Higher Seminar in practical philosophy: Mark Budolfson (University of Texas at Austin)


Date: Tuesday 3 October 2023

Time: 13.15 – 15.00

Location: D700

The Modern Predicament: Harm, Complicity, Compensation, Moral Debt


As participants in contemporary society, each of us is in some sense complicit in a wide variety of harms to others. We might call this the Modern Predicament. The question I focus on is what follows from this predicament about our duties to others as individuals, and why. I argue that the sort of complicity of which we are guilty is highly indirect and highly diffuse, and that the individual actions that make us complicit are not any part of the primary cause of the relevant harms (even when those individual actions are aggregated at the societal level), and that this means the canonical constraint against doing harm is not in fact violated in virtue of the particular kind of complicity in harm of which we are guilty.

Nonetheless, I argue that what actually follows from our complicity in harm is, at the same time, a fairly demanding moral debt, far beyond a mere duty of beneficence, and each of us indeed has a genuine and demanding duty of justice as an individual to discharge this debt. But unlike the directed duty to improve the circumstances of particular people who are harmed that follows from violations of the canonical constraint against doing harm, the moral debt we have in light of the Modern Predicament is an undirected duty to improve the world that, while genuinely owed as a matter of justice, is not owed to any particular persons. As a result, this kind of undirected moral debt is of fundamental importance to understanding the distinctive reasons each of us has in virtue of the fraught relations we occupy in modern society, and for understanding the duties and reasons for action we have as individuals in virtue of our involvement in various collectives and collective action.

The theoretical upshot is that a correct account of the ethics of the Modern Predicament requires untangling a web of ethical reasons related to collective action, harm, complicity, compensation, and moral debt – and that this requires, somewhat unsurprisingly, careful and at times subtle analysis. But the practical upshot can be stated clearly: Each of us has an obligation to make the world a better place that is much more demanding than it would be in the absence of our complicity in harm to others. However, we have leeway in how we discharge that debt, and many conscientious people succeed in discharging that debt without making the particular investments of money, time, or other sacrifices favored by advocates of the Complicity in Harm Argument, and without even being aware of the existence of the Modern Predicament.