Positive Ethics

Project summary

Much contemporary practical ethics is negative, in the sense that it focuses on what one is and is not prohibited from doing.  The debates concerning abortion and euthanasia are two good examples.  What is often neglected is the positive side of ethics: issues concerning how one, as an individual, can best act so as to make the world a better place.  These issues are a crucial concern for many individuals.  But they are also of critical moral importance: for most individuals in affluent nations, one has the power, through relatively minor changes in one’s behaviour, to save hundreds or even thousands of lives.  This project asks: what should one do in order to benefit others as much as possible?  To investigate this theme, an interdisciplinary seminar series was held focusing on the following two enquiries:

  • How can one spend one’s money in order to benefit others as much as possible?
  • What career ought one to go into if one wants to benefit others as much as possible?

The two most relevant disciplines applied were ethics and economics.  But also relevant were: behavioural psychology, in order to understand why we make the mistakes that we commonly make when thinking about these issues; and development studies, in order to understand how best to alleviate global poverty. 

This BII project was a spin off from Giving What We Can  initiative, which was an endeavor involving a group of people who have pledged to put their money where their mouth is, and give away at least 10% of their income.  The Giving What We Can initiative has a special connection with Balliol, having been founded by Toby Ord, a postdoctoral fellow of the College.



Hilary 2012

18 January

‘The Risk of Human Extinction’

Dr Toby Ord, Balliol College and University of Oxford

1 February

‘Human Enhancement: How Much Better would it be if we become Better’

Dr Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford Video available online here.

15 February

‘A Provocative Introduction to Ethical Investing’

Benjamin Todd, Balliol College, University of Oxford

29 February

‘Is Anti-ageing Research the Most Cost-effective Research?’

Aubrey de Grey, SENS Research Foundation

13 March

‘Why Animal Suffering is Overwhelming Prevalent in Nature: The Case for Intervention

Oscar Horta, University of Santiago de Compostela

Michaelmas 2011

19 October

‘Introduction to Positive Ethics: What are the Biggest Issues of the Century?’

Toby Ord, Balliol College, University of Oxford

26 October

‘Benefits, Harms and Replaceability’

Will Crouch, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

2 November

‘What’s more valuable: time or money?’

Benjamin Todd, Balliol College, University of Oxford

8 November

‘Estimating the Cost-Effectiveness of Cost-Effectiveness Research Charities’

Michael Peyton-Jones, Queen’s College, University of Oxford

16 November

‘Positive Ethics for Non-Consequentialists’

Andreas Morgensen, All Souls College, University of Oxford

23 November

‘Beyond the Call of Coherent Duty?’

Dr Krister Bykvist, Jesus College, University of Oxford

30 November

‘What is the more Effective Charity Intervention: Education or Health?’

Sam Hilton, Giving What We Can research team


Lead investigators

Toby Ord, Department of Philosophy and Balliol College, University of Oxford

Benjamin Todd, Balliol College, University of Oxford

Research Team

Will Crouch, Department of Philosophy and St. Annes College, University of Oxford

Contact details for enquiries

Please email the lead investigator, Dr. Toby Ord, for all queries regarding this project.