Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter March 13, 2019

Collective Obligations and Demandingness Complaints

Brian Berkey


It has been suggested that understanding our obligations to address large-scale moral problems such as global poverty and the threat of severe climate change as fundamentally collective can allow us to insist that a great deal must be done about these problems while denying that there are very demanding obligations, applying to either individuals or collectives, to contribute to addressing them. I argue that this strategy for limiting demandingness fails because those who endorse collective obligations to address large-scale moral problems have no grounds for denying that the relevant collectives are obligated to do what is impartially best. Specifically, I argue that appeals to the claim that collective obligations to do what is impartially best would be objectionably demanding cannot succeed, for two reasons. The first is that demandingness complaints cannot be aggregated across the individual members of a collective. And the second is that demandingness complaints cannot plausibly be asserted on behalf of collectives themselves. I conclude by suggesting some reasons to think that collective obligations to address large-scale problems will tend to imply demanding individual obligations.


I am grateful to audiences at the Collectivity Conference at the University of Bristol, the 2015 Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, the 2017 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, the Individual and Collective Duties to Rescue Workshop at the Institute for Future Studies in Stockholm, and the Demandingness in Practice Workshop at the University of Münster. Patrick Fleming provided helpful comments at the Pacific APA meeting, as did Sara Ghaffari at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress. Amy Sepinwall provided helpful written comments. I have also benefitted from discussions with Rachelle Bascara, Jelena Belic, Amy Berg, Megan Blomfeld, Joe Bowen, Vince Buccola, Mark Budolfson, Stephanie Collins, Peter Conti-Brown, Simon Derpmann, Helen Frowe, Gwen Gordon, Anna Hartford, Rob Hughes, Matthew Kramer, Holly Lawford-Smith, Alex Levitov, Hallie Liberto, Sarah Light, Kian Mintz-Woo, Véronique Munoz-Dardé, Kieran Oberman, Ingmar Persson, Julie Rose, Liam Shields, Patrick Taylor Smith, Susanne Uusitalo, Marcel van Ackeren, and David Zaring.


Arnold, D. (2006). ‘Corporate Moral Agency’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 30: 279–291.10.4135/9781412956260.n200Search in Google Scholar

Berkey, B. (2014). ‘Climate Change, Moral Intuitions, and Moral Demandingness’, Philosophy and Public Issues 4 (2): 157–189.Search in Google Scholar

Berkey, B. (2016). ‘The Demandingness of Morality: Toward a Reflective Equilibrium’, Philosophical Studies 73 (11): 3015–3035.10.1007/s11098-016-0648-9Search in Google Scholar

Braddock, M. (2013). ‘Defusing the Demandingness Objection: Unreliable Intuitions,’ Journal of Social Philosophy 44 (2): 169–191.10.1111/josp.12018Search in Google Scholar

Collins, S. (2013). ‘Collectives’ Duties and Collectivization Duties,’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91 (2): 231–248.10.1080/00048402.2012.717533Search in Google Scholar

Collins, S. and Lawford-Smith, H. (2016). ‘Collectives’ and Individuals’ Obligations: A Parity Argument,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 46 (1): 38–58.10.1080/00455091.2015.1116350Search in Google Scholar

French, P. (1979). ‘The Corporation as a Moral Person,’ American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (3): 207–215.10.4324/9781315253770-3Search in Google Scholar

Goodin, R. (2012). ‘Excused by the Unwillingness of Others?’ Analysis 72 (1): 18–24.10.1093/analys/anr128Search in Google Scholar

Hess, K. (2013). ‘If You Tickle Us…: How Corporations Can Be Moral Agents without Being Persons,’ Journal of Value Inquiry 47 (3): 319–335.10.1007/s10790-013-9391-zSearch in Google Scholar

Jackson, F. (1987). ‘Group Morality,’ in P. Pettit, R. Sylvan and J. Norman (eds.). Metaphysics and Morality: Essays in Honour of J.J.C. Smart (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 91–110.Search in Google Scholar

Lichtenberg, J. (2014). Distant Strangers: Ethics, Psychology, and Global Poverty (New York: Cambridge University Press).10.1017/CBO9781139049290Search in Google Scholar

List, C. (2018). ‘What Is It like to Be a Group Agent?’ Noûs 52 (2): 295–319.10.1111/nous.12162Search in Google Scholar

List, C. and Pettit, P. (2011). Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents (New York: Oxford University Press).10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199591565.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Murphy, L. (2000). Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (New York: Oxford University Press).Search in Google Scholar

Norcross, A. (1997). ‘Comparing Harms: Headaches and Human Lives,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 26 (2): 135–167.10.1111/j.1088-4963.1997.tb00079.xSearch in Google Scholar

Norcross, A. (1998). ‘Great Harms from Small Benefits Grow: How Death Can Be Outweighed by Headaches,’ Analysis 58 (2): 152–158.10.1093/analys/58.2.152Search in Google Scholar

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books).Search in Google Scholar

Pasternak, A. (2017). ‘From Corporate Moral Agency to Corporate Moral Rights,’ Law and Ethics of Human Rights 11 (1): 135–159.10.1515/lehr-2017-0003Search in Google Scholar

Pettit, P. (2007). ‘Responsibility Incorporated,’ Ethics 117 (2): 171–201.10.1086/510695Search in Google Scholar

Phillips, M.J. (1992). ‘Corporate Moral Personhood and Three Conceptions of the Corporation,’ Business Ethics Quarterly 4 (2): 435–459.10.2307/3857581Search in Google Scholar

Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).10.4159/9780674042582Search in Google Scholar

Scanlon, T.M. (1998). What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).Search in Google Scholar

Scheffler, S. (1992). Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press).Search in Google Scholar

Scheffler, S. (1994). The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions, Revised Edition (New York: Oxford University Press).10.1093/0198235119.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Sepinwall, A.J. (2016). ‘Corporate Moral Responsibility,’ Philosophy Compass 11 (1): 3–13.10.1111/phc3.12293Search in Google Scholar

Silver, D. (2005). ‘A Strawsonian Defense of Corporate Moral Responsibility,’ American Philosophical Quarterly 42 (4): 279–293.Search in Google Scholar

Silver, K. (forthcoming). ‘Can a Corporation Be Worthy of Moral Consideration?’ Journal of Business Ethics.10.1007/s10551-018-3787-4Search in Google Scholar

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2005). ‘It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations,’ in W. Sinnott-Armstrong and R. Howarth (eds.). Perspectives on Climate Change: Science, Economics, Politics, Ethics (Oxford: Elsevier), pp. 285–307.10.1016/S1569-3740(05)05013-3Search in Google Scholar

Sobel, D. (2007). ‘The Impotence of the Demandingness Objection,’ Philosophers’ Imprint 7 (8): 1–17.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198712640.003.0013Search in Google Scholar

Williams, B. (1973). ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism,’ in J.J.C. Smart and B. Williams (eds.). Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 77–150.10.1017/CBO9780511840852Search in Google Scholar

Williams, B. (1981). ‘Persons, Character, and Morality,’ in B. Williams (eds.). Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 1–19.10.1017/CBO9781139165860Search in Google Scholar

Wringe, B. (2005). ‘Needs, Rights, and Collective Obligations’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 57: 187–207.10.1017/CBO9780511599750.010Search in Google Scholar

Wringe, B. (2014a). ‘From Global Collective Obligations to Institutional Obligations’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 38: 171–186.10.1111/misp.12022Search in Google Scholar

Wringe, B. (2014b). ‘May I Treat a Collective as a Mere Means?’ American Philosophical Quarterly 51 (3): 273–284.Search in Google Scholar

Wringe, B. (2016). ‘Collective Obligations: Their Existence, Their Explanatory Power, and Their Supervenience on the Obligations of Individuals,’ European Journal of Philosophy 24 (2): 472–497.10.1111/ejop.12076Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2019-03-13
Published in Print: 2019-05-27

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston