'Morality (or ethics) is to do with how well people’s lives go, it’s not to do with some abstract relation between people – it’s not impersonal in that sense.'
How should we understand equality in ethics?
There’s a general question in the background here about whether philosophy can help in matters of practical ethics and in particular whether philosophy has made any progress on questions like this over the last 2,500 years. I think equality is actually a very good example of a case where we now understand a concept better than we did, say, 100 years ago.
100 years ago it would have been quite common for people to say: ‘I’m an egalitarian. I care about the poor. I think these divisions between rich and poor in the UK, and in the world at large, are bad and we should do what we can to prevent them.’ But thanks to the work of people like Derek Parfit, Larry Temkin, Joseph Raz and others, I think we can now see more clearly that there’s a distinction between egalitarianism – which is a concern for pure equality, or avoiding inequality – and concern for the worse off.
Let me give you an example. Imagine there’s a world in which half the people are sighted, and the other half are blind. That’s an inequality. On the face of it, it seems to be an objectionable one. If you’re serious about equality, there’s a case for blinding the sighted people – for levelling everybody down. Now of course, people who say they are egalitarians will probably say ‘You shouldn’t do that, because there are other reasons competing against equality here – for example social good, or utility.’
But what many philosophers now think is that there’s no reason to level down, because morality (or ethics) is to do with how well people’s lives go, it’s not to do with some abstract relation between people – it’s not impersonal in that sense. So does that mean we shouldn’t care about inequalities? No, because what we might want to do is level people up – concentrate on the individuals who are worse off and improve their position.
I think that what philosophy has shown is that we shouldn’t be egalitarians; we shouldn’t care about the gaps between people’s level of income or well-being. In itself, that’s irrelevant. What we should care about is the individuals who are badly off.
Do you think the internet has challenged how we perceive inequality – we now have an abstract understanding that people are much worse off than us, but no direct, personal connection with them?
I think it does, but I also think people can exaggerate this. Quite a few 19th-century philosophers in the UK were utilitarians – in other words, they thought we should do whatever produces the most good. Now, one very easy way to do that is to help people who are badly off, because of what’s called the diminishing marginal value of goods (for instance: other things being equal, $100 to Bill Gates is a lot less valuable to him than it would be to some refugee). You might have thought that those philosophers in the 19th century would have said: ‘One of the main issues at the moment is the poor that surround us in the UK,’ and they would have known something about the poor in the rest of the world as well. They did say a bit about that but they didn’t stress it as much as you might have expected. I think to some extent that’s still the case. So although people know a lot more about the degree of inequality in the world and the level of poverty and the amount of poverty, motivationally it doesn’t seem to have the kind of effect you might have hoped for.
There are some signs of improvement. There’s an umbrella organisation in Oxford called the Centre for Effective Altruism,which involves among other projects one called Giving What We Can, founded by a philosopher called Toby Ord. Giving What We Can encourages people to give at least 10% of their income to very effective charities that help the worst off in the world. They’ve had millions of pounds pledged to them – but still it’s only a drop in the ocean of what’s really called for.
Why do you think some people find it more important to think about these inequalities than others?
That’s a very interesting question. It’s one I wish we could answer better.
I don’t think you can easily explain it using evolutionary theory, because these are contemporary differences and if you go back in time, the evolutionary story is of course roughly the same for all of us. So I take it that the explanation is – to some extent – going to be cultural. There are certain communities, for example certain church communities, which encourage people to help others. There are groups like Giving What We Can, and people who get involved with that find it easier to sacrifice resources to other people. I think it’s also that some people are just better at seeing what matters than others. It’s a very difficult question how we can encourage that in people, but obviously I think we should.
You mentioned religion and the church; on a state level do you think that the state should be thinking more about practical ethics, and that there should be more of a relationship between legislation and the kinds of work you and other philosophers do?
Yes, I do.
Philosophers sometimes distinguish between ideal theory and non-ideal theory. Ideal theory is about what the ideal world would be like. In the ideal world I think there wouldn’t be nation states, except maybe purely for the purposes of administration.
In the world as it is, we have nation states, and your opportunities in life depend very much on which one you’re born into, as we hear on the news every day with more and more refugees trying to flee certain nation states into which they were so unfortunately born.
Members of government have a moral obligation to recognise the duties that all of us have of benevolence to people who’ve been so unfortunate. They may say ‘We weren’t elected to do much for Syrian refugees.’ That's not much of a response – because, whilst I agree that democratic legitimacy matters, in this country we have a representative democracy in which politicians don’t have to do exactly what they're mandated to do by the electorate. Given that there’s a strong moral case for assisting refugees and assisting the poor, politicians ought to be taking a lead in doing that and trying to enable more of the population to see that it’s the right thing to do.
Do you think there’s any hope that that will change?
I hope it will change. At the moment I haven't got much of an expectation that there’s going to be great change in my lifetime.
If you had any practical ethics advice to give to people seeking to live a better, more moral, life, what would it be?
It would be to log onto the Giving What We Can website, to learn more about global poverty and the good that can be done with your money by these extremely effective charities.
Can you say a bit more about the background to Giving What We Can?
The philosophical background is broadly utilitarian. But it’s not only utilitarian. It’s a mistake to think that people who care about benefiting the world at large have to be utilitarians; they could just be people who believe in benevolence (along with a range of other things), whereas utilitarians, of course, care only about benevolence and making the world better.
A major figure in this story is Peter Singer; he’s an Australian who studied in Oxford and is now at Princeton. He’s been very important in the animal rights movement but also in movements to alleviate poverty around the world. His ideas have also been extremely influential here.
In a way there’s a kind of structural analogy between inequality in the world, which is huge, and the huge differences in what can be done by different charities. One very good example has to do with blindness. If you’re concerned about preventing blindness, there are some fairly cheap ways to prevent and cure blindness. Now, one thing that happens in the UK is that many people give to a charity that trains guide dogs. It’s clear that guide dogs do a lot of good and they benefit blind people hugely. But to train a guide dog is immensely expensive: thousands and thousands of pounds. That money would, to put it bluntly, save a lot of people’s sight, if it was spent abroad.
In terms of your research generally, what does that focus on, what are you working on now?
My main interests at the moment are in the history of philosophy. I’ve just finished a book on a philosopher called Henry Sidgwick, who died in 1900. People say he’s the most famous philosopher nobody’s ever heard of. He wrote a great book called The Methods of Ethics, which originally came out in 1874. That has been described by various philosophers as the best book on ethics ever written. But it hasn’t been particularly widely read, because it’s quite long and its style is a bit stodgy – he’s cagey in the way that he puts claims. But it clearly is a brilliant piece of work. So I’ve just finished a book on the best book in ethics ever written! As far as I know it’s the first comprehensive study of Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics, though there have been some extremely good books on aspects of it in the past.
What proportion of your job is teaching relative to research?
I have a University lecturer's contract, so I do teach undergraduates (around 6 hours a week, when I’m not on leave). And then I do graduate supervision and lecturing for the faculty. But next year I’m lucky enough to have been awarded a British Academy Thank-Offering to Britain Fellowship.
It was set up in the UK by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the 1960s (the refugees who were given sanctuary or their descendants) and they very generously gave this money to the British Academy for work related to human studies, widely interpreted. I’m going to be working on Thomas Hobbes – a 17th-century philosopher – in particular the view of his that people call egoism. Hobbes believed that the only reason you have to do anything is to advance your own good. I would say the response to Hobbes is ongoing, right up to the present day; you can see the effect of his work on philosophical scholarship – that’s what I want to track.
What gives you most job satisfaction?
It’s a combination of the research and the teaching as an organic whole, and I should include administration too (just recently I’ve served as chair of the Bodleian’s Humanities libraries committee, which has been an interesting experience). It’s the balance of the job that I really enjoy – and the sense that most of the time I feel like what I’m doing is really worthwhile.
Oxford is a wonderful place to do philosophy, it’s one of the biggest departments of philosophy in the world: in the faculty there are over 150 philosophers, about 65 of them with permanent contracts. There are lots of people visiting Oxford, giving lectures, coming to conferences and so on. There are fantastic graduate and undergraduate students, superb libraries and so on. There’s no better place to do philosophy.
How did you come to be where you are now?
Like most people in the UK, I didn’t study philosophy at school, I had a superb Classics teacher called Dennis Riddiford, who introduced us to philosophy. I could see it was interesting even then. Then I studied Greats and you have to do philosophy as part of that. The first thing I studied was Plato’s Phaedo, which I found really quite difficult. My wonderful tutor, Gwynneth Matthews, at the beginning of the vacation after Mods, said ‘Why don’t you read Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding?’ Which I did, and to be frank, I couldn’t understand it, I couldn't understand what he was doing.
So I decided this wasn’t for me and I was fully intending on going to Gwynneth and saying: ‘I don’t want to continue with philosophy’ – fortunately she wasn’t there and my tutorial partner persuaded me to continue. We then studied moral and political philosophy, and I read Mill – and that was a completely different experience. I was excited to find someone who was already writing about the things I was trying to start thinking about myself. From then I didn't look back. After Greats, I did the BPhil and then the DPhil and ended up where I am now.
When, many years from now, you pack up and say ‘that’s it’, what would you like to consider the ultimate legacy of your work to be?
I’d like to think I’ve made a contribution to the various areas that we’ve talked about. One of the most important aspects of Oxford (often overlooked) is the importance of undergraduate teaching. A very large proportion of the undergraduates that we teach here are extremely bright, well-motivated, decent, conscientious, hard-working individuals, who will go out into the world and make a big difference. And that will keep happening. So, if I was thinking about my career, I probably would think first of all about the undergraduates that I’ve taught and what they’ve gone on to do. Then, many of the graduate students that I’ve taught have gone on to careers in philosophy – doing great work and continuing the philosophical tradition. And in general I think that this is a good way to see philosophical research itself, as a matter of handing on the flame to the next generation. For example, as far as Sidgwick is concerned, what I’m trying to do is to get people to read Sidgwick’s book and see how wonderful it is, in the hope that we will understand more about the best way to live.
If you could only keep 3 moral philosophy books of all the many works you’ve read, which would they be and why?
First of all Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics, second; Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and third; Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
I think Sidgwick’s analysis of ethics is right: really, philosophical ethics is a debate between 3 different positions: 1: egoism – the idea that only my own good matters and everything I have reason to do will advance my own good; 2 is something like utilitarianism or consequentialism – the idea that we should just make the world as good as possible, and 3 is a sort of pluralistic position which says we have different kind of obligations of justice, benevolence, generosity, courage and so on. Kant is defending that final, pluralistic, position. Aristotle is, I think, defending that position but he’s also doing it within an egoistic framework and showing how you will lead the best life possible for you if you fulfil all these obligations. Whereas in Sidgwick it’s much more disturbing, because he says, ‘Look, the pluralistic view doesn’t work – it’s too unclear. So, it’s a choice between egoism and utilitarianism.’ But he won’t accept the view that egoism and utilitarianism line up – we have to choose. Then he can’t find a good reason for choosing either one over the other, so he ends in despair. That would be the position that I myself am closest to. But it’s philosophical despair – I’m still cheerful!