Philosophy at St Andrews

Elizabeth Ashford

Senior Lecturer in Moral Philosophy and Undergraduate Admissions Officer

Elizabeth Ashford

Phone: (+44) 01334 462470

Office: Edgecliffe 206


Ethics, Political Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy


Elizabeth Ashford joined the Department of Moral Philosophy in 2001. She did her MA at UNC Chapel Hill and her BA and DPhil at Oxford University, and was awarded her DPhil in 2002.  Her main research interests are in moral and political philosophy. She has recently finished a contribution to UNESCO Volume I, Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right (OUP forthcoming), and her current research project is to develop a book on utilitarian and Kantian conceptions of impartiality and of rights.  During the academic year 2005-6 she was a Visiting Faculty Fellow in Ethics at the Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and the following summer she was an H.L.A. Hart Visiting Fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Ethics and the Philosophy of Law.

See also the PURE research profile.

Selected publications

Utilitarianism, Integrity and Partiality The Journal of Philosophy XCVII(8), August 2000,  pp. 421-439

I discuss Bernard Williams's integrity objection to utilitarianism, and argue that it is in fact a strength of utilitarianism that it acknowledges the extent to which our integrity is currently compromised.  The threat to integrity arises from the fact that the current state of the world is a constant emergency situation, as a result of which agents are continually engaged in tragic trade-offs between pursuit of their personal projects and helping others' even more urgent interests.  I then argue that if the state of the world were different, utilitarian moral obligations would not conflict with agents' pursuit of their personal projects.

A response to Clay Splawn Utilitas, 13(3), November, 2001

Clay Splawn's paper is a critique of Theodore Sider's article "Asymmetry and Self-Sacrifice"  (Philosophical studies 70, 1993, pp. 117-132).  Sider seeks to incorporate within a theory that is true to the spirit of utilitarianism the common sense intuition that it is not morally wrong for an agent to fail to promote his own welfare.  I argue that Splawn's paper rightly identifies ways in which any version of utilitarianism, including Sider's, will fail to capture core common sense intuitions about what count as selfish and selfless actions, but I offer a different analysis of the source of the problem, which, I claim, goes to the heart of the utilitarian conception of impartiality.

The Demandingness of Scanlon's Contractualism Ethics 113, January 2003, pp. 273-302

One of the reasons why contractualism has been seen as an appealing alternative to utilitarianism is that it seems to be able to avoid utilitarianism's extreme demandingness, while retaining a fully impartial moral point of view. I argue that contractualist obligations to help those in need are, in the current state of the world, just as demanding as utilitarian obligations. I also argue that while a plausible version of utilitarianism would be considerably less demanding if the state of the world were different, a central aspect of contractualism means that it would remain exceedingly demanding in any practically realisable state of the world.

Individual Responsibility and Global Consequences; in Symposium on Samuel Scheffler's Boundaries and Allegiances Philosophical Books, 44:2, April 2003

I discuss Scheffler's important and incisive arguments concerning the radical implications for our traditional paradigm conception of modern responsibility posed by the global consequences of our behaviour and the extremely complex causal chains in which it is implicated.

Utilitarianism with a Humean Face Hume Studies, 31.1, June 2006

Many contemporary Humeans have contrasted the subtlety and psychological plausibility of Hume's moral theory with what they take to utilitarianism's failure to capture the complexity of morality and to be suited to the nature of human beings. I argue that Hume's moral theory, whilst being highly psychologically plausible and sensitive to the complexities of our moral thinking, in fact also adheres to the fundamental tenets of utilitarianism.  I conclude that it is a prototype of a particularly plausible version of utilitarianism, which avoids many of the problems faced by overly technical modern formulations of the theory.  In particular, I argue firstly that his account of the moral point of view combines being fully impartial with being non-utopian and acknowledging the force of partiality.  Secondly, I argue that his account of the sympathetic spectator is a considerably more appealing model of the utilitarian moral point of view than is the version that has come to be prevalent, and that it grounds an account of the general good that is concerned with the way in which individuals participate in the distribution of welfare, and that strikingly resembles some key passages in Bentham.
The Inadequacy of our Traditional Conception of the Duties Imposed by Human Rights

Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, 19.2, July 2006, pp. 217-235

According to our traditional conception of human rights, they impose primarily negative and perfect duties, and these duties are held to be specific prohibitions on certain kinds of actions (duties not to kill, assault, and so on). Allocating responsibility for a human right violation is seen as a matter of identifying the perpetrator(s) of that violation, where the perpetrator(s) is taken to be the agent or agents who violated such a prohibition and as such can be singled out as solely or primarily responsible for a specific harm suffered by a particular victim. I argue that this conception is outmoded and unable to address many of the most serious and widespread contemporary harm, which increasingly result from extremely complex complex causal chains involving the behaviour of a huge number of agents, few or none of whom can be singled out as responsible for a serious harm to any specific victim. I argue that these harms may clearly constitute human rights violations, and suggest an alternative account of the nature of many of the negative duties imposed by human rights. Against Onora O'Neill's influential critique of welfare rights I argue that in fact the distinction between imperfect and perfect obligations may not map onto the distinction between positive and negative obligations. 

The Duties Imposed by the Human Right to Basic Necessities

UNESCO Volume I: Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right, Thomas Pogge ed. (OUP 2007), pp. 183-218.

Although the human right to basic necessities has been widely internationally ratified, there has been very little agreement about what obligations it entails.  I argue that on any plausible account of human rights, the human right to basic necessities entails both negative and positive obligations towards compatriots and foreigners, and that the responsibility for fulfilling both kinds of obligations ultimately lies with every agent who is able to do so.

The Nature of our Duties Towards the Chronically Poor, published in German as "Unsere Pflichten gegenüber Menschen in chronischer Armut", in Barbara Bleisch and Peter Schaber (eds.): Weltarmut und Ethik (World Poverty and Ethics), (Paderborn: Mentis, 2007), pp. 195-212. 

The Alleged Dichotomy Between Positive and Negative Rights and Duties, in Global Basic Rights, eds. Charles Beitz and Robert E. Goodin (under press, OUP, June 2009), pp.  85-115.

I defend from a different angle Shue's argument that the right to subsistence is a basic right.

In the light of this I then reinforce his argument against the standard dichotomies between duties that underpin the view that welfare rights, in contrast to liberty rights, can only be special rights.  

Positive and Negative Duties of Justice, in Law, Ethics and Economics, eds. Elke Mack and Michael Schramm, Ashgate (forthcoming Aldershot and London; 5000 words).

Obligations of Justice and Beneficence Towards the Severely Poor, in Thomas Pogge, Patricia Illingworth and Leif Wenar (eds.), The Ethics of Philanthropy (OUP 2009).

Utilitarianism, Impartiality and Respect (100,000 word monograph, under contract with OUP).  (Utilitarianism,which takes the goal of morality to be to best promote everyone's well-being, giving equal weight to the well-being of each, has been an extremely influential moral theory, but has recently come to be widely dismissed in the light of powerful objections to its account of justice, and viewed as superseded by its main impartial rival, Kantian contractualism.  Moreover, utilitarian responses to these objections have tended to be ad hoc and to fail to adequately address their force.  I argue that the version of utilitarianism that has come to be dominant is incompatible with the most plausible understanding of its core tenets.  I argue for a new formulation of utilitarianism (which I argue is truer to the underlying intuitions behind the theory) and then show that on this formulation, utilitarianism offers a powerful account of justice and human rights, that raises several important challenges to prevalent understandings of human rights.  I also argue that on this formulation, utilitarianism and Kantian contractualism are not fundamentally incompatible but are much more closely allied than they are generally taken to be, and suggest some of the ways in which they might be integrated into a pluralist approach.)


Research students

I am currently supervising Thomas McKenna.

<- back to staff list