Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Problem with Yuppie Ethics



How much personal partiality do agent-centred prerogatives allow? If there are limits on what morality may demand of us, then how much does it permit? For a view Henry Shue has termed ‘yuppie ethics’, the answer to both questions is a great deal. It holds that rich people are morally permitted to spend large amounts of money on themselves, even when this means leaving those living in extreme poverty unaided. Against this view, I demonstrate that personal permissions are limited in certain ways: their strength must be continuous with the reasons put forward to explain their presence inside morality to begin with. Typically, these reasons include non-alienation and the preservation of personal integrity. However, when personal costs do not result in alienation or violate integrity, they are things that morality can routinely demand of us. Yuppie ethics therefore runs afoul of what I call the ‘continuity constraint’.



Hide All

1 Shue, Henry, ‘Mediating Duties’, Ethics 98 (1988), pp. 687704 .

2 Shue, ‘Mediating Duties’, p. 697.

3 This is distinct from the libertarian argument that the state cannot, as a matter of justice, require one to forgo these things even if there is compelling moral reason for one to do so.

4 Scheffler, Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions (Oxford, 1982).

5 Nagel, Thomas, Equality and Partiality (Oxford, 1991) and The View From Nowhere (Oxford, 1986); Miller, Richard W., Moral Difference: Truth, Justice and Conscience in a World of Conflict (Princeton, 1992) and ‘Beneficence, Duty and Distance’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 32 (2004), pp. 357–83.

6 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 361.

7 Appiah, Kwame Anthony, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York, 2010), pp. 166–7.

8 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 361.

9 This article is concerned with people who are ‘absolutely affluent’ in global terms. These people have more than enough income to procure the things they need ( Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 2011), p. 193 ).

10 Scanlon, Thomas, What We Owe To Each Other (Cambridge, MA, 1998), pp. 189, 195–6.

11 Scanlon, What We Owe, p. 229.

12 This principle is similar to the one defends, Peter Singer in ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1979), pp. 229–43, at 231.

13 Ashford, Elizabeth, ‘The Demandingness of Scanlon's Contractualism’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 273302 , at 289.

14 Scanlon, What We Owe, pp. 196, 211–12.

15 Murphy, Liam, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (Oxford, 2000).

16 Other impartial moral theories such as rule-consequentialism plausibly require less of wealthy people, given the tension between stringency of moral duties and expected rates of compliance. Brad Hooker, who defends a rules-based account, argues that the cost of internalizing stringent moral principles should lead us to adopt a more limited duty of assistance (Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000) p. 166). However, the fact that act-consequentialism and impartial contractualism both point to serious wrongdoing indicates that the charge deserves to be taken seriously in its own right.

17 Indeed, he is concerned to show that affluent people cannot be blamed for their conduct, a goal that is unlikely to be achieved if his argument rests upon wider acceptance of an egoist moral doctrine.

18 See, for example, Wolf, Susan, ‘Moral Saints’, The Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982), pp. 419–39, and Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals (Oxford, 1996), respectively.

19 Scheffler, Rejection of Consequentialism, p. 20.

20 Scheffler says little about this matter although he recognizes that it must be addressed (Rejection of Consequentialism, p. 21). Defenders of hybrid contractualism, such Thomas Nagel, have said only that ‘perspective enters into what is reasonable’ for each person (Nagel, Equality, p. 171).

21 One might argue that the claim that moral partiality stands in need of justification reflects prejudice in favour of the impartial point of view. My response to this charge is twofold. First, the idea that there is a robust connection between morality and the impartial standpoint finds broad support in contemporary moral philosophy (see Nagel, Thomas, The Last Word (Oxford, 1997), pp. 119–24). Second, the yuppie ethicist accepts this premise: he aims to demonstrate that strong forms of personal partiality are compatible with a moral code that accords normative standing to people on a universal basis.

22 This argument is agnostic about what the correct aim of moral theory should be. A theory could seek intuitive fit, coherence, reflective equilibrium, or congruence with philosophical arguments about the nature of morality. What matters is only that a justification of some kind is forthcoming.

23 Sobel, David, ‘The Impotence of the Demandingness Objection’, Philosophers’ Imprint 7 (2007), pp. 117 ; Murphy, Moral Demands, pp. 59–60.

24 Kahane, Guy, ‘Evolutionary Debunking Arguments’, Nous 54 (2011), pp. 103–25, at 105.

25 People frequently demonstrate self-serving bias when proposing a settlement with others that they believe to be fair ( Babcoc, Linda and Loewenstein, George, ‘Explaining Bargaining Impasse: The Role of Self-Serving Biases’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives 11 (1997), pp. 109–26).

26 Wishful thinking is the unconscious tendency to form beliefs because we prefer states of the world in which they are true to ones in which they are false ( Elster, Jon, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 148–9). Denial is the more complicated process by which we discard, discount, ignore or overlook information that is difficult or challenging (Elster, Sour Grapes, pp. 149–55).

27 Cohen, Stanley, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 278–01.

28 Harman, Gilbert, The Nature of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (New York, 1977), pp. 110–11.

29 Harman, Gilbert, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 2000), p. 70 .

30 Scheffler, Rejection of Consequentialism, p. 67.

31 Kagan, Shelly, The Limits of Morality (Oxford, 1981), pp. 1112 .

32 Scheffler, Samuel, ‘Projects, Relationships and Reasons’, Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, ed. Wallace, R Jay, Pettit, Philip, Scheffler, Samuel and Smith, Michael (Oxford, 2004), pp. 247–69, at 247; Scanlon, What We Owe, p. 161.

33 On the account developed by Susan Wolf, ‘meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness’. It stems from loving objects that are worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way ( Wolf, Susan, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (Princeton, 2010), pp. 89 ).

34 In this context, Williams speaks of a person having ‘ground projects’ that provide ‘him with the motive force which propels him into the future and gives him a reason for living’ ( Williams, Bernard, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers, 1973–1980 (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 1213 ).

35 Project integrity is a form of objective integrity ( Ashford, Elizabeth, ‘Utilitarianism, Integrity and Partiality’, Journal Of Philosophy 97 (2000), pp. 421–39, at 424). What matters from this standpoint is not that the person in question feels detached from personal projects or is unable to maintain a stable identity but rather that in feeling this way her actual connection to valuable personal goals is severed.

36 According to Richard Miller, this person would view her ‘own psychology as a machine for producing good consequences, taking any difficulty in freely detaching and attaching [to personal projects and relationships] to be a defect if it reduces efficiency’. When personal partiality detracts from this aim, it would be viewed ‘as an inevitable but unfortunate limitation, as an engineer might reject that an otherwise ideal alloy is brittle’ (Miller, Moral Difference, p. 339).

37 I take this term from Kamm, Frances, Morality, Mortality: Volume II: Rights, Duties and Status (Oxford, 2001), p. 211.

38 This objective notion of alienation bears certain similarities to the one developed by Karl Marx. While the proletarian labourer may not feel or understand that she is alienated from her own nature, from others, or from her labour, the capitalist mode of production alienates her from these things nonetheless.

39 Railton, Peter, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 13 (1984), pp. 134–71.

40 See, for example, Buss, Sarah, ‘Needs (Someone Else's), Projects (my Own), and Reasons’, The Journal of Philosophy 103 (2006), pp. 373402 ; and Ashford, ‘Utilitarianism’, p. 435.

41 Noggle, Robert, ‘From the Nature of Persons to the Structure of Morality’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (2001), pp. 531–65, at 552.

42 Scheffler, Rejection of Consequentialism, pp. 56-8.

43 Scheffler, Samuel, Human Morality (Oxford, 1992), pp. 4, 6, 101–2.

44 Kamm, Morality, pp. 227–30.

45 Scheffler, Rejection of Consequentialism, p. 20.

46 Strictly speaking, the prerogative does not place limits on morality's demands – understood as a level of sacrifice beyond which agents are not required to go. For as Liam Murphy points out, ‘whatever demands flow from a principle using a given multiplying factor in given circumstances, changes in circumstances could increase the amount of good to be done, and thus the demands, without limit’ (Moral Demands, p. 64; Scheffler, Rejection of Consequentialism, p. 20, original quotation).

47 In The Rejection of Consequentialism, Scheffler conceives of the personal prerogative as a response to facts of the first kind. In his later work, Scheffler defends the ideal of moral moderation by appealing to the second type of consideration (Scheffler, Human Morality). Given that the personal prerogative forms part of a moderate conception of morality (on Scheffler's definition), it makes sense to conclude that it could be grounded in either way.

48 Belk, Russell, ‘Possessions and the Extended Self’, The Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988), pp. 139–68.

49 Economists define luxury goods as things for which demand increases more than proportionally as income rises. In this respect they are unlike ‘necessity goods’, which are the things that people do not cut back on, even when income falls. On the plausible assumption that people are not wholly misguided about the things that make their lives go well, it follows from this behavioural definition that luxury goods are not basic to flourishing.

50 As noted previously, the kind of project integrity that concerns us here is objective integrity. Whereas subjective integrity requires only the possession of a coherent self-conception, objective integrity goes further and requires that this conception be grounded in reality. In Ashford's words, ‘It must be based on the person not being seriously deceived either about the moral facts or about the moral obligations that she actually has’ (Ashford, Utilitarianism, p. 424).

51 For empirical evidence that people feel more fulfilled once they engage in other-regarding behaviour, see Dunn, Elizabeth, Aknin, Lara and Norton, Michael, ‘Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness’, Science 319 (2008), pp. 1687–8.

52 Robert Frank argues that ‘luxury fever’ – driven by the desire to keep up with the wealthiest in society – has produced no overall gain in well-being, increased working hours, driven huge credit card debt, created pervasive anxiety about the future, and led to the misuse of funds that could be better spent providing lunches for hungry school children (Luxury Fever: Weighing the Cost of Excess (Princeton, 1999), pp. 3–6, 45–57).

53 Susan Wolf, who is generally sympathetic to the force of eudaemonic considerations, doubts that any ‘plausible argument can justify the use of human resources involved in producing a paté de canard en croute against possible alternative beneficent ends to which these resources might be put’ and suggests that an interest in high fashion should be treated in the same way (Wolf, ‘Moral Saints’, p. 422).

54 A separate issue concerns goods that are needed in a given society for a citizen to maintain an appropriate level of self-respect ( Lichtenberg, Judith, Distant Strangers: Ethics, Psychology and Global Poverty (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 133–5). Although the nature of these things may vary according to time and place, they are not luxuries. Their loss would be a serious and potentially alienating cost. Unlike someone who struggles to fit in with her immediate social circle, someone who lacked these things would have nowhere left to turn on a society-wide basis.

55 Kagan, Shelly, Normative Ethics (Oxford, 1998), pp. 286–7.

56 Scanlon, What We Owe, p. 196.

57 Miller, Moral Difference, p. 337.

58 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 359.

59 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 360.

60 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 361.

61 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p.361

62 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 359.

63 Murphy, Liam and Nagel, Thomas, The Myth of Ownership: Justice and Taxes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 32–5.

64 Nussbaum, Martha, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge, 2001), p. 139.

65 Miller, ‘Beneficence’, p. 378.

66 For valuable comments and discussion of the arguments presented in this article I would like to offer my gratitude to Simon Caney, Peter Singer, Elizabeth Ashford, Zofia Stemplowska, Alison Hills, Brian McElwee, Cheyney Ryan, Jesse Tomalty, Juri Viehoff, Joanna Firth and Hugh Lazenby, as well as two anonymous referees and the editors of this journal. Special thanks is reserved for Henry Shue who introduced me to this topic.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed