I argue that moral philosophers have either misunderstood the problem of moral demandingness or at least failed to recognize important dimensions of the problem that undermine many standard assumptions. It has been assumed that utilitarianism concretely directs us to maximize welfare within a generation by transferring resources to people currently living in extreme poverty. In fact, utilitarianism seems to imply that any obligation to help people who are currently badly off is trumped by obligations to undertake actions targeted at improving the value of the long-term future. Reflecting on the demands of beneficence in respect of the value of the far future forces us to view key aspects of the problem of moral demandingness in a very different light.
If our planet remains habitable for another 1 billion years and will sustainably support a population of at least 1 billion people at any time, then there could exist at least 10 to the sixteenth power lives of normal duration in our future (Bostrom 2013). This is only counting human beings. Chickens alone currently have a standing population of 19.6 billion (Robinson et al. 2014). Given the number of morally statused individuals who could potentially populate the long-run future, the value at stake in choosing among actions that impact on the long-term trajectory of human civilization seems to be astronomical. What demands are placed on us as a result?
Moral theorists have typically discussed the demands of beneficence under the assumption that these represent obligations for those who are wealthy to transfer resources to their poorer contemporaries (e.g., Singer 1973; Ashford 2000; Murphy 2000; Cullity 2004). Insofar as moral philosophers have discussed obligations related to future generations, they have tended to focus on the question of what (if anything) we owe to future people as a matter of justice (e.g., Barry 1977, 1997; Rawls 1999; Meyer and Roser 2009; Steiner and Vallentyne 2009; Caney 2018). They have largely neglected the question of how the value of the future shapes our thinking about the demands of beneficence. As a result, I claim, moral philosophers have either misunderstood the problem of moral demandingness and based much of the discussion of the demandingness objection to utilitarianism on false presuppositions, or else failed to recognize important dimensions of the demandingness problem that turn out to undermine many standard assumptions.
Which of these interpretations we favour depends on the extent to which we understand the problem of moral demandingness as concerned with our obligations in the actual world. If we understand the demandingness problem as to do with how obligations of beneficence play out in actuality according to this or that moral theory, my arguments support the conclusion that we have misunderstood the problem of moral demandingness and based much of the discussion of the demandingness objection to utilitarianism on false presuppositions. If instead we believe that moral principles should be assessed independently of contingent facts and that candidate theories may be embarrassed by their extreme demandingness in other possible worlds, then the demandingness problem on which philosophers have focused so far need not be illusory, even if it does not correspond to how obligations of beneficence play out in actuality. Nonetheless, we will turn out to have neglected an important dimension of the problem.
In section 2, I show that the claim that astronomical value is at stake when choosing among actions that impact on the long-run future can be supported by a range of minimally plausible population axiologies, suggesting that consequentialism treats any obligation to help people who are currently badly off as decisively trumped by obligations to undertake actions directly targeted at improving the value of the long-term future. In section 3, I offer a brief discussion of previous philosophical work on the problem of moral demandingness, as well as outlining concerns about excessive demandingness that have emerged in the economic literature on optimal growth. Sections 4 through 7 highlight four different ways in which thinking about the demands of beneficence in the context of the value of the far future requires moral philosophers to revise their understanding of the problem of moral demandingness. Specifically, I focus on the weight of agent-centred prerogatives, the contingency of the demandingness problem, the significance of non-compliance, and the relevance of passive demands. Section 8 concludes.
The issue has been discussed by some authors sympathetic to utilitarianism, including Bostrom (2003), Mulgan (2006), Beckstead (2013, 2019), Cowen (2018), and Greaves and MacAskill (2019). However, with the exception of Mulgan, these writers do not seriously reflect on how the value of the far future intersects with the problem of moral demandingness. ↩︎
I٘m grateful to an anonymous referee for suggesting this disjunctive framing of the paper٘s conclusions. ↩︎
I will try to remain neutral on this question throughout this paper. ↩︎