Actualism, Possibilism, and Beyond

Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics (2012)
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How is what an agent ought to do related to what an agent ought to prefer that she does? More precisely, suppose we know what an agent’s preference ordering ought to be over the prospects of performing the various courses of action open to her. Can we infer from this information how she ought to act, and if so, how can we infer it? One view (which, for convenience, I will call ‘actualism’) is that an agent ought to  just in case she ought to prefer the prospect of her -ing to the prospect of her not -ing. Another view (which, for convenience, I will call ‘possibilism’) is that an agent ought to  just in case she ought to prefer the prospect of some maximally specific option that involves her -ing to the prospect of any maximally specific option that does not involve her -ing (with the quantifiers appropriately restricted). After making some preliminary clarifications in part 1, I will discuss actualism and possibilism in parts 2 and 3, respectively. I will argue, in part 2, that actualism is very far from the truth. And I will argue, in part 3, that while the standard version of possibilism faces significant problems, there are much better versions of possibilism that avoid the objections to the standard view. Ultimately, however, I will argue that even the best forms of possibilism are not acceptable. Then, in part 4, I will propose what I take to be the best view, one that is neither strictly possibilist nor actualist, and that avoids the shortcomings of both these views.



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Jake Ross
Illinois State University

References found in this work

Normative requirements.John Broome - 1999 - Ratio 12 (4):398–419.
The Concept of Moral Obligation.Michael J. Zimmerman - 1996 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Oughts, options, and actualism.Frank Jackson & Robert Pargetter - 1986 - Philosophical Review 95 (2):233-255.

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