I was recently introduced to the term Copenhagen interpretation of ethics in an interesting blog post that defined it thusly:

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

Presumably, such a position on moral culpability has been referenced in the academic literature on ethics before, but I was unable to find an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that seemed similar.

Does the "Copenhagen interpretation" appear referenced in the literature? If so, is there a formal name associated with this ethical stance?

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    No, it does not. It is a pop-culture label piggy-backing on an already established catchy label that reflects current hypersensitivity in public space in the spirit of "children are starving in Africa" guilt trips. Philosophers know better than to insert sweeping qualifiers like "in any way" or "as soon as you observe it" in such contexts (and why even ask for observing, failing to observe is already your fault by this logic). But there are serious discussions in ethics under the rubric of Doing vs. Allowing Harm.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 21:29
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    @Conifold: I wouldn't go so far as to say that this is completely meaningless. Some forms of act utilitarianism effectively make very similar claims to what OP is describing (i.e., the only ethical course of action is the one that maximizes utility, and all other courses of action are unethical, so the moment you learn of some problem, you must do everything you can to rectify it). This is not a popular view, but to claim that it is not "real ethics" is in my mind an oversimplification.
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 13, 2020 at 4:24
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    @Conifold There's a difference between "does the post describe something that resembles a real ethical stance" and "is the post written like a philosopher would write it." The author is not writing like an ethicist, but a charitable interpretation of their stance could be "moral obligations increase with ties to the people impacted by your actions", which is not so far off from what a communitarian would say or a virtue ethicist might say. Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 15:13
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    I'd suggest you to dig around Peter Singer's early works and 'effective altruism'. Commented Jan 28 at 8:26

2 Answers 2


Does the so-called "Copenhagen interpretation of ethics" have a formal name in moral philosophy?

I dont believe there is a formal name but this interpretation seems to be existential in nature. A quote from Dostoyevsky summarizes it nicely: “everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.”

Sartre makes similar claims in "Existenstialism is a Humanism": "in choosing for himself he chooses for all men"


Simple answer No.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics is a thought experiment that urges us to consider the ethical implications of awareness and inaction.

Despite sharing partial overlap with some philosophical beliefs, none adopt as firm a stance as holding that passive observation itself warrants interaction and places blame squarely on the observer.

Sources relevant toward this same topic.

From Immanuel Kant's, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Akademie Edition Vol. 4, p. 420).

"It should not be assumed that a law propounds what is possible or >impossible for men, but only what is necessary for them as rational >creatures; and that therefore, if the possibility of the action is >questioned, it is only asked whether it is compatible with the nature >of a rational being as such"

From "Ethics" by Rachels and Rachels (2019):

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is concerned with questions >about what is good and bad, right and wrong. People sometimes use >these terms interchangeably—to say something is "good," for example, >might seem like another way of saying that it is "right." But there >is an important distinction between evaluating things as good or bad, >which falls under the heading of value theory, and judging whether >actions are morally right or wrong, which falls under the heading of >ethics proper. In other words, ethics deals with normative principles >concerning how people ought to behave toward each other, their >communities, and themselves. (p. 4)

From "An Introduction to Philosophy" by John Searle (2013):

We typically think of the domain of ethics as consisting of those >aspects of human life having to do with values, rights, duties, >obligations, and virtues. The word 'ethics', derived from the Greek >word 'ethos,' means character, custom, habit, disposition, or even >emotion. It has been used since ancient times to refer to systems of >conduct based on such features of human beings. A more technical term >for a system of conduct is 'moral code'. Thus, roughly speaking, >ethics is the study of moral codes. This raises immediately two >obvious questions: What is a moral code? And why should anyone care >about obeying its precepts? (p. 7)

Quote from Epictetus, Discourses, Book II, Chapter 5:

Some things are up to us, and others are not up to us. Our opinions >are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions — in short, >whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our >possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, >whatever is not our own doing.

Edmund Burke said "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" which could be the closest concept to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. It should be noted that Burke was not being philosophical in this thought but rather religious.

This apocryphal quotation likely originated from the sermons of Anglican Bishop Thomas Fuller in the late seventeenth century.

"Remember this, That Evil prevailing is the Effect of either Absence >or Insufficiency of Good; and that Evil will never cease till Good >returns to supply that Want, or drive back that Oppression."

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