Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 9, pp 2105–2123 | Cite as

A liberal theory of externalities?

  • Carl David MildenbergerEmail author


Unlike exploitative exchanges, exchanges featuring externalities have never seemed to pose particular problems to liberal theories of justice. State interference with exchanges featuring externalities seems permissible, like it is for coercive or deceptive exchanges. This is because exchanges featuring negative externalities seem to be clear cases of the two exchanging parties harming a third one via the exchange—and thus of conduct violating the harm principle. This essay aims to put this idea into question. I will argue that exchanges featuring negative externalities are not unjust in this straightforward way, i.e. because they would constitute an instance of wrongfully causing or risking a bodily or material harm. In fact, unless we are subscribing to particularly demanding variants of liberalism—e.g. perfectionist liberalism—or unless we are exclusively focusing on borderline cases of externalities—i.e. of effects of exchanges hardly to be called externalities—there is no liberal theory of how exchanges featuring externalities are unjust.


Externalities Liberalism Exchanges Harm principle Justice 



I would like to thank Rowan Cruft, Elizabeth Ashford, Judith Lichtenberg, Antony Duff, Hillel Steiner, Serena Olsaretti, James Harris, Ben Sachs, and Alex Voorhoeve for many helpful comments on earlier versions. I would also like to thank audiences at the University of St Andrews, the University of Stirling, at GAP.9 in Osnabrück, and at the XXIII. Kongress der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Philosophie in Münster. Special thanks go to Jonathan Lever who saw those things I was not able see. I gratefully acknowledge support from the German Academic Exchange Service (Grant No. 57044644), which helped me in preparing this work.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of St. GallenSt. GallenSwitzerland

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