The moral problem of worse actors

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Individuals and institutions sometimes have morally stringent reasons to not do a given action. For example, an oil company might have morally stringent reasons to refrain from providing revenue to a genocidal regime, or an engineer might have morally stringent reasons to refrain from providing her expertise in the development of weapons of mass destruction. But in some cases, if the agent does not do the action, another actor will do it with much worse consequences. For example, the oil company might know their assets will be bought by a company with worse environmental and labor practices. Or the engineer might know her position will be filled by a more ambitious and amoral engineer. I call this the moral problem of worse actors (MPWA). MPWA gives reason, at least some of the time, to consider otherwise morally impermissible actions permissible or even obligatory. On my account, doing the action in the circumstances of MPWA remains morally objectionable even if permissible or obligatory, and this brings additional moral responsibilities and obligations to the actor. Similarly, not doing the action in the circumstances of MPWA may also bring additional (but different) moral responsibilities and obligations. Acknowledging MPWA creates considerable challenges, as many bad actors may appeal to it to justify morally objectionable action. In this paper, I develop a set of strategies for individuals and institutions to handle MPWA. This includes appeals to integrity and the proper attribution of expressive responsibility, regulatory responsibility, and compensatory responsibility. I also address a set of related concerns, including worries about incentivizing would-be bad actors, concerns about epistemic uncertainty, and the problem of mala in se exceptions.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47
Number of pages64
JournalEthics and Global Politics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 28 May 2014


  • normative theory; non-ideal theory; applied ethics; global justice; dirty hands