Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes
  • Assistant Professor of Legal Studies & Business Ethics

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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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  • William S. Laufer and Robert Hughes (Forthcoming), Justice Undone (American Criminal Law Review).

  • Robert Hughes (2020), Judicial Democracy (forthcoming), Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.

    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.

    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.

  • Robert Hughes and Alan Strudler (2019), Corporations and Justice, Routledge of Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Robert Hughes, Imprisonment and the Right to Freedom of Movement. In Rethinking Punishment in the Era of Mass Incarceration, edited by Chris W. Surprenant, (2018), pp. 89-104

    Abstract: Government's entitlement to make criminal laws may exceed its entitlement to use imprisonment as an enforcement mechanism. Imprisonment affects people's agency in ways that are difficult to justify. The only possible justifications for imprisonment in law enforcement are moral education and collective defense. Collective defense may justify the use of imprisonment to address violent crimes and other crimes that attack people's ability to exercise agency effectively. Collective defense does not justify the use of imprisonment to enforce some other justified criminal laws, including some laws against white-collar crimes. Moral education theories of punishment may justify a broader use of imprisonment as a punishment, but only if there is positive evidence, not mere speculation or hope, that imprisonment helps people to recognize the moral reasons to do what the law requires.

  • Robert Hughes (2018), Would Many People Obey Non-Coercive Law?, Jurisprudence, 9 (2), pp. 361-367.

    Abstract: In response to Frederick Schauer's The Force of Law, I argue that the available evidence indicates that non-coercive law could influence many people's behvaior (but not everyone's). It may sometimes be best to forego coercive enforcement of an important law.

  • Robert Hughes (2014), Justifying Community Benefit Requirements in International Research, Bioethics, 28, pp. 397-404.

    Abstract: Abstract It is widely agreed that foreign sponsors of research in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are morally required to ensure that their research benefits the broader host community. There is no agreement, however, about how much benefit or what type of benefit research sponsors must provide, nor is there agreement about what group of people is entitled to benefit. To settle these questions, it is necessary to examine why research sponsors have an obligation to benefit the broader host community, not only their subjects. Justifying this claim is not straightforward. There are three justifications for an obligation to benefit host communities that each apply to some research, but not to all. Each requires a different amount of benefit, and each requires benefit to be directed toward a different group. If research involves significant net risk to LMIC subjects, research must provide adequate benefit to people in LMICs to avoid an unjustified appeal to subjects' altruism. If research places significant burdens on public resources, research must provide fair compensation to the community whose public resources are burdened. If research is for profit, research sponsors must contribute adequately to the upkeep of public goods from which they benefit in order to avoid the wrong of free-riding, even if their use of these public goods is not burdensome. © Published 2012. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.


Past Courses


    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.


    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

William S. Laufer and Robert Hughes (Forthcoming), Justice Undone (American Criminal Law Review).
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Employers Must Do Right by Workers on Safety

This is not the time for employers to play hardball in their negotiations with employees, writes Wharton’s Robert C. Hughes in this opinion piece.

Knowledge @ Wharton - 2020/04/10
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