Theron Pummer

I am a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St. Anne's College, University of Oxford. I specialize in ethical theory, and am particularly interested in problems about the nature, aggregation, and distribution of well-being, the relevance of numbers in ethics, and the normative significance of persons.

Vagueness and Making a Difference

Do you make the world a worse place by purchasing factory-farmed chicken, or by paying for a seat on a transatlantic flight?  Do you have moral reason to, and should you, refrain from doing these things?  It is very unlikely that any individual act of either of these two sorts would in fact bring about a worse outcome, even if many such acts together would.  In the case of factory-farming, the chance that your small purchase would be the one to signal that demand for chicken has increased, in turn leading farmers to increase the number of chickens raised for the next round, is very small.  Nonetheless, there is some chance that your purchase would trigger this negative effect, and since the negative effect is very large, the expected disutility of your act is significant, arguably sufficient to condemn it.  This is true of any such purchasing act, as long as the purchaser is ignorant (as is almost always the case) of where she stands in relation to the ‘triggering’ purchase.

Continue reading

Adding Happy People

Almost every week there’s a headline about our planet’s population explosion.  For instance Indian officials confirmed recently that India is projected to overtake China in just over a decade – to become the most populous country on Earth.  Many are worried that the planet is becoming increasingly overpopulated.  Whether it is overpopulated, underpopulated, or appropriately populated is a challenging ethical question.

Continue reading

Moral Agreement on Saving the World

There appears to be lot of disagreement in moral philosophy.  Whether these many apparent disagreements are deep and irresolvable, I believe there is at least one thing it is reasonable to agree on right now, whatever general moral view we adopt:  that it is very important to reduce the risk that all intelligent beings on this planet are eliminated by an enormous catastrophe, such as a nuclear war.  How we might in fact try to reduce such existential risks is discussed elsewhere.  My claim here is only that we – whether we’re consequentialists, deontologists, or virtue ethicists – should all agree that we should try to save the world.

Continue reading

How morality might ask less of scrooges (and more of kinder folks)

Could the fact that someone is more scroogelike – less willing to sacrifice for the sake of doing good – entail that morality is less demanding for her?  The answer to this question has important implications for a host of issues in practical ethics, including issues surrounding adoption, procreation, charity, consumer choices, and self-defense.

Continue reading

The Ethics of Giving:  How Demanding?

How much of your money should you give to effective charities?  Donors are often made considerably happier by giving away substantial portions of their income to charity.  But if they continued giving more and more, there’d surely come a point at which they’d be trading off their own well-being for the sake of helping others.  This raises a general question:  how much of your own well-being are you morally required to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good for others?  I’m currently in Australia giving some talks on the ethics of giving (at the ANU and at CAPPE in Melbourne and Canberra), and have been thinking about this topic a bit more than usual.

Continue reading

Population Ethics and Indeterminacy

How should we compare a decrease in average quality of life with a gain in population size?  Population ethics is a rigorous investigation of the value of populations, where the populations in question contain different (numbers of) individuals at different levels of quality of life.  This abstract and theoretical area of philosophy is relevant to a host of important practical decisions that affect future generations, including decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks.

Continue reading

Risky Giving

I highly recommend Leif Wenar’s essay “Poverty Is No Pond” – especially to those not yet familiar with, but interested in, the empirical complexities involved in giving to overseas poverty-fighting charities.  Wenar’s main aim in his essay is to criticize Peter Singer’s 2009 book The Life You Can Save for (i) being overly optimistic about the quality of information available on the effects of giving to various charities, and (ii) failing to emphasize that every charitable donation also comes with some risk of harming people living in extreme poverty.  I’ll only briefly address (i), and then turn to and focus primarily on (ii).

Continue reading

Optional whether to give, therefore optional where to give?

You might think that if it’s not wrong not to donate to charity, then it’s not wrong to give to whatever particular charity you choose (as long as no harm is done).  I’m going to argue against this view.  Very often, it is wrong to give to an ineffective charity, even when it’s not wrong not to give at all.

Continue reading

Statistical Victims and the Value of Security

As illustrated by several recent events, Mexico suffers from a lack of security.  The country holds the world record in kidnappings, with an estimated number of 123,470 people kidnapped just in 2013. In August 2014, the official number of missing people was 22,320.  Citizens are fed up and are demanding security, perhaps the most basic good a government should provide.  I’ll here discuss what appears to me to be one philosophical mistake about the value of security for people.  It’s useful to observe and avoid this mistake, since it pertains to wide range of practically important choices (which I’ll mention at the end).

Continue reading

How Important Is Population Ethics?

We face very important decisions about climate change policy, healthcare prioritization, energy consumption, and global catastrophic risks.  To what extent can the field of population ethics contribute to real-world decisions on issues like these?  This is one of the central questions being pursued by researchers in the Population Ethics: Theory and Practice project at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  The project, overseen by Dr Hilary Greaves, officially began earlier this month, and will continue (at least in its present form) for three years.  The research team aims to make progress in theoretical population ethics, and to assess its relevance to pressing practical issues that affect future generations.

Continue reading


Subscribe Via Email