Friday, December 4, 2020

#339 / The Demandingness Objection


Kelsey Piper, pictured above, is a staff writer for Vox, an online news provider. If you want to, you can subscribe to the Vox "Future Perfect" newsletter for free. That is, apparently, where Piper most frequently holds forth. The purpose of the "Future Perfect" newletter is to discuss and to provide guidance on how to make the world better. Philosophically speaking, this effort to "make the world better" has an official name: "Effective Altruism." The British-based Centre for Effective Altruism defines it this way: "Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis." Effective altruism is Kelsey Piper's field of interest and endeavor.

One of my friends, who subscribes to "Future Perfect," emailed me a copy of the Kelsey Piper column I am republishing below. I couldn't find the column anywhere online, to provide a link, so I am including the column here in its entirety. There is really just one short phrase in the column upon which I want to focus. The phrase, or term, was new to me - though not the concept that the phrase describes. It is a phrase that is used in connection with a discussion of moral and ethical issues: 

The Demandingness Objection
That's the phrase! Does everybody know about that? As I say, I didn't!

In her column, Kelsey Piper describes the "demandingness objection" by way of example. For instance, it may be ethically or morally legitimate to demand that those who have the ability to help the poor should do so. But how much are those who have the ability to help the poor supposed to do? Maybe, says Piper, it really ought to be a reasonable moral requirement that a person give, say, 10% of that person's income to help the poor. But what about a claim that they should give 50%, or everything? That just seems to be an excessive demand - or, at least, many might think so. Objection to a moral or ethical demand that seems excessive is the "demandingness objection."

When you think about it, this "demandingness objection" is an objection that a person might make with some frequency, in lots of different contexts, when that person is trying to understand and decide what she or he should do. 

Take politics, for instance, which is my field of interest and endeavor. I am frequently saying that if we want to maintain our system of democratic self-government, then we have to get involved ourselves. Someone reading that statement might well agree that this makes sense, and understand that the statement is making a moral claim upon that person's life and time. If a person truly cares about democratic self-government, that person needs to sacrifice some or all of the life they are then leading to do something new, by way of getting involved in politics and government. My frequently made statement is actually a demand that people should start sacrificing at least some portion of their current life in order to carry out what they will probably admit is a recognized moral or ethical imperative, maintaining democratic self-government.

Let's be honest. The demand I am really talking about is not on some third party. I am basically talking about myself. My life is rather comfortable. I am happy with it, and I am doing many positive things both for myself and others - or, I can convince myself that I am. Yet I see that democratic self-government is gravely threatened, and I want to preserve and protect it. I know I need to do at least a little bit more. The Great Wave is on its way, just as I said in an earlier blog posting. 

"We" - and of course that means "I" - need to confront horrendous income inequality, pervasive racial injustice, environmental degradation, and the global warming crisis - and maybe that's just for a start. Caitlin Johnstone had a slightly different list, which also could be a good starting place. The point is, I see that something must be done, and I know that this means that I, personally, need to do something. I also know that to do something meaningful, I am going to have to change my current life, and probably significantly, in order to respond to the moral and ethical demands I count as legitimate.

Here is where the "demandingness objection" is vigorously unfurled in the back of my mind. I am already doing at least some things to counteract the possible loss of democratic self-government and to confront those other challenges I have just mentioned. Isn't that enough? How could it be right to demand even more?

Learning about the "demandingness objection" gives me a new way to think about my personal reluctance to take steps to change my life in response to what I truly do see as a moral and ethical imperative. We are "actors," I say - I say that a lot, too - and we are not just "observers." That means that I, personally, am supposed to act. Yet, that "demandingness objection" keeps ambushing me and holding me hostage. Certainly, I think, I can't really be expected to do that! "That" being some thought I might have had of something I might do that would require some real change.

A famous Quaker story has George Fox (the first Quaker) talking to William Penn. Though Penn was growing in his acceptance of the nonviolent message of Fox, Penn still routinely wore his sword as he walked aound the town, which was typical of men of his rank and fashion. What should I do about this sword, Penn asked Fox? Well, Fox told him, "wear your sword as long as you can." Reportedly, the next time Fox and Penn crossed paths, Penn had given up the sword. 

Reading Kelsey Piper on the "demandingness objection" has not only introduced me to a new ethical concept. I quickly came to see this term as a species of self-generated objection, an objection that bridles at a moral or ethical calling that seems to want "too much," that demands too much of a sacrifice, and that asks for too much change, and some sort of disproportionate submission to the moral claims that call out to me. 

In this understanding of the concept, the objection is just like Penn's sword, a weapon of defense carried simply out of custom and convenience but one to be kept at the ready. That's what the "demandingness objection" means to me. The way I am thinking about it, it is clear that I will be able to maintain that "demandingness objection" only so long. In fact, with thanks to my friend for sending me Kelsey Piper's little essay on the "demandingness objection," my mind is captured in the music of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs: "I Feel A Change Comin' On."



Hey readers,


In most years, we anticipate the holidays with joy. But I don’t think anyone I know is feeling that way this year. For many of us, the holidays will likely be lonely, quiet, punctuated with Zoom calls instead of hugs. I vividly remember calling my parents at the end of February to tell them to cancel a planned trip to see me and our three-month-old baby in April. It won’t be safe for a while, I said.


I had no idea it would be this long.


Last week, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo posted a column about his struggle with the dilemma of wanting to be with your family for the holidays but also wanting to do the right thing for public health. He described tracing the contacts his family had, realizing that what they thought of as fairly safe behavior actually opened them up to secondhand exposure from hundreds of people, and deciding to go see his family for Thanksgiving anyway. The article was met with outrage and has since been tweaked (it now describes the get-together as an outdoor dinner, which is safer).


But when I read the initial version, I didn’t feel outrage. I felt a jolt of recognition. It is weirdly common to look at the evidence, conclude that, yes, Thanksgiving this year poses substantial risk of killing someone, and then be tempted to do it anyway.


This leads to a concept I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m in the effective altruist community, where we spend a lot of time discussing the best ways we can improve the world. In that community, there’s an argument we have a lot.


It’s over something called the “demandingness objection.” That’s an unwieldy phrase that gets at a pretty simple concept: acting in a moral way can sometimes demand too much from us.


Most people have a sense that morality ought to be, well, reasonable. It might demand that we donate a little to charity, but it doesn't demand that we donate everything to charity. It might demand that we sacrifice for others, but it doesn’t propose boundless, unending, infinite sacrifices. That’s why some people conclude we ought to donate 10 percent of income to charity — that's enough to make a huge difference but not so onerous on one’s standard of living. And it feels like morality should be allowed to ask that of us, but not allowed to ask everything of us.


But sometimes it does ask everything of us.


I believe that if you were in Nazi Germany, morality would demand that you hide your Jewish neighbors — even though this might mean sacrificing everything. I believe that if you were in the rest of the world, morality might demand fighting Nazi Germany, even if that meant sacrificing your life. I believe in the moral urgency of abolitionism, of smallpox eradication, of a thousand triumphs won through the unreasonable sacrifices of people who should never have been asked to make them. I believe that the moral urgency that’s easy to see in the past is sometimes present in the present, too.

Now, it is healthy, important, and essential to the functioning of thriving moral communities that we build a conception of morality that is self-sustaining and meaningful, that does not burn or bum us out, that does not demand infinite sacrifices in a way no one can relate to and achieve. It is a strike against a moral system if people cannot actually live it.


All that said, I think it is too convenient to believe that morality will never ask far too much of us.


This year, what morality asks of us is clear. When people avoid indoor unmasked gatherings with others, we slow the spread of the virus enough that the people who are sick can get good care, instead of dying in hospital waiting rooms. We prevent some infections entirely. We save lives.


And yet it does feel like morality asks far too much of us. Many people have been forced to risk their lives working in dangerous conditions to provide health care to dying people. Many people have missed their children, been unable to return to their home country, grieved alone when funerals were disallowed.


Even for the luckiest among us, this year has asked us to endure pain and disruption and suffering and heartbreak, and it has demanded of us that we endure it alone, together over the internet and together in our hearts but not together in our homes. It has asked us to wear masks and stay in and skip treasured parts of our daily routines and mark milestones alone, or not at all. I canceled my wedding this year. I text my family pictures of a grandkid they haven’t met.


But the sacrifice is not infinite. It is not eternal. It is for another six months, maybe, hopefully. It is now estimated that vaccines could be widely available within the US this spring.


We will one day be safe from the coronavirus. We will stop its spread. And then we will hug the people we love, and we will grieve with them, and we will catch them up on everything we have missed. For those of us who survive this year, we will recover from it.


Sometimes the world demands too much of us. This Thanksgiving, the world demands too much of us. But please, please, do it anyway, so that sometime next year as many people as possible still have families to hold and hug and grieve with.


—Kelsey Piper, @kelseytuoc

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