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Iain King

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Iain King
Full nameIain King
Era21st Century Philosophers
RegionWestern Philosophy
Schoolanalytic philosophy, rationalism, cognitivism, Ethics, Meta-ethics, Quasi-realism, Political philosophy, Philosophy of religion
Notable ideasThe Help Principle, All-time value

Iain King (born 1971) is a contemporary British moral philosopher. He studied at Pembroke College, Oxford, and was latterly a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. Outside philosophy, he has written on Kosovo, the Northern Ireland Peace Process, and postwar reconstruction.

In his book How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time and a series of light-hearted university lectures, King has tried to explain several divergent theories of meta-ethics and ethics in entertaining and accessible terms, and how they can be reconciled. In the manner of early enlightenment philosophers, King has tried to apply the scientific revolution to ethics just as Isaac Newton applied it to physics, in an attempt to replace commonplace guesswork and judgement in matters of right and wrong with everyday formulas for what people should do in difficult situations, all backed up by deductive proof rather than opinion.[1]He also tries to reconcile a clear account of right and wrong with the possibility of different but equally justified opinions, for example resulting from cultural or reasonable political differences.



King draws on deontological ethics associated with Immanuel Kant, R. M. Hare and John Rawls; virtue theory established by Aristotle and the philosophers of Ancient Greece; the tradition of David Hume, in particular the quasi-realism espoused by his contemporary disciple, professor Simon Blackburn; and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Peter Singer. He offers amusing cameos of most of these figures in his talks and writing.


How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong

How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong presents King’s main theory as a correction of utilitarianism, with which he identifies seven flaws. But rather than then dismissing the theory as other critics have done (see Bernard Williams on this), he seeks to correct them one by one, and thereby creates a radically different theory which enjoys all the positive attributes of utilitarianism without any of the drawbacks. This approach forces him to construct a new meta-ethics upon which to base his account of right and wrong.

For a starting point he argues that we should all seek value because it may be there to be found and, if not, there is nothing to lose by seeking it. This rationalist argument is a humanist reworking of Pascal's Wager which advocates believing in God on the basis of probability and the precautionary principle, and is vulnerable to some of the same criticisms; it may also be circular. The assertion in chapter seven of How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time that ‘the meaning of life is to seek value’ [1] is contentious.

From ‘seek value’, King takes two complementary routes to what he describes as the ‘DNA of right and wrong – empathy and obligation.’[1] First, drawing on David Hume and Adam Smith, he argues that value for individuals requires good social relations which, in turn, requires people to share genuine sympathy – not just mutual self-interest, but real concern for each other; hence, seeking value requires empathy. The second draws on 20th century ordinary language philosophy and Quasi-realism to argue that empathy and obligation uniquely match all we can know about words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’.

The help principle

Empathy and obligation lead automatically to the Help Principle, which King expresses in two forms. First, the basic form:

  • Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you.[1][2]

Then, after some refinement, in the final form as:

From this Help Principle he then derives a raft of ethical principles, including ways to judge actions by their consequences. King’s meta-ethical theory therefore transcends the debate about whether right and wrong concern characteristics (virtue ethics), actions (deontological ethics) and outcomes (consequentialism) – he presents it as all three, and draws an analogy with light which behaves as waves in some situations and as particles in others (wave–particle duality).[2]


Ethical principles

King develops an intermediate set of principles to bridge the gap between meta-ethics and ethics, derived by deductive reasoning from the Help Principle. King goes to considerable lengths to show that these secondary rules and principles follow automatically from empathy, obligation and the Help Principle, to establish them as axioms of ethics rather than opinions. They include:

  • The autonomy principle – Let people choose their own help, unless you know their interests better than they do (which chimes with liberalism).
  • The reciprocity rule - Apply the Help Principle to others as much as they would apply it themselves (which links to modern game theory and is developed by contrasting Islamic and Christian notions of reciprocity and forgiveness).
  • The humility rule - Help others with humility and express gratitude for help you receive (which draws on Jewish philosopher Maimonides).
  • The direct help rule - Treat people according to their own wants and intentions, not by what others want of them (which is distinctly Kantian).[1][2]

From these, he offers clear moral guidelines, some of which run against established thinking. He covers a range of areas, including:

On lying

King dismisses the common rule ‘don’t lie’ as hypocritical because most people lie quite often. Arguing that lies can sometimes serve good purposes, he derives from his axioms of ethics:

  • Communicate so people can do what’s best for the real circumstances;
  • A justified lie requires a reason to believe the hearer would not act appropriately if told the truth;
  • You should deceive only if you can change behaviour in a way worth more than the trust you would lose, were the deception found out; and
  • Lies should only be told on special occasions; and
  • Deliberately allowing someone to believe a falsehood amounts to a spoken lie. [3]

King uses a similar approach to deduce rules on making and breaking promises. [1]

On romance

King tries to establish clear rules for sexual conduct and romance. The strict requirement that these rules can apply independent of cultural settings means that the resulting norms are somewhat bland, although they do generally imply a liberal line. [1]

On decision-making in groups

King seeks a third way between majoritarian and individualistic approaches to decision-making in groups. He derives two rules from his axioms:

  • In small groups, choose whichever option benefits any individual the most.
  • In large groups, choose whichever option has the best all-time outcome, by adding up the benefits and losses to people of each option. [1][2]

He then tries to show how the two are compatible, and that the division between small and large depends on how much an individual can reciprocate help.

His conclusions have important implications when rights clash with democratic demands. King’s work suggests rights are not inalienable, and that they can occasionally be overruled when there is an overwhelming public interest. However, unlike Jeremy Bentham who famously dismissed rights as nonsense upon stilts, King provides a further justification for rights as a safeguard when facts are uncertain, through his theory of conventions.

On punishment

King tries to reconcile utilitarian notions of punishment with more intuitively appealing approaches, such as restorative and retributive justice. He does this through the concept of all-time value, which he derives from his contention that the morality of actions is independent of the time they take place. This enables hypothetical consequences in the past (e.g., the deterrence effect a punishment may have had) to be treated as equivalent to the impact in the future (i.e., the effect of the punishment). Thus, he concludes punishments for crimes should be based upon what would have been necessary to deter them, justifying a punishment should fit the crime approach, although he nuances this conclusion with caveats.[4]

On poverty reduction

Reducing lethal poverty is a major theme in How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, where King derives a proof for substantial increases in the amount of money given to alleviate lethal poverty abroad, echoing Peter Singer and the Make Poverty History campaign. He calculates a typical worker in the UK should devote 0.75% of their income to a development charities for this.[2][3]

On social justice

King argues that his Help Principle leads to three clear principles of social justice. One of these should appeal to Marxists who favour distributing wealth according to need, one to Thatcherites, Reaganites and other right wing thinkers who favour distribution according to effort, and one to pragmatists who emphasise practical issues. By trying to accommodate all three positions, King attempts to reconcile the radical political left, the radical right, and conservative centrism:

If everybody in the world applied the Help Principle to everybody else, then there would be only four reasons why people had different levels of wealth: because they had worked harder than others; because they needed things more; because transferring resources would diminish the value of the help given; and because of voluntary gambles. We can ignore voluntary gambles because of the autonomy principle - if people want to take a chance on becoming richer or poorer that is up to them. That means we should only be concerned by the first three: efforts invested, benefits to be had, and problems transferring wealth between people.

On religion

King is a humanist who argues that mapping out ethics rationally can dispel mystery from the subject and leave religion with no role in prescribing right and wrong. Just as Evolutionary Theory squeezed mystery out of creation taking religion with it, religion can now be displaced from ethics, too. He backs up this claim with arguments to show the redundancy of religion in moral matters, suggesting, for example, that if ‘God is Love’, then by Occam’s Razor, we should just concentrate on love. [2] Citing the barbarism of the Aztec faith[3], he argues that some religions advocate bad actions, others good, so something other than religion is needed to adjudicate between them. He dismisses the widespread feeling of benevolence as a basis for religion, arguing that paranoia, infatuation and depression are equally common and again, something other than religion is needed to elevate benevolence above the others. Finally, he presents the possibility of an ‘anti-God’, and suggests there is no reason to obey any God over its equal and opposite anti-God which is both valid and non-circular.[1]

Despite these attacks, King regards religion as a repository of accumulated wisdom[1] and draws on aspects of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism to bolster his arguments.

Justifying cultural difference and the theory of conventions

Having established universal principles for right and wrong, King is obliged to explain moral pluralism (ie the co-existence of equally justified accounts of right and wrong, for example in difficult cultures). For this he sets out a theory of conventions: guidelines used when people lack perfect knowledge of the world around them, which include etiquette and laws. Moral dilemmas arise when these conventions clash. By setting out when one convention is better than another and when these conventions should co-exist, he offers a means to tackle moral dilemmas, and defines limits for different customs to be justified by cultural diversity - for example, different table manners are allowed, while female genital cutting is not.[3]

Kosovo and postwar reconstruction

King spent four years administering post-war Kosovo with the United Nations, an experience which clearly influenced his work. King describes a duty to intervene in situations like Kosovo and Iraq, but has written about the immense practical difficulties involved in Postwar reconstruction, recognising that these need to be taken into account before any action begins. His 2006 book Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo, co-written with Whit Mason, highlights the rule of law and addressing inter-ethnic animosity as key priorities which were neglected in the Postwar reconstruction effort. The book generally identifies systematic failings rather than blaming individuals, and offers remedial lessons for future missions.


  • King evades several sceptical challenges, such as whether other minds exist and the problem of induction. Unusually for a humanist, he makes tacit assumptions based on Thomas Reid’s six axioms of common sense, but does not make these assumptions explicit. [1]
  • King cannot set out a Grand Unification Theory of ethics because this is an impossible snipe huntKant, Hume and Mill say very different things, and no amount of sophistry from King can smooth over their differences. For example, King’s rules on lying are neither Kantian or utilitarian. (When King adopts the premises but not the conclusions of arguments like Kant's, he tries to identify a flaw in these theories to show how their arguments may not be valid.) [1]
  • King’s ambitious bid to cover everything forces him to explain how all rival theories either comply with his own or dismiss them. His dismissals of fictionalism, the Golden Rule and relativism are more like demarcations of their applicability than knockout blows. Thus, his main argument is not so much 'This is right and wrong', rather, 'if you think right and wrong are useful concepts, then this is what your right and wrong should be'. In this sense, his meta-ethical theory is essentially quasi-realist, and vulnerable to the same criticisms as Simon Blackburn's theory from which it is derived. [1]
  • King’s theory considers only individual action, not collective action or action undertaken by institutions, which is central to politics and sociology. [1]
  • King has only recently presented the major part of his philosophical theory in print, and it is too early to know the full critical reception his arguments will receive.


  • How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong
    • Continuum Publishing, 2008. ISBN 1-8470-6347-0
  • Peace At Any Price: How the World failed Kosovo (co-written with Whit Mason)
    • Cornell University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8014-4539-6
    • Hurst Publications, 2006. ISBN 1-8506-5842-0


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 Talk, Cambridge 2005
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Oxford lecture 2004
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Stockholm 2007
  4. Zaibert, Leo (2006), [Expression error: Missing operand for > Punishment And Retribution], Ashgate Publishing 

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