Interview by Richard Marshall.


Torbjörn Tännsjöthinks all the time about the ethics of acts of killing, moral realism, repugnant conclusions, reasons and norms, utilitarianism, hedonism, human enhancement, genetic technologies in sport, global democracy, populist democracy and conservativism. As we enter a new year philosophy gets into some of our most pressing issues. Merry New Year...

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?

Torbjörn Tännsjö: When I was in my late teens I was already interested in philosophy. In high school I read Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophyand his My Philosophical Development. I don’t know what brought me to the subject in the first place. And my interest was theoretical. I wanted to know what it means to know something, whether we can know at all, and, if so, how. These were typically the questions raised by Russell. However, two simultaneous personal experiences drew me to moral philosophy. I describe this in the preface to Taking Life. This is how it happened. I was conscripted to military service, and my gut feeling was to refuse to serve. I did not want to kill other people. This seemed to me wrong, if not in principle, so at least in practice. There were no serious military threats facing Sweden, and if the situation would change there was no guarantee that I would turn out to be a just rather than an unjust combatant. Moreover, the kind of values for which I was supposed to kill, such as democracy and national independence, were better served, I thought, through non-violent action. This was during the heydays of the civil rights movement in the American South. Again Russell, not the philosopher, this time, but the political activist, inspired me. My arguments were met with no sympathy from the military authorities. They threatened me with jail, if I was not prepared to serve.

At the same time my farther got ill. It soon turned out to be serious. He suffered from cancer in his liver with metastases in many places of his body. The prediction was that he should be dead within a few months. This prophecy was born out by realities. My farther reacted with good sense and courage to the prophecy. He was sad to leave in such an untimely manner, he told my mother and me, but he had had more than fifty rich years, so he wasn't resentful. And he swiftly took care of all sorts of practical matters relating to his death. However, something he had not expected happened. His sufferings turned out to be unbearable. The medical doctor who treated my farther was his personal friend, and my farther was given morphine and all sorts of palliation. However, his pain could not be controlled. His last weeks were terrible. He sometimes fell asleep. When he woke up he was still in a delirious state caused by the morphine, and he asked me, his only child, and my mother, whether he was dead or alive. We had to inform him that he was not yet dead; he had to struggle on for yet another while. He asked his doctor to assist him in his dying. He begged for euthanasia. His doctor turned down his request with the words that euthanasia was not only illegal, but it was ‘at variance with the principles of medical ethics’. My father's agony increased and culminated in a state of terminal agitation and ended only with his very last choking breath.

I was much concerned with what had happened. It did not only affect me emotionally. I was intellectually in a state of deep confusion. How could it be that I had a legal obligation to kill people I did not know, and who did certainly not consent to it, while my father's doctor could not help my father to die when my farther asked for it? My consternation brought me to moral philosophy and a life-long search for an answer to the question when and why we should, and when we shouldn't, kill. To kill or not to kill, that was the question that haunted me. I began to study practical philosophy at Stockholm University in 1966, with a particular interest in the ethics of killing.


3:AM:So this issue, the act of killing, is one of your central concerns as a philosopher. This is a sensitive issue – in fact one that has proved very sensitive in both Sweden and elsewhere hasn’t it. Can you say something about the reactions you’ve faced when you’ve asked for surveys to be completed, and when you’ve tried to discuss the issue in publications for the general public such as the ‘repugnant conclusion’ debacle last year.

TT:My interest in bioethics started some 25 years ago. The first topic I addressed was prenatal diagnosis and abortion. I published an article in Dagens Nyheter, the leadings Swedish newspaper, where I argued that the pregnant woman should be free to seek whatever prenatal diagnosis she wanted, and then do as she saw fit with regard to abortion. The argument was simple. If society regulates this kind of abortion and decides, for example, that it is permitted to have an abortion if the child has a chromosomal defect (Down), but not if it has the ‘wrong’ sex, then society sends a nasty message: a child is welcome regardless of its sex, but not if it is mentally retarded. The reaction to this article, with its simple and straightforward message, was very strong. A media Hype was created, and the leader of the Christian Democratic Party in Sweden, Alf Svensson, demanded publicly that I should be removed immediately from my position as Associate Professor of Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University.

I also met with resistance when much later I took up my systematic studies on the ethics of killing. I wanted to make a survey of the reactions among Swedes to the kinds of killing I was going to discuss: murder, suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment, killing in war, and so forth. I had obtained funding from the Swedish Research Council for the survey and I approached the Swedish state authority for official statistics and asked it to perform my survey, only to receive the following letter from the Chief Executive Officer of the authority, called SCB (Statistics Sweden):

After careful discussions within the authority SCB has decided not to undertake the proposed survey you describe in your letter of 4 February 1999. The reason is that SCB, like other institutes in the world, has very little experience of the gathering of this kind of highly sensitive data. We do not want to risk that a survey like the proposed one should initiate psychological reactions among the respondents that are difficult to handle. We think here of respondents who have suffered in war, who are suicidal, or who have experienced difficult decisions in relation to abortion ... The final decision was taken by the Chief Executive Officer of SCB after a discussion within the board of the office. (My translation)

I succeeded to have my survey made, however, by approaching another firm. And eventually, and quite recently, when I was preparing my Taking Life, I got my data not only from Swedes about this, but from Americans, Russians, and the Chinese. This time, the Chinese turned out to be a problem. At first I could not have my survey made in China, for roughly the reason it had been a problem in Sweden. Eventually, the resistance withered, however, and in my book I can report the answers from random samples of 1000 Americans, Russians, and Chinese about the all the kinds of killing I investigate

A recent American experience was when Vox last year commissioned a piece from me on the ‘repugnant conclusion’. I delivered it on time, Vox carefully edited it in cooperation with me, to my satisfaction and theirs, but then, at the very last moment, they refused to run it. It was supposed to be too sensitive in an American liberal context, according to the editor in chief. My defence of the repugnant conclusion, saying that an extensive population of people living lives just worth living, if they are many enough, is to be preferred to a population of ten billion extremely happy people, could be seen, the editor in chief thought, as an attack on the right to free abortion. Hence he stopped the publication. Actually, I defend the right to free abortion, but this was of no avail. My argument could still be seen as supporting moral conservatives, it was maintained. I was surprised. You don’t expect such a narrow minded response from liberals! The result was that I had my paper published elsewhere instead (by the Gauker:), and indeed, there was much discussion about it. Vox had created a Streisand effect!

I have always enjoyed the media Hypes I have created and I enjoyed this one, for the same reason that I liked the others: it meant that many people (now Americans), who would not have thought of the problem I discussed, now had to do so. Many even took up a their own stance to the problem, some in defence of my position, others in opposition to it, and they tried to give their own arguments. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them have turned to a serious study of philosophy.


3:AM: Why are you a moral realistand what difference does this make to how you go about investigating morals from, for example, a non-realist?

TT:I am indeed a moral realist. In particular, I believe that one basic question, what we ought to do, period (the moral question), is a genuine one. There exists a true answer to it, which is independent of our thought and conceptualisation. My main argument in defence of the position is this. It is true (independently of our conceptualisation) that it is wrong to inflict pain on a sentient creature for no reason (she doesn’t deserve it, I haven’t promised to do it, it is not helpful to this creature or to anyone else if I do it, and so forth). But if this is a truth, existing independently of our conceptualisation, then at least one moral fact (this one) exists and moral realism is true. We have to accept this, I submit, unless we can find strong reasons to think otherwise. Moral nihilism comes with a price we can now see. It implies that it is not wrong (independently of our conceptualisation) to do what I describe above; this does not mean that it is all right to do it either, of course, but yet, for all this, I find this implication from nihilism hard to digest. It is not difficult to accept for moral reasons. If it is false both that it is wrong to perform this action and that it is right to perform it, then we need to engage in difficult issues in deontic logic as well. So we should not accept moral nihilism unless we find strong arguments to do so. So are there any good arguments in defence of moral nihilism? I think not and I try to defend this claim in my From Reasons to Norms. On the Basic Question in Ethics(2010). It is of note that for a long time moral nihilism was a kind of unquestioned default position in analytic moral philosophy. What initiated the interest in moral realism was the fact that, in 1977, two authors, John Mackie and Gilbert Harman, independently of one another, put forward arguments in defence of the nihilist position. This triggered an interest in what had up to then been a non-issue. When thinking carefully about their arguments for nihilism I didn’t find them convincing. I was not alone. At first there was a trend towards moral realism in its “Cornell”, i.e naturalist, style. In my book Moral Realism (1990) I didn’t take a stand on the naturalist/non-naturalist issue. I am now a decided non-naturalist realist. And today we may even speak of a trend towards non-naturalist moral realism (for example Derek Parfit, David Enoch, apart from myself).

Being a moral realist I see normative ethics as a search of the truth about our obligations and a search of explanation; the idea is that moral principles can help us to a moral explanation of our particular obligations. The method I employ is simple and straightforward. One could speak of it as hypothetically deductive. I look at the most promising putative moral theories. I construct crucial thought experiments in areas where they give conflicting advice. I confront their conflicting advice with my own moral sensitivity, my moral intuition. I take the theory that can best explain the content of my intuitions as gaining inductive support through an inference to the best explanation. One possible such area is the ethics of killing. Here we can construct our moral laboratory and arrange with our thought experiments.


3:AM:You think there are three basic moral theories that someone might apply to killing don’t you? Can you sketch them for us?

TT:Different areas present us with possibilities to test different theories. My main interest is in utilitarianism. One may think that the ethics of killing should be a serious obstacle to it. If anything is wrong in principle, one may think, it should be the intentional killing of an innocent human being. Deontological thinking in both a Kantian and a Thomistic version prohibits this. According to deontology it is wrong to kill an innocent human being, period. Or, one may think that, if there is anything we should be allowed to do as we see fit with, it is ourselves. We own ourselves. This is the core of a libertarian theory of rights. But on this theory, while we are at liberty to kill ourselves (regardless of the consequences of others), we are not allowed to kill others, not even if this means that there we be fewer murders in the future, totally speaking. Now, utilitarianism condones killing of innocent human beings, even murder, if it makes the world a better place. This is at variance with both deontology and the moral rights theory, then. We can see that this is a fruitful field if we want to assess these three theories and employ the method I recommend.

3:AM:Is it possible to hold all three at the same time?

TT:These theories, deontology, the moral rights theory, and utilitarianism, contradict one another. Moreover, they give conflicting (inconsistent) recommendations. It is hence not possible to hold them together, in a pursuit of moral truth. If two norms conflict, if they are mutually inconsistent, then at least one of them must be false. It is possible to hold on to a revised version of the three theories, however. You may think of them as not providing you with absolute true answers to moral questions, but with merely prima facie obligations or pro tanto reasons to act. But this is a fourth normative theory, in competition with all the three I discuss in my book. And I try to show that it is not superior to any one of them. Moreover, it has its own severe problems with practicality. It is difficult to apply it to concrete cases, and it is outright impossible to apply it in abstract thought experiments. We should only resort to this kind of intellectual compromise as a last resort, then, when we have failed to find a ‘deterministic’ principle giving an answer to what we ought to do, both in real cases and in abstract thought experiments. And utilitarianism is such a plausible and deterministic moral principle, I argue.

3:AM:Why do you find utilitarianism the best of the approaches?

TT:There is no way to answer this question briefly. You have to work through all the examples I present, tease out the implications of the theories, and confront them with the content of your intuitions. You should not take your intuitions at face value, moreover. This is an important addition to the method I sketched above. You should not take the content of your intuitive response as evidence until you have submitted your psychological reaction to what I call cognitive psychotherapy. You should do what you can to learn as much as possible about the origin of your reaction. You are only allowed to treat the content of your intuition as evidence if the intuition stays after you have exposed it to cognitive psychotherapy; in some cases you have to reject it even if it does indeed stay. An example of this if you have learnt that your intuitive reaction is an example of ‘quick’ thinking, an heuristic device, which works in most cases, but which may have failed in the present one. In discussion of the trolley cases we can see examples of this. Our reluctance to push a big man onto the tracks in order to save five lives is an example of such quick thinking, I argue. Hence, even if we intuitively feel that it is wrong to perform this action we should not take the content of our intuition as evidence. This does not mean that we have evidence in support of pushing the big man either, however. Some people claim that this is their intuition in relation to the case. I suspect, however, that, to the extent that they believe that it is all right to push the big man, this is the result of an application of utilitarianism (or some similar theory) to the case. But then the content of the intuition gives no independent support of the theory. So the upshot is, in this case, that we lack evidence for and against pushing the man.

When I examine all the thought experiments I conduct in the book utilitarianism seems to deliver the right answer, where we meet with conflicting advice from the theories. Moreover, it strikes me that much of the opposition to utilitarianism stems from a difficulty people have with keeping two questions apart: what is the right thing to do in a particular case, and what sort of person one should attempt to become. Once we realise that utilitarianism comes with the idea of blameworthy rightdoing (such as when you push a big manonto the tracks in order to save five lives) and blameless wrongdoing (such as when you don’t push a big man onto the tracks in order to save five lives), then utilitarianism all of a sudden appears to give the right answers. It is indeed right to push the big man, but we should attempt not to become people who are prepared to do this, since this would, even if it helps us to the right decision in this abstract thought experiment, make us dangerous, nasty, and ones no one should want to socialise with. Hence, if you do push the big man you are blameworthy, not for doing this in the situation, but for being a person capable of doing this. It is right, according to utilitarianism, to become a person who doesn’t push, but yet, for all that, it is all right (if you can) to push. And this also explains why you are blameless when you don’t push. Your reluctance to push is a sign of the fact that you have succeeded in becoming a good person. No blame on you for this, not even if it were possible for you to push! This is subtle but it seems to me, at any rate, to be the correct verdict of the case.

It is of note that even if utilitarianism has proved to be superior to deontology and the libertarian moral rights theory in the area of killing, we are not allowed to say that it has been finally vindicated; it has to face other challenges in other areas, in particular in situations of distributive justice. If we construct crucial thought experiments where utalitarianism has to compete with egalitarian and prioritarian thoughts, how does it succeed? This is something I am working on right now.

3:AM:Do Chinese and Westerners respond differently to the trolley problem, and if they do, doesn’t that make problems for your moral realist stance? And to generalize a point made recently by Alex Rosenberg, isn’t the systematic inability to find deep universal moral agreement proof that even if morals are objectively real, there’s no way we know them – and we’d be better off accepting that they’re not objectively real?

TT:We cannot take the result of surveys such as the one I have made as evidence for or against moral theories. At most they can help us to a better understanding of our own intuitive responses. They can form part of our cognitive psychotherapy. We can be certain that, if there are conflicting views in different cultures, some of these views must be false. This may help us to transcend our own narrow cultural horizon. Of course, even where people in different cultures agree they may all have gone wrong. However, now it is at least possible that the best explanation why people agree is that they have converged on true answers. It has been thought that some thought experiments are better than others, in that they do not trigger special cultural cues. Abortion, for example, is extremely problematic exactly in this regard. People in different cultures think very differently about abortion. Abortion is not seen as a moral problem for example in Sweden or Russia, but it is seen as a difficult moral problem in China and in the USA. It has been thought that the so-called trolley cases can present us with thought experiments where no cultural cues are struck. It is not that everyone agrees about the answers, but it has been thought that roughly the same pattern emerges in all cultures: a majority is for example prepared to flip a switch, killing one in order to save five, while a majority finds it wrong to push a person onto the tracks in order to obtain the same result. My results from China indicate that there may exist a cultural difference also in this case. The Chinese are generally speaking much more reluctant than Westerners to killing as a means to the rescue of lives. If this is correct, then this means that we cannot take for granted that our reactions in relation to the trolley cases are not determined also by cultural idiosyncrasies. This renders them less helpful, then, to the kind of search of the moral truth that I am interested in.

Does all this show that even if moral realism is true moral knowledge is not possible? I think not. There are some particular moral truths that I believe we have access to (such as the one not to inflict pain on a sentient being for no reason). Moreover, I am quite optimistic that the method I recommend will yield also more principled moral understanding. This might be the place to repeat what Derek Parfit has said. Normative ethics, pursued as a free, systematic, and critical attempt to find moral truth, regardless of religious and other authorities, is a rather new adventure. Let’s wait and see what will happen!


3:AM:Are you a hedonist then?

TT:I am indeed a hedonistic utilitarian. I have defended hedonistic utilitarianism for quite a while. When I wrote my book Hedonistic Utilitarianism. A Defence(1998) this was a very controversial position. Now many people seem to be drawn to it. There are both moral and methodological problems with hedonism. I have tried to rebut the moral criticism of the sort raised by, say, Robert Nozick, with his ‘experience machine’. And I have tried to deal with the methodological problems. If you take happiness to be a kind of mood, then it is reasonable to assume that at each moment we are at a certain level of happiness (mood). If this is so, then we can answer what has been called the heterogeneity objection to hedonism. It is true that it feels very differently to enjoy a good meal, taking part in an interesting conversation, or to think of how successful your children are. Suppose we do all these things at a particular time. How happy are we at the time? We do not need to calculate the value of each such feelings on any singular scale to answer this question. We need not see our happiness at the time as a mathematical function of these items. It is rather that all these experiences, together with many other factors, causally puts us at the time at a certain level of happiness, i.e. in a certain mood. And we have access to this mood. We can compare it to the mood just before the present one, and so forth. And this prepares the way to meet a second methodological challenge to hedonism, to do with measurement. Given this idea we may speak with good meaning of comparisons of happiness, both intra- and interpersonally (in a manner suggested by the economist Francis Ysidro Edeworth, putting a stress on the least noticeable difference of happiness). I put forward these ideas in the old book and I have kept developing them since then.

3:AM:Can you say something about how using your applied ethical approach you approach the issue of controversial issues such as abortion or IVFor mercy killing?

TT:My standard approach to problems in applied ethics has been roughly this. It is of interest to try to find out the implications of different basic moral approaches to problems such as these ones. It is of interest to find out to what extent an overlapping consensus is possible (where different basic theories point in the same practical direction). It is also of interest to find where this is not possible. I have been able to find much room for overlapping consensus in my discussions about the role of coercion in health care (my book Coercive Carebears witness to this) while I have been utterly pessimistic with regard to topics such as euthanasia and abortion (where I have published articles such ‘Why No Compromise Is Possible’).

3:AM:You are a philosopher who is a member of the ethics board of Karolinska Institutes. How does your approach help clarify existing discussions?

TT:In such boards (I have served in several) what is needed from a philosopher is indeed applied ethics of the kind I just described.

3:AM:Is capital punishment ever morally permissible?

TT:One way of submitting your moral intuitions in relation to some issue to cognitive therapy is to learn more about how people in other cultures think about it. I have been brought up in a culture where capital punishment is indeed anathema. I have always thought of myself as a principled opponent to capital punishment. However, when thinking about how the topic is handled in other cultures, in particular the American, Russian and Chinese ones, I have realised that my own tack on the issue was utterly superficial. I have now come to the conclusion (roughly) that capital punishment is defensible, if it can be shown to have a deterrent effect on murder. In that case, a few executions save not only some people from being murdered but also some people from becoming murders. It is hard to tell, however, if capital punishment has such an effect. And even if, in some contexts it has (such as in the American South with a very high incidence of murder), this effect may very well go away if a decent welfare state was replaced for the existing social order. I want to think that there are better ways of obviating murder than to resort to capital punishment, but I realise that this may be wishful thinking on my part.

3:AM:With science and technology developing as it is, what are the ethical concerns regarding human enhancement, such as the use of genetic technologies in sports?

TT:There comes a time where next to everyone will resort to techniques that enhance cognitive, mental including emotive, physical, and other capacities. When this has happened, if not before, the ban on doping in sport will have been lifted. There are good reasons to lift it anyway (I wrote about this recently in an article in The Boston Globe), so I do not see this as a problem. Actually, I see mainly one huge problem with human enhancement and it has to do with the possibility of life extension. The possibility to go on indefinitely with our lives may become a reality and it will present us with a temptation. Why not hang around for yet some time? My conjecture is that most people will refuse to let go, even when their lives have become boring (at least in comparisons with possible lives lived by new generations). If this happens, there will eventually be no room for new generations. A kind of collective irrationality will lead to a bleak life for the last generation that decides to stay around. Unless we put and end to the human race (through global warming, for example), before this happens, individual egoism will block the path to a better world.


3:AM:The world looks a mess at the moment – wars, global warming, poverty, inequality etc. Could a global government be a good step forward to dealing with all this. You argued the case in 2008, are you still in favour?

TT:The book Global Democracyis out in a new printing with a new preface where I still defend my view. It is obvious, I think, that national democracy withers. This has to do with globalisation. It is also obvious that humanity faces existential threats of a global nature. They are global in the sense that is not possible to deal with them unless we resort to global governance. Take global warming as the most obvious example. When the leaders of different nations negotiate about the problem, each leader is supposed to make as small concessions as possible on behalf of her own nation, while urging others to do more. We face a giant tragedy of the commons. What we need is legislation, not negotiation, for the entire globe. Only a global government of some kind can provide the needed solutions. Global governance need not take a democratic form, however. Just think of organisations such as the World Bank. It is quite possible that we will soon come to live under some sort of global despotism, enlightened or not. This is not a nice prospect. And there is only one way of avoiding that this happens: to establish a global democracy. And it is not too late to strive for such a democracy, of a straightforward populist nature, where people on the globe elect a world parliament, which in turn elects a world government. It is natural to build on the United Nations in this endeavour. A modest first step in the right direction is to introduce a parliamentary assembly in the UN framework. There existssuch an initiative and I strongly support it.

3:AM:With Donald Trump making the populist case for democracy, are you still in favour of populist democracy? And he’s a right winger too, so do you still defend a political conservativism?

TT:My take on conservatism (as opposed to radicalism) cannot be explained in this short space. I am a left winger, thought. And I do believe that what I have called populist democracy is to be preferred to what I have called elitist democracy. In many European countries we have populist indirect democratic systems. The people elect, in a proportionate manner, a parliament. The parliament with all its parties is representative of the political opinions among the citizens. It is reasonable to claim that the people rule itself through the political institutions. The US two party system is very different, of course. Here the people decides about who should rule them, but it is not reasonable to claim that the people rules itself through the political institutions. In comparison, I find that the standard European system is better, also as a model for global democracy. Again, to defend such a position would take more space than is available right now.

3:AM:And finally, for the readers ere at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend, other than your own, that would help take us further into your philosophical world?


1. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia(1974) is (still) the best introduction to, and defence of, the libertarian theory of rights, which I discuss and reject in my Taking Life.
2. Jonathan Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives(1977) is a minor classic on the ethics of killing.
3. Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing(2002) is a highly instructive and more up to date book on the subject, which is written from a point of view very different from mine. One could perhaps speak of his method of “inductive” where mine is “hypothetically deductive” (to use terminology from the theory of science).
4. The kind of moral realism I defend is best compared to the moral nihilism defended by John Mackie. However, the best book on Mackie and his argument from queerness in particular and the ‘error theory’ in general to this date is not his own Ethics(1977) but Jonas Olsson, Moral Error Theory(2014).
5. In my Global Democracy(2008/2014) I argue that global democracy is not only necessary if we want to solve pressing global problems, but also of value in its own right. For a defence of the opposite position one should turn to John Rawls, The Law of Peoples(1999) with its Kantian insistence that a global state is bound to deteriorate into global tyranny.

Richard Marshallis still biding his time.

Buy his book hereto keep him biding!