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Intuitions and the Demands of Consequentialism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2011



One response to the demandingness objection is that it begs the question against consequentialism by assuming a moral distinction between what a theory requires and what it permits. According to the consequentialist, this distinction stands in need of defense. However, this response may also beg the question, this time at the methodological level, regarding the credibility of the intuitions underlying the objection. The success of the consequentialist's response thus turns on the role we assign to intuitions in our moral methodology. After presenting the demandingness objection to consequentialism and revealing the underlying methodological stalemate, I break the stalemate by appealing to research in the cognitive neuroscience of intuitions. Given the evidence for the hypothesis that our moral intuitions are fundamentally emotional (rather than rational) responses, we should give our intuitions a modest (rather than robust) role in our moral methodology. This rescues the consequentialist's response to the demandingness objection.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 See, for example: Williams, Bernard, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism: For and Against, ed. Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, B. (Cambridge, 1974)Google Scholar; Scheffler, Samuel, The Rejection of Consequentialism (Oxford, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Murphy, Liam, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar; Mulgan, Tim, The Demands of Consequentialism (Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar; Cullity, Garrett, The Moral Demands of Affluence (Oxford, 2005)Google Scholar.

2 See, for example: Railton, Peter, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism, and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984)Google Scholar; Slote, Michael, ‘Satisficing Consequentialism’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. 58 (1984)Google Scholar; Jackson, Frank, ‘Decision-Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection’, Ethics 101 (1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hooker, Brad, Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar; Mulgan, Tim, The Demands of Consequentialism (Oxford, 2001)Google Scholar.

3 Kagan, Shelly, The Limits of Morality (Oxford, 1989), p. 2Google Scholar. Also, see Singer, Peter, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972)Google Scholar.

4 Sobel, David, ‘The Impotence of the Demandingness Objection’, Philosopher's Imprint 7 (2007)Google Scholar.

5 The idea that the Demandingness Objection's real force lies in a deeper distinction is not unique to Sobel: see Brink, David, ‘Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View’, The Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Rawls, John, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, The Philosophical Review 60 (1951)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, 1973), pp. 4651Google Scholar.

7 See, for example: Weinberg, Jonathan M., Nichols, Shaun, and Stich, Stephen, ‘Normativity and Epistemic Intuitions’, Philosophical Topics 29 (2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Haidt, Jonathan, ‘The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment’, Psychological Review 108 (2001)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Greene, Joshua, et al. , ‘An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment’, Science 293 (2001)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Greene, Joshua and Haidt, Jonathan, ‘How (and Where) Does Moral Judgment Work?’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6 (2002)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Nichols, Shaun, ‘Folk Concepts and Intuitions: From Philosophy to Cognitive Science’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (2004)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

8 I call this position ‘extreme consequentialism’ in deference to Kagan's defense of ‘the extremist’ throughout the The Limits of Morality.

9 Singer, Peter, ‘Ethics and Intuitions’, The Journal of Ethics 9 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Sobel, ‘Impotence’, p. 3.

11 Sobel, ‘Impotence’, p. 3.

12 Sobel, ‘Impotence’, p. 17.

13 Kagan, Limits, pp. 11–15.

14 Hooker, Ideal, pp. 4–16.

15 Hooker, Ideal, p. 11.

16 As Kagan points out (see Limits, p.14, n. 9), it is not clear whether Rawls intends for reflective equilibrium to involve eliminating dangling distinctions.

17 This distinction between the two methodological models illustrated by Kagan and Hooker mirrors the distinction between ‘wide’ and ‘narrow’ reflective equilibrium described by Norman Daniels. See Justice and Justification: Reflective Equilibrium in Theory and Practice (Cambridge, 1997).

18 Foot, Philippa, ‘The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect’, Oxford Review 5 (1967)Google Scholar; Thomson, Judith Jarvis, ‘Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem’, The Monist 59 (1976)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

19 Greene et al., ‘fMRI’, p. 2106.

20 Greene and Haidt, ‘Moral Judgment’, p. 517.

21 This neuroscientific research is certainly not the only reason to be suspicious of the independent credibility of our intuitions. As Peter Unger has demonstrated through a number of variants on the original trolley problem, our intuitions are also vulnerable to the ways in which situations are framed. In one variant – a two-option case, called ‘The Heavy Skater’ – you can either allow the trolley to roll over six innocent people, or else you can direct a heavy skater by remote-control into the path of the trolley. In another variant – a four-option case, called ‘The Switches and Skates’ – you have the same two options from The Heavy Skater, as well as two new options: switch the track to have the trolley roll over three innocent people, or else switch to yet another track resulting in a collision with a new trolley with two heavy people on it. Respondents overwhelmingly approve of sending the remote-controlled skater into the path of the trolley in the four-option case, but not in the two-option case; see Living High and Letting Die (Oxford, 1996), pp. 86–94. I thank Alastair Norcross for bringing this to my attention. However, at least some who accept the Demandingness Objection are skeptical of the empirical results that Unger describes, as well as the lessons he finds in these results; see Mulgan, Demands, pp. 30–1.

22 Singer, ‘Ethics’, p. 333.

23 Singer, ‘Ethics’, p. 347.

24 Singer, ‘Ethics’, p. 349.

25 Singer, ‘Ethics’, p. 351.