New England Consequentialism Workshop

The New England Consequentialism Workshop (NECW) was a forum that discussed works-in-progress in normative ethics, understood broadly to include, e.g. political philosophy and bioethics, which convened monthly from 2010 to 2013. Past presenters included Shelly Kagan, Jeff McMahan, Debra Satz, Tim Scanlon and others. Workshop participants came from Harvard, other Boston-area institutions, and New England at large. NECW was hosted and funded by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. It was founded and coordinated by Nir Eyal of Harvard University Program in Ethics and Health and Harvard Medical School Division of Medical Ethics.  


Peter Vallentyne (September 26, 2012)
Florence G. Kline Chair in Philosophy, University of Missouri-Columbia
Resourcism for Advantage and Wellbeing


Abstract: We explore a problem faced by resourcist theories of wellbeing (e.g., objective list theories) and by resourcist theories of distributive justice (e.g., the primary goods approach). Resourcist theories of each kind impose a standard interpersonal resource dominance condition: more of some relevant resources, and less of none, is always better. That condition, however, generates problems when combined with the weak requirement that the wellbeing, or advantage, generated by a resource bundle can vary between individuals. We explore the significance of this problem and some ways to avoid it. Our discussion has immediate implications for the "equality of what" debate.

Gillian Brock (October 3, 2012)
Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland-New Zealand
Emigration, Losses, and Burden-Sharing: Which arrangements are fair?

Abstract: This paper focuses on several justice questions surrounding emigration from developing countries. I discuss why important harms may frequently follow emigrants' departure from developing countries. My concern is with the normative responsibilities to address these losses and with fair ways to distribute the burden of tackling them. I argue that it can be permissible for particular states to place certain conditions on citizens who would like to live outside source countries (such as taxation or service requirements). I also argue that it may be fair to expect residents of developed countries who will benefit from these movements to absorb some costs of emigration. I canvas a variety of arguments to show why such burden-sharing arrangements are fair, and defend the view against some key anticipated objections, especially those concerning inappropriate interference with freedom.

Gustaf Arrhenius (November 28, 2012)
Professor of Practical Philosophy, Stockholm University
Inequality and Population Change


Abstract: We usually examine our considered intuitions regarding inequality by comparing populations of the same size. Likewise, the standard measures of inequality and its badness have been developed on the basis of such comparisons alone. Many real world policies, however, will affect the size of a population, especially in the long run. For example, many health policies are very likely to prevent deaths and affect procreation decisions. Trivially, policies directly aimed at increasing or curbing population growth affect the population size. In addition, if we are interested in measuring the development of global inequality during the last thirty years or so, we have to take into account the great population expansion in countries such as India and China. Hence, we need to consider how to extend measures of inequality to different number cases, that is, how to take into account the complication that population numbers are often unequal between the compared alternatives. Moreover, it turns out that examining different number case is a fruitful way of probing our ideas about egalitarian concerns. It reveals as yet unnoticed complexities and problems in current conceptualizations of the value of equality and points to a new understanding of this value, or so I'll argue.

I. Glenn Cohen (February 13, 2013)
Assistant Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
Rationing Legal Services


Abstract: There is a deepening crisis in the funding of legal services for the poor in the United States. This crisis only makes more pressing and manifest the sad and persistent scarcity in available criminal and civil legal assistance: not everyone who wants legal assistance can get it, and certainly not everyone gets as much assistance as they want. This article will focus on how existing Legal Service Providers (LSPs), both civil and criminal, should ration their services when they cannot help everyone. For example, should the Public Defender Service allocate more resources to offenders facing death-eligible offenses or life sentences? Should it favor offenders under the age of 25 instead of those older than 55? How should law school legal aid bureaus prioritize their civil cases and clients? Should they favor clients with cases better suited for impact litigation over those that fall in the direct service category? Should they prioritize clients with the greatest need? Should they allocate their assistance by lottery? These are but a few of the difficult questions facing legal service allocators. Surprisingly, hardly any legal scholarship has aimed to derive principles for rationing legal services. This article seeks to fill that gap, taking its inspiration from bioethics thinking about rationing scarce medical goods such as organs, ICU beds, and pandemic flu vaccine doses. 

Toby Ord (March 27, 2013)
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Oxford
Moral Trade 


Abstract: If two parties have different resources, tastes, or needs, they can exchange goods or services such that they each feel they have been made better off. This is trade, and despite problems, it has made the world a much better place. If the two parties have different moral beliefs, then there is another type of trade that is possible: they can exchange goods or services such that both parties feel that the world is a better place, or that their moral obligations are better satisfied. We can call this moral trade. For instance, one person might offer to donate $1,000 to Oxfam if their friend will avoid eating meat for a year, or a political party might agree to refrain from legalising euthanasia in exchange for securing tough CO2 emissions targets. In this paper, I explore the possibilities of moral trade, including its relationship to moral uncertainty, and its implications for theoretical and applied ethics. I show how the possibility of moral trade undermines some non-consequentialist theories and that it suggests we should develop practical frameworks to start achieving the moral gains from moral trade.

Jennifer Hawkins (April 3, 2013)
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Duke University
Well-Being, Time, and Dimentia

Abstract: Philosophers often discuss what makes a life good as a whole. Moreover, it is sometimes assumed that beneficence, which is directed at the well-being of another person, is concerned with the good of that person's life as a whole. Consider a woman who writes an advance directive at 50 saying that if she develops dementia, she does not want any life-sustaining treatments. At 65 she develops dementia. Yet, in the mid-stages of the illness, she is enjoying her life. If she now develops pneumonia, what would be best for her—treatment or no treatment? (Pneumonia can be life threatening if untreated, but is easily treated with antibiotics.) By appealing to what would be best for her life as a whole, Ronald Dworkin and Jeff McMahan have both argued that it is in her interests to die. I call the conception they appeal to the 'life-object view.'

The life-object view is mistaken and discovering why can tell us something about well-being. Certainly, one can view a life as an extended narrative and ask what would best contribute to the life, given that certain themes have already been established. However, I argue that the life-object view bears no real relation to genuine prudential value. To defend a life-object view of prudential value, we would have to be able to locate an atemporally authoritative perspective for the evaluation of individual lives. But no such perspective exists, since prudential value is value-at-a-time.

Sarah Conly (May 8, 2013)
Professor of Philosophy, Bowdoin College
One Child: Do We Really Have a Right to More? 

Abstract: We know—from global warming, from species loss, from pollution of air and water—that the environment is suffering from human use, and there is good evidence that the only way to prevent such harms is to reduce the number of humans. However, when we think of state regulations on the number of children a person may have, we immediately think of the impermissibility of forced abortions and sterilizations, and conclude that any such regulations are morally wrong. That said, the fact that it's wrong to prevent an action in certain ways doesn't actually mean we have a right to perform the action that those unjust sanctions are intended to prevent. So even if we justifiably conclude that forced sterilizations and such shouldn't be allowed, it is still possible that government regulations on how many children you have could be morally permissible. I argue further that even if you have a right to reproduce, it doesn't follow that from that that you have a right to more than one child. That question turns on other issues. One is how strong your interest is in having more than one child, and whether that interest constitutes a right. Another is what the state's interest is in preventing you from having a certain number of children. I argue that there are no independent grounds for thinking we have a right to more than one child: the right to privacy, the right to control over our bodies, and the right to control over our own reproductive processes do not yield a right to have howsoever many children one may happen to want. Secondly, I argue that in certain circumstances—not too distant from our own—the state has a legitimate interest in controlling population by controlling the number of children individuals produce.


Jeff McMahan
Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University
What Rights May Be Defended by Means of War?

Wrongful aggressors often claim to love peace, and there is a sense in which that is true, for they would prefer to get what they want without having to fight a war.  Many of the aims that motivate unjust wars could be achieved without violence: for example, control of another state’s natural resources, such as oil, limited political control over the other state, the annexation of a bit of its territory, and so on.  In such cases, war and killing become necessary for aggressors only if they meet with military resistance.  Most people believe that in domestic society it is not permissible to kill a thief merely to defend one’s property.  So how can it be permissible to kill a large number of soldiers just to defend collective property such as territory and resources – particularly when most of those soldiers act under duress imposed by those they regard as legitimate authorities?  I will consider whether defensive war can be morally justified in such cases of lesser aggression.

Tim Scanlon
Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Department of Philosophy, Harvard University
Ideas of the Good in Moral and Political Philosophy

The topic of my paper is the ways in which ideas of the good figure in moral and political philosophy, and how that particular use gives ideas of the good a particular shape, different from what they have in the context of a single individual’s deliberation about what to do. I will discuss the ways in which this contrast, between personal good and non-personal reasons, figures in arguments of Sidgwick, Marx, Rawls, and Williams.

Dan Brock
Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Director, Medical Ethics at the Harvard Medical School and Harvard University Program in Ethics and Health
Separate Spheres and Indirect Benefits

This paper addressed two related issues in assessing benefits and costs for health resource prioritization. First, should benefits be restricted only to health benefits, or include as well other non health benefits such as economic benefits to employers from reducing the lost work time due to illness of their employees? I shall call this the Separate Spheres problem. Second, should only the direct benefits, such as extending life or reducing disability, and direct costs, such as costs of medical personnel and supplies, of health interventions be counted, or should other indirect benefits and costs be counted as well? I shall call this the Indirect Benefits problem.

Debra Satz
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, Professor of Philosophy, and by courtesy, Political Science and Program on Global Justice Research Affiliate
Race, Class, and Schooling


This paper examined objections to the project of achieving substantive equality of opportunity in education; provides answers to those objections, and argues that integration of students by race and class is as central to that project as pursuing financial distribution.

David Enoch, Talia Fisher, and Levi Spectre
Professor of Philosophy and Jacob I. Berman Professor of Law
Statistical Evidence, Sensitivity, and the Legal Value of Knowledge


The law routinely distinguishes — and it seems that it should distinguish — between statistical and direct, individual evidence. Thus, the law will have no problem basing a finding regarding liability in torts on, say, a 70% reliable eye-witness; but it will be very reluctant to ground such a finding based on control (by the defendant) of 70% percent of the market. This distinction is puzzling, and scholars of evidence law have struggled with explaining it for years.

In this paper, we first place the discussion in a much wider philosophical, epistemological context: that of attempts to formulate a Sensitivity requirement for knowledge, according to which, roughly, a believer's belief that p does not amount to knowledge unless (among other things) had it not been the case that p, the believer would no longer have believed that p. We argue that appreciating the similarities between this general epistemological discussion and the problem of statistical evidence places important constraints on solving the latter.

Even if this is so, though, it is not at all clear that the law should, as it were, care about any of this - why should it matter for purposes of legal policy, in other words, whether a certain belief amounts to knowledge? We argue that it should not, that the law should not care about epistemology. Nevertheless, the law should care about incentives, and there is a not-merely-coincidental relation between the epistemological story and an incentive-based story that explains (and to an extent vindicates) the distinction between statistical and individual evidence.

The discussion also raises interesting questions about the appropriate evidential standards for morality (as opposed to the law), which we address in a preliminary way.

Julia Driver
Professor of Philosophy, Washington University in St. Louis
Fictions and Ideals in the Development of Consequentialism


Though the notion of a ‘useful fiction’ was employed by early Utilitarians, such as Jeremy Bentham, it has been underemployed in recent years to solve problems that have beset act-utilitarianism as well as some novel variants, such as scalar consequentialism.  This paper explores 1) the notion of a ‘useful fiction’ and the distinction between an ideal and a garden-variety useful fiction; and 2) the usefulness of ‘useful fiction’ itself in the development of novel variants on act-utilitarianism.

Caspar Hare
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, MIT
It is not so Easy to Separate People

When, if ever, is the following consideration morally relevant: 'My proceeding this way is better for one person, my proceeding that way better for another person. But the one person's interest in my proceeding this way is STRONGER than the other person's interest in my proceeding that way.' I bring resources from the metaphysics of modality to bear upon this question.


Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen
Professor of Political Science, Aarhus University; Chair, Society for Applied Philosophy
Mental State Principles and Moral Permissibility


Moral philosophers disagree about whether intentions matter to moral permissibility. The agent-perspective objection to the doctrine of double effect asks, for example, “Would you advise a deliberating tactical bomber that, to determine the permissibility of the raid he ponders, he should search his soul to find out with which intention he would carry out the raid, were he to do so?” I want to approach this question in the broader context of mental state principles, i.e. principles according to which mental states in general, including not just intentions, but also desires and beliefs, can matter to moral permissibility. Doing so enables us to see, first, that the agent-perspective objection to the doctrine of double effect has force, insofar as it has any, not specifically against the doctrine of double effect, but against mental state principles in general. This answers some philosophers, for whom the agent’s intentions are irrelevant to the permissibility of her actions but her beliefs remain relevant. Second, it can be the case that merely foreseeing harm can be morally impermissible while intending harm with an identical consequential profile may remain permissible. The reason is that, if intentions bear on permissibility, states of mind other than intentions may be morally objectionable in a way that would have to bear on permissibility as well.

Lukas Meyer
Professor of Philosophy, University of Graz
Individual Expectations and Climate Justice (co-authored with Pranay Sanklecha)

Many people living in highly industrialised countries and elsewhere emit greenhouse gases at a certain high level as a by-product of their activities, and they expect to be able to continue to emit at that level. This level is far above the just per capita level. We investigate whether that expectation is legitimate and permissible. We argue that the expectation is epistemically legitimate. Given certain assumptions, we can also think of it as politically legitimate. Also, the expectation is shown to be morally permissible but with major qualifications. The interpretation of the significance of the expectation is compatible with the understanding that historical emissions should count in terms of fairly distributing the benefits of emission-generating activities over people’s lifetimes but constrains the way in which we may collectively respond to climate change.


Helena de Bres
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Wellesley College
What's Special About the State?

Utilitas 23:2 (2011), pp.140-160

Fred Feldman
Professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
What To Do When You Don't Know What To Do


This paper sought to explain what a person morally ought to do when (a) he thinks that some form of utilitarianism is true, but (b) doesn't know which of his alternatives maximizes the relevant sort of value.

Shelly Kagan
Clark Professor of Philosophy, Yale University
The Paradox of Methods


The paper concerns the situation we commonly find ourselves in where we accept some moral principle, but aren't confident what that principle asks of us in a given case (the facts may not be clear to us), and so we adopt a "method" of figuring out what to do in such cases. Thus, we might well accept consequentialism, but realize that we don't always know what act would have the best results, and so we adopt some method for telling us what to do in such situations. It might be, for example, that the method tells us to maximize expected utility; or, alternatively, to follow the rules of commonsense morality, etc. So here then is the problem: suppose we have a case where unknown to us (the agents), the act with the best results is X, but the act that maximizes expected utility is Y. It looks as though we theorists are now saying, inconsistently, that the right thing to do is Y (since this is the act that maximizes expected utility, and following that method is what we are to do in cases of uncertainty) and that the right thing to do is not Y but rather X (since this is the act that actually has the best results, and by hypothesis consequentialism tells us what the right thing to do is). That seems an unhappy situation to find ourselves in, but the question is how are we to avoid the seeming contradiction? What are we saying when we "endorse" a method like that? Various ways of avoiding the problem are considered, and various other ways of resolving it are considered (e.g. distinguishing between objective and subjective rightness or having one of these be a mere decision-making principle). 


Stephen Nathanson
Professor of Philosophy, Northeastern University
John Stuart Mill on Economic Justice and the Alleviation of Poverty


In spite of the great interest both in John Stuart Mill’s political thought and in problems economic justice,
 Mill’s views on this subject are seldom discussed. In this paper, I focus on the main source for his views,
 his generally neglected Principles of Political Economy. My aim is to show both that he was concerned
 about problems of poverty and economic injustice and that he has important things to say about them. I do
 this by addressing four questions:

 1. How did Mill assess the distribution of wealth and poverty in his own time?
 2. What responses to poverty and economic injustice did Mill favor?
 3. What is Mill’s theory of economic justice, and how does it relate to utilitarianism?
 4. How does Mill see the relationship between poverty and economic injustice?

 I argue that Mill holds a pluralist view of economic justice that derives from his rule utilitarian
perspective, and I explain both the theory and some of its virtues. I also discuss a) his views on capitalism
vs. socialism, b) his insight that although economic justice can contribute to alleviating poverty, achieving 
economic justice is not sufficient for ending poverty, and c) some of his ideas about the alleviation of 

Daniel Star
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Boston University
Two Levels of Moral Thinking

This paper introduces a two level account of moral thinking that does justice to three very plausible propositions that seem to form an inconsistent triad: (1) people can be virtuous without the aid of philosophy; (2) virtuous people non-accidentally act for good reasons, and work out what it is that they ought to do on the basis of considering such reasons; and (3) philosophers engaged in the project of normative ethics are not wasting their time when they search after highly general moral principles which could not be discovered through non-philosophical thinking, and which specify the good reasons that virtuous people act on, as well as provide a criterion or criteria for determining what it is that people ought to do. I argue that in order to reconcile all three of these claims it is necessary to adopt a particular way of thinking about virtue, as well as a particular two-level account of reasons built around the reasons as evidence analysis of reasons. The paper is intended to provide a sketch of a solution (a prototype Ch. 1), with many of the details to be further developed and defended in the book manuscript I am presently working on.

See also: Ethics