Elizabeth Ashford


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. She will be away on maternity leave for the first semester of 2006.

e-mail address: ea10@st-andrews.ac.uk

phone: (+44) 01334 462415



Life and Death (PY4826)

Moral Problems (PY1103)

Philosophy and Public Affairs (PY4818): Global Justice

Philosophy of Value (PY3102)



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 forthcoming)
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.

Contractualism (in preparation), co-authored with Rahul Kumar and Tim Mulgan
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Abstract of a book in preparation:
According to the theory that has come to be known (wrongly in my view) as "Classical utilitarianism", the right action or policy is the one that maximises the conglomerate sum total of weflare. I argue that this conception of the general good is in fact incompatible with a plausible conception of the first two tenets of utiltiarianism, welfarism and impartiality, and the conception that that its key original proponents, Bentham and Mill, together with many subsequent utilitarians, had in mind. In short, I argue that the "classical utilitarian"account of the interpersonal aggregation of welfare relies on an impersonal conception of the moral importance of welfare, according to which it is viewed for its moral significance in abstraction from its instantiation in particular persons' lives. Likewise, its account of impartiality licenses any amount of inequality in its actual treatment of individuals. However, the most plausible understanding of welfarism and impartiality takes them both to be grounded on the moral importance of persons, and this leads to an account of the moral point of view that is omnipersonal rather than impersonal. The omnipersonal moral point of view consists in individualised concern for the interests of all. This contrasts both with that of "classical utilitarianism"(which is impersonal) and that of Kantian contractualism (which is based on the perspective of single individuals, considered one by one, and is concernd with the interests of each seriatim rather than of all). On this onipersonal moral point of view, our concern is directed at how persons fare - that is, at their overall welfare levels. Equal moral weight is assigned to equal overall welfare levels, rather than to equal quantities of welfare regardless of how they are packaged into lives. Knowing how persons fare requires knowing how they each participate in the distribution of welfare. On this view, then, concern for the distribution of welfare is built into the principle of utility itself. I then argue that on this conception of utilitarianism it provides a particularly forceful account both of justice and human rights and of the demandingess of morality, which is an appealing mid-position between so-called "classical utilitarianism" and Kantian contractualism. Finally, I argue that once we understand utilitarianism onimpersonally rather than impersonally, it is much more closely allied to its main impartial rival, Kantian contractualism, than it has often been taken to be. I explore a way of integrating the two theories into a pluralist view, and examine the strengths of an integrated uilitarian and Kantian account of moral obligations of benevolence and of justice.

Last modified: August, 2006