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The University of Southampton
Southampton Ethics Centre

Justice: Realm of Quasi-Perfect Duties Seminar

12:00 - 14:00
16 May 2018
Room 58/4121, Highfield Campus, University of Southampton.

Event details

Part of the C2G2 seminar series. Lunch is provided and all are welcome.


Moral obligations come in different shapes and sizes. Of all possible distinctions, one stands out for its importance: that between duties which are owed as a matter of justice and those which are not. The former are owed to certain agents, who are entitled to claim them, and who are wronged and have special reasons for complaint when these are left unfulfilled. What does it take, however, for a duty to be owed in this way? It would seem that the weight or priority of the duty must be part of, but not the whole, story; duties of justice must also display a specific structure. The classical way of unpacking that thought consists in claiming that duties of justice are perfect, i.e. have a fully specified content, in a way that imperfect duties do not. Call this the default thesis.

This paper rejects the default thesis and offers an alternative strategy to identify duties of justice. It does so by putting forward a non-binary way of understanding the perfect/imperfect duties distinction. Duties, I shall argue, vary along a spectrum, of which perfect and imperfect duties are only the two ends. This also means that imperfect duties are not defined by their mere lack of perfection, but have a set of positive features of their own. I then argue that duties of justice are identified by meeting a set of plausible individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Once we unpack these conditions, it becomes clear that only duties which are reasonably close to the perfect end of the spectrum can meet the relevant conditions – but not only perfect duties through and through. In other words, duties of justice must be at least quasi-perfect. Quasi-perfect duties of justice do retain an element of (quasi-)claimability and (quasi-)enforceability to them; hence, rejecting the default thesis does not entail disregarding the structure of duties of justice altogether. However, if duties of justice need not be perfect, moral agents can have many complex, non-perfect duties of justice proper even in the absence of institutions assigning specific tasks and responsibilities to them; and in particular, stating that there is a duty of justice to create new institutions when justice requires it need not be a an imprecise hyperbole, but can be an entirely consistent and sensible claim.

Speaker information

Dr Miriam Ronzoni, University of Manchester . Reader in Political Theory

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