Institutional vs Interactional Morality

23 Jan 2013

It’s wrong to inflict avoidable harm upon others. This seems to me like a pretty uncontroversial claim. Sure, there are certain circumstances like self defence, where there might be limited disagreement but even then, one can say that intentionally inflected harm from self-defence-as-a-last-resort isn’t wrong when it is simply unavoidable. Whenever there is a high degree of directness and proximity between our actions and harm to others, then (sociopaths excepted) our moral intuitions seem to keep us in good stead. Call this interactional morality, the direct duties and obligations we hold to other individuals.

But in cases with low degrees of directness and proximity, our intuitions don’t always serve us well. Take climate change as an example. Its abundantly clear that we are having a serious negative impact on the planet and this impact is felt most by the worlds poor and disaffected. Yet very few of us seem moved enough to take concrete individual actions 1, let alone collective ones, to do something to address the issue. Or global inequalities of wealth and income. Again, very few of us even know how best to address the problem to even begin taking actions. When the harm inflicted by us is individually small but incrementally large, indirect and diffused by and over many, it’s actually pretty easy to just ignore it.

But there is another conception of morality, what Thomas Pogge 2 calls institutional morality, which concerns the fundamental principles of justice that apply to institutional schemes. Here, the moral obligations we hold are to institutions, to support, endorse, and participate in. Institutional morality is bounded by our first order duties to other people but are owed to them only indirectly, via institutional frameworks like the state or international treaties and agencies.

Like first order duties to directly avoid harming others, there are some constraints on our institutional obligations. If we don’t know that an institution imposes or enables harm upon others, or if our support of it is unavoidable, then we may be exempted but otherwise we have a duty to avoid supporting unjust institutions. Alternatively, if the institutional harm is known but our support is unavoidable, then we can take compensatory actions to negate the harmful impact of our support.

This distinction is useful because offers us a solid foundation for reconciling the conflict between our moral reason and intuitions. We may dispute that we have an obligation to use natural resources in a more sustainable when our individual action may make no difference if others don’t act in a like manner. Or we may dispute moral comparisons like Peter Singer’s saving a drowning child to donating regularly to Oxfam 3. But what we can’t dispute is our obligation to support institutional frameworks, like CO2 emissions trading schemes, that can correct or limit the injustices of the status quo, whenever viable alternatives are offered.


  2. Pogge, T. (1992) ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, Ethics Vol. 103, No. 1, pp. 48-75