Consequentialism, many philosophers have claimed, asks too much of us to be a plausible ethical theory. Indeed, consequentialism’s severe demandingness is often claimed to be its chief flaw. I will try to show that consequentialism’s demandingness cannot be the theory’s downfall. I do not here aim to vindicate consequentialism or demonstrate that it is not too demanding. What I think I can show is that the demandingness of consequentialism cannot plausibly be the decisive objection to the view. This is the case because the demandingness objection, in any plausible form, requires that we already reject consequentialism before it can be persuasive. Unless we presuppose an ethically significant distinction between, for example, causing and allowing, or intending and foreseeing, any moral theory that is less demanding than consequentialism will permit us to cause or intend too much to be at all plausible. Thus, key components of consequentialism must already be assumed or argued to be false before the demandingness objection can get a grip. Thus the demandingness objection should not be what persuades us that consequentialism is false. The arguments I use to show this are not new, I borrow them from Shelly Kagan and others, but they are underappreciated and have not been made in the most useful and general way.
Recall how Samuel Scheffler tried to amend consequentialism to accommodate the demandingness objection. If the problem is that one’s own interests are not permitted to be given enough weight, he in effect reasoned, then we should simply permit one’s interests to be given more weight. Thus, on his view, one could multiply one’s own interests by a certain number and be morally permitted to maximize the new weighted aggregate. This, or something much like it, is the most obvious response to the thought that consequentialism requires too much of us and that it does not make enough room for our projects and interests. (I here ignore some interesting technicalities of Scheffler’s approach that do not help him here.)
Shelly Kagan objected to this that it permits one to cause harm for the sake of one’s magnified interests as much as it permits one to allow harm for the sake of one’s magnified interests. One would have the permission to cause harm to some innocent person merely because the harm was less than N times as bad as the benefits to oneself of causing the harm. This sort of permission, Kagan rightly thought, is not sanctioned by commonsense intuitions about morality. The demandingness objection only comes into its own when we think of morality as not forbidding us to allow (or merely foresee) a certain harm. (Scheffler replied to this complaint and made interesting points in the process but I think could not rebut Kagan’s general claim.)
Bernard Williams argued that consequentialism threatens our integrity because it requires that we step aside from our most central personal projects merely because the interests of others outweigh one’s own interests. But again such a complaint only finds resonance when we presuppose that our projects require only that we not aid others. When we think of projects that require (for instrumental or intrinsic reasons) that we cause or intend harming other people for no better reason than that our outweighed personal project be promoted, then the integrity complaint against consequentialism is unpersuasive.
I do not know of a place where Kagan explicitly drew the moral from the failure of Scheffler’s approach that seems to me warranted. The moral is that the demandingness objection is implausible unless supplemented with a more nuanced account of when morality may ask quite a lot from us and when it seems to not be able to demand as much. It is simply false that morality, as commonsense understands it, may not demand quite a bit from us in relatively ordinary contexts. Most decent people do not much bristle at constraints such as the one to not bump off a rich uncle merely for personal gain, but in terms of the sacrifice of one’s interests such constraints are quite significant. To capture the intuitions that are pumped by the demandingness objection, together with the intuitions that one may not cause big harms merely to produce small benefits to oneself, the demandingness objection must be transformed into a new complaint. To vindicate this constellation of intuitions, one must vindicate the moral importance of distinctions such as the causing/allowing or intending/foreseeing distinction. And to do this is to switch the battleground between consequentialists and its foes away from the demandingness objection and to other ground. And only with a victory on this other ground could anything like a demandingness objection look attractive. Thus I think the demandingness objection presupposes that the decisive break with consequentialism has already been established before it looks attractive. Thus I think it should not be the reason people reject consequentialism. We should reject it on other grounds or not at all.