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Collective Obligations and Demandingness Complaints

Brian Berkey

Abstract

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.

Acknowledgements

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.

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

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