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.

2020 Has Been Absolutely Bat Shit Crazy So Far, Thanks For Asking

It has been far, far too long since I’ve written for this blog. I miss it, honestly. It was such a nice sounding board for the thoughts that piqued my attention. (Fun fact: I’ve probably only published about 50% of the drafts I’ve started writing for this blog. The other 50% are ideas that I thought were worth writing until I started writing them. Then I changed my mind. Haha!)

It’s been such a whirlwind of a year – for the world and for me personally. There was so much going on that I just didn’t have the time, energy, or mental fortitude to write about it. But!! I’ve been keeping a checklist of ideas that have crossed my mind that I want to throw up on this blog and my new goal is to write one post per week, Starting with this one. At the top of that checklist is a recap of my year so far. It’s been fucking crazy.

So I guess I’ll begin a little bit before the start of the year. Late December, 2019. I found out my then-partner was cheating on me. This was particularly devastating to me for 2 reasons: 1) We were very serious. We had met each other’s families, talked about marriage, co-parented dogs, and planned to move in together. 2) His response upon my confronting him was to gaslight me, calling me crazy and telling me I was overreacting and had no idea why I was so angry. I didn’t even get closure when the relationship ended. He couldn’t even own up to anything.

I was a wreck. It was around New Year’s that my ex-partner has persuaded me into giving him another chance. I started 2020 in tears, fighting with him over something stupid. We had a lot of underlying problems in our relationship, you see, and now they were all coming out.

For the better part of January, we tried to make it work. We even went to couple therapy. But, many, many buckets of tears later, it became clear there was no coming back (or moving forward – whichever phrase you prefer. Despite their having objectively opposite denotations, they amusingly are synonymous in this instance!) from this. I ended (really ended, this time) our relationship in late January.

I immediately launched into surrounding myself with people, both new and familiar, to help me cope with the pain of loss. I have such fond memories of Harry Potter movie nights at my friends’ place during this time. I also started seeing a therapist. She’s been fantastic.

In the midst of this, I still had to be a PhD student. It was the Spring Semester of my 2nd year and I was TAing a class and taking two courses myself. To be quite honest, I have never felt so detached from the classes I was taking – at least, not all of them, at the same time. The course I TA’ed was very much the same story. Detachment. There was one noteworthy point during the semester when I was having some problems with a student, but learned some great pedagogical lessons from the process. (I now think quite highly of this student.)

But my most important task – the sole thing I had the energy for that semester – was my Master’s thesis. It’s difficult for me to understate how difficult it was for me to slog through this project. Every single aspect of it – from assembling my committee to choosing a topic to trying to churn out a working draft to meeting with my advisor – was its own struggle. After crying to my advisor about it (yes, literally) I came to grips with the necessity of lowering my standards. With everything going on in my personal life, I just didn’t have the energy to make this paper good. I was aiming for passable. And I got that. My thesis was unanimously approved, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave more to be desired. Nonetheless, I did it. I defended (via Zoom) in early April.

During my spring break in March I went to go visit my sister in Hawai’i. I flew out just barely before real concern had started to set in about COVID. For the most part, we spent it working in cafes. Her spring break was the week after mine and she still had classes, and I had my Master’s thesis to work on. But it was so nice to spend time with her there – regardless of what we did. It was during my stay in Hawai’i that people had really started to panic about COVID. On one of my last days there, I received notice from my university that Spring Break would be extended another week so they could make decisions about how to proceed.

The shift to quarantine and social distancing was…hard. I lost motivation, had trouble focusing, regularly slept an average of 16 hours a day, and stopped working out. And I did basically zero work aside from my MA Thesis. (Not that I wasn’t already doing basically zero work on account of dealing with the aforementioned breakup and emotional abuse.) In fact, I’ve only just (“just” being early July) turned in my final term paper for one of my classes. The paper for my other class has yet to be completed. I’m about halfway done with it right now.

I was pretty depressed during the first couple months of quarantine. Not like mood-depressed, but action-depressed. I just…didn’t really do anything.

And then George Floyd was murdered and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded onto the streets and the media. I feel like that was what woke me up. The monotonous days of quarantine had thrown me into a stupor and this finally made me feel something again. I was angry. And I started signing petitions and sharing articles and – probably most significantly for me – speaking up to my family.

The older generation of my extended family are total brainwashed Trump supporters. Like, Obama-lied-about-being-a-natural-born-citizen-and-global-warming-is-fake kind of Trump supporters. With BLM at the forefront of everyone’s minds, politics was inevitable. The family group chat got heated. I honestly think this is the most anger and tension that’s ever been outwardly expressed between us.

As much as I tried to be a black ally – to focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and put a spotlight on black liberation without centering the narrative on me – these conversations with my family were personal for me because their sociopolitical views directly affected me too. At least in discussions with my family, it was difficult for me to completely separate the Black Lives Matter movement and my own feelings towards the subject. I was angry all the time. At certain points, I was even driven to tears.

I realized this wasn’t sustainable for me – let alone healthy. I needed to focus on something else. A change of pace. A change of scenery. A change of people. Eventually I came to a point where I just knew that going back home to be with my nuclear family was the right move for me. All of my siblings had left their respective universities (they’re all in college) to come stay with my parents already and I wanted to be there with them too. I flew back to California in mid-June and stayed with my parents for three weeks.

Being home was good for my heart. I got to spend time with my siblings and cook with my mom and see some friends, reunite with my childhood dog, and eat at a handful of the restaurants I’d missed so much (takeout, of course). My mom’s garden is flourishing (literally the envy of all my plant-parent friends) and my dad is slowly but surely making progress on remodeling our front yard. It’s looking good!

Throughout my stay with my family I did a lot of work on myself. I was still regularly meeting with my therapist (through video chat) and being around my family brought up a lot of emotions she helped me start sorting through. I’m actively and successfully working to improve my relationship with my mom. I wish I could say the same about my dad, but he’s a lot more stubborn and unreasonable. I flew back to the east coast just a bit after the 4th of July.

Unprecedentedly, I’ve been doing super great since I got back. I’m keeping my space clean, building my savings, consistently working out, staying on top of my work, and keeping the procrastination to a minimum. Like, I’m doing really good right now in pretty much every aspect of my life. Sure, the world is still a chaotic mess and I’m worried about the upcoming school year, COVID, and the November election, but everything I can control is controlled. And that’s really all I can ask for.

One of my quarantine goals now that everything is more manageable for me is to start writing for fun again (hence, this blog post). I have so many thoughts that have been half-baked or bottled up and I can’t wait to dive into them and share them here.

Becoming Friends with my Inner Critic

“Inner critic” has been known to mean lots of different things, but my therapist and I use it to refer to that voice inside my head that always has something negative to say – whether it be about my academic performance, my personal relationships, my body image, or something else. We both agree that I have quite the aggressive inner critic, and we’ve been talking a lot about how I can better manage it.

The problem, as she so insightfully put it, is that my inner critic has been the source of a lot of my success. I wouldn’t have gotten my black belt, run marathons, won debate competitions, graduated college summa cum laude, or been accepted to some of the best philosophy PhD programs had I not pushed myself further than most others did. My high standards have always been what sets me apart – and I’m proud of the ways in which they do. Silencing or ignoring my inner critic just doesn’t seem like an attractive option to me.

But I do realize that in the long run having such a vocal and fierce inner critic is harmful to my health and wellbeing, so the solution we’ve (i.e. my therapist and I) have come up with is, rather than trying to rid myself of that vicious voice in my head, to become friends with it. To acknowledge what it’s saying and be able to have a conversation with it. I’m still struggling to find that middle ground, but it’s a start.

Student Evals Are In

I have had such an indescribably shitty past few days but today I was finally able to access student evals from my very first semester of teaching and right now my heart is so happy! I didn’t expect to love teaching so much, but it has truly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in grad school so far. To know that my students think of me as a helpful, enthusiastic, and capable instructor means so much.

Because of the aforementioned shitty past few days, I need a bit of positivity in my life. So here is a collection of a few of my favorite comments students left:

“Ms.Balance is absolutely the best TA I’ve ever had. Not only does she go above and beyond for her students by making little reading guide handouts to clearly outline a philosopher’s ideas in order to make sure we understand the topic, but she readily makes herself easy to contact out of class for any help at any moment. She really did more than she had to do as a TA […]. She really wants her students to succeed and it really shows in her work and the effort she puts into the class.”

“Brielle is a very passionate instructor in the Philosophy department. She made this very clear throughout this semester to everyone around her. I also believe that she truly cares about all of her students. […] I believe she provided many different useful tools and mentoring over the semester that really is an asset to UNC’s Introduction to Ethics course and students in the class.”

“Cool hair style :)”

“Gabrielle Balance’s help was the only reason why I passed the class. Her mentoring and individual care was above and beyond anything asked of for a TA. She really cares for her students and her recitation greatly approves the understanding of all of her students.”

“BRIELLE IS AMAZING! This recitation saved me in this class. She is one of the best teachers I have these semester.”

“Gabrielle did a very good job in her TA position. She had a great understanding of the ideas at play, she also did an excellent job of conveying those ideas to her students. She went above and beyond what the other TA’s for this course did. She did an amazing job in making sure her students had a good handle on the ideas in class with her in class discussions. I would not have done nearly as well in this course without her as my TA.”

“Gabrielle Balance was an amazing TA. I would not have understood the course without her. She very clearly explains hard topics and it is evident she cares about her students.”

“One of my favorite TAs I have had so far. She broke down the lectures very well to help us clearly understand it. She asked for our feedback a lot, and made sure she answered any questions that the class had. She is willing to work with you outside of class and held a couple of review sessions outside of class to prepare for finals or papers. Not only is she a good TA, she is also a great person who makes sure you feel included and supported which helps me feel more comfortable in class.”

“I loved this course, Ms Balance was an awesome TA that even people from other sections would try to attend her office hours. She was extremely helpful and made the material engaging”

I know this blog post is something I’ll come back to again and again whenever school gets tough to remind me why I do this and motivate me to keep going. ❤

How I Organize My Planner

So, first things first: I use a Happy Planner in the mini size (4.5″ x 7″) with the vertical week-per-2-pages spread.

Here is what a typical weekly spread looks like for me. This is the current week and not yet completely filled out:

Inkededit 2_LI

  • I pencil in the times (7 am-9 pm) and use the Happy Planner vertical layout as an hourly scheduler
  • I note the week of the current semester in the top left corner
  • In blue ink I write events and in black ink I write smaller notes (event info, to-dos, etc.)
    • One thing I really like is writing in tasks that I complete, especially course assignments and blog posts, to have an idea of what and when I get things done.
      • Filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
  • I use the following color-coding system (which may be slightly off in the above photo due to the filter I used):
    • Green: courses I am in (student or TA)
    • Light blue: department events (invited talks, meetings, etc.)
    • Red: non-departmental appointments
    • Purple: social events
    • Light pink: workouts
      • Usually filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
    • Yellow: highlighting important black ink notes (not pictured) and crossing off to-do checkboxes
  • At the top I write very important events or reminders

I also have a separator tab in the back for lined paper. I use the lined paper for my to-do lists, as the main body of the agenda doesn’t have room for me to write all of my to-dos:

edited

  • One page (left) lists my course assignments for the week
  • The other page (right) lists my non-coursework-related to-dos, which I try to do as much as possible over the weekend

I’ve been using this planning system since the beginning of the school year and it’s been working really well for me so far. My planner holds so much information about my schedule, to-dos, and workouts, and yet it remains visually appealing, organized, and compact. Thought I would share it 🙂

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

The Bad Days

Yesterday I was feeling really, really shitty. My mental and emotional state was at a solid -5. Anyways, like I’ve said before, part of my intention in keeping this blog is to honestly document the experiences I have during grad school. So, here’s a transcription of what I wrote in my journal yesternight, as unpolished and raw as it gets:

I woke up at noon with unbearable feelings of depression and anxiety. Actually, I woke up at 8. I was too unmotivated to do anything so I drifted in and out of sleep until noon. Eventually I forced myself out of bed because I had office hours at 2 and class at 4.

I was pretty productive between those hours. No one came to my office hours and I managed to finish up a post for this blog on the ethics of body modification and made some progress on planning my MA thesis. Finally a bit before 4 I dragged myself away from my laptop and headed to class. It was impossible for me to focus. I ended up skipping out halfway through because I was just feeling so terrible and tired. I got home and slept some more.

I finally dragged myself out of bed at 8 pm. Usually when I’m feeling really depressed, doing things helps. I did the dishes and cleaned my room. Then I did laundry. (And folded/put it away right after!) I went for a run, then showered and got ready for bed. Then I lit a candle and did some meditative yoga. I used a guided meditation focused on depression and self-soothing.

Now it’s midnight. I feel a little better. Still shitty, but proud that I was able to engage in these healthy forms of self-care.

It’s so stupid that my life is going great on paper and yet I still feel this way. I’m ahead on my reading assignments and coursework, ahead on my MA thesis planning, I’m exercising regularly, and my space is clean and orderly. But I spent most of my day in bed, and I only ate one meal today and I’m not even hungry. I just feel numb and sad. I hope I feel better tomorrow. This is the worst day I’ve had in a while.


I called my boyfriend after I wrote this and we talked for a while. Just hearing his voice and feeling his presence made me feel a lot better, and I was able to fall asleep relatively quickly. This morning I woke up feeling okay. Today was loads better.

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! 🙂

What counts as philosophy? Reflections on academic passing and divergent work

I recently re-read Dotson’s paper “Concrete Flowers” (2011) in preparation for a diversity workshop I’ll be leading next month. In the paper, Dotson offers some commentary on the current state of professional philosophy which is both insightful and incredibly sobering. (If you’re in the field of philosophy and haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.) Her discussion on what she refers to as “academic passing” really spoke to me, and in this blog post I want to use it as a backdrop to reflect on how my view of philosophy has changed over the years.

Dotson defines academic passing as “an academic performance in which scholarly work perceived to have a somewhat threatening ‘academic lineage’ is presented or categorized by others as the kind of work that it is not.” She laments the pressure felt, especially by minorities, to conform their work to fit the mainstream, dominant conceptions of academic philosophy. She says,

The irony is that, despite defining philosophy as an uncompromising, no-holds-barred critique, only some kinds of critical engagement are welcome: those that leave untouched the suppressed question, “But what does count as philosophy?” Paradoxically, leaving that very question suppressed makes it difficult to generate radically new ideas in the field.

My own views on this topic have changed quite radically over the years – so much so that my opinion on it has not yet been settled. It’s a complex, multidimensional issue which I am not sure how to address. In the remainder of this blog post I’d like to lay out how my thoughts on the question What does count as philosophy? have evolved over the years.

The general outsider’s attitude towards philosophy, at least in my circles, is one of apathy or disrespect. Students at my undergrad university believed the major to be easy, unchallenging, and unimportant. Even my parents were disappointed when I announced that I would be pursing philosophy.

So when I switched into the philosophy major as an undergrad I found myself feeling the need to justify the value of what I did: “Philosophy isn’t just ‘thinking about life’ and spiritual spacey bullshit about our place in the universe – it’s full of rigorous, critical thinking! It’s about precision and crafting strong arguments! Philosophy helps develop superior reasoning skills! Our major scores the highest on the LSAT! Blah blah blah!”

And for quite some time (an embarrassingly long amount of time, if I’m being honest), this was the view I held. This was how I differentiated the colloquial understanding of philosophy from academic philosophy. When people asked me what I do, I emphasized these differences. I cited the logical structure that underlined our arguments and the principled way in which we approached questions. I wanted people to understand that I wasn’t getting my degree by just meditating and writing down every #fakedeep thought that came into my head.

But, as Dotson rightfully points out, restricting philosophy to this very narrow, traditional style is harmful. Firstly, I closed myself off to so many worthwhile ideas by refusing to engage with others who used a non-analytic philosophical style or focused on non-traditional questions. Secondly, I was failing to see the hypocrisy in my actions. I was first drawn to philosophy because of its relentless curiosity, but in restricting my work to a very specific style and taking for granted the deeper question of what counts as philosophy, I was failing to embody the very traits I idolized. Most tragically, however, I was excluding those who were not trained in or did not conform to the Western philosophical tradition, actively contributing to the problem of under-representation in my field.

My thoughts on what counts as philosophy have since evolved to become more broad and inclusive, though now I am left with many questions of how to proceed from here. I’ll discuss the (current) most pertinent one.

First, some background info: I’m organizing a workshop with an aim of helping students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds apply to grad school. We especially focused on reaching out to students from universities currently without a philosophy graduate program or undergraduate adviser. Several of our participants met these criteria, and several others came from very small colleges/departments. We asked students to include a writing sample in their application and – unsurprisingly, given our target audience – many were written in styles that would be considered non-traditional for our discipline. Nonetheless, they were very obviously great papers written by capable students.

On one hand, the goal is to give them the best chance of getting into a PhD program. While I don’t know the exact standards admissions boards use to assess writing samples, I’d hazard a guess that basic command of standard philosophical writing is high on the list. Given the goals of the workshop, is it not a responsibility of mine to emphasize this point?

But on the other hand, forcing future PhD students into a predetermined mold leads to precisely the problems I have outlined above. If one of my long term goals is to increase diversity in philosophy, should I not encourage these differences instead of usher them out? The problem is not divergent work. It is our community’s close-mindedness; it is there that we should focus on enacting change.

I’m not sure how to proceed.

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).