Morality is hard work. It’s not easy to make sure our actions do not negatively affect other beings in this universe or to do good to them. How can we carve out some space for the pursuit of personal projects without violating the demands of morality? In this post, I discuss strategies that exclude certain areas of life and activities from moral assessment, and find them wanting.*
Does morality demand simply what it demands?
Even if we limit our discussion to avoiding harming other people on this planet, morality demands a lot of us. Each one of us is connected to other people through processes of commerce and trade, chains of production, environmental issues, and communication (including social media), which span the entire globe. Problems like exploitation in production processes or climate change show how even “our most humdrum activities may harm people in myriad ways we have never thought about before” as Judith Lichtenberg states.
Yet, we also want to pursue worthwhile projects, care for loved ones, and realize our own aspirations. There is a significant tension between the demands of morality and these personal goals, because pursuing our own projects is likely to result in harms to other people. In response, moral philosophers have argued that “morality demands what it demands,” and if we are unable or unwilling to meet these demands, then we are just bad moral agents.
However, this response would hold that most people are immoral, and this seems too harsh. Moreover, a morality that would not allow people to pursue their personal projects would just be utopian. This is more likely to erode morality’s force than to do any good in guiding people’s lives.
Limiting morality’s scope
How, then, can we square the circle? How can we solve the dilemma between our personal projects and the demands of morality? One moral philosophical solution to this tension is to limit the scope of morality by excluding certain areas of life from moral assessment and holding that moral demands do not apply to them. This proposal has come in different (but related) guises.
First, philosophers sometimes say that our only duty is towards institutions: we have to comply with just institutions, or further just arrangements that are not yet established (if we can do so without unreasonable costs to ourselves). They refer to John Rawls, who calls this the natural duty of justice. However, even he considers this to be only one of the natural duties. Other natural duties include the duty of helping another when he is in need or jeopardy, the duty not to harm or injure another, and the duty not to cause unnecessary suffering. So even if the duty of justice is fundamental, it does not discharge us from our other natural duties, including the negative duties not to harm others.
A second way to limit the scope of morality, often built on the previous one, is to make a distinction between the public and the private sphere, and to leave people free to pursue their personal conception of the good in the private sphere. However, this distinction has been challenged by many feminist political writers, and it seems arbitrary to simply exclude private decisions from moral evaluation. Even the most private decisions have an impact on other people: buying clothes may perpetuate exploitation in the sweatshops where they are made be made, energy consumption contributes to climate change, and having children adds to the problem overpopulation. Why would the private nature of these decisions justify ignoring their negative impacts in moral evaluation?
A third proposal seeks to exclude trivial activities (or trivial impacts of activities) from moral assessment. This is a response often heard when talking about individual responsibility for climate change: the impacts of individual emissions seem to be so small – virtually imperceptible – that individual emitters cannot be faulted for them. However, as I have argued in a previous post for Justice Everywhere, the impact of individual emissions are not zero, but represent a real (albeit tiny) contribution to climate change. This impact may be imperceptible or difficult to trace, but this is more a problem of measurement rather than one of morality. In addition, how do we differentiate between trivial acts and non-trivial ones (and who will draw this line)? Considering this question quickly leads to the conclusion that this strategy to limit morality’s demands might actually lead to more problems than it solves.
The pervasiveness of morality
Hence, limiting the scope of morality and excluding certain areas of life or certain activities from moral assessment seems unsuccessful. This supports Samuel Scheffler’s conclusion that morality is pervasive: “no voluntary human action is in principle resistant to moral assessment.”
Morality pervades all areas of life. I have often heard the criticism that this conclusion is overly moralistic, but I can’t see a way around it. And yet I remain convinced that people are entitled to the pursuit of at least some worthwhile personal projects. I have no positive way forward to solve the dilemma between our personal projects and morality’s demands yet; the only conclusion I can draw at this point is that the popular and easy way out which excludes certain activities and areas of human life from moral evaluation is unconvincing. Solving the dilemma will rather require evaluating acts and their impacts, the context of these acts, available alternatives, and the agents involved. Indeed, morality is hard work.
* In this post, I am engaging with some of the fascinating ideas discussed by Samuel Scheffler in his 1986 article Morality’s demands and their limits and his 1992 book Human morality. His observations and questions do not seem to leave me at peace and require much further reflection.
Thanks, Wouter! I find this debate fascinating and, like you, I’ve never been convinced by attempts to reduce the scope of morality. Why should we think that what is right to do must be easy or not demand too much from people? I think we’re just trying to find excuses for our moral weakness.
You say that the conclusion “that most people are immoral… seems too harsh.” But maybe it’s not morality that is harsh, it’s humans that are weak. Should we then tailor morality to the state of moral progress? Or have different moralities depending on people’s moral strength?
You also say that “a morality that would not allow people to pursue their personal projects would just be utopian” and that this “is more likely to erode morality’s force than to do any good in guiding people’s lives.” I think we should make a distinction between what motivates people and what is right. If harming other people is wrong, it’s wrong whether or not most people live up to this principle. Now, maybe we need less demanding rules of behavior to motivate people, but I wouldn’t call that morality.
Sorry for the delayed response, last week has been frantic.
I agree with most of what you say. However, I wouldn’t give up on people or morality that quickly. People’s concerns about at least some of their own projects seem genuine, so I think that a morality should be able to accommodate these genuine concerns. The crux is of course to draw the line between genuine concerns and genuinely valuable projects with which morality may conflict, and illegitimate concerns which are excuses for unwillingness to behave morally.
I don’t have answers to this problem, though. I’m just not willing to give up yet on finding a balance between personal projects and a morality that can motivate people’s actions. I hope that such balance is possible!