The Demands of Morality: 3 Lines of Inquiry

I have recently (within the past two years) gotten interested in the demandingness of morality. When I first started looking into it I may have confused myself a bit because of how many different interpretations, and therefore approaches and responses, there were to this problem. I was at a loss to explain what it was about the problem of demandingness that I found intriguing because I had trouble synthesizing and making sense of all the things I had read about it.

As I see it (sas far as I have read; as related to my interests), questions on what is appropriate to morally demand of us are interpreted are interpreted in one of three ways:

1. Can morality demand us to do the impossible?

Here I have in mind views like Tessman’s in her book Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality (2014), wherein she argues that there are such things as genuine moral dilemmas. That is, there are times were morality demands us to do (or not do) things which cannot be done simultaneously. In meeting one moral demand we necessarily fail in meeting the other, and thus have done something wrong. Tessman claims that, despite the intuitive plausibility of “ought implies can”, allowing for impossible moral demands is the best way to make sense of the complexities of the human moral experience.

2. Can morality demand things which require us to take on a great burden (such as giving up a significant amount of time, effort, or resources)?

Questions of this sort are most popularly applied to act consequentialism, a common objection against the theory being that the act that does the most net good is one which takes a great (and even seemingly unfair) burden on the agent – donating 90% of their income to an effective charity and living a maximally frugal lifestyle with the remaining 10%, or donating all their organs to save multiple dying people, for example. The argument goes that morality could not possibly demand us to go to such great lengths, and so act consequentialism cannot possibly be the correct moral theory.

On a less theoretic level, we can ask more direct questions, such as: Are we morally required to be vegan? Are we wrong to buy from Amazon given its business practices, even if we only do so because we want to save money? Should we pursue a career we don’t enjoy because the extra money will help our parents? Some would argue that we are not required to go to such great lengths, while others are fine with the idea that morality sometimes requires significant sacrifice.

3. Can morality demand us to do things which are out of our control?

Adams tackles this question in his paper “Involuntary Sins” (1985), arguing, perhaps surprisingly, that it can. The subject of morality, he claims, is not merely how we should act but also how we should be as persons. Thus, morality can demand of us things like, “Do not be apathetic about the hardships of others,” “Be grateful to those who have helped you,” and “Do not be angry at someone without reason,” even though what we believe and how we feel are not under our control.

I think I became interested in the problem of demandingness in general through this interpretation – albeit a rather twisted version of it. My main interest as an undergrad was the Free Will Problem. Specifically, I was interested in whether it was possible to make sense of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. The problem, classically posed, is that we lack real control over our actions in a deterministic universe because control requires the ability to have done otherwise. Moral responsibility, on the other hand, intuitively requires control. Assuming this lack of control, how – if at all – can we make a place for moral responsibility?

While these questions are all related in that they each give insight into how demanding morality can (or ought to?) be, a “yes” or “no” answer to each of them gives a different kind of insight. While the answer to one may suggest, or even necessitate, a certain answer to another, ultimately these are all separate questions which prompt unique lines of inquiries.

Conceptualizing the different approaches to the demandingness of morality in this way has really helped me organize and clarify my thoughts on the matter. I can now say a bit more about my specific interest in the matter:

I am most interested in questions of the second kind, and have secondary interests in questions of the third kind. My intended area of research has to do with moral responsibility and appropriate praise/blame, and I am wondering how different answers to the latter two questions affect how much blame is appropriate to confer on an individual for failing to meet a moral requirement (or moral supererogation).

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