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Summary Suppose that if I ate a cookie, what I would then do is eat another, and another, and so on until I was sick to my stomach. But let's also suppose that if, after eating the first cookie, I decided to stop and put the bag of cookies away, I would then stop after eating just the one cookie, which is what would be best. Second best would be my eating no cookies. And worst of all would be my eating cookies until I was sick to my stomach. The problem is that although I would stop eating after having eaten just one if I were to decide then (that is, after having eaten the first one) to stop and put the bag away, I am in fact going to decide, after tasting the first one, to continue eating them, and no matter what I intend now (that is, before eating a cookie) this is the decision that I'll reach after eating the first cookie. And this unfortunate decision will lead to my eating until I'm sick to my stomach.  What should I do in this sort of situation? Should I eat a cookie or not? On the one hand, the actualist argues that because what would happen if I were to eat a cookie is much worse than what would happen if I were not to do so, I ought not to eat a cookie. On the other hand, the possibilist argues that because I could, after eating a cookie, stop there so long as I decide then to stop, I should eat a cookie. 
Key works Some of the classic works defending actualism are Goldman 1976, Sobel 1976, and Jackson & Pargetter 1986. And some of the classic works defending possibilism are Greenspan 1978, Feldman 1986, and Zimmerman 1996. Other works try to take some sort of intermediary position between the two: see, for instance, Goldman 1978, Portmore 2011, Ross forthcoming, Woodard 2009.
Introductions For an introduction to the actualism and possibilism debate, I would recommend Ross forthcoming.
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  1. Derek Baker (2012). Knowing Yourself—And Giving Up On Your Own Agency In The Process. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (4):641 - 656.
    Are there cases in which agents ought to give up on satisfying an obligation, so that they can avoid a temptation which will lead them to freely commit an even more significant wrong? Actualists say yes. Possibilists say no. Both positions have absurd consequences. This paper argues that common-sense morality is committed to an inconsistent triad of principles. This inconsistency becomes acute when we consider the cases that motivate the possibilism?actualism debate. Thus, the absurd consequences of both solutions are unsurprising: (...)
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  2. Erik Carlson (2002). Deliberation, Foreknowledge, and Morality as a Guide to Action. Erkenntnis 57 (1):71-89.
    In Section 1, I rehearse some arguments for the claim that morality should be ``action-guiding'', and try to state the conditions under which a moral theory is in fact action-guiding. I conclude that only agents who are cognitively and conatively ``ideal'' are in general able to use a moral theory as a guide to action. In Sections 2 and 3, I discuss whether moral ``actualism'' implies that morality cannot be action-guiding even for ideal agents. If actualism is true, an ideal (...)
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  3. Erik Carlson (1999). Consequentialism, Alternatives, and Actualism. Philosophical Studies 96 (3):253-268.
  4. Angela Curran (1995). Utilitarianism and Future Mistakes: Another Look. [REVIEW] Philosophical Studies 78 (1):71 - 85.
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  5. Fred Feldman (1986). Doing the Best We Can: An Essay in Informal Deontic Logic. D. Reidel Publishing Company.
    However, if we take a more generous view about possibility, then more alternatives present themselves. The best of these may be something that we formerly took to be impossible, and which is better than the best of the earlier possibilities.
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  6. M. Oreste Fiocco (2013). Consequentialism and the World in Time. Ratio 26 (2):212-224.
    Consequentialism is a general approach to understanding the nature of morality that seems to entail a certain view of the world in time. This entailment raises specific problems for the approach. The first seems to lead to the conclusion that every actual act is right – an unacceptable result for any moral theory. The second calls into question the idea that consequentialism is an approach to morality, for it leads to the conclusion that this approach produces a theory whose truth (...)
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  7. Lou Goble (1993). The Logic of Obligation, 'Better' and 'Worse'. Philosophical Studies 70 (2):133 - 163.
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  8. Holly S. Goldman (1978). Doing the Best One Can. In Alvin Goldman & Jaegwon Kim (eds.), Values and Morals. Reidel. 185--214.
  9. Holly S. Goldman (1977). Erratum: Dated Rightness and Moral Imperfection. Philosophical Review 86 (2):281 -.
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  10. Holly S. Goldman (1976). Dated Rightness and Moral Imperfection. Philosophical Review 85 (4):449-487.
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  11. P. S. Greenspan (1978). Oughts and Determinism: A Response to Goldman. Philosophical Review 87 (1):77-83.
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  12. Johan E. Gustafsson (2014). Combinative Consequentialism and the Problem of Act Versions. Philosophical Studies 167 (3):585–596.
    In the 1960’s, Lars Bergström and Hector-Neri Castañeda noticed a problem with alternative acts and consequentialism. The source of the problem is that some performable acts are versions of other performable acts and the versions need not have the same consequences as the originals. Therefore, if all performable acts are among the agent’s alternatives, act consequentialism yields deontic paradoxes. A standard response is to restrict the application of act consequentialism to certain relevant alternative sets. Many proposals are based on some (...)
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  13. Lloyd Humberstone (1983). The Background of Circumstances. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64:19-34.
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  14. Frank Jackson & Robert Pargetter (1986). Oughts, Options, and Actualism. Philosophical Review 95 (2):233-255.
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  15. Clayton Littlejohn (2009). Critical Notice of Michael Zimmerman's, Living with Uncertainty. [REVIEW] Philosophical Books 50 (4):235–247.
  16. Jennie Louise (2009). I Won't Do It! Self-Prediction, Moral Obligation and Moral Deliberation. Philosophical Studies 146 (3):327 - 348.
    This paper considers the question of whether predictions of wrongdoing are relevant to our moral obligations. After giving an analysis of ‘won’t’ claims (i.e., claims that an agent won’t Φ), the question is separated into two different issues: firstly, whether predictions of wrongdoing affect our objective moral obligations, and secondly, whether self-prediction of wrongdoing can be legitimately used in moral deliberation. I argue for an affirmative answer to both questions, although there are conditions that must be met for self-prediction to (...)
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  17. Douglas W. Portmore, Acts, Attitudes, and Rational Choice.
    In this paper, I argue that we have obligations not only to perform certain actions, but also to have certain attitudes (such as desires, beliefs, and intentions), and this despite the fact that we rarely, if ever, have direct voluntary control over our attitudes. Moreover, I argue that whatever obligations we have with respect to actions derive from our obligations with respect to attitudes. More specifically, I argue that an agent is obligated to perform an action if and only if (...)
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  18. Douglas W. Portmore, Consequentialism and Coordination Problems.
    Imagine both that (1) S1 is deliberating at t about whether or not to x at t' and that (2) although S1’s x-ing at t' would not itself have good consequences, good consequences would ensue if both S1 x's at t' and S2 y's at t", where S1 may or may not be identical to S2 and where t < t' ≤ t". In this paper, I consider how consequentialists should treat S2 and the possibility that S2 will y at (...)
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  19. Douglas W. Portmore, What Are Our Options?
    We ought to perform our best option—that is, the option that we have most reason, all things considered, to perform. This is perhaps the most fundamental and least controversial of all normative principles concerning action. Yet, it is not, I believe, well understood. For even setting aside questions about what our reasons are and about how best to formulate the principle, there is a question about how we should construe our options. This question is of the upmost importance, for which (...)
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  20. Douglas W. Portmore (2011). Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality. Oxford University Press.
    This is a book on morality, rationality, and the interconnections between the two. In it, I defend a version of consequentialism that both comports with our commonsense moral intuitions and shares with other consequentialist theories the same compelling teleological conception of practical reasons.
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  21. Jacob Ross (forthcoming). Actualism, Possibilism, and Beyond. Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics.
    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 (...)
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  22. Jordan Howard Sobel (1982). Utilitarian Principles for Imperfect Agents. Theoria 48 (3):113-126.
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  23. Jordan Howard Sobel (1976). Utilitarianism and Past and Future Mistakes. Noûs 10 (2):195-219.
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  24. Richmond A. Thomason (1981). Deontic Logic and the Role of Freedom in Moral Deliberation. In Risto Hilpinen (ed.), New Studies in Deontic Logic.
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  25. Rob van Someren Greve (2013). Objective Consequentialism and Avoidable Imperfections. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16 (3):481-492.
    There are two distinct views on how to formulate an objective consequentialist account of the deontic status of actions, actualism and possibilism. On an actualist account, what matters to the deontic status of actions is only the value of the outcome an action would have, if performed. By contrast, a possibilist account also takes into account the value of the outcomes that an action could have. These two views come apart in their deontic verdicts when an agent is imperfect in (...)
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  26. Jean-Paul Vessel, Rebuttal to Coleman.
    Coleman suggests three central things in her commentary: (i) SUB is just as well-suited to deal with our case as PROB SUB is; thus, there aren’t any interesting reasons to prefer PROB SUB to SUB; (ii) I may have failed to describe Feldman’s possibilist view accurately; and (iii) an “intentionally accessible” version of possibilism will solve all our problems without appealing to objective subjunctive probabilities. Let me attend to each point.
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  27. Jean-Paul Vessel, Rebuttal to Decker and Goble.
    Theorists who endorse a subjunctive formulation of consequentialism with a “possibilist”-modified similarity relation are not plagued by this problem of incompatible obligations. Without some other interesting theoretical support, the burden is upon the actualists. Here’s a sketch of my favorite objective, weakly-centered, subjunctive brand of consequentialism containing the appropriate possibilist injection.
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  28. Jean-Paul Vessel (2009). Defending a Possibilist Insight in Consequentialist Thought. Philosophical Studies 142 (2):183 - 195.
    There is a heated dispute among consequentialists concerning the following deontic principle.
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  29. M. Vorobej (2000). Prosaic Possibilism. Philosophical Studies 97 (2):131-136.
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  30. Christopher Woodard (2009). What's Wrong with Possibilism. Analysis 69 (2):219 - 226.
    1. Possibilists claim that what Smith ought to do now depends on two kinds of facts about relevant agents’ responses to his action. If the relevant agent is a different individual, what Smith ought to do now depends on how that agent would respond. If the relevant agent is Smith himself, it depends instead on how he could best respond. Actualists deny this. They claim that, whether or not the relevant agent is Smith himself, what matters is how that agent (...)
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  31. Michael J. Zimmerman (2008). Living with Uncertainty: The Moral Significance of Ignorance. Cambridge University Press.
    Every choice we make is set against a background of massive ignorance about our past, our future, our circumstances, and ourselves. Philosophers are divided on the moral significance of such ignorance. Some say that it has a direct impact on how we ought to behave - the question of what our moral obligations are; others deny this, claiming that it only affects how we ought to be judged in light of the behaviour in which we choose to engage - the (...)
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  32. Michael J. Zimmerman (2005). The Relevance of Risk to Wrongdoing. In Kris McDaniel, Jason R. Raibley, Richard Feldman & Michael J. Zimmerman (eds.), The Good, the Right, Life And Death: Essays in Honor of Fred Feldman. Ashgate.
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  33. Michael J. Zimmerman (1996). The Concept of Moral Obligation. Cambridge University Press.
    The principal aim of this book is to develop and defend an analysis of the concept of moral obligation. The analysis is neutral regarding competing substantive theories of obligation, whether consequentialist or deontological in character. What it seeks to do is generate new solutions to a range of philosophical problems concerning obligation and its application. Amongst these problems are deontic paradoxes, the supersession of obligation, conditional obligation, prima facie obligation, actualism and possibilism, dilemmas, supererogation, and cooperation. By virtue of its (...)
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