When doing good seems too hard

When doing good seems too hard
Everyday Philosophy


Last month I argued against utilitarianism, the school of moral philosophy that seeks ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Utilitarianism is false because following it consistently means endorsing the idea that it’s sometimes right to choose evil means to achieve good ends.

Here, though, I want to say a word against a different (and in contemporary philosophy more influential) family of anti-utilitarian arguments called ‘demandingness objections’. I think that in this area utilitarians are in some ways closer to the truth than their critics. I want to make the case that you don’t have to be a utilitarian to believe that morality makes huge, disruptive demands on almost all of us – demands that might upend our everyday lives. You just have to be a Christian.

What are demandingness objections? They run like this: “If this moral system were true, it would be impossibly demanding. It would ask too much of the people who believe in it, and be incompatible with living a good life and enjoying a variety of non-moral goods.”


The objection specific to utilitarianism is usually something like this: given the vast amount of suffering in the world, promoting the greatest good for the greatest number would involve running around doing good all the time, leaving no room for trips to the zoo, expansive DVD collections, etc.

Enter Peter Singer. Singer is not, to put it mildly, my favourite philosopher. He’s notorious for defending euthanasia, abortion and post-birth infanticide, and holds that humans with cognitive disabilities aren’t our moral equals.  But in a paper called ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, Singer has a genuinely good insight.

Singer asks you to imagine that you’re walking through a park and suddenly notice a small child drowning in a shallow, muddy pool. Wading in to save the child will involve getting your clothes filthy. Everyone agrees that you ought to save the child. This would still be the case if you saw a variety of other people standing around refusing to help.

If the suit was luxurious and would cost thousands to restore, nothing changes. The central intuition here is that if you can do something to save a life without giving up anything of moral importance, you ought to.

How does this apply to real life? Well, it is easy to save a child’s life immediately: you can donate to the Against Malaria foundation. The general consensus is that you can save a child from dying of malaria for between two and seven thousand dollars.

So if you you’re currently spending the money on things that aren’t of moral importance, shouldn’t you give it away instead? (Or give your leisure time where it will help to save lives or alleviate desperate poverty?)

This is where demandingness objections come in: where does this logic lead? After you’ve saved one child, what about the next? Must we give away everything, draining our lives of everything else we value until the ills of the world are solved?

Not exactly. Catholic moral philosophy is rich with ‘special obligations’, things we owe to people by virtue of our relationship to them. The most obvious example are the specific responsibilities parents have to their children, which put limits on their availability for other good works (though even here, remember Christ’s disturbing words in Luke 14:26 and Matthew 19:29).

Catholics also have a much broader view of what constitutes the good than any utilitarian: a person in enclosed religious life is doing a tremendous good for God’s Kingdom by their prayer, even if it limits their capacity to relieve poverty. The same goes for artists and creators like Michelangelo or Tolkien, who spend their lives creating things of beauty.

But it’s also true that the Catholic answer to ‘where do our obligations of benevolence end?’ is ‘much further out than most of us want’. “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none” is an unsettlingly straightforward instruction. Jesus’ account of Last Judgment is similarly uncompromising. And if we ask, like the apostles, ‘who is my neighbour?’, the parable of the Good Samaritan gives a clear answer.

And let’s be serious. Usually, we don’t sacrifice the opportunity to save lives or serve our neighbour in order to save souls, grow in holiness, or create beautiful things. We mostly do it in order to have a fancier car, a bigger house, or more books than we will ever actually read.

Does this mean, though, that even most of the people we consider to be generally good Christians, are nowhere near Christian enough? That an authentically Christian life requires far more self-sacrifice than most of us are willing to entertain? I think it does. We can certainly critique utilitarianism for being demanding in the wrong ways: but our Lord was more demanding still.