Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes
  • Assistant Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics

Contact Information

Research Interests: ethics of obeying the law, ethical limits on law enforcement, transactional justice, justice in medical care and clinical research

Links: Personal Website


Robert Hughes was appointed to the Wharton School as an assistant professor of business ethics in 2015. He received his Ph.D in philosophy from UCLA in 2010 and his A.B. in philosophy from Harvard University in 2001. He has completed post-doctoral fellowships in the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health and in the Law and Philosophy Program at UCLA.

Robert’s areas of specialization include applied ethics, philosophy of law, and political philosophy. His work in legal philosophy focuses on the possibility of laws that lack coercive enforcement and the ethical obligation to obey unenforced and under-enforced laws (including the obligation to obey such laws in business contexts). His work in applied ethics focuses on ethical constraints on fair transactions. He has also worked on democratic theory and on issues of justice in medical care and research.

Robert has taught a wide range of courses on applied and theoretical ethics, political philosophy, and legal theory. As a graduate student, he received a Yost Prize for his work as a teaching assistant in the UCLA Department of Philosophy.

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  • Robert Hughes (2021), Regulatory Entrepreneurship, Fair Competition, and Obeying the Law, Journal of Business Ethics, (Forthcoming).

    Abstract: Some sharing economy firms have adopted a strategy of “regulatory entrepreneurship,” openly violating regulations with the aim of rendering them dead letters. This article argues that in a democracy, regulatory entrepreneurship is a presumptively unethical business strategy. In all but the most corrupt political environments, businesses that seek to change their regulatory environment should do so through the democratic political process, and they should do so without using illegal business practices to build a political constituency. To show this, the article defends a qualified moral obligation for businesspeople to obey the law even in societies that fall short of ideal democracy and that are rife with economic injustice. Owners and managers of successful businesses have strong moral reasons to obey laws concerning resource allocation. Such laws include not only property law, but also tax laws, environmental regulations, and other laws that regulate businesses in competitive markets. The moral reasons to obey such laws apply even to laws that business leaders think unfair or inefficient, provided that the laws in question have reasonable, good faith defenders.

  • William S. Laufer and Robert Hughes (2021), Justice Undone (American Criminal Law Review), American Criminal Law Review, 58, pp. 155-204.

    Abstract: There is far more justice that is not served than served in our criminal justice system. Well more than half of all offending and victimization fails to make its way into the criminal justice system. An additional share of wrongdoing from initial police contact to the end of the criminal process is diverted or exits. A host of additional personal, systemic, and societal factors constrain the administration of justice to respond to criminal wrongs. This Article introduces the idea of justice remainders, or the omission of the state’s response to crime. Justice remainders include both justified and unjustified failures to punish the guilty. The total of all justice remainders is the sum of justice undone. It is argued that the moral indignation and outrage over many types of justice remainders are simply and remarkably missing. Our collective response to sexual assaults, the most under-reported of all serious criminal offenses, reveals the importance of formal and informal recognition of victims, the community affected by the wrongdoing, and the state. This Article shows that theories of criminal law with significantly different assumptions and premises nevertheless support three conclusions about justice remainders. First, the state has a duty to address systematic justice remainders that involve either the failure to enforce an important criminal prohibition or a profound inequality in the effective protections of criminal law. Second, the state may be able to remedy some justice remainders with a commitment to effective and humane reforms to penal laws and practices. Finally, the state has a duty to provide public recognition of criminal wrongdoing when just punishment is impossible. This suggests the moral importance of an accounting for the sum of justice undone.

  • Robert Hughes (2020), Risk, Double Effect, and the Social Benefit Requirement, Journal of Medical Ethics. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-106034

    Abstract: Many ethicists maintain that medical research on human subjects that presents no prospect of direct medical benefit must have a prospect of social benefit to be ethical. Payment is not the sort of benefit that justifies exposing subjects to risk. Alan Wertheimer has raised a serious challenge to this view, pointing out that in industry, social value is not considered necessary to make dangerous jobs ethical. This article argues that Wertheimer was correct to think that the ethics of hazard pay should be the same in medical research and in business. Nevertheless, a qualified social benefit requirement should apply in both fields. For a study or a job with significant net physical risk to be ethical, it must have social value beyond the satisfaction of ordinary preferences, including the preference for money. The requirement derives from a non-absolutist version of the doctrine of double effect. If a risky study or a dangerous job has no distinctive social value, and hazard pay is subjects' or workers’ only reason to undergo risks, the very fact that they undergo risk is intended as a means to a financial end. Inviting people to enrol in such a study or to take such a job wrongfully treats people as mere means. By contrast, if a study or a job has social value, people can participate with a primary end other than money, even if they accept compensation. Researchers or employers do not intend but merely foresee risks to subjects or workers.

  • Robert Hughes (2020), The Ethics of Obeying Judicial Orders in Flawed Societies, Res Publica, 26, pp. 559-575.

    Abstract: Many accounts of the moral duty to obey the law either restrict the duty to ideal democracies or leave the duty’s application to non-ideal societies unclear. This article presents and defends a partial account of the moral duty to obey the law in non-ideal societies, focusing on the duty to obey judicial orders. We need public judicial authority to prevent objectionable power relationships that can result from disputes about private agreements. The moral need to prevent power imbalances in private relationships grounds a qualified moral duty to obey judicial decisions. The parties to a dispute are morally required to comply with a judicial order in their dispute if all of the following conditions obtain: (1) the parties’ dispute was in good faith, (2) the court’s resolution of the dispute is more impartial than either party’s own judgment, (3) the order does not call for violation of important natural duties or important artificial duties that the duty-bearer incurred involuntarily, and (4) the primary aim of disobeying the court order would be to advance an ordinary, non-political project, not to call public attention to an injustice. The moral duty to obey judicial decisions can survive significant departures from ideal fairness.

  • Robert Hughes (2020), Pricing Medicine Fairly, Philosophy of Management, 19, pp. 369-385.

    Abstract: Recently, dramatic price increases by several pharmaceutical companies have provoked public outrage. These scandals raise questions both about how pharmaceutical firms should be regulated and about how pharmaceutical executives ethically ought to make pricing decisions when drug prices are largely unregulated. Though there is an extensive literature on the regulatory question, the ethical question has been largely unexplored. This article defends a Kantian approach to the ethics of pharmaceutical pricing in an unregulated market. To the extent possible, pharmaceutical companies must price drugs so that those who genuinely need them can get them without financial ruin. This requirement is an ethical side constraint, like the moral prohibitions on deception and theft, that takes precedence over a business’s interest in maximizing profit. That said, the requirement’s application is sensitive to the need to recoup the costs of research and to produce a return that financially justifies the original investment. It may not be either feasible or desirable for government to attempt to enforce the ethical requirements concerning just pharmaceutical pricing. Either price regulation or subsidy could fulfill government’s obligation to protect patients from being objectionably vulnerable to pricing decisions by private companies

  • Robert Hughes (2020), Judicial Democracy, Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, 51, pp. 19-64.

    Abstract: Many scholars believe that it is procedurally undemocratic for the judiciary to have an active role in shaping the law. These scholars believe either that such practices as judicial review and creative statutory interpretation are unjustified, or that they are justified only because they improve the law substantively. This Article argues instead that the judiciary can play an important procedurally democratic role in the development of the law. Majority rule by legislatures is not the only defining feature of democracy; rather, a government is democratic to the extent to which it provides egalitarian forms of political participation. One such form of participation can be the opportunity to influence the law through the courts, either directly by participating in a case or indirectly by advocating litigation. Arguing from several examples, this Article shows that judicial decision-making allows different voices to be heard that may not necessarily have influence or power in majoritarian legislative structures or popular initiatives. Giving citizens the opportunity to change, to preserve, and to obtain authoritative clarification of the law through the courts can thus make a government procedurally more democratic.

  • Robert Hughes (2019), Egalitarian Provision of Necessary Medical Treatment, The Journal of Ethics, 24, pp. 55-78.

    Abstract: Considerations of autonomy and independence, properly understood, support strictly egalitarian provision of necessary medical treatment. If the financially better-off can purchase access to necessary medical treatments that the financially less well-off cannot purchase without help, then their discretionary power to give or to withhold monetary gifts indirectly gives them the power to make life-and-death or sickness-and-health decisions for others. To prevent private citizens from having this objectionable form of power, government must ensure that citizens’ finances do not affect their access to medical treatments that significantly prolong life, relieve suffering, or cure or mitigate disabilities. Government should ensure this even if doing so involves leveling down and even if it is unclear whether egalitarian provision of necessary treatment would provide better care to the poor than a less egalitarian health care system would.

  • Robert Hughes (2019), Exploitation, Deontological Constraints, and Shareholder Theory, Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, 17, pp. 1007-1026.

    Abstract: One of the central controversies in normative business ethics is the question whether transactions and economic relationships can be wrongfully exploitative despite being mutually beneficial and consensual. This article argues that anyone who accepts a shareholder theory of business ethics should accept deontological constraints on mutually beneficial, consensual exploitation.

  • Robert Hughes (2019), Breaking the Law Under Competitive Pressure, Law and Philosophy, 38, pp. 169-193.

    Abstract: When a business has competitors that break a burdensome law, is it morally required to obey this law, or may it break the law to avoid an unfair competitive disadvantage? Though this ethical question is pervasive in the business world, many non-skeptical theories of the obligation to obey the law cannot give it a clear answer. A broadly Kantian account, by contrast, can explain why businesspeople ought to obey laws of a certain type even under competitive pressure, namely laws that play a direct role in defining rights to use physical or financial resources free from substantial interference. Businesspeople must obey these laws even at the cost of allowing their businesses to fail and even when the acts proscribed are mala prohibita. This argument for obeying the law in competitive contexts has limited scope. Considerations of fairness or self-preservation may justify violating laws of other types under competitive pressure.

  • Robert Hughes (2019), Paying People to Risk Life or Limb, Business Ethics Quarterly, 29, pp. 295-316.

    Abstract: Does the content of a physically dangerous job affect the moral permissibility of hiring for that job? To what extent may employers consider costs in choosing workplace safety measures? Drawing on Kantian ethical theory, this article defends two strong ethical standards of workplace safety. First, the content of a hazardous job does indeed affect the moral permissibility of offering it. Unless employees need hazard pay to meet basic needs, it is permissible to offer a dangerous job only if prospective employees have a reason other than hazard pay to choose this job instead of safer alternatives. Second, employers typically cannot justify omitting expensive safety measures by paying employees more, even if employees prefer higher pay to greater safety. Employers offering dangerous jobs must meet these two standards to avoid treating their employees merely as means.


All Courses

  • LGST1000 - Ethics & Social Resp

    This course explores business responsibility from rival theoretical and managerial perspectives. Its focus includes theories of ethics and their application to case studies in business. Topics include moral issues in advertising and sales; hiring and promotion; financial management; corporate pollution; product safety; and decision-making across borders and cultures.

  • LGST2260 - Markets,Morality&Capital

    Markets play a central role in the life of a capitalist democracy. But is this a good thing? Should we let markets decide who is rich and who is poor? Who makes decisions and who follows them? Whose ideas get heard and whose ideas do not? The goal of this class will be to examine the market from the perspective of various social values to see whether we should want a market system and, if so, what kind of market system we should want. Among the issues we will examine are the following. Does the market contribute to the common good? If so, how? Does the market conflict with the idea that all human beings are of equal value? What is the relation between the market and freedom? Does the market liberate us or oppress us? Can we reconcile the market with our democratic ideals? What role should corporations play in a healthy democracy? What role should markets play in an increasingly globalized world? We will read several important philosophers, economists and political theorists writing on these issues, including Adam Smith, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Marx, Robert Nozick, Jurgen Habermas, and others. Grades will be based on three papers and class participation.

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Latest Research

Robert Hughes (2021), Regulatory Entrepreneurship, Fair Competition, and Obeying the Law, Journal of Business Ethics, (Forthcoming).
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