Role Ethics

Role Ethics

Roles are socially pervasive and normatively demanding, making an enormous yet complex contribution to our practical decision making. When judging whether she should illegally hack an apparently corrupt politician’s bank account, for example, an investigative journalist cannot ignore the specific duties and purposes of both her and the politician’s social roles. High-profile discussions of particular roles can be found across the spectrum of applied ethics (e.g. combatant in war ethics; practitioner in medical ethics; parent in family ethics), but work on the ethics of roles as a topic in its own right is, alarmingly, much more rare. There are signs that this is changing, and the present workshop is designed to help give roles per se the profile they deserve within ethical and political theory.

One goal of the workshop is to achieve a greater understanding of both the unity and the diversity of roles. All roles seem to share a core set of morally salient features: They have entry and exit conditions; they generate obligations for their occupiers; they entitle their occupiers to certain powers and privileges; and they have a social function. Yet roles can also be distinguished by a huge variety of conditions, e.g.:

Voluntary (adoptive parent) vs involuntary (conscript); highly codified (commanding officer) vs loosely specified (friend); widely socially recognized (teacher) vs contested (slave); biologically defined (gestational mother) vs socially constructed (‘mummy’); easily left (assistant chef) vs inalienable (birth child); short-term (juror) vs long-term (dalai lama); professional (dentist) vs ad hoc (witness to a murder); broad in brief (public intellectual) vs narrow in brief (expert witness); open to all (consumer) vs invitation only (godparent); decisional (euthanasia patient) vs facilitating (euthanasia doctor)

Workshop contributors can use specific roles as case studies but should address general questions, e.g.:

  • What is a role? Is a unitary definition, covering e.g. both gender roles and professional roles, possible or desirable?
  • Are there generic ethical principles governing when and how someone may assume or abandon a role? Or when and how a role’s occupier may ignore or override its prescriptions?
  • What makes a set of role obligations obligatory for its occupier? Is it always a matter of actual or hypothetical consent? Likewise, what entitles an occupier to the powers attaching to the role?
  • How do we determine what action is appropriate when a role’s obligations and entitlements are not clearly specified (e.g. the parental role)? And even when role-obligations are strongly codified (e.g. in a code of professional ethics), by what criteria may we evaluate the obligations and codes themselves?
  • Is role ethics sui generis or is it the product of more general considerations that apply impartially to all persons, or of responsibilities arising from special (non-impartial) relationships between persons?
  • What does and what should govern the range and availability of roles within a given society?
  • Do role obligations conflict with ‘ordinary’ morality? Or does proper recognition of roles lead to a form of moral pluralism, as apparently envisaged by Machiavelli for the case of high public office?

Call for papers and workshop format:

Please email an abstract (up to 500 words) or a full paper as an anonymized attachment to by May 30th 2013. Please include contact details in the body of the email. It is hoped that accepted speakers will then submit a circa 4000 word paper (by August 20th) for circulation to workshop participants. All workshop sessions will last an hour, including discussion.For fuller information, including a brief guide to key literature in this area, please go to our website:

Panel Convenors:

Alex Barber (Open University)

Sean Cordell (University of Sheffield)

Queries welcome via address above.


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