Role Ethics and Institutional Functions

Cordell, Sean (2023). Role Ethics and Institutional Functions. In: Barber, Alex and Cordell, Sean eds. The Ethics of Social Roles. Oxford Academic, pp. 177–199.



This chapter begins by setting out the problem of role-indeterminacy raised in Michael Hardimon’s ‘Role Obligations’. It then considers the prospects for a solution in terms of a functional account of institutions which determine those roles. After giving some instances of the role-indeterminacy problem and focusing on the case of role-requirements being misspecified by institutions (‘ersatz obligations’), three ways in which a functional view might be formulated in response to this problem are discussed. First, a backward-looking etiological approach (roughly, what some institution is ‘there for’ in the first place); secondly a present-focused ‘practical’ view (roughly, what it is ‘used for’); and thirdly a forward-looking teleological account in terms of institutional ends (roughly, what it is ‘good for’). After running through the attractions and shortcomings of these accounts, an alternative view is defended as more coherent. Using language borrowed from Aristotle, this alternative treats institutions as having an ergon, a ‘characteristic activity’.

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