Christina Rulli

2017 Hellman Fellow

Assistant Professor, Philosophy
UC Davis

Project Title: Moral options, motives, and complicity

With support from the Hellman Fellows Fund, Rulli will write three papers that advance a theory of moral options. We commonly agree that although someone could donate the money she would spend on college tuition to a life saving charity, she is permitted, nonetheless to spend it on college. In other words, while we have moral reason to pursue the good for others, there are limits on the requirement to pursue this impartial good. One such limit is the moral option—the permission to bring about less than the best in order to favor, to some extent, one’s own personal projects, relationships, and interests. A full theory of moral options tells us in what circumstances and conditions we may favor ourselves. Her work centers on making sense of the intricacies of a theory of moral options.

The first paper will explore the relationship of agent motivations for action to moral options in the context of her novel work on conditional obligations (obligations where some initial act is optional, but if undertaken, one incurs a demanding duty to perform a second act). Are agent motivations for the action chosen relevant to whether they have a moral option at all? That is, can an act that would be optional to undertake, say for reasons of personal safety, also be optional for an agent who has a merely trivial reason not to undertake it? Does motivation matter to optionality? Understanding this question is crucial to developing a full theory of conditional obligations.

The second paper applies conditional obligations and a theory of moral options to understanding effective altruism in charitable giving. Some philosophers argue that although donating to charity is optional, if one does so, one has an obligation to donate to the most effective charities—those that create the most good in the most efficient way. Rulli will explore possible defeaters of the effective altruism claim, including room to favor special projects, relationships, or one’s community, which might morally permit donating to suboptimal charities.

The third paper investigates the relationship between new literature on permissible ill-doing and moral options. Rulli’s interested in how either case of permissible ill-doing can be squared with a theory of moral options. Moral options typically only allow us to fail to do the best option rather than permit us to contribute to harm. A deeper exploration of the relation between permissible ill-doing and moral options will contribute to a theory of moral complicity, an under-researched area of ethics with obvious contemporary importance.

Collectively, these papers will contribute to the ethics literature a deeper understanding of a theory of moral options, as well as provide insight into a range of practical debates, including clinical research ethics, the ethics of charitable giving, and moral complicity.