How Hard Can It Get? Moral Demands and Ethical Theory


It is an appealing thought, forming the basis of the moral theory of consequentialism, that we should do what is best overall. However, it is often claimed that this requirement is so demanding that it is unacceptable for anyone to follow it. This is because, to take one example, it would require foregoing most, if not all, personal projects and devoting one’s life to alleviating the suffering of those in need. The so-called Demandingness Objection attempts to use this supposedly common intuition concerning the inadmissibility of extreme moral demands as a starting point for rejecting consequentialism.

Since much public debate centres on the significance of morality in our lives as well as our obligations towards the poor and disadvantaged, the Objection has clear relevance not only for philosophy and related academic disciplines, but also for moral conduct in public life and for political decision making.

Migrants climbing over a golf course fence in Southern Spain. Should we let them and help them? They are clearly in need and we are clearly affluent (compared to them).

The project and its outcomes

The project, led by Attila Tanyi, pursues three different approaches to the challenge posed by excessive demands.

Reasons and Demands

The charge that consequentialist requirements are unreasonably excessively demanding, assumes the following claims:

• There are moral reasons to act as consequentialism requires.
• Consequentialist reasons override other conflicting reasons of the agent.

The aim here is to defend the first claim, but reject the second. This investigation has so far been financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG). A doctoral dissertation on this by Vuko Andrić was awarded the Wolfgang Stegmüller Price of the Society for Analytical Philosophy (GAP) in Germany.

Experimental Investigations

Here the aim is to investigate whether people indeed hold the intuition that consequentialist requirements are excessively demanding. Several hypotheses are being tested. Among them:

• Increasing demands will lead to increasing dissent with consequentialism.
• Not even very high consequentialist demands lead to dissent with consequentialism in the majority of cases.

This is experimental research employing methodological innovations in social psychology to answer philosophical questions. Pilot studies have been financed by the Zukunftskolleg at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Participants in the project are Martin Bruder and Joseph Sweetman. A research application is under preparation to the Leverhulme Trust to finance further research based on the promising results of the pilot studies.

Institutions and Demands

The question here is whether institutions may reduce moral demands on individuals. Perhaps a moral division of labor is justifiable: demanding moral principles regulate institutions, whereas individuals have the duty to set up and maintain these institutions. There are several problems here:

• Should we indeed have different principles for individuals and for institutions?
• Even if we design proper institutional frameworks, will this sufficiently reduce individual duties?
• How does this relate to issue of global justice in the absence of relevant global institutions?

This is a new line of investigation in collaboration with András Miklós. A recent outcome was a presentation in a conference at Stanford University that led to a debate in the Boston Review.