Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 122, Issue 3, pp 501-510

First online:

Moral Psychology and the Intuition that Pharmaceutical Companies Have a ‘Special’ Obligation to Society

  • James M. HuebnerAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, Suffolk University Email author 

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Many people believe that the research-based pharmaceutical industry has a ‘special’ moral obligation to provide lifesaving medications to the needy, either free-of-charge or at a reduced rate relative to the cost of manufacture. In this essay, I argue that we can explain the ubiquitous notion of a special moral obligation as an expression of emotionally charged intuitions involving sacred or protected values and an aversive response to betrayal in an asymmetric trust relationship. I then review the most common arguments used to justify the claim that the pharmaceutical industry has a special moral obligation and show why these justifications fail. Taken together, these conclusions call into question the conventional ideologies that have traditionally animated the debate on whether the pharmaceutical industry has special duties of beneficence and distributive justice with respect to the impoverished in dire need of their products.


Access to lifesaving medicines Betrayal aversion Moral intuition Moral psychology Pharmaceutical industry Special moral obligation Taboo trade-off theory