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CHAPTER ONE: The Challenge to Moderate Morality

I. Dramatis Personae: The ‘extremist’, the ‘minimalist’, and the ‘moderate’

The Limits of Morality is Shelly Kagan’s challenge to what he terms ‘moderate morality.’ The position of the ‘moderate’ is characterized by her acceptance of three things: a pro tanto reason3 to promote the greater overall good, constraints on what may be done, either for the sake of promoting the greater overall good or for the sake of promoting personal good, and options (sometimes called ‘prerogatives’) not to perform the action which will result in the greater overall good. The moderate is distinguished from the ‘minimalist’ on the one hand and the ‘extremist’ on the other. The minimalist is one who, though he may believe that there are some constraints on one's pursuit of his own individual good, does not accept any pro tanto reason to promote the overall good, and may not accept any constraints on the pursuit of individual self-interest at all.4 The extremist, meanwhile, is one who, while he may or may not believe in constraints on what may be done in order to maximize the greatest overall good, does not believe in options to favor personal interests over promoting the greater overall good.

Kagan’s goal in The Limits of Morality is to apply pressure to the moderate (whom he understands as giving voice to our ordinary, everyday, common-sense morality), showing her that she must give up her untenable middle-of-the-road position, as it does not withstand scrutiny, and embrace either minimalism or extremism. (Kagan himself favors the extremist's position, but it is not his task in this book to argue positively in favor of this view.) Kagan’s main strategy in pressuring the moderate is to subject her justifications of both constraints and options to severe criticism. The defense of options undergoes particularly heavy attack, for, as we have seen, the commitment to options is unique to the moderate. For though the minimalist likely does not accept the pro tanto reason to promote the greater overall good, the moderate does share this acceptance with the extremist. Similarly, the moderate’s insistence on constraints might

3 According to Kagan, a ‘pro tanto’ reason to promote the good is one that “has genuine weight, but nonetheless may be outweighed by other considerations . . . [A] pro tanto reason is a genuine reason – with actual weight – but it may not be a decisive one in various cases.” (Kagan 1989, p. 17)

4 "Note that a variety of sharply diverging positions will fall within the minimalist camp, including egoists (who believe that one is never required to sacrifice overall self-interest), nihilists (who believe that


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