Chapter 6 surveys the different kinds of “problems of demandingness” that might be thought to arise for views about the content of morality, and responses to those problems.
This paper argues for a normative ethical conclusion, and a conclusion concerning normative ethical argument. First, it is morally wrong for the affluent not to contribute to international aid. But secondly, we can show this without a justificational ethical theory: we need appeal only to the practical reasoning characteristic of the virtues of kindness and justice. Thus the paper displays the resources for normative argument of a “virtue ethics”; but any plausible moral outlook must endorse its normative conclusion. If so, all moral outlooks face a “problem of demandingness”: morality seems to preclude practically any source of personal satisfaction.
A moral analogy is sometimes claimed between saving someone’s life directly, at small personal cost, and contributing towards helping people at a distance: since failing to do the first is morally wrong, so is failing to do the second. Given the current state of the world, iterating this analogy leads to a severely demanding conclusion. I argue that, although we should accept the analogy, the right approach to it is not the severely demanding one. There are certain fundamentally important goods that are only accessible to us if our lives do not have the altruistic focus required by the severely demanding view. Attending to the nature of these goods, and the nature of the reasons for helping other people, allows us to argue against that view. I then identify the view we should accept instead.
It might be thought that there is just one problem of demandingness for morality: a problem about the promotion of welfare. But there is more than one problem of demandingness. I shall illustrate this by discussing a pluralistic moral theory which sees moral requirements as deriving from three different sources: the morality of concern (which generates requirements to promote welfare); the morality of respect (the source of requirements to respect others’ equal entitlements to exercise their autonomy); and the morality of cooperation (which gives us those moral requirements that govern our joint activities). The morality of respect and the morality of cooperation generate problems of demandingness which need to be answered alongside the more familiar problem associated with the morality of concern. The three problems have a parallel form, and they also have a parallel solution. The solution, in each case, comes from what I shall call “an argument from presupposition”.
“Demandingness, ‘Ought’, and Self-Shaping”, in Marcel van Ackeren and Michael Kühler (eds), The Limits of Moral Obligation: Moral Demandingness and Ought Implies Can (London: Routledge, 2016), pp.147-62.
Morality, it is sometimes argued, cannot be extreme in the demands it makes of us, because “ought” implies “can”, and normal human psychology places limits on the extent to which most of us are capable of devoting our lives to the service of others. I begin by examining the structure of this argument. The most compelling case for accepting the principle that “ought” implies “can” is a normative case. It is unfair to expose a person to sanctions in relation to her failure to meet a standard that she cannot meet. However, when it is grounded in this way, an argument from the “ought” implies “can” principle to the rejection of demanding moral outlooks faces two objections. The first is an objection from Psychological Shaping. If you could have developed a psychological capacity that would have enabled you to meet a given standard, and it is your fault that you have not developed that capacity, then applying sanctions to you for failing to meet that standard need not be unfair. The second is an objection from Begging the Question. An argument that appeals to premises about fairness to support conclusions about the content of morality begs the question, because it relies on having fixed the content of morality when it asserts its premises. I argue that the first objection, from Psychological Shaping, is decisive. A fairness-based argument, via the “ought” implies “can” principle, to the rejection of demanding moral outlooks must therefore be rejected. However, I then go on to examine a different normatively-based argument against demanding moral outlooks: one that appeals not to fairness but to other important values. This avoids the first objection, but it still faces the second – the objection from Begging the Question. In the latter part of the paper, I show how that objection can be overcome.