Alastair Norcross
Professor • Director, Center for Values and Social Policy


Alastair Norcross (PhD, Syracuse, 1991) was born in the slums of South London, the illegitimate child of an Albanian prostitute and the Bishop of Basingstoke. After early childhood stints as a canary in a coal mine and a chimney sweep in Victorian England, he awoke from his dogmatic (and delusional) slumbers and attended Christ Church, Oxford, where he attempted to study Classics (puzzlingly called ‘literae humaniores’ by the locals). Another awakening occurred when he, like someone else before him whose name has faded into insignificance, read Hume, and realized that he could study philosophy and not have to read Greek and Latin all the damn time. And so, after collecting his classics (or more humane letters) degree, he crossed the pond to Syracuse, took a mere month or so to realize that it was pronounced ‘Sirracuse’ over here, and set about getting his Ph.D in philosophy. His moral philosophy tutor at Oxford, Julia Annas, had attempted to turn him off utilitarianism, but had succeeded only in making him lean towards the rule, as opposed to the act, variety. Within a year of arriving in Syracuse, he realized that rule utilitarianism was an untenable compromise, and became the card-carrying, no-holds-barred, act utilitarian that he is today, although he does promulgate a slightly idiosyncratic version, known as ‘scalar utilitarianism’ (for details see various publications, and the recent book defending same). His proudest achievement at Syracuse was persuading Diana, no doubt against her better judgment, to marry him. His second proudest achievement was founding the theater company “The Unbound Variables” (with Diana), and directing and acting in three plays, including Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As director, he was able to cast himself in the most fun roles, so he played Malvolio and Bottom. After Syracuse, he taught for ten years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas (with one year off for good behavior in Tucson, Arizona), and then five years at Rice University in Houston. In 2007 Zeus forgave him for bringing fire to humanity, and let him out of Texas for good.

Prof. Norcross’s research is primarily in ethical theory. His overarching project is to make the world safe for consequentialist theories, in particular utilitarianism. Although he has many good friends who are Kantians (or other varieties of deontologist) and even some who are virtue ethicists, he still doesn't really understand how their minds work (as Wittgenstein says "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him"), but so long as they keep drinking his martinis, he'll keep trying to understand. He also does some work in areas of applied ethics, such as abortion, euthanasia, and animal rights (though, like Bentham and Peter Singer, he regards all natural rights as nonsense, sometimes on stilts).

For more information, see Professor Norcross's personal website and CV.


selected publications

  • Morality by Degrees: Reasons Without Demands, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  • “The Immorality of Premarital Sexual Abstinence”, in David Boonin (ed.), Palgrave Handbook of Sexual Ethics, Palgrave 2021
  • “Value Comparability”, in Douglas Portmore (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Consequentialism, Oxford, 2020
  • “Subjects of a Life, the Argument from Risk, and the significance of self-consciousness”, in Mylan Engel (ed.) The Moral Rights of Animals, Roman and Littlefield, 2016
  • “Doing and Allowing”, in Hugh Lafollette (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2013.
  • “The Significance of Death for Animals”, in Ben Bradley, Fred Feldman, and Jens Johansson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death, Oxford University Press, 2013 (reprinted 2015)
  • “Animal Experimentation, Marginal Cases, and the Significance of Suffering”, in Jeremy Garrett (ed.), The Ethics of Animal Research: Exploring the Controversy, MIT press, 2012.
  • “Act-Utilitarianism and Promissory Obligation”, in Hanoch Sheinman (ed.), Promises and Agreements: Philosophical Essays, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • “Off Her Trolley? Frances Kamm and the Metaphysics of Morality”, Utilitas Vol 20, No. 1, 2008
  • “Two Dogmas of Deontology: Aggregation, Rights, and the Separateness of Persons”, Social Philosophy & Policy, January 2009.
  • “Animal Experimentation”, Oxford Handbook of Bioethics, 2007.
  • “Reasons Without Demands: Rethinking Rightness”, in James Dreier (ed.) Blackwell Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory, 2006.
  • “Contextualism for Consequentialists”, Acta Analytica, Vol 20, No. 2, 2005.
  • “Harming in Context”, Philosophical Studies, Vol 123, Nos 1-2, March 2005.
  • “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal cases”, Philosophical Perspectives 18, 2004.
  • “Killing and Letting Die”, The Blackwell Companion to Applied Ethics, R. G. Frey and Christopher Heath Wellman (eds.) 2003, pp. 451-463.
  • “Contractualism and Aggregation”, Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 28, No. 2, April 2002, pp. 303-314.
  • “Great Harms from Small Benefits Grow: How Death can be Outweighed by Headaches”, Analysis, April 1998, pp.152-158.
  • “Good and Bad Actions”, The Philosophical Review, Vol 106, No. 1; January 1997, pp. 1-34.
  • “Consequentialism and Commitment”, The Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 4, December 1997, pp. 380-403.
  • “Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 2; Spring 1997, pp. 135-167.
  • “Should Utilitarianism Accommodate Moral Dilemmas?”, Philosophical Studies, Vol. 79, No. 1; July 1995, pp. 59-85.
  • “Killing, Abortion and Contraception: A Reply to Marquis”, The Journal of Philosophy, May 1990, pp. 268-77.