Bioethics Blogs

How morality might ask less of scrooges (and more of kinder folks)

Could the fact that someone is more scroogelike – less willing to sacrifice for the sake of doing good – entail that morality is less demanding for her?  The answer to this question has important implications for a host of issues in practical ethics, including issues surrounding adoption, procreation, charity, consumer choices, and self-defense.

If Scrooge gave away just a few pennies, let’s suppose he would suffer a big loss of well-being; let’s suppose that for Teresa to suffer a comparable loss she would have to give until she were herself nearly penniless.  Arguably here morality demands less money from the more scroogelike, though one could claim that it’s no less demanding, since arguably one’s own well-being is the relevant currency to be demanded by morality.  Perhaps this is wrong, but never mind that.  I want to ask a somewhat different question:  does the fact that Scrooge is more scroogelike – less willing to sacrifice his well-being (or whatever the relevant currency is) for the sake of doing good – than Teresa plausibly entail that morality is less demanding of him?  Does morality require less of Scrooge’s well-being (or whatever the relevant currency is) for the sake of the overall good than what it likewise requires of Teresa, in virtue of his greater scrooginess?

There are some extreme internalists who will take this to be an easy question.  They’d say the obligations you are under depend wholly on what your actual desires or other pro-attitudes are (or would be, were you fully informed), so obviously morality will be differentially demanding for the more or less scroogelike.  But this position implies that, if you happen to be totally indifferent to whether a child bleeds to death on the side of the road, morality doesn’t require you to virtually effortlessly use your cell phone to call an ambulance.  To put it politely, that’s counterintuitive.  There are in fact several subtler and more plausible routes to the conclusion that morality is less demanding for the more scroogelike.  I’ll now sketch one.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.