The following argument was inspired by the excellent work of two fellow PEA Brains: David Sobel’s “The Impotence of the Demandingness Objection” and Dale Dorsey’s “Weak Anti-Rationalism and the Demandingness of Morality”:
- If a normative requirement dictates that one should perform a certain act even though one has decisive reason, all things considered, not to do so, then it is what I will call a contrary-to-reason requirement — a CTR requirement for short.
- If a normative requirement is a CTR requirement, then it is to be rebuffed in the sense that one should give it no heed and should, in fact, act contrary to its dictates.
- Many of act-utilitarianism’s moral requirements are CTR requirements.
- Therefore, either many moral requirements are to be rebuffed or act-utilitarianism is false.
- Moral requirements are never to be rebuffed, for if S is morally required to do x, then S has sufficient reason to do x.
- Therefore, act-utilitarianism is false.
Note that this objection is not identical to the too-demanding objection, for this objection applies not only to theories whose requirements demand more from us than we have sufficient reason to give, but also to theories whose requirements demand less from us than we have decisive reason to give. To illustrate the latter, consider the legal requirement that one not commit suicide. This requirement is, I believe, a CTR requirement, for I think that one can have decisive reason (even decisive moral reason) to commit suicide even when it might be less costly for oneself to refrain from committing suicide. Suppose, for instance, that the only way to save my family from some unbearable burden is to commit suicide. In such a case, I might have most reason (and even most moral reason) to commit suicide even though I might be better off, self-interestedly speaking, not doing so. If this is right, then we can object to this legal requirement on the same grounds that I would object to the requirements of act-utilitarianism: they both require us to act in ways that we ought not to act.
Although this is not the too demanding objection itself, it is I think what leads many to reject act-utilitarianism on account of its demandingness: act-utilitarianism, it seems, demands that we make sacrifices that we have decisive reason not to make. The thought is, for instance, that agents have decisive reason to pursue their own projects and self-interest to an extent that is not permitted by act-utilitarianism.
Now, if I understand them correctly, both Dorsey and Sobel endorse (3), but would counter against this sort of argument by rejecting (5). But I think that this is too little too late. In rejecting (5), you may save act-utilitarianism as the correct moral theory, but you do so at the price of depriving it of much of its putative import. So I think that act-utilitarians would do better to reject (3), although my own view is that (3) is true. I think that act-utilitarians should reject (3), because I think that they will be unhappy with the implications of (4). For instance, I think that Peter Singer would be very unhappy if the only way to salvage his view about what we are morally obligated to give to the needy was to concede that we ought not, all things considered, give as much as we are morally obligated to give to the needy. I think that Peter Singer really wants to convince us that we ought (and note the lack of the qualifier ‘morally’) to give more to the needy and not just that we are, on some normative standard, required to give more. But I’m interested in what others think. Is the argument sound? If not, which premise should be rejected? Or, at least, which premise should the act-utilitarian reject?