A great many of our key decisions and habitual practices are shaped by our occupying some social role or other. We care for someone as their parent or child or as a paid care worker; we offer support to another as their friend or as a stranger; we collaborate as a colleague; we risk our own lives as firefighters or police officers, etc. The normative force of these various roles is marked and pervasive:

  • As CITIZENS in modern democracies we have a right to free expression; but as EMPLOYEES we are expected or required to avoid open criticism of COLLEAGUES and EMPLOYERS
  • Many children would thrive if raised by enthusiastic ADOPTIVE PARENTS rather than the BIOLOGICAL PARENTS who have ‘first refusal’ so long as their caring stays above a basic threshold.
  • When considering whether to target someone, SOLDIERS have been taught to accept a distinction between COMBATANTS and NON-COMBATANTS. Soldiers themselves, moreover, as combatants, are standardly excused from having to consider the justice of causes they aid.

It should be troubling, then, that we are often reduced to groping in the dark when it comes to, say, abandoning a friendship, whistle-blowing, intruding on matters outside a role’s formal purview, putting family first, etc. What the ethical literature has so far failed to supply is a plausible overarching understanding of the nature and significance of roles as such, developed in tandem with accounts of the ethics of particular roles. Worse, it has largely failed even to spot the need for such an understanding.

The network therefore as two overarching goals:

  1. To generate recognition of the vital contribution role-occupancy makes to ethical reasoning and practice
  2. To build, disseminate and apply an enhanced theoretical understanding of this contribution.


Any theory of roles (that is, any attempt to travel beyond an isolated perspective on some single aspect of the topic) must take account of: the many morally salient dimensions along which roles differ as well as any features they have in common; interdependencies between the key questions we can ask about roles and their ethics; and links to other and better established debates.

The unity and diversity of roles

All roles seem to share certain core features:

  • Occupancy conditions (or ‘entrance and exit’ conditions) governing when someone is to count as in the role
  • Performance conditions, a set of ‘role obligations’ occupiers have qua occupiers, plus a set of ‘role entitlements’ to powers and privileges that enable them to carry out those obligations
  • A purported social function, typically within a broader institutional context

Yet roles can also be distinguished along many morally salient parameters, such as:

  • Voluntary vs involuntary (e.g. ADOPTIVE PARENT vs CONSCRIPT)
  • Highly codified vs loosely specified (e.g. COMMANDING OFFICER vs FRIEND)
  • Socially recognized vs contested or rejected (e.g. TEACHER vs SLAVE-OWNER)
  • Biologically defined vs socially constructed (e.g. GESTATIONAL MOTHER vs ‘MUMMY’)
  • Easily left vs inalienable (e.g. ASSISTANT CHEF vs BIRTH PARENT)
  • Short-term  vs long-term (e.g. JUROR vs DALAI LAMA)
  • Broad in brief vs narrow in brief (e.g. PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL vs EXPERT WITNESS)
  • Open to all vs invitation only (e.g. CONSUMER vs GODPARENT)
  • Decision making vs decision facilitating (e.g. EUTHANASIA PATIENT vs EUTHANASIA DOCTOR)

Key questions

Any account of the ethics of social roles must be evaluated according to its capacity to answer a wide range of questions rather than some single question taken in isolation.

Q/ What is a social role? Is a unitary definition even desirable?

Q/ Are there generic ethical principles governing when and how someone may assume or abandon a role? Or governing when and how a role’s occupier may ignore or override its prescriptions?

Q/ What makes a set of role-generated obligations obligatory for that role’s occupier? Is it, for example, always a matter of an actual or hypothetical contract?

Q/ When are established roles legitimate, and when may we or should we reject them?

Q/ How should theories of social justice accommodate the twin phenomena of fulfilling-but-scarce roles and unfulfilling-but-necessary roles? More broadly, what if anything should govern the range and accessibility of roles within a given society?

Q/ If a role’s associated obligations and privileges are not clearly specified (e.g. the parental role), how do we determine which actions are appropriate? And if they are strongly specified (e.g. in professional codes of conduct), how should we evaluate the codes themselves?

Q/ Is role ethics sui generis or can its prescriptions always be derived from general considerations that apply impartially to all persons? Either way, do role obligations sometimes conflict with the duties of ‘ordinary’ morality, as Machiavelli appeared to imply for the case of high public office?

Q/ How can we resolve disharmony between the conflicting demands that two or more different roles can place on a single occupant, e.g. a parent who is also an employee?

Q/ To what extent are the actions of an organization also the responsibility of the occupants of the various roles that constitute that organization?

Connections to existing debates

Because roles figure in so many other normative topics, it is tempting to see role ethics as ‘the missing link’ tying them all together.

Collective agency

Collectives, especially structured ones (‘organizations’), are arguably constituted out of the roles that members of the collective occupy, and collective agency is arguably constituted out of the performance of these constituent roles by their occupants. The debate over both the metaphysics and ethics of collective agency is therefore intimately tied to what we say about the nature and ethical properties of roles.

Special relationships and impartiality

Certain relationships, such as friendship or familial bonds, have puzzled ethicists because they seem to justify attitudes and behaviour that pull against the spirit of impartiality, a spirit that otherwise appears central to the very notion of morality. Can the fact that the relata in these special relationships are roles not people help us resolve this tension?

Particular roles

Although the project aims to understand the ethics of roles as such, a huge amount can be learned by considering the sophisticated literatures on specific roles, such as military roles, familial roles, various professional roles, gender roles, etc.


Some roles are vastly more rewarding to occupy and perform than others. Any theory of the nature and value of welfare or well-being must acknowledge and accommodate the importance of this role-generated source of personal fulfillment.

Social justice

The roles we get to occupy, or have to occupy, can shape our lives, even to the point of making or breaking them. How should theories of social justice incorporate this fact?

Dirty hands and moral relativism

When if ever should the requirements of a particular role trump ‘ordinary’ morality, as when a spy passes herself off as something other than she is, ostensibly for the greater good? Is the assumption of an ‘ordinary’ – i.e. role-neutral – morality itself a fantasy?