Human Values pp 166-183 | Cite as

Harming and Wronging: The Importance of Normative Context



The principal purpose of this chapter is to draw explicit attention to the importance of normative context for two central elements of much contemporary non-consequentialist thinking about morally permissible and impermissible conduct. These two elements are moral constraints and moral rights as they are invoked across a wide range of issues in practical ethics. At the outset, I clarify the type of moral constraint and right that I have in mind and set out the particular relationship between them that makes normative context important to both. In the course of the chapter, I develop an explanation of what I mean by ‘normative context’ and of its importance to a widely accepted moral constraint and corresponding right.


Moral Justification Normative Context Practical Ethic Hostile Conduct Moral Constraint 
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  1. 5.
    Some maintain that the use of genuinely self-defensive force never aims to inflict injury, its aim being to repel or ward off an attack, foreseen injury to the aggressor being unintended. This is implausible in my view. Someone acting in self-defence intends to use the type and degree of force necessary in the circumstances to repel or ward off the attack. This can mean, for example, intending to disable the attacker by injuring him. For a detailed discussion of intention and self-defence, see Suzanne Uniacke, Permissible Killing: The Self-Defence Justification of Homicide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994): ch. 4.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    T.M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998): 209.Google Scholar
  3. 10.
    J.L. Mackie, ‘Morality and the Retributive Emotions’, in his Persons and Values, ed. Joan and Penelope Mackie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985): 207.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Ibid: 213.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Mackie states something like this view himself in the course of the same article (ibid: 211) when canvassing the argument that a person ‘has the right not to be made to suffer as long as he commits no wrong… If he has unfairly invaded the rights of others, he cannot reasonably complain at what would otherwise be a corresponding invasion of his own rights’.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    A principle of self-defence against unjust aggression would be more like Mackie’s principle of permissive retribution that permits a hostile response to wrongdoing, as opposed to his principle of positive retribution that requires such a response; ibid: 207.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    See, for example, G.E.M. Anscombe, ‘Mr. Truman’s Degree’, reprinted in her Ethics, Religion, and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers, Vol. 3 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981); Philip E. Devine, The Ethics o f Homicide (London: Cornell University Press, 1978); Thomas Nagel, ‘War and Massacre’, reprinted in M. Cohen etal. (eds), War and Moral Responsibility (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974).Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    John Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983): 128.Google Scholar

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© Suzanne Uniacke 2004

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