Moral Duties and Public Goods: A Reply to Long

Moral duty?

Roderick Long’s essay “On Making Small Contributions to Evil” tackles a deep problem in ethics and rational actor theory. Suppose you, individually, decide to stop recycling – will that make any detectable difference for the environment? Suppose you stop eating meat for ethical reasons – will that result in the death of even one less animal? Suppose you vote in the general election – will that make any detectable difference to the election result? Most likely: no, no, no.

This seems like a problem. It feels like there are ethical imperatives involved here – certainly, we should recycle if it is good for the environment. At the same time, are there really ethical imperatives without consequences? Does that make sense?

Eradication of evil as a public good

Long’s essay conceptualizes this issue as one about the provision of public goods. Public goods are goods that are non-excludable (that is, it is very difficult to exclude someone from using them) and non-rivalrous (their utility isn’t diminished by one more person’s use). A beautiful sunset is an example: anyone can benefit and it doesn’t diminish anyone’s benefit if an additional person benefits. Same goes for lighthouses, national security, and asteroid defense.

Public goods tend to be underprovided by the market because of the “free-rider problem”: if the good is non-excludable, why would you ever pay for it? If you had the choice, would you pay in for national security? Why bother? Even if you don’t, so long as your neighbors do, you’ll still benefit.…

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