Theron Pummer






I am a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs. I have wide-ranging interests in philosophy but my research thus far has focused on problems at the intersection of ethical theory and metaphysics, and on the ethics of charitable giving (see me interviewed on the latter [coming soon]). My publications can be found below. For further details concerning my research, public philosophy, and teaching, see my Curriculum Vitae.




The Worseness of Nonexistence (forthcoming in Saving Lives from the Badness of Death, Oxford University Press 2018)

Most believe that it is worse for a person to die than to continue to exist with a good life. At the same time, many believe that it is not worse for a merely possible person never to exist than to exist with a good life. I argue that if the underlying properties that make us the sort of thing we essentially are can come in small degrees, then to maintain this commonly-held pair of beliefs we will have to embrace an implausible sort of evaluative hypersensitivity to slight nonevaluative differences. Avoidance of such hypersensitivity pressures us to accept that it can be worse for merely possible people never to exist. If this conclusion is correct, then the standard basis for giving no or less priority to merely possible persons would disappear (i.e., that things cannot be better or worse for them). Though defenders of Person-Affecting Views and their opponents may still disagree in theory, they could arrive at the same answers to many monumentally important practical questions.


Spectrum Arguments and Hypersensitivity (Philosophical Studies 2017)

Larry Temkin famously argues that what he calls spectrum arguments yield strong reason to reject Transitivity, according to which the ‘all-things-considered better than’ relation is transitive. Spectrum arguments do reveal that the conjunctions of independently plausible claims are inconsistent with Transitivity. But I argue that there is very strong independent reason to reject such conjunctions of claims, and thus that the fact that they are inconsistent with Transitivity does not yield strong reason to reject Transitivity.


Lopsided Lives (Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 2017)

Intuitively there are many different things that non-derivatively contribute to well-being: pleasure, desire satisfaction, knowledge, friendship, love, rationality, freedom, moral virtue, and appreciation of true beauty. According to pluralism, at least two different types of things non-derivatively contribute to well-being. Lopsided lives score very low in terms of some types of things that putatively non-derivatively contribute to well-being, but very high in terms of other such types of things. I argue that pluralists essentially face a trilemma about lopsided lives: they must either make implausible claims about how they compare in terms of overall well-being with more balanced lives, allow overall well-being to be implausibly hypersensitive to very slight nonevaluative differences, or else adopt implausible seeming limits on what things lives can contain or how much they can contribute to overall well-being. Such problems about lopsided lives thus push us away from pluralism and toward simpler theories of well-being, toward hedonism in particular. (This piece is the subject of Eden Lin’s paper “Well-Being and Hedonic Indispensability”.)


Whether and Where to Give (Philosophy and Public Affairs 2016)

Effective altruists recommend that we give large sums to charity, but by far their more central message is that we give effectively, i.e., to whatever charities would do the most good per dollar donated. In this paper, I’ll assume that it’s not wrong not to give bigger, but will explore to what extent it may well nonetheless be wrong not to give better. The main claim I’ll argue for here is that in many cases it would be wrong of you to give a sum of money to charities that do less good than others you could have given to instead, even if it would not have been wrong of you not to give the money to any charity at all. I assume that all the charities under discussion here do positive good overall, do not cause harm, do not infringe rights, etc. What makes my main claim here particularly interesting is that it is inconsistent with what appears to be a fairly common assumption in the ethics of giving, according to which if it is not wrong of you to keep some sum of money for yourself, then it is likewise not wrong of you to donate it to any particular charity you choose. Roughly: if it’s up to you whether to donate the money, it’s also up to you where to donate the money. I challenge this common assumption. This article is the focus of popular pieces in The Saint and The Conversation (republished in Alliance), and a discussion on the philosophy blog PEA Soup (with a critical précis by Johann Frick).


Risky Giving (The Philosophers’ Magazine 2016)

We might worry that Peter Singer’s argument from “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is unconvincing to non-consequentialists who accept moral constraints against imposing significant risks of harm on individuals. After all, giving to overseas charities often comes with such risks. I argue that plausible non-consequentialist criteria imply that it is not wrong to give to at least some of the charities that Singer and other effective altruists recommend.


Adding Happy People (Philosophers Take on the World, Oxford University Press 2016)

This is a short piece in which I sketch two types of argument for the view that we have substantial reason to bring into existence people with lives that are worth living. One is based on skepticism about the moral significance of person boundaries; the other is based on skepticism about the so-called Asymmetry in population ethics. (Also see “The Worseness of Nonexistence”.)


Does Division Multiply Desert? (Philosophical Review 2014)

It seems plausible that (i) how much punishment a person deserves cannot be affected by the mere existence or nonexistence of another person. We might have also thought that (ii) how much punishment is deserved cannot increase merely in virtue of personal division. I argue that (i) and (ii) are inconsistent with the popular belief that, other things being equal, when people culpably do very wrong or bad acts, they ought to be punished for this – even if they have repented, are now virtuous, and punishing them would benefit no one. Insofar as we cannot deny (i), we are either forced to abandon the popular belief in desert, or else allow that personal division could, as I put it, “multiply desert”. Some may not find the latter, considered by itself, troubling. But I argue that the thesis that division multiplies desert faces a potentially serious problem, which arises in the context of personal fusion. It is accordingly difficult to see how to maintain a particular family of desert views in light of the cases here presented. (This paper is the subject of a critical reply.)


Intuitions about Large Number Cases (Analysis 2013)

Is there some large number of very mild hangnail pains, each experienced by a separate person, which would be worse than two years of excruciating torture, experienced by a single person? Many people have the intuition that the answer to this question is No. However, a host of philosophers have argued that, because we have no intuitive grasp of very large numbers, we should not trust such intuitions. I argue that there is decent intuitive support for the No answer, which does not depend on our intuitively grasping or imagining very large numbers.