Consequentialism has been challenged on the grounds that it is too demanding. I will respond to the problem of demandingness differently from previous accounts. In the first part of the paper, I argue that consequentialism requires us to distinguish the justification of an act \(\varphi\) from the justification of an act \(\psi\), where \(\psi\) is an act of praise or blame. In the second part of the paper, I confront the problem of demandingness. I do not attempt to rule out the objection; instead, I argue that if certain plausible empirical claims about moral motivation are true, we morally ought not to blame people for failing to meet certain very demanding obligations. With this theory, we create a space in consequentialism for intuitions questioning the plausibility of demanding obligations. I conclude the paper by showing that separate justifications for \(\varphi\) and \(\psi\) may also give us a theoretical niche for intuitions about supererogation.
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It is possible—though it seems unlikely—that in all cases where \(\varphi\) is unjustified, \(\psi\) will only be justified if it is an act of blame. Even if this possibility obtains, however, \(\psi\) is justified in virtue of its tendency to promote the good, not in virtue of \(\varphi\)’s lack of same. Thus, the explanation of \(\psi\)’s justificatory status plays no intrinsic role the explanation of \(\varphi\)’s justificatory status, but at most a contingent role.
Now, we must not take this argument too far. Each of these possible responses of praise (blame) would depend for their moral justification on the truth of specific empirical claims about the consequences of the actions. Thus, we might find the empirical facts to be such that praising the actions of the inadvertent Hitler-killer would lead to no increase in morally unjustified homicides and a substantial increase in racial harmony. Similarly, we might find that our blaming the Sallies of the world does not leave people more reluctant to save others. In such cases, the justification for our acts of praise and blame might very well require us to perform them in a fashion which is contrary to our intuitions. This is undoubtedly a less-satisfactory result than we might have hoped: preserving our moral intuitions within our theories seems preferable in most cases. If the consequences work out differently in the cases we have discussed and we still wish to preserve consequentialism, we will probably have to set aside some of our intuitions and accept that the theory will sometimes push against commonsense morality.
At this point, it is worth noting: some have worried that this approach already exists in the literature. I will discuss this concern in the penultimate section of the paper.
Though I use his term here as a generic concept of a very onerous duty to rescue requiring great personal sacrifice, rather than in contrast to his Severe Demand (and other terms). He uses the term with a very precise meaning. My use will be slightly broader.
This is loosely adapted from Cullity (2004), but I cite Cullity here mainly to give credit for the term itself.
Separating praise and blame from actual obligations is hinted at in Goodin (2009), but my proposal here is to evaluate acts of praise and blame on consequentialist grounds, rather than assigning praise and blame in virtue of whether a morality is “wrong” to demand much, which is Goodin’s concern.
The “moral costs” discussed in Goodin (2009) are similar to the possibility I raise here.
Herodotus, The Histories, 7.229–7.231 and 9.71–9.72 (Strassler 2007).
Interestingly, we may be able to link this with concerns about demandingness. As I have already mentioned, Goodin (2009) has suggested that enthusiastic acts of praise for meeting the full demands of morality (something like our Extreme Demand here) can alter the overwhelming appearance of those demands. Thus, by treating certain demands as supererogatory, a society which adopts my account may well encourage its members to get closer to fulfilling the Extreme Demand. It may well be the case, also, that demandingness is a fairly relative notion. Not only can meeting the Extreme Demand seem more attainable, but perhaps also we can slowly work to modify how extreme that demand really is by using our practices of praise and blame. Perhaps we can alter our perception of our own “needs” such that goods to which we cling tightly in 2014 will seem disposable in a generation. This modification has been suggested in Lichtenberg (2013) and by John Cottingham in Chappell (2009). This thought will need to be developed further, however.
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Special thanks to Tina Rulli (University of California, Davis) for extensive feedback on multiple drafts of this paper, as well as to Brian J. Collins (California Lutheran University) and David Cummiskey (Bates College) for their helpful comments. Thanks to the Davis Group in Ethics and Related Subjects (DaGERS), including David Copp, Kyle Adams, Noel Joshi-Richard, Paul Gomberg, Timothy Houk, and Stephen DiLorenzo. Thanks also to Neil Sinhababu, Michael W. Pelczar, Loy Hui Chieh, and several graduate students at the National University of Singapore. Everyone mentioned here has been generous with their time in helping to strengthen this paper through thoughtful criticism.
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Morris, R. Praise, blame, and demandingness. Philos Stud 174, 1857–1869 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0834-9