with many people’s experience of the demands of morality. we should allow for comparisons. Gilbert (1977): The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. the ethics of rights tradition faces a dilemma: either it allows for comparisons when different rights collide. and when in reasonable doubt (or when there are no rights at play). is sometimes tragic in the sense just discussed. we should be guided by some sort of consequentialism. Maybe common sense is wrong. or lack of a precise moral theory. but of the subject matter itself. Such a pluralistic theory will not accommodate all of the ideals of a pure ethics of rights perspective. such as the case of Chuck. that a madman succeeds in drowning three children. the ethics of rights. it is in fine tune with the widespread intuition about certain forms of inviolability of our integrity. Moreover. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 91  . the ethics of rights tradition seems to conjure moral tragedies where none exist. just like consequentialism. The ethics of rights tradition might retort that morality is not neat and clean. borrowing someone’s rowboat without her permission – in order to avoid violating a “heavy” right – say. In Jeremy Waldron (ed. or equal human worth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. but this would threaten to distance it from common sense and fetishize the concept. 153-67. However.) Theories of Rights. For common sense surely dictates that it is often morally better to violate a “small” right – say. when taken at face value. the ethics of rights could uphold a strict right-and-duties scheme and disallow comparisons. Alternatively. By insisting on the sanctity of minor rights or small injuries. then it seems that one is making a fetish out of a moral concept – rights – at the expense of decent and sound human behaviour. instead of caring about and respecting people. This flies in the face of common sense. Oxford: The Good.

Torbjörn (2002): Understanding ethics: An Introduction to Moral Theory. Thomas (1986): The View from Nowhere. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 92  . Philosophy and Public Affairs 20(4): 283-310. London: Oxford University Press. Smart. (1991): Self-Defense. Shelly (1998): Normative Ethics. Shelly (1989): The Limits of Morality. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Thompson. Tânnsjö. Rawls. J.Kagan.J. The Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press. J. & Williams.J. Boulder CO:Westview Press. Further reading Kagan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bernard (1973): Utilitarianism: For and against. Nagel.C. John (1971): A Theory of Justice.

The Fair 2B The Good. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 93  .

After all. you should benefit Unlucky. Let us stipulate that Lucky has a welfare score of 20. and Unlucky has a welfare score of 5. you add more welfare to the world by doing so. we will concentrate solely on distributions (of whatever we might think relevant from a normative point of view) and their moral importance. we approach one of moral philosophy’s “applied” areas. rather than Unlucky. instead of choosing to benefit Lucky. or functionally equivalent beliefs. by paying for her to go a school for gifted children that will satisfy her special interest in astrophysics. Therefore. are relevant. and creating more overall welfare in the world. the welfare benefit is much greater if you spend the money on Lucky. would have no qualms: the money should be spent on Lucky. then the thoughts presented here apply in different ways to them as well. welfarists would actually condone (or rather. We elaborate slightly to make the example fit our purposes more clearly: Imagine you are the parent of two children. you can spend it on Unlucky. we have concentrated on answering the question “What ought I to do.” “democracy” and other staple issues of that branch of philosophy. respectively. namely: does it matter how goods are distributed across people? With this question.) It is important to note that in many cases. demand) that we choose to benefit the worse off. equality between Lucky and Unlucky. morally speaking?” However. many would say that there is at least some reason to think twice before going ahead and benefitting Lucky. duties. we have not discussed (at length) for whom the outcomes of one’s actions are morally relevant. helping the worse off is morally more important than helping the better off. This is because there are often reasons to say that by The Good. namely political philosophy. A vivid example to illustrate the normative importance of distributions is given by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. well… unlucky. Any plausible evaluation of the levels of welfare of the two children will conclude that Lucky is better off than Unlucky. by buying her some special medication that will alleviate her crippling allergies somewhat. she will benefit relatively more than if you spend the money on Unlucky. More specifically. or some other group of entities. Second. If you feel uneasy about benefitting Lucky in the example. there is more to morality than just creating more welfare. The discussions which follow might seem to imply that only humans are the relevant agents and patients for distributional purposes. If you hold these. and hence (incidentally or purposively) create more equality in the world (in this case.9 1B Equality We have seen various attempts at explaining moral values. Up to this point. but in this chapter. The dilemma is that if you chose to spend the money on Lucky. Let us stipulate that their welfare-bonuses are +10 and +3. or welfarist. rights etc. However. you might conclude that. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 94  . She is better off than Unlucky. and you can either choose to spend it on Lucky. if one believes that animals. However. all things being equal. You have an extra sum of money that for some reason cannot be split. What should you do? The stringent consequentialist. or between Unlucky and all who are better off relative to her. the way in which the welfare befalls different agents is also morally important. Or. we have not touched upon a very central aspect of morality. Let us call them Lucky and Unlucky. Rather. who is. our focus will not be on concepts such as “the state. it is probably because you share some beliefs that are very widespread: first.

which should be promoted and respected. Let us call this thesis pure egalitarianism: If you think that equality is morally important. After all. you might even think that it is the only important factor (for judging the moral status of outcomes). And there are many more. the more welfare (utility) you have. 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 today). so they could build a safe well and afford medication for their children for five years. roughly speaking. the less worth there is to an additional fixed contribution in terms of added welfare. many are tempted to say that we ought to benefit Unlucky. Egalitarians assert. pure egalitarianism would say that we ought to benefit Unlucky. two cars and a nice pension fund will of course be happy if you give him an additional 10. But many. Conversely. and a morally right (or perfect) outcome is judged so solely because it is perfectly equal. The wealthy businessman with a high income. says that we should all have the same rights. this was not the case in our example: benefitting Lucky would have increased the overall welfare. the contribution to welfare would be enormous. if we chose to benefit Lucky. that equality (between people) is a valuable thing. So. we create more welfare than if we benefit the better off. To see why. but more equal than before. And let us say that you also think that equality should be measured against our level of welfare. the same amount of money.g.000 dollars. as in “equality before the law. A third. The term “Egalitarianism” is in many quarters contentious. much more minimalistic conception. and Unlucky 5. because that would lessen the inequality between Lucky and Unlucky..” A fourth sense is that we all ought to have the same level of welfare. does pure egalitarianism provide the best model for thinking about distributions? After all. However. if you gave the money to a poor village in Africa. Pure egalitarianism and levelling down One way of maintaining that distribution is important is expressed in egalitarianism. the better. For why should lucky people be allowed to enjoy more welfare than others? In our case. and pure egalitarianism has just provided us with a rationale for doing so: we end up with a more equal distribution. 8 – still unequal. good health. e. One sense of the term implies that we should all have equal resources. Another more widespread meaning is that we should all have the same opportunities (as in “equality of opportunities”). we would end up in a situation where Lucky had a welfare score of 30. Technically. moral theories do in fact hold that distributions are important in various ways. It is only the amount of welfare that counts. egalitarians differ to such as extent that it is perhaps unfortunate that it has become commonplace (in academic circles. However. However. At this point. hence. For the welfarist. the welfarist would not choose to benefit Unlucky. we will look to one such extreme thesis as a model for how we ought to think about cases like Lucky and Unlucky.benefitting the worse off. at least) to call them all egalitarians. the distribution per se of welfare does not count. very few would say that pure egalitarianism is a plausible thesis. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 95  . 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. benefiting Unlucky will give us a result of 20 vs. Nevertheless. probably most. this phenomenon is known as diminishing marginal utility: in most cases. we will consider the The Good. 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.

whilst the blind would benefit hugely. which is something you should always do when testing a normative thesis for plausibility.implications. the British philosopher Derek Parfit identified one very unappealing feature of extreme egalitarianism: Imagine a world in which half the population is blind. at least comparatively speaking. the reduction in welfare would be marginal. that extreme equality is not a palatable option. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 96  . the sighted would only suffer a relatively minor impairment. So far. But many believe that it is impossible to identify in what sense we ought to prefer a situation in which no one benefits. which in essence is to bring everyone down to the same level of welfare without benefitting someone. If this rings a bell and reminds you of what we discussed under the heading. and we have dramatically lowered the welfare of half a population! Another solution: The difference principle So. Many would believe that we ought to transplant eyes from the sighted to the blind. The reason is simple: if equality in itself is important (that is. or more equal. here is the point: there is one way to achieve equality. it is interesting for another reason: Rawls formulated the argument in opposition to utilitarianism or welfarism. namely. whilst the others are sighted.” then you are correct: Rawlsian thought has The Good. whilst blind are still blind. because everyone now has one eye. by blinding all the sighted! If we do so. distribution can contribute to people’s welfare). furthermore. we will again achieve perfect equality (although it is hard to see how anyone benefits: the sighted are now blind.) But – and here the welfarist (as well as others) has a very tough question for the (pure) egalitarian – if no one benefits. so they both end up with one good eye. Apart from the prominence of his argument. Again. Rawls asserted that we are all distinct and sovereign moral individuals who should be respected as such. For the vast majority of the sighted. Imagine further that we have a sure-fire method for transplanting one eye from a seeing person to a blind person. He argued that an individual should not be made subject to another’s will to fulfil their needs. or stipulate for the sake of argument. is aptly called “levelling down. The blind. Now. So. Among his claims was that utilitarianism did not respect people in the right way. we cannot benefit the blind by taking one eye from the sighted. that it benefits someone – it is hard to see why we should aim for equality. The eyesight of the person who had two good eyes would be impaired. all other considerations aside. but the other half can see perfectly. But now we have no method of transplanting the eyes from the sighted to the blind. In a famous paper. would benefit massively from the transplantation. 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. But let us agree. But imagine now a slightly different scenario. where does this leave equality? Most people strongly believe that equality is valuable and something which should be considered in moral judgment. “the ethics of rights. but we also have a large increase in equality: actually. we have attained perfect equality. then there must be at least one sense in which we ought to prefer the situation in which all the sighted have been blinded. half the population is blind. however. Equality and Priority from 1997. After all. so good. that not only do we have a net increase in welfare.” and many philosophers are so impressed by the argument about levelling down that they believe that extreme equality is a dead end. There is no disagreement between welfarists and extreme egalitarians here. but they would still be able to see and function almost as before. 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. The net sum increase of welfare would be tremendous. beyond what an equal. Notice. This method of achieving equality.

we can tax them more. If people are more productive. Let us look a bit closer at what this means. DP states that only inequalities that are to the benefit of the worst off are legitimate inequalities. and this is the important point. it cannot be a principle that takes equality as a necessary condition for legitimacy. there is inequality if we compare it with Alternative 1. A (who is worst off) is better off here than in any of the other alternatives. we said that we might want to depart from equality because we want to benefit the worst off. and according to Rawls. However. For various reasons this is probably not the route Rawls would have wanted us to take. But would you pay the price if it meant that we would have to mould the personalities of citizens into completely unselfish collectivists? The Good.strong roots in Kantianism. look at these three alternative distributions for a micro-society consisting of only two people. In the above. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 97  . 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. This does not answer why we would want to allow the better-off to be better off in the first place. but we will go straight to the point. without the need for incentives (extra pay).) The arguments for this are varied and sophisticated. we should select Alternative 3. we can enlarge the collective “pool of resources” (e. and they treat us all as potential means to maximize welfare. But. It results in 20 units of welfare. The welfarist would consider Alternative 2 to be the preferred distribution. such a reading is compatible with huge inequalities: the billionaires are allowed to stay billionaires. This may seem to imply that DP is in fact no different from pure egalitarianism. A and B: Alternative 1: Level of welfare: Person: 5 A 5 B 5 A 15 B 6 A 9 B Alternative 2: Alternative 3: Let us look at the three alternatives in light of welfarism. it also says that inequalities are legitimate insofar as they benefit the worst off! Therefore. it seems a natural suggestion given the morality of DP.. DP suggests that equality is the desired state of affairs. Rawls believed that utilitarianism and welfarism do not appreciate the fact that people are bearers of rights. This is the reading we assume here. however. To make things clearer. Why might we want to depart from equality? We may want to because a departure from strict equality might benefit someone. pure egalitarianism and the difference principle. One reason for this is empirical: incentives are often needed to motivate people to be more productive. or they can create more jobs). which aims to improve the lot of the worst off. if people make more money. Rawls suggested the so-called difference principle (DP. However. In many real life situations. Yes. because the result is perfect equality. as long as they give 1 cent to the poor (which benefits the worst off).g. In its place. The extreme egalitarian would say that Alternative 1 is the right one. which will benefit the worst off now and in the long run. those who should benefit are the worst off. According to the difference principle. but on the face of it. 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. 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. On first impression.

consider the (alleged) worthiness basis for wages. This is the lottery argument: In classic political philosophy. But you still deserved the medal because you were the fastest runner. One relates to a Rawlsian idea. However. profits etc. and hence responsibility. To each his due – that is fair. line of argument which leads many philosophers to endorse DP. but isn’t 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 The Good. we should be motivated by the so-called maximin principle. or at least more influential. determine your talents. Naturally.Why should we go for the DP? There are two main arguments. In any case. In a nutshell. One talent could be good looks. She may then be entitled to the medal according to the rules of the race. Therefore.g. then you do not deserve the fruits of these desert bases! 3“Aha”. having a high level of education normally enables you to compete for the most lucrative and well-paid jobs. Obviously. one that maximizes overall welfare. that is. You are not “responsible” for the upbringing that enabled you to pursue an education. is basically a “genetic gift” from our parents. Now. This is vulnerable to the objection that we might choose any number of other principles in such a situation. 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. perhaps with a sort of minimum guarantee for the worse off (see prioritarianism and the doctrine of sufficiency later on). the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 98  . social science research has concluded that this is in fact the case. the winner cannot be responsible for the freak gust of wind. even though she is entitled to it. or for having parents who were willing to pay for your education. It might be the case that someone else wins the race because of a freak incident (e.g. “this is all very well. Here is our rendering of this argument: In order to deserve something such as a medal.” in this case: the ability to run as fast as you. In fact. you might reply. 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. and this is the key point: in what sense are we really responsible for our talents? The first of our chosen examples. good looks. which roughly says that if we have a fair initial situation of bargaining in which we should decide how to allocate resources in society. in modern societies. Exceptionally good looks might win you beauty pageants. there is another more potent. e. 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. or provided you with tax payers’ money. And neither are you responsible for the fact that educational systems always favor certain traits and abilities and reject others. and as long as their actual lot matches their deserved lot. you must be responsible for the basis upon which whatever it is you deserve rests. we should try to make the worst position we could end up occupying in society as good as possible. which are totally beyond your control. The maximin principle says that we should arrange allocations so as to maximize the minimal (worst) position in society. Another could be education. it is because you are the fastest runner. Indeed. it is assumed that deserved inequalities are legitimate inequalities. or some other principle much like it. everything is just dandy. for the fact that you were born into a society which offers education. for the fact that someone established a system of scholarships. your genes and many social circumstances. “worthiness. However. She did not possess the requisite relevant. So she does not deserve the medal. if you are not responsible for your desert bases (your talents).. If you deserve to win the gold medal in a 100 meter sprint.. The same can be said for education. Every person has a certain deserved portion of the resources. Let us call these talents. an exceptionally strong gust of wind carries her over the finish line).

there seems to be an asymmetry between the claims that people can make on each other in the rawlsian scheme. it might be disputed that ‘worthiness’ is as empty a notion as the lottery argument asserts. to the difference principle. Let us say that the productive and talented are not responsible for their luck. which basically says that we ought to arrange distributions so as to benefit the worst off to the maximum. so they cannot claim any particular outcome. a theory of just distribution must make some room for worthiness. to pure egalitarianism. the lottery argument or its rawlsian conclusion has been disputed. However. say. then nothing morally prevents us from redistributing in favour of the worse-off. imagine that we can benefit the worst off ever so slightly. perhaps it is because we are motivated by concern for our fellow The Good. or before the law. at least not directly. However. not down below the worst off. the lottery argument purports to undermine any claim to resources (or welfare. honest person and a lazy mischievous one and compare them. or so it might be claimed. At this point. which basically says that an equal distribution is all that counts and hence opens up for the unpalatable phenomenon of levelling down. Rawlsian or otherwise. but many believe that our moral experience does not confirm that worthiness is an entirely superfluous notion. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 99  . I am responsible for my actions. Doing away with worthiness is too radical. so we concentrate on three. and hence. But they can claim something (a larger share of the cake. Their reply is simple: your ability to exert an effort is also a talent for which you can claim no responsibility. In sum.) The difference principle would then demand that we should do so. The poor and unlucky are not responsible for their position either. to issues such as equality between the sexes. we do not query their “worthiness” or their metaphysical status: we want good things for the good guy and less for the bad guy. in the eyes of some critics. this seems to be a weird asymmetry. When we see a hardworking. I deserve the fruits of my labours!” This retort. fails to accommodate plausible ideas about worthiness and fails to respect people as individuals who cannot be sacrificed in order to benefit other people. so to speak) due to something for which they are not responsible! To some. also distributionally speaking. but which. to keep at least half of the fruits of their labour and talents. Secondly. Third. Hence. for that matter) based on personal desert This is a tremendously strong argument in favour of redistribution. We cannot present all of the counterpoints. it cannot ground claims of deserving. at least as long as we talk about distributional equality (the discussions so far do not relate. of course. This raises the question: why should we care about distributional equality in the first place? Leaving aside petty emotions such as envy. but only by dramatically reducing the welfare of an enormous group of better off people (though.turned into something productive. For if the well-off cannot claim that they deserve the talents or luck which form the foundation of their good fortune. First. Naturally. which basically ignores distributions and hence is in conflict with our intuition that distributions or their patterns are somehow important. at least in extreme situations. The Priority Principle A short recap: so far we have moved from welfarism. Hence. or any of the many other “dimensions of equality”). 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. does not worry Rawlsians. The argument completely does away with worthiness. it seems that the very concept equality is in a bit of a pickle. the theory ends up “sacrificing” the productive and talented for the benefit of the worse off. this is highly counterintuitive. natural as it is.

suffering people as opposed to a principle of equality in one version or another. and so the medicine should be given to Abe. 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. however. Something like this might lie behind the motivation of those who adhere to the priority principle. However. both Abe and Betty are “worse-off. which does not care about distributions in the first place. if we can benefit the better off enough. because she is even worse off than Abe. rather it is the consideration of the poor and the unlucky. According to priority. According to priority. sympathy for real. and this is important. Roughly speaking. and hence would be indifferent as to whether the one unit increase in welfare should befall one or the other. according to prioritarianism.” The Good. sometimes. If you give the medicine to Betty. How can we allow gross inequality (such as between the best-off in the West and the worst-off in the Third World). The defining point of priority can be illustrated by altering the example a bit: Again. when redistribution could alleviate much. Now. then that benefit would outweigh the priority given to the worse off. otherwise known by the tongue-twisting name. who are relatively worse off than some other individual or group. or group of people. Let us say that Abe has a welfare index of three and Betty one. of the poor’s predicaments? But the key point here is not equality as such. almost all prioritarians would agree that the extra welfare gained by Abe outweighs Betty’s relatively higher priority. priority is not absolute! That would make the priority principle equivalent to the difference principle.” You. but because the worse off have a certain kind of moral priority when we consider the morality of distributions. 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. and in such a situation we should choose to benefit the better off. We care about people. she will again experience a (very minor) welfare increase of one. rather than Lucky in our initial example: not because it furthers equality (it does in the example. but where the priority given to the worse off morally outweighs the larger increase of welfare for the better off. 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. however. However. all things considered. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 100  . However. She has the highest priority. 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.). but this is merely a byproduct according to prioritarianism). prioritarianism. This time. a smaller overall increase in welfare is morally superior to a larger net increase. we have Abe with a welfare index of three and Betty with one and you are an impartial bystander. you should give it to Betty. as an impartial third party. so far nothing distinguishes priority from the other theories of distribution (except for welfarism. the effects of your action are different. because the increase in welfare goes to an individual. can choose to give either Abe or Betty some medicine which will alleviate their crippling diseases slightly. Hence. according to priority. contented man on the street has a welfare index of 50. he will be completely cured and receive a massive boost of 50 to his welfare! In this case. but Betty is even worse off. If you give it to Abe. Here’s an example: Imagine that Abe is very badly off. and give either of them a tiny welfare increase of one. not abstract principles like “equality. if not all.human beings. we ought to help Unlucky. whilst the normal. So.

then perhaps one is morally permitted. and especially the worse and worst-off individuals? Some versions of the doctrine of sufficiency at least. 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. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 101  . What matters is to distribute in such a way that as many people as possible have sufficient. in order to achieve the threshold of resources necessary for a decent human existence. 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. but it is not absolute. Sufficient for what. roughly. Imagine. If even tiny contributions to the welfare of the worst off outweigh massive contributions to the welfare of the better off. for instance. we will look at a slightly different take on the morality of distribution. clothing). In the Lucky-Unlucky example. as opposed to a merely animal existence. 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. shelter. Moreover. but also for certain rights and possibilities. you might think that a lot hinges on the relevant sums of welfare involved. that they are provided for them. that what matters is not how much an individual has compared to others: Comparisons don not matter. then priority loses its distinguishing feature (even though the rationale might be different). (It should be said that the doctrine of sufficiency is pretty open-ended as regards what The Good. “sufficient. spiritual etc. then priority is in practice impossible to distinguish from the difference principle. If the overall relative increase of the sum of welfare for Lucky is high enough. But then again. even if equality is not taken into consideration at all? Priority allows for this. rather than for the sake of valuing people.Priority has another appealing feature. if the priority is not that high. or against what measure.” 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. If the priority is very high.e. to go ahead and benefit Lucky. then priority becomes hard to distinguish from welfarism.” To determine whether an individual has enough. This would not only call for a certain distribution of resources. Rather. This would mean that they are able to obtain the basic necessities of life (food. such as social. But once a person achieves a level of resources where the basic needs necessary for a decent human life have been met. but here is one: the morally important thing is to give people a decent chance to live a decent life. 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. or if they are unable to get these themselves. it might reasonably be asked? Various versions of the doctrine of sufficiency will give different answers. so that even quite modest welfare increases for the better off can outweigh slightly smaller increases for the worse off. try to overcome the problem of equality. In this last section. our responsibility towards him or her is either (drastically) diminished or disappears altogether. the priority is there. intellectual. A “doctrine of sufficiency” as we understand it says. what matters is whether a person has or has not enough i. whilst trying to avoid the problem of assigning priority that bedevils the priority principle. individuals should be able to fulfil some of the higher human needs. and its distinctive appeal – a special care for the worse off – begins to disappear. At this point. it is not normally relevant to compare that individual with others. or even obliged. which we call the doctrine of sufficiency (to avoid the even more tongue-twisting term “sufficientarianism”).. as we normally understand the term.

Kymlicka. London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf. Nussbaum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. to put it another way. Larry S. morally speaking – it is just that we do not owe more than this to a person. in terms of sufficiency. Nils & Lippert-Rasmussen. always aim to bring about the greatest increase towards sufficiency. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. (1993): Inequality. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 102  . We noted earlier that comparisons are not relevant. Kasper (eds. Once a person has these means. However. distributionally speaking. Wolff. Nagel. I of A Treatise on Social Justice. Ratio 10(3): 202-221. The Good. Frankfurt. before those who are just below the threshold – or. Derek (1997): Equality and priority. Harry (1988): The Importance of What We Care About. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press. why “only” care about sufficiency? References Holtug. John (1971): A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Polity Press. Adam (2006): Political Philosophy – A Beginner’s Guide for Students. Temkin. London: Oxford University Press.) (2006): Egalitarianism. Swift. Will (2002): Contemporary Political Philosophy (2nd edition). Jonathan (1996): An Introduction to Political Philosophy. it is up to that person to make do with the allocated resources. New Essays on the Nature and Value of Equality. there are reasons (either instrumental or moral) to help the relatively worst off. it seems only natural to say that for all the people below the threshold of sufficiency. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The first problem is to clearly define the “point of sufficiency. The problems with sufficiency are rather self-evident. Rawls. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Vol. Thomas (1979): Mortal Questions. (2000): Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.should happen once the desired level of resources or welfare is met. Further reading Barry. Brian (1989): Theories of Justice. at least not in the first place. This is not to say that he or she is worth less. Martha C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Parfit.” When exactly do people have enough? The second is to explain why people should not be helped to the best level possible.) Why is this? Why should a person’s 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.

10 12B Liberty and Equality In the previous chapter. is right for A in virtue of p (e. But. and this is the theme of the following chapters. it might also affect other people. The most important arena for this is the political. or for worse. the step from personal morality to political action is not that dramatic. namely the relation between liberty and equality. almost every normative theory implies that if something. If. because doing so will p. for instance. maximise welfare) then X is right for anyone similarly situated (hence. we will take a full leap into the latter field – whilst being informed by the discussions in the earlier chapters. to pursue economic gains will inevitably be curtailed. you will very often begin to make demands on other people (in this case: you use the power of the state to enforce taxation). Politics is all about establishing demands and limitations concerning how people should act. what are their thoughts concerning social justice? A moral doctrine or ethical perspective will. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 103  . X. Clearly. we will pursue a central theme in modern thought about political morality. Clearly. or nothing. for better. if Betty is similarly situated as Abe. If you are a utilitarian. precisely for utilitarian reasons. What do philosophers have to say about the relation between liberty and equality or. donate to charity. 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. in other words. the liberty of the talented and hardworking. or the purely lucky.g. say. to study medicine) will have far reaching implications The Good. join an NGO or charity organization to help relieve poverty in the third world. our discussion took place at the intersection between moral and political philosophy. then Betty ought to donate to charity as well. we will go into more detail concerning these concepts.g. we also believe that (at least sometimes) we are justified in deciding how other people should. We will use the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ interchangeably. inform your personal choices. your ethical perspective will affect you. Later on. at least sometimes. 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. A classic and still highly relevant topic in political philosophy concerns the relation – often tumultuous – between liberty and equality. most of us believe that not only should we behave in accordance with our ethical perspective. some of your choices will reflect your utilitarian point of view. Of course. liberty is extremely important: whether or not you are at liberty to do something (e. You might. morality with muscles. In short: politics is. and should not. a utilitarian injunction that Abe must do X. a utilitarian might lobby for a political party that favours heavy taxation as a mean of societal redistribution. but for now a rough and ready understanding of the terms will suffice: you are at liberty to do something when no one. act. Now. you favour the difference principle. In the following. And so on. 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..) In this sense. enforcing a particular ideal distributive pattern almost always implies that the liberty of some will be restricted. or at least can be. For instance. for instance. stands in your way to do it. Evidently. you will lead your life in a certain way and you will make decisions according to your moral point of view. you joining a charity or refraining from lying affect others. However. But when you “magnify” your ethical doctrine and begin to use the vast powers of the state in order to pursue an ethical agenda. but you do not necessarily make any demands on them.

it is still the case that we will have to steer somewhere between two such extreme courses of action. Thomas Hobbes claimed. And so on for all the myriad of possibilities that are open or closed to you. 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. in a certain sense. It coordinates infrastructure. And so on.) are always scarce. we would have to take care of these things individually – something that would be completely beyond the powers of any single individual in today’s world. These are called anarchists. If you take a place in med school you will probably stand in the way of someone else. It does mean. opportunities etc. brutish and short. nasty. political anarchism does identify one interesting feature of the state. Without the state. life would be “solitary. Whereas both options mentioned here might seem perverse. a permanent state of war in which we would all have to take precautionary measures against everyone else. Without the state. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 104  .for your quality of life. you exercising your liberty might restrict someone else’s options. and very often. thus levelling the playing field and benefitting the least talented 25 per cent (see the discussion of “levelling down” in chapter 10). The state. Even Isaiah Berlin. or refraining from political action. whilst demands and wishes are often limitless. a staunch defender of liberty. establishes laws to organize trade and commerce. freedom and equality are both subject to interpretation. Freedom should. 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). from the extreme left to the extreme right of the political spectrum. 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. and if equality is interpreted as meaning “equal opportunities.” meaning that unrestricted liberty for the strong will end up destroying the weak. one is often faced with choices that have implications for freedom and equality. Most resources (understood in the broadest possible sense to include things like jobs. Yet. and no other distorting sources of discrimination lay behind the decision to pick one. When making political decisions. that the state claims authority over (some of) our affairs – and it asks how can that authority ever be legitimate? The Good. A minute minority of thinkers believe that we can make do without the state. alleviates this pressure somehow. is a moral choice. poor. and they come in many guises. namely. not taking action will entrench already existing frameworks of power and hence their consequences for freedom and equality. which needs to be underpinned by valid reasons. if they had equal opportunities to pursue the qualifications needed for med school. securing equality might mean preventing the most talented 75 per cent of a population from having any sort of education. It takes care of our relations concerning far away countries. We need to face up to this challenge and find out which course of action is legitimate. Not everyone can follow the path to a medical career. The state punishes criminals and enforces contracts. Nevertheless. Moreover.” Life would be an endless paranoid struggle. rather than the other student. 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. but instead we will point to one rather obvious reason why we need the state.” then the two students are equal. And conversely. we cannot please both maximally. if it is at least minimally effective and not entirely corrupted. however. that in most circumstances. Political action. be equal freedom. admitted that “freedom for the pike means death for the minnows. So “not taking action” is a choice for which we should count ourselves politically and hence morally responsible. We will not dwell on their anti-state arguments.

and yet. yet we are not free to actually become professional footballers. He was indeed a champion of negative liberty. as equal citizens? Setting downright bizarre theories of politics aside. the vegetarian. or else metaphor”. an obligatory Sunday roast. but much appreciated consolation.Thus political philosophy concerns the questions: • • • What are the legitimate reasons for the state? What are the limits of the state’s legitimate interference with individual freedom? What do we. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) famously claimed that. as members of this or that political collective. Liberty Liberty is a curious phenomenon: many cherish it. in the fact that Christiano Ronaldo will probably not take up moral philosophy. from imprisonment. for example a law forbidding philosophers to touch footballs. contemporary political thinking focuses in particular on the relation between liberty and equality. One sense of liberty then. It would require skills and physical prowess of a kind we do not possess. What kind(s) of liberty is valuable. protection against the The Good. consider this example: The authors of this book might have the negative liberty to become professional footballers. We can then take small. this implies an emphasis on redistribution. and individual property rights to protect against massive redistribution. owe to each other. To make the distinction clearer. There are no laws which stipulate that you have to eat at least some meat. we will concentrate on these two concepts. in the sense that it “only” means the absence of some obstacle or interfering force. let us suppose you are a vegetarian living in a contemporary western democracy: You. might claim to be free to only eat nonanimal foods. Hence. positive possibility of doing or achieving something. The rest is extension of this sense. It is a freedom from – a freedom from outside forces that prevent you from being vegetarian. in crude terms. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 105  . “The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains. seems to be negative. seems to be positive: it connotes the actual. beginning with liberty. But vegetarians might be said to be free in a different way. say. insofar as no one is forcing you not to eat non-animal foods. Barring extreme poverty. a not too powerful or large state. Now. In crude terms that also meant that he defended free markets. What is the right way to strike a balance between the two. there is very little consensus about what it actually means. it seems that we have to deal with (at least) two very different senses of liberty. or can we find a morally plausible way of accommodating both? Hence. you are free to go ahead and buy or grow non-animal products. from enslavement by others. Again. you really have the possibility to go ahead and buy those lovely bean curds. what role should it play in defending and criticizing political institutions? To disentangle two fundamental senses of liberty. many political struggles are fought in its name. It is a freedom to – a freedom to actually buy bean curds. However. it seems rather evident that we do not have the positive liberty to do this. and there are no laws which forbid you to eat a vegetarian diet. The typical contrast is those who cherish positive freedom. There are no legal hindrances. 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. Another sense of liberty then. We are free from formal constraints.

unclear as it may be. it just so happens that you live in a town where people really do not care much for such products. However. those on the right are advocates of formal freedom. is not The Good. but you do not really have the effective freedom to go ahead. 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. But is there really such a “division” of freedom. take two arguments. Of course. but that is hardly a relevant sense of the freedom involved. “freedom from/freedom to” discussion should be abandoned? No. securing effective freedom is often costly. health care etc. sometimes maps nicely unto the formal/effective distinction. But even the formal/effective distinction is not beyond criticism. rather than lumping them together under “effective freedom?” Perhaps the freedom from chains of which Isaiah Berlin spoke. you do not have the effective freedom to be a vegetarian. But.e. Let us go back to the vegetarian case. To see why. precise) way of describing specific liberties is to say that whenever they are real. Your freedom from religious persecution is also a freedom to pursue the religious path of your choice. granting formal freedom is a freebie. your effective freedom seems shaky indeed. Does this mean that the whole. and someone might try to sell you beetroots. have effective access to the requisite means of communication. you had the resources (your money). it seems that any thorough description will involve both freedoms: freedom of expression evidently includes “negative” elements – a lack of censorship. it seems hard to speak of any concrete “freedoms” that cannot always be formulated in terms of both freedom from and freedom to. Normally. when you look more closely at specific. the shops and restaurants often only have animal products. that quasi-formally forbid or sanction vegetarianism. But. In fact. it seems to presuppose formal freedom. one from the right and the other from the left. At least. 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. there are no laws against it. but it should be modified somewhat. Imagine that you. Perhaps a more satisfying (i. In fact. You might have the means (money) to buy veggies. can we call resources and opportunities freedom? Would it not be much more precise to describe these as – well. because it is still a very useful way of getting a grip on the notion of freedom. what is the freedom specifically involved in “effective freedom” then? What makes it different from formal freedom? In the beetroot example. live in a society where there are no laws prohibiting the sale of vegetarian produce. If you look closely at the idea of effective freedom. However. freedom to. have an audience etc.vagaries of the market and “positive rights” i. if the law forbids the sale of beetroots. and you had the opportunity or possibility to purchase (someone wanted to sell you beetroots). It simply means that there are no legal or social impediments (bans. you can freely choose to die of starvation. After all. freedom of expression. The formal/effective distinction clearly illustrates an important and real distinction between different aspects of freedom. and this is the important point. Often. Your freedom to walk down the street is also a freedom from being molested when you do so. they involve components of both the negative and the positive. we might describe your “vegetarian freedom” in the following way: you have the formal freedom to be a vegetarian.). as a vegetarian. and those on the left champion effective freedom. education. concrete “freedoms. at least as far as economics is concerned. between freedom from and freedom to? It might be meaningful to describe various situations as involving freedom from vs.” e. and (let us stipulate) there are no social sanctions etc. In contrast. or abstain from religion altogether. rights to something such as money.g. prohibitions etc. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 106  .e. However. In such a situation. resources and opportunities.

he is not enjoying the freedom to write: what he enjoys is writing the book. The philosopher Ronald Dworkin claims that all plausible political theories stand on “an egalitarian platform”. Imagine that you. liberty. his claim is that any political theory that states that some citizens – say. extreme equality. if the existence of some “formal freedom” does not affect you (not having resources means that you cannot buy the vegetables. which is commonly considered to depend on political equality of some kind. Hence. We introduced utilitarianism or welfarism. However. Now. it might be argued that formal freedom is not really freedom in the true sense. According to champions of formal freedom. formal freedom is not freedom at all. and the doctrine of sufficiency. when he writes a book. In this section. on the other. Moreover. it is the only meaningful sense of freedom.) Furthermore. we will postpone a discussion of these facets of social justice to the next chapter. perhaps the best way to describe all real liberties is to describe them as being composed of both effective and formal liberty. forbids you to exercise this freedom. and social justice In the previous chapter. We have already touched upon this issue. 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. All these can be considered political principles of redistribution. in spite of your lack of resources. freedom to practice a religious belief. the priority principle. or blacks. freedom to assemble. we will discuss social justice. then it is the state that. Hence. This is at least what some people on the right argue. rather than the formal freedom. of course. so it amounts to the same). there is a hotly disputed consideration of individual or group liberty. many more.are worth less than others. Dworkin’s claim is not that all plausible political theories advocate equality of income. Rather. and many. the difference principle. at centre stage (even though formal freedom is still a necessary requisite in order to enjoy some activity. But then. a law preventing you from buying them does the same. As was the case with the distinction between negative and positive liberty. the discussions of equality in the above are. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 107  .only the fundamental sense. should you in desperation try to exercise this formal freedom. or homosexuals. These involve the whole range of our political rights – freedom of expression. important and relevant. Conversely. there is a quest for equality. had no money to buy veggies. or some of the other theories that will lead to redistribution which we encountered in the chapter on equality. such as writing a book. our democratic rights of representation and participation. most contemporary discussions of social justice concern the relation between equality and liberty: on the one hand. and steal some beetroots. But that puts effective. this is the not a key issue when discussing whether you are free to buy veggies. we discussed various aspects of equality. the state’s “generous” granting of formal freedom amounts to nothing. the vegetarian. and the relative weight of these values is at the centre of the discussion. As we have stressed. ultimately. When someone enjoys writing a book. Equality. but in brief. or non-believers . because no one is forcing you not to buy veggies. as the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka says. But. and instead concentrate on the different understandings of social justice and equality in. obviously. both formal and effective liberty are necessary factors. women. The state gives you formal freedom insofar as the state does not ban the sale of veggies. or some variant of extreme equality. is by that very fact The Good. (re-)distribution is not all there is to social justice and political equality. the chances are he or she will not become president.

capacities etc. For them. They might even be commendable. and one chooses to put all his or her efforts into a job. 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.) that can affect people’s lives. leaving little or no time for other pursuits. A theory of social justice must be able to explain when and why a differential impact of these policies on people’s share is justified. he claims that the challenge consists of reconciling two different and conflicting principles. Naturally. For others. or whatever way in which one might choose to measure the impact of state policies. We can never fully satisfy both liberty and equality. and still we would not fully equalize their circumstances. Essentially. controversies are bound to arise. we should not. even going only “half the way” (i. Neat as this distinction may seem. affects people’s rightful share of resources. Some people are so badly off in terms of natural endowments and talents that no matter what we do. increasing the liberty of the talented. “equal respect” implies equality of income or welfare. On the one hand. whilst at the same time respecting a minimum of personal liberty. we do want to hold people responsible in both a negative and positive way for their choices. the state owes us equal respect and concern. substantially.implausible. For example: we can never be perfectly “circumstance-ignorant” and achieve complete equality. So. On the other hand.unless of course we made everyone equally badly off – but that’s hardly an acceptable solution. this reflects a specific ideal of equality: we should not allow inequality which arises from arbitrary circumstances. and thus should not have unequal impact on our lives. A theory of social justice must cover all the important aspects of how our collective action. Naturally. this ideal reflects liberty: you should be free to work to improve your life. mainly coordinated in and by the state. however. so our theory of social justice should be “choice-responsive”. Kymlicka unpacks this challenge in a very instructive manner. giving some compensation) would mean transferring a huge amount of resources from the talented to the ordinary. “Ignore” here means that the pattern of distribution across citizens which results from our theory of social justice should not reflect such arbitrary circumstances. if ever. have any quarrel with the likely result that the first person ends up with more resources than the second. Moreover. Some believe that it follows from this conception that we should aim to redistribute resources such as income etc. we want a theory of social justice to “ignore” arbitrary circumstances or “endowments” (talents.” then it follows that the key challenge for a theory of social justice lies exactly in explaining when an unequal impact is justified. or welfare. at least not concerning large-scale distributive principles. Conversely. and you should also be free in the sense that you should not bear the burden of other people’s imprudent choices. or opportunities. if you have two people who are roughly equally well equipped mentally and in terms of resources. Inequalities that arise from people’s choices are not problematic. we expect the same of a political theory as we do of a moral theory: in the absence of other weighty considerations. If social justice means treating “like cases alike” or “giving each his or her due. they still believe equal respect and concern is a fundamental requisite for a plausible political theory. However. Roughly speaking. we can never compensate them fully for their bad (and arbitrary) circumstances. thereby minimizing their liberty. “equal respect” is far from compatible with redistribution.e. We will take a closer look at one such theory below. and when it is not. from the point of view of justice. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 108  . Being born in a rich family – or a poor – is arbitrary. and the other chooses a life-style with a low-key job and lots of spare time. Things might look differently in smaller settings and The Good. hardworking and lucky will always mean less compensation for the unlucky thereby compromising equality and restricting the effective liberty of the unlucky. and this is important. We could continue to transfer resources from the talented and hardworking or the plain lucky to the unlucky. or provide adequate compensation . insofar as they do not wholly reflect arbitrary circumstances.

if no one is forced into any transactions. Now. Wilt signs a contract giving him one dollar for each spectator during the season. but let us stick with an equal distribution for now. no one was coerced. if we aim for an ambitious ideal of justice which encompasses everyone. then there is nothing wrong with someone ending up with more (or less) than others. following the same argument. 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. However. Against redistribution: libertarianism Maybe the discussion of responsibility and compensation is redundant. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 109  . However. basketball star. 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. if the customers obtained their money in a legitimate way. The history. to a very large degree. Wilt will have 250. 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. if it is the case that. imagine almost any kind of initial distribution. at least insofar I do not violate other peoples’ choices. all people have the same amount of resources. then you will tend to emphasize choice-sensitiveness and oppose large-scale redistribution. how and why could it ever be legitimate for the state to punish them by The Good. What is relevant for justice is how these inequalities occurred. In Nozick’s memorable phrase: what could ever be wrong with “capitalist acts between consenting adults”? But. rather than the pattern. the product of random circumstances. and let us stipulate that Wilt lives for free and eats in the clubhouse. is irrelevant. The fact that Abe has a low income and few opportunities. if you are sceptical about the notion of personal responsibility and believe that we are largely. In fact. no one forced them to pay. a lot of people are willing to pay to see Wilt do his stuff. Now. cheated him etc. Hence.000 dollars. so he ends up with 250. People were free to buy a ticket or not.where people do not differ grossly in terms of endowments and resources.000 dollars. Let us say 250. inequality is irrelevant as seen from the point of view of justice. then you will probably advocate significant redistribution from the lucky and talented to the unlucky and unskilled. it would be very wrong to force customers to use their money in ways that they do not freely consent to! For instance. Most importantly. whilst Belinda has a high income and many opportunities. At the end of season. However. 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. all of whom are happy to pay the ticket price. “Plausible” here will. which both come from the so-called libertarian tradition.) justice is satisfied. Nevertheless. people will differ in both aspects. we can try to find a plausible middle way between these two principles. of distribution is the important thing. As long as Belinda has not interfered with Abe’s rights (stolen from him. we have strong rights of property which exclude coerced taxation and hence stateborne redistribution. 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. at least politically speaking. Imagine that initially. or wholly. Without putting too fine a point on it. Enter Wilt Chamberlain. And so on for all the involved parties. From this follows a string of negative rights: you are not to interfere in my choices.000 people come along during the season. The same goes for the state. then there is no moral complaint. Nozick’s provocative question is: what is wrong with this? After all. We will now discuss two arguments. more than anyone else.

Ronald (1977): Taking Rights Seriously. Wilt’s circumstances are quite different from the others’. even if everything in the example really is the product of free. the problem (so the critics argue) is that it may well be that the distribution is equal initially. uncoerced choices. Again. or slavery. much of it can be boiled down to one challenge. they claim that it follows that we own the fruits of our labour. References Berlin. albeit in a slightly less obvious manner. In the Wilt Chamberlain example. it might still be a bad thing if some people have nothing and others a lot.publicliterature. 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. which he can sell on the market. Oxford: Oxford University Press. the libertarian might retort that we should imagine that everyone has the same circumstances. this is both reasonable and seems to be in concord with the quest for equal respect. As we said. 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. Nozick. New York: Basic Books The Good. http://www. especially if we need a robust rendering of the idea of equal respect? Now. this seems to be a reasonable starting point: who else should it be. which is both commendable and legitimate. Second.g.) 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. From a moral point of view.taxing the product (Wilt’s games) they wish to buy? How. In a sense. Hobbes. but Wilt just chose to use his talents whereas others did not. But if that is the case. you also own your income and therefore compulsory taxation becomes a kind of theft. can it ever be legitimate for the state to tax people. then. namely that they ignore the distinction between choices and circumstances. State. the choice/circumstance distinction is in play again. as you own yourself. but do people have the same circumstances? Evidently. Will (2002): Contemporary Political Philosophy. It might not be a case of social injustice. that we own ourselves. mental or otherwise. However. Libertarians and their opponents might share the same starting point. See e. a “talent for using talents” might be an undeserved talent in itself. several editions): Leviathan. how can you legitimately be coerced by the state to pay taxes for redistribution? You might choose to donate money to charity. The crucial step in libertarian thought is this: from the belief that we own ourselves. it follows that we own our bodies and our various talents. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Now. namely. Thomas (1651. An Introduction (2nd edition). which we discussed earlier. Wilt’s skill at basketball is a very valuable commodity. but it can still be a bad thing. But. I own the fruits of my labour. possibly against their will. This deserves two replies: first.org/books/leviathan/1 Kymlicka. then there is no justice in his reaping the full benefits of his talent. Dworkin. And stealing or slavery are hardly features of social justice! These two arguments have been met with much criticism. Robert (1974): Anarchy. and Utopia. If he can take no (or even only some) credit for his basketball skills. Isaiah (1969): Four Essays on Liberty. as we saw when we discussed the lottery argument. libertarians base their position on the idea that we own ourselves. In the argument from self-ownership. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 110  . London: Duckworth.

Vol.Many of the thoughts and arguments in the section captioned “Liberty” are expressed brilliantly in the chapter “Liberty” in: Swift. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Brian (1989): Theories of Justice. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. The Good. Adam (2006): Political Philosophy – a Beginners Guide for Students and Politicians. Wolff. Cambridge: Polity Press. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 111  . London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf. Further reading Barry. I of A Treatise on Social Justice. Jonathan (1996): An Introduction to Political Philosophy.

A majority vote on this question seems to settle the matter satisfactorily: no matter what we decide. as this would imply that we can rarely. call a decision democratically legitimate. there is an underlying assumption that a unanimous decision is ideal – simply because such decisions are not against anyone’s will. “whenever a majority is in favour of the decision in question. it is a commonly held belief that individuals ought to be able to control central aspects of their lives. your decision will contradict the ideal that people should be able to exert control over their own lives. The typical example here is the decision whether to drive on the left. then it would be democratically legitimate to decide. chance. However. but rather unsatisfying answer is. or at least in many conceptions of democracy. 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. we view individuals as “authors of their own life. If a simple majority bestowed legitimacy on any decision.” as opposed to dumb and blind puppets of fate. In other words. we value a certain form of personal autonomy. The favoured approach to this is democracy.” because most of the decisions you make will affect other people. and others worse off. a concept that you may be more familiar with than many of the other concepts you have encountered in this book. But (thankfully). the fact that you are exercising your influence is fully compatible with the affected party exercising control over his own life. But. 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 government? 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. or should not receive public health care. To use a phrase. that all red-haired people should pay 10% extra in tax. such decisions are arbitrary and unjustified. What we have in mind are decisions concerning questions to which there simply is no right answer in the absence of a vote. class. you can agree with the affected party as to what course of action should be taken. However. or be forced to take up certain occupations and barred from others. In democracy. from a moral point of view. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 112  . For instance. sex etc. Political decisions will often leave some better off.” Some decisions might be legitimate simply because they are favoured by the majority. In this chapter. only few questions are of this kind. everyone is much better off if we all drive on the same side. The Good. They are not morally legitimate. Hence. we live together in political communities. Some decisions do not fall under this description. thereby ensuring the safe flow of traffic. we are all better off when we have made a decision and stick to it. and sometimes a decision you make will affect other people in ways they would not like. Here. democracy is a very contested and complex phenomenon. we will introduce some of the most essential philosophical controversies regarding democracy. When then is a decision democratically legitimate? The obvious. whilst securing each individual’s autonomy. There is no correct answer to this question. both your will and the will of those affected are in agreement. or the right side of the road. if ever. for example.11 13B Democracy and pluralism In the Western world. Hence. Nevertheless. few scholars of democracy believe that only de facto unanimous decisions are legitimate. Nevertheless.

to lobby for their favoured political candidate or case. “the fact of pluralism. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 113  . and hence.” Here. such as social justice.. Nevertheless. religious points of view. whilst respecting every citizen. they may also want to hold them responsible for such choices. Another one is a quite specific condition for the use of this power. Treating people with respect normally implies treating them as competent and autonomous individuals. for the people”. diabetes or cirrhosis. science. 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” . by the people. 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. controversy is bound to arise because citizens have different ideals. to sustain a reasonably peaceful co-existence between the different groups and subgroups within society. This is probably very close to the best interpretation of the concept of democracy. pluralism refers to the fact that citizens in modern societies espouse a plurality of world-views. The slogan expresses some fundamental features that every democratic state must possess to some degree. “what are the conditions for democratic legitimacy. democracy is government of the people (all state The Good. at least within certain limits. 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. which has become known as. the environment. how should we arrange our political institutions given the fact of pluralism? After all. or rather the state. Every competent adult should be able to exercise some amount of control over her own portion of the world. goals and values. handle such conflicts. who are able to control their own affairs and lives. Since the state regulates the affairs of the people. Clearly. as far as possible. it seems almost inevitable that one of the main purposes of the modern state must be to accommodate this plurality and. 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. religion. While such people might respect that an individual is at liberty to smoke and drink heavily. we need to examine the question. given the vast variety of ways people think and feel about fundamental issues.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. morally speaking?” A good starting point here is to pose yet another question. conceptions of the good (ideas about what makes their lives go well). 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. Of course.is the central theme here. moral ideals etc. The basic question becomes: If we want democratic decisions (and the state as such) to be legitimate. or to run for office themselves. whilst upholding the ideal that the democratic state ought to respect every citizen. sexual life-styles etc. How should society. at least as far as possible. life-styles. But how is this possible? Democracy The American president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) described democracy as “government of the people. One faction might believe that people ought to be held responsible for their own life-style choices. 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. This reframes the basic political philosophical question concerning legitimacy.

” It seems obvious that such cases are uncontroversial. if the idea is that competent adults should have a say in the affairs which affect them. everything can be decided by a democratic vote: there would be no principled protection of minorities. Some matters or decisions are not right in any sense of the word in the absence of a democratic decision. the scope for democracy is “total. We have already noticed this with the example of whether we should drive on the left or right-hand side of the road. no protection of privacy. then why shouldn’t we have global democracy – many decisions made by the US or Chinese government affect people in the rest of the world. it is useful to think of opinions as falling along a spectrum with “anarchism” at one extreme and “totalitarianism” at the other. 2) the protection of the individual’s rights. it is because the term ‘democracy’ is laden with positive connotations. consider for a moment whether it really is a good thing that. hence. there is no agreement concerning the best conception (how to define that definitional core) of democracy. in principle. As you can probably see. there are no democratically legitimate decisions and so the scope for democratic decisions is zero.” Whereas the first extreme makes the state impossible. the study of how. The (democratic) “totalitarian” believes that. However. 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.” To make a long and complicated story short: almost everyone who reflects seriously upon democracy. But. the wisest course of action is perhaps to not decide on the matter The Good. there is scope for enormous disagreement regarding the ideas encapsulated in “by and for the people. The “anarchist” believes that no decisions should be enforced by a state.government is) and we are unlikely to encounter disagreement between democrats and their opponents on this matter. whilst “for the people” must mean that the government is for the benefit of the people and not some economic or religious elite. more or less. We will return to this question later. For now. at least in principle. it can plausibly be argued that the second extreme is more democratic. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 114  . if at all.” This forces us to take a brief detour into moral epistemology. However. But it is not the case that the second extreme is better because of this! If this sounds odd. no fundamental rights to protect individuals against majority democratic decisions. or is the truth of the matter subjective and changes from person to person? The truth might depend on a democratic decision. accepts that it must be tempered and constrained by at least 1) the protection of (vulnerable) minorities against electoral majorities and. The part “by the people” must mean that all relevant persons in the political community have a say. “should democracy be totalitarian. The real question is not. other matters are far more controversial. In a sense. There is no independent “truth of the matter” before we decide on the matter. we know whether something is morally right or wrong. we will simply assume that democracy applies to the relatively closed nation state. on the concept (the definitional core) of democracy. It is “democratically-dependent. Democracy is as fine a method for making decisions in such cases as any other. Hence.” but rather “how far should the scope of democracy reach. 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. for who are “the people”? After all. even though “democracy” has a definitional core.” Even though there is agreement. If you accept such considerations as morally relevant. 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. it is still a highly controversial theme. Nevertheless. any kind of decision is suitable for democracy. or for the sake of some ideal that is detrimental to the interests of the people.

or even guarantee. imagine that you had the right to participate.. and the way the vast majority of political decisions are made. The focus is on the political process.g. political and moral legitimacy. and how much optimism concerning citizens’ willingness to compromise and to understand each other is warranted. which would lead to widespread dissatisfaction and possible civil unrest. Critics of the “deliberative turn” in democratic theory do not argue that discussion is unimportant. extremely popular among contemporary political theorists. rather than shows. and are mandated to act and decide on our behalf. Rather than deciding from case to case. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 115  .” The exact meaning of this phrase is unclear. Another reply.democratically. is formed in the first place. This leads naturally to an emphasis on (free and informed) political discussion. 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. Furthermore. or not? If there is a collective insurance system in place.. in any political The Good. “deliberative democracy” presupposes. a certain political framework. we have to emphasize stability. First. we still need to decide if and how democratic decisions should be limited by certain rights (and which rights?). but at least two interpretations have been offered. Much ink has been spilled on the issue of direct democracy. This might be true (or at least prudent). compromise and consensus. For such adherents of “deliberative democracy. and we need to strike deals constantly between conflicting sections of the populace. 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). Let us first note that a system of direct democracy may very well be technically feasible. municipality-level decision-making. democracy implies a certain. From a moral point of view. they question whether it will naturally lead to the right or best decision.” the key question is: Under what conditions is our political deliberation formed in a way which will facilitate. and hence decision. However. however. whether or not a given nation should join an international body such as the EU. which pays for everyone’s health care (that is. important national questions e. but to let people decide for themselves. and we cannot know for sure that discussion will settle that issue in the best way. and not let one part have the upper hand in all decisions. there is a pragmatic and “moderate” interpretation: given that potential and real conflicts of interests are inherent to pluralistic societies. the drawback of this reply to pluralism is that it does not go far in telling us what exactly “moderate” means. does not deciding on the matter imply subsidizing people with unhealthy life-styles. we are going to enforce a moral view on some part of the electorate that they do not accept. the idea being that such discussion will lead to increased mutual understanding and reciprocal respect. Here are some reasons. Direct and representative democracy. those who make healthy life-style choices will almost inevitably end up subsidizing those with unhealthy life-styles. However. more specifically the political deliberation. is to emphasize the importance of the ways in which political opinion. In a sense. The alternative. So. In short. for morality does not stem from power. direct democracy does not seem to have much relevance as a standard model of democracy for modern societies. Politics is often called “the art of the possible. moderate and anti-revisionist way of making decisions. however. which covers more or less the complete process of democratic opinion formation. both of which stress that the art of politics takes place within a democratic framework and under the conditions of pluralism. and whereas forms of direct democracy might have a place on certain political levels e. is representative. then in one obvious sense.g. This is not the issue. this seems unfair – unless we can say that we are not (adequately) responsible for our life-styles. 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. via direct democracy. a tax-paid system). we vote for political candidates who ideally act as our representatives. But. The most basic form of democracy is direct democracy: you take a given issue and everyone participates in the vote. or regarding specific.

Let us also suppose that. one might tentatively say that the first battle secured minorities a sort of formal political equality with the dominant group: one man or woman. we have less in common with each other. In short. all citizens should have the formal opportunity to be equal participants in the political arena. A further and serious complication. democracy and culture There are several ways in which pluralism sharpens and complicates the issues. from self-interested to altruistic. 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. In the second fight. even though we are very different in some respects such as sex. one vote. recent developments in both political movements and in political philosophy have questioned whether this is an adequate response. 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. Under pluralism.decision in your community. a massive waste of energy compared to a system of representation in which we allow political experts and parties to function in our place. Here. However. this formal equality is entirely consistent with vast effective inequalities. for more often than is commonly supposed. However. insofar as no Western countries have laws that openly discriminate or disenfranchise people on the grounds of sex. 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. etc. pointed out by the English philosopher Adam Swift.) for women. Now. relatively speaking. That the law gives minorities the formal right of The Good. At some point. race etc. 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. Furthermore. It was the fight for democratic rights (to vote etc. non-whites. Nevertheless. fiscal policies. the property-less. Political recognition encompassed the idea that. macro-economics etc. imagine the time and effort you would have to put into keeping up to date with the details of decisions regarding infrastructure. Pluralism. the point stands. we want people to have at least some knowledge about the issues they are to decide upon. This fight is largely over in Western democracies. it might mean that direct democracy would be a very bad procedure for decisions such as reasonable. unless we assume that people will quite radically change their behaviour. 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. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 116  . And the same goes for the rest of the population. Borrowing some terms from the previous chapter. This is not to claim that this is impossible for people. but reluctant to vote for proposals that mean they themselves must foot the bill. the focus was on giving the same rights to all. small. To simplify: they are enthusiastic about voting for proposals that are advantageous to them. and the risk that dominant groups will outvote minorities on crucial matters is more imminent. in general. Finally. But deciding what should be put to vote is often as crucial as the result of the vote. wealth. One does not want to make decisions that are in disfavour of neighbours and friends. 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. With a reasonably uniform and socially cohesive electorate. and abilities. race. If this is true. Someone has to decide. which will mean that the “representativeness” of direct democracy would become rather casual and haphazard. the chances that democratic decisions will consistently discriminate minorities are. balanced budgets. people do act altruistically. the picture was and is very different.

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. and if you see cultural and social phenomena as largely matters of choice. and especially concerning what you believe about the proper scope of democratic decisions – and vice versa. a right that implies positive duties of assistance from others. so that people abide to the laws of their religious affiliation in certain matters. you might believe that people should have the right to pursue the cultural lifestyle and association of their choice. then you would be led towards endorsing the third wave. majority or minority. To name just one case. and special rights or privileges or exemptions are needed. and then you would be in favor of culturally grounded policies. under pluralism there is no guarantee for cultural equality. the picture is complicated. that is. economically etc. This gave the impetus for stronger forms of minority protection and affirmative action programs etc. at least if you are also an adherent of political equality. or its ability to sustain social cohesion. But you might not believe that people should be compensated for the eventual costs of their choices. For instance. are tremendously important for your views on the right democratic response to pluralism – or they ought to be. Different groups have different statuses attached to them. for example family law? Or do we. and whether they are negative or positive. or at least different from. In brief.representation does not mean that they are effectively represented. You would then believe that certain policies can be legitimately grounded in culture (that is. need to curtail certain culturally embedded practices. for instance. if you want your views to be consistent. are high-achievers in terms of economic power. really need the same law for all people. There are many questions involved here. Even more importantly. or should we rather differentiate. but some groups are systematically “under-scoring” in terms of their political and economical power. Do we. but still in the name of equality. politically. you believe that culture is a part of peoples’ circumstances. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 117  . it seems that homosexuals. but only insofar as they protect and further the majority culture. The third and quite recent wave is the most radical and controversial. In the first wave. for example. it was for different rights for different people. In the second. in order to maintain a modicum of cohesiveness and civil solidarity. the fight was for the same rights. policies that protect or further vulnerable minority cultures). but that it is still the case that homosexuals are socially and culturally marginalized. Conversely. to counter the inequalities that are independent of. whereas you might be sceptical regarding policies that are grounded in majority culture views. to maintain their own culture? If so. Do people have a positive right. your views on what rights we have. all insist on their equal status. if you believe that people have strong positive rights of assistance so they can follow their cultural preferences because. political and economical hierarchies. The Good. One of them is just how “plural” societies can be. or are they circumstances beyond the individual’s control? The stance you take regarding these issues has important implications for how you view the democratic system. you would be critical of the “third wave” mentioned above and at least moderately sceptical about the second. throughout the Western world at least. You would then be sceptical in general about the legitimacy of laws that are grounded in considerations of culture. or to produce equality in the long run. it is claimed. such as arranged marriages? Another set of questions pertains to what people owe each other. Under conditions of pluralism. As always. it is claimed that even if we have formal and some sorts of effective political and economical equality. Or you might believe that it is important to maintain precisely the majority culture on the grounds of its intrinsic superiority.

one nation might – democratically? – decide to pursue their perceived narrow national interest and continue to pollute. deforestation. Although it is plausible to claim that citizens in democratic nations vote for representatives who can. it would be absurd to claim that the aforementioned global issues are under democratic control. Held. Pitkin. And if pluralism poses a problem for democracies on a national level. represent their electorate in the relevant international institutions. in all likelihood. Simon (2005): Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory. Berkeley CA: University of California Press. but they are not democratically controlled! Even though we might all agree that it would be best if we limited global pollution. of course. In short. of course. not local. And that will contribute negatively to global pollution and give the country an edge in international competition. or rights.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. More and more countries are bound by international regulations and laws and institutions such as the EU. at least in the short run. is perhaps the most pressing and formidable challenge for contemporary democratic theory and it will. it should not come as a surprise that pluralism will be an even greater challenge on the global level. continue to be so for generations to come. References Caney. All the most serious challenges of an environmental kind – global warming. The rupture between the individual’s rights to exercise democratic influence over important political decisions. which will affect his or her wellbeing. we are all deeply affected by decisions (and the absence of decisions) that are global. Oxford: Oxford University Press. financial policies. Hannah (1967): The Concept of Representation. 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. and the manifest lack of (powerful) global institutions in which this democratic influence could take place. However. or interests.. David (2006): Models of Democracy. Now. both important and controversial. 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. 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. and various treaties and contracts. the UN. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 118  . in nature. If you believe that people should have a democratic say concerning important political decisions that will affect them. or should. Cambridge: Polity Press. as it is generally costly to reduce levels of pollution. consider the following: we live in an increasingly globalized reality. democratic decision is in almost every respect bound by national borders. And information and cultural products flow more or less freely on the internet. but let us not dwell on that point now. given a plausible framework of strong rights protecting all against democratic tyranny etc. the question of what exactly counts as “political” is. generally speaking. International trade. Whereas some issues. pollution of the air and water – are global. The Good.

Adam (2006): Political Philosophy – a Beginners Guide for Students and Politicians. Stephen (ed. the Right & the Fair – DRAFT VERSION  Side 119  . Democracy of: Swift.Again.) (1999): Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement. this time from part 5. New York: Oxford University Press. Cambridge: Polity Press. Further reading Macedo. The Good. we have borrowed many arguments.

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