Chair of General Ethics

Prof. Dr. Christoph Halbig

The Chair of General Ethics conducts research on metaethics and normative ethics. Metaethics investigates the nature, justification and truth conditions of moral judgements as well as their normative and motivational force. Normative ethics is about the formulation and discussion of moral theories and principles that provide a general answer to the question of how we should act and live.

One research focus of the chair is on general value theory, which deals with the problem of what fundamental values and goods there are, how they relate to the notion of reason and rights, and what role values play for the good life. A second focus is on virtue. Here, the question is how the concept of virtue is to be understood and how virtues relate to values. This raises the issue of what role virtues play in normative ethics. Also of relevance are empirically motivated criticisms regarding the tenability of concepts of virtue and the idea of stable character traits. Third, the chair engages in ethical research from a philosophical-historical perspective, especially with regard to ancient philosophy, classical German philosophy, and intuitionism.

Research Team

SNF Research Project Grounding Rights

Both rights and well-being are essential parts of our public and private morality. But how are the two related? The aim of the project Grounding Rights is to study the dependence relations between these two central elements: First, are all rights grounded in aspects of well-being? And second, are certain aspects of well-being themselves grounded in having rights? The first question neatly connects to the debate over the nature of rights. According to the popular interest theory of rights, facts about rights are grounded in aspects of the well-being of the respective right-holders. While the core idea that rights must be “good for something” appears quite plausible, the interest theory struggles with rights that are apparently not grounded in the right-holder's interests, such as the right to child benefit or the right of a judge to sentence a convict.Against this background, we propose to pursue in the first sub-project the hypothesis (H1) that all rights are grounded in an aspect of the well-being of the right-holder or of some other party. On this “extended interest theory”, third-party interests can directly, i.e. without detour via the right-holder's own interest, ground rights. Closer examination of this hypothesis will require not only replying to sceptical concerns about interest theories in general, but also specifying how the supposed grounding is meant to work.Regarding the second question, it has been argued that violation of rights is necessarily disrespectful. But what explains the link between rights and respect? While standard interest theories can easily accommodate this connection, theories that don't ground rights in properties of the right-holder herself struggle to account for it. The puzzle could be resolved if we assume that rights themselves ground aspects of the well-being of their holder, independently of what they may be grounded in themselves. In order to defend this hypothesis (H2), however, a closer characterisation of these interests must be given, as well as an investigation of the circumstances under which rights ground interests. This will be done in the second sub-project.Framing the debates in terms of grounding is a novel approach with the potential to profoundly reshape the discussion about the relations between rights and well-being. However, before utilizing this tool it will be necessary that it is first theoretically refined. Elaborating our conception of grounding will therefore be part of the conceptual groundwork, as will an analysis of the concepts of a right, in particular of the relations between different usages of the term, and of an interest. Better understanding the dependence relations between rights and well-being is also likely to have repercussions on other debates in moral and political philosophy.

SNF Research plan Grounding Rights (PDF, 119 KB)