2 | “The just life is the happiest life.” Socrates on the proper constitution of the soul

[This is installment 2 in my Ethics 101 project.]

In my first installment, I posed the question: Why be moral?

Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates in Plato’s Republic suggests that this question is difficult to answer because there seem to be prima facie reasons to prefer acting immorally when it benefits us. The problem is that, intuitively, we think of morality as something intrinsically valuable – something that should carry weight in itself, regardless of whether or not it results in good consequences. Saying that one ought to be moral because, and only because, good things come from doing so seems to be a debasement of the idea of morality.

So anyways, this was the challenge posed by Glaucon at the beginning of Plato’s Republic. Hundreds of pages later (because Socrates has a tendency to ramble and get sidetracked), we finally get our answer.


As any good philosopher should, Socrates begins his response to Glaucon’s challenge by getting clear on the subject matter. Up until this point I have been using the terms “moral” and “just” somewhat synonymously, and indeed in everyday use we tend to associate one with the other. But Socrates has a very specific conception of justice: each part of a system playing its role and only its role, rather than taking over the role of another part for which it is less suited.

This can be applied generally, for example to a city: Justice in a city is achieved and maintained when everyone in that city knows their role and sticks to it; nobody is attempting to do anything they’re not supposed to do. Those who are best suited to rule are in positions of governmental power, those who are best suited to defend the city are soldiers, and so on for all the different roles a citizen may play.

This conception of justice can also be applied particularly, to individuals. Just like a city, an individual has different “parts” with different ideal functions. This is true in many senses – biologically, for example – but for Plato and Glaucon’s purposes the relevant sense is psychological.

According to Socrates, there are three main parts that make up our psychology (in the Republic he uses the word ‘soul‘): the rational part, the spirited part, and the appetitive part. The rational part of our psychology is in charge of weighing the options, making the best decisions for ourselves, and all that good stuff. Pretty intuitive. The appetitive part is also pretty intuitive: it’s the part of our psychology that deals with desire – whether that be hunger, lust, or whatever else one might crave. The spirited part of our psychology is probably the most difficult to grasp, but basically its job is to “help” the rational part. Oftentimes, what we rationally judge to be best for us conflicts with what our appetite craves. Our ‘spirit’ is supposed to help drive us in the direction of what’s rational.

Justice, then, when applied to the individual, means that each part of our psychology is playing the role that it ought to: the rational part is ultimately in charge of making decisions and the spirited part helps ensure this by keeping the appetitive part in check.

Conversely, injustice in an individual is when the parts of our psychology are out of whack; maybe the spirited part isn’t doing its job properly and our appetitive part is calling all the shots or something. I hope it’s immediately obvious to all of us how and why this could be a very bad thing.

So it turns out we do have reason to value justice as justice: we’d be pretty fucked without it! In some cases it may seem like not playing the part we’re supposed to (a law-abiding citizen, for example) can get us ahead, but Socrates thinks this is mistaken. If justice just is the parts of a system working together as they ought to, it’s pretty clear that we ought to want this wherever it can occur – whether it be in a city or in ourselves.


Reading this back to myself, I realize this is a bit anticlimactic. Honestly, I found Socrates’ answer to Glaucon’s challenge to be pretty unsatisfying too. In Plato’s defense, the book as a whole has a lot more to say – it was just irrelevant for my current purposes (i.e., the Bib Exam).

Next week I’ll discuss Hobbes’ response to the question “Why be moral?” from his work Leviathan.

Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.

1 | Why be moral? Glaucon’s Challenge in Plato’s Republic

[This is installment 1 in my Ethics 101 project.]

Why be moral?

On the face of it, this seems like such a pointless question. We ought to be moral because it’s good to be good, right?

Maybe. Turns out, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As all philosophers come to find, justifying our intuitions is actually really fucking difficult. So I thought I’d start here.

A variant of this question is posed in Plato’s Republic (~375 BCE), one of the oldest, most influential, and well-known works in Western philosophy. It is written in dialogue format, with Socrates (Plato’s teacher) portrayed as the main character. Plato’s philosophies emerge through the conversations Socrates has with other characters.

In Book II, Glaucon presents Socrates with a rather unsavory conception of justice and morality he has heard. Glaucon finds it uncomfortably convincing and wants his teacher to prove it wrong. Since then, countless pages throughout the centuries that followed have been spent trying to answer some version of Glaucon’s Challenge.


We tend to think of justice as something good in itself. If that’s true, then we ought to want to act justly simply for the sake of acting justly. The problem is that in practice this just doesn’t seem to be the case. People, according to Glaucon, are only just because it benefits them. This detracts from the innate value we would intuitively want to ascribe to morality.

The way that Glaucon has come to conceptualize it, we are all liable to suffer injustice at the hands of others to their benefit, and we are also liable to commit it to our benefit. In these sorts of conditions, it’s pretty much a lose-lose scenario for us – save for maybe the strongest in society who have the resources to commit injustice and defend themselves from such acts against others. But the vast majority of us aren’t this powerful, and having to live our lives in perpetual fear of others is quite a shitty way to live. Any injustice we commit to our own benefit isn’t likely to be worth such a grim state of existence.

To avoid this, we collectively agree not to commit injustices against one another. None of us can benefit from committing injustice (which is arguably the most efficient way to get ahead), but none of us have to fear suffering it, either. Thus, we feel the need to act justly not because we think to do so is good in itself, but because it is beneficial to us.

To make his case even stronger, Glaucon appeals to two thought experiments: The first is meant to show that we would act unjustly if we could get away with it; the second is meant to show that we wouldn’t act justly if it wasn’t beneficial to us.

First, imagine there was a ring that made its wearer invisible. They could do whatever they wanted without getting caught or facing consequences. Under these circumstances, Glaucon claims, who wouldn’t act unjustly?! Even the most just person would give in to the temptation to carry out all their dark desires. For some reason, the example Plato landed on in the Republic was fucking the king’s wife, but, y’know, sub that for whatever you fancy. The point is that if we could get away with it, we’d do some pretty fucked up shit.

Second, imagine a person who is just but doesn’t carry the reputation of being so. Instead, everyone thinks they’re the scum of the earth. Now, imagine the converse: a person who is unjust but is universally loved. Glaucon thinks that, given the choice, we would totally choose to have the latter life. This goes to show that, divorced from good consequences, we would not choose justice.


So let’s circle back to the question we started with: Why be moral? What at first seemed liked such a pointless question turns out to be a lot more complicated than we thought. As of right now, our answer is that we should be moral because it is beneficial to us. Otherwise, we actually shouldn’t be moral. And this just seems…wrong. Our intuitions tell us that we should do the right thing even when it’s hard. But, like I said, our intuitions usually end up being harder to justify than anticipated.

The next few installments of my Ethics 101 project will detail some classic philosophers’ responses to this question, starting with Socrates’ own answer.

Ethics 101: An Introduction to the Course

So I’m about to start studying for my ~big, scary, super intensive 3rd-year bibliography exam~. Basically, I need to choose a branch of philosophy that I intend to develop a strong, thorough foundation of knowledge in (ethics, obviously) and then read through a pre-selected bibliography of core texts and ideas in that branch. I take the exam based on this bibliography at the end of this school year.

I would like to share some of my notes here on my blog as I work through this reading list. The first reason being that I think it’ll help me personally (as a philosopher, as a communicator, and with motivation to study and keeping me on track). The second – and probably more important – reason is that I think (if I do it right) this could be a great resource for people (particularly, undergrads or non-academics) who want to get a good lay of the land and major ideas in moral philosophy in an accessible and manageable manner.

These two goals kind of feed into each other: I need to have good notes in order for this to be genuinely helpful to people other than myself, and if I am focused on creating genuinely good notes on my reading I am more likely to do better on the exam. Win-win 🙂

So throughout this school year I’ll be posting notes which:

  • Cover core and landmark writings in ethics/moral philosophy from all eras (ancient Greeks to present day)
  • Contextualize these writings in the greater sphere of relevant debates and ideologies
  • Are accessible for everyone and (to the best of my current foresight) will not presuppose any familiarity with moral philosophy
  • Maintain a(n albeit introductory-level) sense of academic rigor
  • Individually, are intended to give one a gloss of the topic at hand
  • Collectively, are intended to give one a fairly solid foundation of the basics of moral philosophy

These posts will be given their own hyperlink in my main menu and organized by topic for ease of access and use.

Class is in session 😉 Welcome to Ethics 101.

Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze

One thing I have found particularly hard to navigate as a feminist is finding a balance between respecting women’s autonomy and ability to thrive in a male-dominated society, and denouncing practices and institutions which have their roots in patriarchal ideology. More specifically, how to find that balance in my own actions.

I partake in practices which, despite my claims that they are “for me”, have roots in my desire to cater to the male gaze: wearing makeup, dressing in revealing clothes, sharing provocative pictures on Instagram, and the like. (This is not to say that I do these things specifically because they cater to the male gaze. I used to. Nowadays I do them to make myself feel good, but I think deep down the reason that they feel good to me is because in the past I have learned to associate them with male approval.) There are some such practices that, through some work, I have managed to cease finding desirable or pleasurable, such as shaving my legs and underarms, but others I want to keep around.

Obviously I can do what I want with my body, but sometimes I wonder if I should actively try to rid myself of aesthetic preferences which, at their core, stem anti-feminist ideology. As a feminist and an activist, I wonder what my own responsibilities are with respect to this issue, and I also wonder whether or not it would be better for me (on account of my identifying as a feminist/activist) to speak out on such issues and challenge other women to be more reflective and critical of their actions. Or, should I simply accept that living under a patriarchy has placed impossible demands on myself and other women, and respect and support us in whatever way we choose to respond to those demands without challenging our choices?

Body Modification: How Far is Too Far?

One thing I find myself idly wondering about sometimes is how far it is permissible to modify someone’s body – with their consent, of course. (I want to clarify here that I’m specifically wondering about cases in which A is seeking a modification to be done by B (who is qualified), and I am focusing on the permissibility of the actions done by B.)

There are some things which are obviously permissible to administer to others: braces, corrective surgeries, manicures, and hair cuts/colors to name a few. I would also place most tattoos and piercings in this category.

Less clear are more dangerous/higher-risk body mods. Eyeball tattoos, for example, might be questionable because of the lack of knowledge about their long-term risks – permanent blindness and glaucoma being very real worries. Facial tattoos on young people who do not yet have a stable source of income or have no other tattoos are also questionable. Some tattoo artists go so far as to refuse to do them under these conditions.

My intuition is that most people would not blame a (qualified) mod artist for administering the above procedures, though. I think most of the judgement would fall on the recipients. That is, it’s not the provider’s fault for offering these mods so much as it is the recipient’s fault for seeking them out.

If we push this to an extreme, though, I think it’s possible we do cross the boundary from blaming recipients to blaming mod providers. There are, for example, people diagnosed with a condition called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), who feel an intense disconnect from their abled bodies and wish the removal of (a) limb(s) or sometimes their sight. Lots of energy has been spent within the field of medical ethics attempting to settle the question of whether or not it is permissible for doctors to carry out such a person’s wishes. Even more controversial (but perhaps less plausible) are people who do not have BIID but nonetheless want to modify their bodies in similar ways. What are we to say of body modification providers (I don’t know whether use of the term “mod artist” here is appropriate) who carry out these requests? My intuition here is that many people would not merely be willing to say that it is still just the recipient’s fault for seeking out the body mod; this time, some of the blame does rest on the provider.

I suspect the permissibility of the mod artist’s actions in cases like these are largely dependent on 3 things: First, the intensity of the desire for modification – Is it a desire which, if left unfulfilled, leaves the potential recipient with psychological damage? Second, the preparedness of the potential recipient – Are they aware of the impact this mod will have on their life? Will they still be able to earn a steady income? Do they have any dependents? And lastly, the intentions of the mod provider – Have they shown appropriate concern for the potential recipient?

Going from here, I think a really interesting question to ask is whether or not it’s ever permissible for a mod artist to modify someone’s mental state rather than just their physical state. We already permit some forms of this – hypnosis, for example. But what about, say, lobotomies? What if someone of sound mind were to ask a mod provider to alter their brain such that some of their mental functions were to diminish? And, if technology advances far enough in the future, what if we were able to modify very specific mental traits, like the ability to feel emotions, or wiping certain memories? Would it be permissible to perform such procedures? (I realize this last bit may be a bit of a reach to fall under the umbrella of “body modification”, but strictly speaking it is a modification to a part of the body.)

I don’t like meta-ethics.

Ethics is divided up into (at least) two parts: normative ethics, the goal of which is to provide action-guiding theories of right and wrong (or permissible, impermissible, and obligatory) action; and meta-ethics, the goal of which is to answer questions about morality itself (Is it something objective or subjective? What do we mean when we say something is wrong?).

I really don’t like meta-ethics.

Firstly, I don’t like meta-ethics because it’s really hard.

On a less petty note, I also don’t like it because I’ve consistently found it to be something that “the folk” (non-philosophers, the everyday person, whatever) fall back on to defend themselves when there isn’t really anything else going for them.

“That’s just your opinion! Who’s to say you’re right and I’m wrong?”

“Well I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on what’s right.”

This tactic is especially troubling when deployed in political or social justice discussions, because it stops the conversation from going any further (like we’re supposed to answer one of the great meta-ethical questions succinctly and sufficiently in the context of a conversation?!) on matters that we really need to do something about.

I hate that people use meta-ethics as fallback and I hate that there’s not really anything you can do in response.

This has been my rant of the day.

Against White Fetishization of Non-violence: Justifying POC Aggression

I recently shared this screenshot of a tweet to my Instagram story with the caption “A WHOLE MOOD”:

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A friend of mine replied, “The lit base on this topic is huge, and many academics (of all sorts of backgrounds) think non-violence is the best strategy for defeating oppressive power structures. Not sure why you think these arguments are only made in bad faith by racist white people.”

I think the dangers of the “fetishization of non-violence”, as it is put, is something a lot of (white) people Just Don’t Get™, so in what follows I will recount my response to my friend and explain my stance. My aim is to facilitate a better understanding of why I and many other POC oppose the “always be kind and peaceful and respectful” ideology privileged and/or white people push.

So, the first thing to address is that “violence” here is vague. When we think of violence we often think of aggressive actions (rioting, use of weapons, fighting), but the concept of violence could also be expanded to include aggressive words (candidly expressing anger, blunt language, etc.). And indeed, it seems people often do consider this to be a form of violence – especially within this context: Whenever I see a POC angrily express a general statement about white supremacy or use the terms “YT”, “cracker”, or “wypipo”, there is inevitably a white person who will respond with something along the lines of, “This is a big too aggressive. No one is going to listen to you if you talk about them like that. You need to be more respectful if you actually want people to hear what you have to say.”

So if we’re talking about what sorts of things to include under the umbrella of “violence” in this context, it seems more than fair to include the blunt, harsh, or aggressive manner of speaking that POCs sometimes use when discussing white people, white supremacy, and white privilege. Lastly, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that Twitter user uses the term “non-violence” in response to a piece of paper with the heading “BE KIND”. To avoid confusion between the colloquial sense of violence and the sense of violence I am using here, I will hereafter refer to the latter as POC aggression.

With this in mind, we now turn to the second thing: The mistaken assumption that the only – or even the primary – goal of PoC aggression is to end oppressive power structures, namely, white supremacy and white privilege. There is, I suggest, another purpose for POC aggression: affirming self-worth.

In a society in which POC are systematically oppressed, we are constantly receiving (both implicit and explicit) messages that we are less valuable and less respected than our white counterparts. Our accents are mocked, we feel pressure to assimilate, our cultures are stripped or appropriated, and we do not see ourselves represented in the media, government, or other powerful institutions. I could go on at length about how POC are disrespected and mistreated in modern day American society, but this is not the place for that. The point is that we are.

Thus, POC aggression can also serve as a means of affirming one’s self-respect and self-worth. The idea here is that the transgressions POC face are not to be taken “sitting down”, that is, not to be passively tolerated. In responding aggressively, POC are sending the message, not only to others, but more importantly, to themselves, that they are valuable, and that the way they are viewed in society is unacceptable.

It was at this point that my friend admitted that he found a lot of what I said compelling, but nonetheless insisted that it doesn’t justify what is said in the tweet: that white people use the promotion of non-violence to attack POC.

My reply to this is simple: POC aggression is an important means – and sometimes, the only means – with which POC can affirm their self-worth in a society that systematically denies them that. Thus white insistence on non-violent expression is a form of attack because it denies POC these means.

Thus we can draw two conclusions. The first is that POC aggression is permissible and justifiable as it serves an important and necessary purpose for the aggressor. The second, probably more shocking, conclusion is that it is wrong for white people to attempt to suppress this aggression, as it is in effect an attack on the dignity of POC.

A potential objection which could be raised against the second conclusion is that white people are not intentionally attacking POC by denouncing and suppressing their aggression. Their intention in doing so, rather, is something else: perhaps to facilitate more peaceful and productive discussion, to defend themselves because they feel unfairly generalized – whatever the case may be, it is something else. They are ignorant that their actions are in effect attacking POC. Thus, they are not doing something wrong in pushing for non-violence.

This objection relies on ignorance as an exculpatory factor, but I do not see why we should accept this outright. Surely there are times when ignorance can function in this manner, but it seems just as clear to me that surely there are times when it does not. Take, for example, someone who leaves their infant in their car on a hot day while they go grocery shopping. The parent did not realize the car would be several degrees hotter than the air outside nor did they know this is a dangerous situation for the baby to be left in, but nonetheless this is wrong because they should have known.

The case of a white person pushing for non-violence, I argue, is also a case of such culpable ignorance. White people do not understand the anger of POC. They don’t understand it because they can’t; as white people they have never experienced systematic oppression due to their race. Furthermore they should recognize this fact. Just a man can never understand the fear of a woman walking alone at night, just as a person born into wealth can never understand the plight of the poor, a white person can never understand the societal and institutional harms that befall POC simply for being POC. And thus they also cannot understand their anger towards white privilege and white supremacy. The culpable ignorance comes in the form of criticizing something they cannot understand, and should know they cannot understand.

I stand by my conclusions, however uncomfortable they may be to stomach: POC aggression is justifiable. In most cases white people are wrong to attempt to stop it.


A note: I am considering expanding this into a paper. Please do not redistribute or circulate without permission.

Responsibility for Attitudes: Our Pasts; Emotional Requirements

I recently finished Smith’s “Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life” (2005) and wanted to jot down a few thoughts and questions I have after reading.

First, a thought: I really liked the way she states her view towards the end of her paper:

What matters in determining whether an attitude is morally attributable to a person is whether it can reasonably be taken to reflect that person’s evaluative judgments. The fact that a person’s evaluative judgments are usually shaped in various ways by her early attachments and environment does nothing to undermine the claim that they are still genuinely her judgments… The responsibility one has for becoming a certain kind of person must be distinguished from the responsibility for the attitudes one in fact holds. (267-268)

That is, whether or not a person is morally responsible for their attitudes depends only on whether it reflects their internal, evaluative judgments. How this person came to have these evaluative judgments is not relevant here. I am inclined to agree with this statement, and am sympathetic to the arguments Smith puts forward in defense of it. She puts the point quite beautifully; I expect that I will return to this portion of her paper in the process of preparing my MA thesis.

Second, a question: Are we always morally responsible for not being emotional or sympathetic enough?

Surely there are situations in which we could be blamed (Casually conflating moral responsibility with blameworthiness here. Move along.) for lacking in emotional sensitivity, but I think the topic merits a little more examination that Smith gives in her paper.

She introduces an example from Williams of “unavoidable but harmful consequences”: A truck driver, who, through no fault of his, runs over a child. He will feel differently from any spectator, despite people trying to convince him he was no worse than one. Nonetheless it is good that the driver still feels regret, for we would have “some doubt” about him if he did not: “This would indicate a failure to appreciate the seriousness and significance he has, however blamelessly, helped to bring about.” Smith immediately accepts this, adding, “to feel regret involves the judgement that something of value has been lost.” (249-250)

I myself am not so ready to grant this. Firstly, it is not clear to me how this explains why the driver should feel differently from a spectator. Wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) the spectator also make the judgment that something valuable has been lost, and so feel regretful, as well? If this is the case, then we should feel perfectly at ease if the driver felt the same as a spectator. From “the driver should feel regret”, we cannot then say “and this is how he differs from the spectator.” In fact, I think, the correct conclusion to be drawn here given the description of regret is “and so too should the spectator.”

But this brings me to my second objection: Why should we take this to be a correct characterization of regret? Why couldn’t some different attitude be the result of acknowledging something valuable lost? Is this the only underlying judgement that regret could have?

My general concern here is that we are expected to feel in a certain way. Why should we feel worse than a spectator? Why should we feel some sympathetic emotion at all? And why are we morally answerable for not doing so?

What would be so wrong about the driver feeling a detached, somber acknowledgement for his situation instead? There are approximately 1 million suicides worldwide per year, and this is generally the feeling we have towards each of these cases. (Perhaps even that is a stretch – we don’t even know about most of these cases except for the fact that they are happening. It’s hard to feel deep emotions in general towards things we do not know anything about.) I would be hesitant to call these attitudes wrong. Given that our personal (as opposed to causal) contributions in all such cases are equally irrelevant, why is it not morally acceptable to feel the same about them all? Why should our causal contribution be relevant if it was completely through no fault of our own? A detached, somber acknowledgment towards your situation seems morally permissible to me; Smith seems to assume it is not. Why must we feel more?

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).