Objective and Subjective Consequentialism

Edited by Douglas W. Portmore (Arizona State University)
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 Summary On objective consequentialism, the permissibility of S's X-ing (where S is a subject and X is an act) depends solely on the facts and not at all on what S's evidence is. More specifically, it depends on facts concerning the possible outcomes associated with X and its alternatives. Now, if determinism is true, there is, for each act, only one possible outcome. But if indeterminism is true, then there may be no determinate fact about what X's outcome would be. Instead, there would be only a probability distribution over the possible outcomes associated with S's X-ing. In contrast to objective consequentialism, subjective consequentialism holds that the permissibility of S's X-ing depends not on the facts but on S's evidences concerning possible outcomes. To illustrate, suppose that someone has shaken a die in a cup and has then inverted the cup onto the table top. Underneath the cup the die lies with the six side facing up. But I don't know this. Now if I pay six dollars, I can have the cup removed. And if the cup is removed to reveal a six facing up, I will win twelve dollars and double my money. If I don't pay six dollars, I can win nothing. If I pay six dollars, and something other than a six is revealed, I lose my six dollars. According to objective consequentialism, I should pay six dollars to play the game. For if I do, I will win twelve dollars and double my money. According to subjective consequentialism, I should not pay six dollars to play the game. Given that I don't know what side of the die faces up, I can only assume that there is, given my evidence, a one-in-six chance that a six will be revealed. But a 1-in-6 chance at twelve dollars isn't worth six dollars; it's worth only two dollars. Thus, according to subjective consequentialism, I shouldn't pay six dollars to play this game.
 Key works The classic piece on this is Jackson 1991. Some other very important papers are Carlson 1999, Howard-Snyder 1997, Wiland 2005, and Feldman 2006.
 Introductions Jackson 1991 in conjunction with Feldman 2006 provides a nice overview of the main issues.
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1. Some philosophers hold that objective consequentialism is false because it is incompatible with the principle that “ought” implies “can”. Roughly speaking, objective consequentialism is the doctrine that you always ought to do what will in fact have the best consequences. According to the principle that “ought” implies “can”, you have a moral obligation to do something only if you can do that thing. Frances Howard-Snyder has used an innovative thought experiment to argue that sometimes you cannot do what will in (...)
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2. This paper argues that objective consequentialism is incompatible with the rationales of ‘ “ought” implies “can” ’ – with the considerations, that is, that explain or justify this principle. Objective consequentialism is the moral doctrine that an act is right if and only if there is no alternative with a better outcome, and wrong otherwise. An act is obligatory if and only if it is wrong not to perform it. According to ‘ “ought” implies “can” ’, a person is morally (...)
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3. Vuko Andrić (2013). Objective Consequentialism and the Licensing Dilemma. Philosophical Studies 162 (3):547-566.
Frank Jackson has put forward a famous thought experiment of a physician who has to decide on the correct treatment for her patient. Subjective consequentialism tells the physician to do what intuitively seems to be the right action, whereas objective consequentialism fails to guide the physician’s action. I suppose that objective consequentialists want to supplement their theory so that it guides the physician’s action towards what intuitively seems to be the right treatment. Since this treatment is wrong according to objective (...)
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4. Vuko Andrić (2013). The Case of the Miners. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy:1-8.
This discussion note attempts to show that, pace Niko Kolodny and John MacFarlane, the Miners case intuitively speaks in favor of subjectivism. I argue that properly understood the intuitively correct judgements concerning the case are compatible with subjectivism. My argument is based, among other things, on a comparison between the Minders case and other cases as well as on considerations of blameworthiness.
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5. Vuko Andric & Attila Tanyi (2016). Multidimensional Consequentialism and Risk. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 19 (1):49-57.
In his new book, The Dimensions of Consequentialism, Martin Peterson proposes a version of multi-dimensional consequentialism according to which risk is one among several dimensions. We argue that Peterson’s treatment of risk is unsatisfactory. More precisely, we want to show that all problems of one-dimensional (objective or subjective) consequentialism are also problems for Peterson’s proposal, although it may fall prey to them less often. In ending our paper, we address the objection that our discussion overlooks the fact that Peterson’s proposal (...)
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6. Lars Bergström (1996). Reflections on Consequentialism. Theoria 62 (1-2):74-94.
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7. Scott Berman (2014). Prudence and Morality: Socrates Versus Moral Philosophers. South African Journal of Philosophy 33 (4):381-394.
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9. Erik Carlson (1999). The Oughts and Cans of Objective Consequentialism. Utilitas 11 (1):91-96.
Frances Howard -Snyder has argued that objective consequentialism violates the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. In most situations, she claims, we cannot produce the best consequences available, although objective consequentialism says that we ought to do so. Here I try to show that Howard -Snyder's argument is unsound. The claim that we typically cannot produce the best consequences available is doubtful. And even if there is a sense of ‘producing the best consequences’ in which we cannot do so, objective consequentialism (...)
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10. Wesley Cooper (2008). Decision-Value Utilitarianism. Polish Journal of Philosophy 2 (2):39-50.
A decision value alternative is proposed to the various formulations of the principle of utility, which counsel maimization of expected utility as utility is variously conceived. Decision value factors expected utility into causal expected utility and evidential expected utility, and it adds a third factor --- symbolic utility. This latter introduces deontological and a ‘perceived value’ elements into calculations of utility. It also suggests a solution to a lingering problem in population ethics, the so-called Repugnant Conclusion that consequentialist thinking demands (...)
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11. Julia Driver (2011). Consequentialism. Routledge.
Consequentialism is the view that the rightness or wrongness of actions depend solely on their consequences. It is one of the most influential, and controversial, of all ethical theories. In this book, Julia Driver introduces and critically assesses consequentialism in all its forms. After a brief historical introduction to the problem, Driver examines utilitarianism, and the arguments of its most famous exponents, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, and explains the fundamental questions underlying utilitarian theory: what value is to be (...)
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12. Fred Feldman (2012). True and Useful: On the Structure of a Two Level Normative Theory. Utilitas 24 (02):151-171.
Act-utilitarianism and other theories in normative ethics confront the implementability problem: normal human agents, with normal human epistemic abilities, lack the information needed to use those theories directly for the selection of actions. Two Level Theories have been offered in reply. The theoretical level component states alleged necessary and sufficient conditions for moral rightness. That component is supposed to be true, but is not intended for practical use. It gives an account of objective obligation. The practical level component is offered (...)
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13. Fred Feldman (2006). Actual Utility, The Objection From Impracticality, and the Move to Expected Utility. Philosophical Studies 129 (1):49-79.
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14. Two meanings of "subjective consequentialism" are distinguished: conscious deliberation with the aim of producing maximally-good consequences, versus acting in ways that, given one's evidence set and reasoning capabilities, is subjectively most likely to maximize expected consequences. The latter is opposed to "objective consequentialism," which demands that we act in ways that actually produce the best total consequences. Peter Railton's arguments for a version of objective consequentialism confuse the two subjective forms, and are only effective against the first. After reviewing the (...)
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15. Johan E. Gustafsson (2016). Consequentialism with Wrongness Depending on the Difficulty of Doing Better. Thought: A Journal of Philosophy 5 (2):108-118.
Moral wrongness comes in degrees. On a consequentialist view of ethics, the wrongness of an act should depend, I argue, in part on how much worse the act's consequences are compared with those of its alternatives and in part on how difficult it is to perform the alternatives with better consequences. I extend act consequentialism to take this into account, and I defend three conditions on consequentialist theories. The first is consequentialist dominance, which says that, if an act has better (...)
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16. Frances Howard-Snyder (1999). Response to Carlson and Qizilbash. Utilitas 11 (1):106-111.
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17. Frances Howard-Snyder (1997). The Rejection of Objective Consequentialism. Utilitas 9 (2):241-248.
Objective consequentialism is often criticized because it is impossible to know which of our actions will have the best consequences. Why exactly does this undermine objective consequentialism? I offer a new link between the claim that our knowledge of the future is limited and the rejection of objective consequentialism: that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ and we cannot produce the best consequences available to us. I support this apparently paradoxical contention by way of an analogy. I cannot beat Karpov at chess in (...)
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19. Elinor Mason (2013). Objectivism and Prospectivism About Rightness. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 7 (2).
In this paper I present a new argument for prospectivism: the view that, for a consequentialist, rightness depends on what is prospectively best rather than what would actually be best. Prospective bestness depends on the agent’s epistemic position, though exactly how that works is not straightforward. I clarify various possible versions of prospectivism, which differ in how far they go in relativizing to the agent’s limitations. My argument for prospectivism is an argument for moderately objective prospectivism, according to which the (...)
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20. Elinor Mason (2003). Consequentialism and the "Ought Implies Can" Principle. American Philosophical Quarterly 40 (4):319-331.
It seems that the debate between objective and subjective consequentialists might be resolved by appealing to the ought implies can principle. Howard-Snyder has suggested that if one does not know how to do something, cannot do it, and thus one cannot have an obligation to do it. I argue that this depends on an overly rich conception of ability, and that we need to look beyond the ought implies can principle to answer the question. Once we do so, it appears (...)
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21. David McCarthy (1998). Actions, Beliefs, and Consequences. Philosophical Studies 90 (1):57-77.
On the agent-relativity thesis, what an agent ought to do is a function of the evidence available to her about the consequences of her potential actions. On the objectivity thesis, what an agent ought to do is a function of what the consequences of her potential actions would be, regardless of the evidence available to her. This article argues for the agent-relativity thesis. The main opposing argument, due to Thomson, points to cases where a bystander can see that an agent (...)
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22. Eric Moore (2007). Objective Consequentialism, Right Actions, and Good People. Philosophical Studies 133 (1):83 - 94.
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23. Onora Oneill (2004). Consequences for Non-Consequentialists. Utilitas 16 (1):1-11.
Both consequentialist and non-consequentialist ethical reasoning have difficulties in accounting for the value of consequences. Taken neat, consequentialism is too fierce in its emphasis on success and disregard of luck, while non-consequentialism seemingly over-values inner states and undervalues actual results. In UneasyVirtue Julia Driver proposes a form of objective consequentialism which claims that characters are good if they typically (but not invariably) produce good results. This position addresses the problems moral luck raises for consequentialism, but requires some form of realism (...)
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24. Douglas W. Portmore (2011). 7 Consequentialism. In Christian Miller (ed.), Continuum Companion to Ethics. Continuum 143.
A general introduction to consequentialism.
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25. Mozaffar Qizilbash (1999). The Rejection of Objective Consequentialism: A Comment. Utilitas 11 (1):97-105.
Frances Howard -Snyder argues that objective consequentialism should be rejected because it violates the principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ in asking us to do what we cannot. In this comment I suggest that Howard -Snyder does not take sufficiently seriously the chief defence of objective consequentialism, which reformulates it so that it applies only to actions we can perform. Nonetheless, I argue that there are arguments relating to ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ which discredit objective consequentialism even if it is thus reformulated. (...)
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26. Peter Railton (1984). Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (2):134-171.
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27. M. Rickard (1995). Sour Grapes, Rational Desires and Objective Consequentialism. Philosophical Studies 80 (3):279 - 303.
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28. S. Andrew Schroeder (2011). You Don't Have to Do What's Best! (A Problem for Consequentialists and Other Teleologists). In Mark Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, vol. 1. Oxford University Press
Define teleology as the view that requirements hold in virtue of facts about value or goodness. Teleological views are quite popular, and in fact some philosophers (e.g. Dreier, Smith) argue that all (plausible) moral theories can be understood teleologically. I argue, however, that certain well-known cases show that the teleologist must at minimum assume that there are certain facts that an agent ought to know, and that this means that requirements can't, in general, hold in virtue of facts about value (...)
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29. Christian Seidel (ed.) (forthcoming). Consequentialism: New Directions, New Problems? Oxford University Press.
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30. Andrew Sepielli (forthcoming). Subjective and Objective Reasons. In Daniel Star (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Reasons and Normativity. Oxford
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31. Andrew Sepielli (2012). Subjective Normativity and Action Guidance. In Mark Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, Vol. II. Oxford University Press
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32. Rob van Someren Greve (2014). The Value of Practical Usefulness. Philosophical Studies 168 (1):167-177.
Some moral theories, such as objective forms of consequentialism, seem to fail to be practically useful: they are of little to no help in trying to decide what to do. Even if we do not think this constitutes a fatal flaw in such theories, we may nonetheless agree that being practically useful does make a moral theory a better theory, or so some have suggested. In this paper, I assess whether the uncontroversial respect in which a moral theory can be (...)
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33. 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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34. Theorists have consistently maintained that the most plausible forms of objective consequentialism must be probabilistic if and only if indeterminism is true.2 They claim: If indeterminism is true, then objective probabilities used to map such indeterminacies must be utilized by objective consequentialist moral theories; however, if determinism is true, probabilities play no role in objective consequentialist theorizing. I beg to differ. Assume determinism is true and I will show you that attractive forms of objective consequentialism must be probabilistic—and not for (...)
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35. JEAN-PAUL VESSEL (2008). The Probabilistic Nature of Objective Consequentialism. Theoria 73 (1):46 - 67.
Theorists have consistently maintained that the most plausible forms of objective consequentialism must be probabilistic if and only if indeterminism is true. This standard position, however popular, lacks sufficient motivation. Assume determinism to be true and an attempt will be made to show that attractive forms of objective consequentialism must be probabilistic - and not for reasons related to our epistemic limitations either. -/- Here it is argued that all extant objective formulations of consequentialism fail to deliver the normative implications (...)
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36. Eric Wiland (2005). Monkeys, Typewriters, and Objective Consequentialism. Ratio 18 (3):352–360.
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