About this topic
Summary The actualism-possibilism debate concerns cases that have the following three features: (F1) Each of the following is something that the given subject, S, could possibly do: (a) φ, (b) φ well, (c) φ poorly, and (d) refrain from φ-ing—where, for all x, x-ing at tʹ is, as of t, something that S could possibly perform if and only if there exists an available schedule of intentions from t on wards such that if, S’s intentions were to follow this schedule, S would x at tʹ (tʹ being later than t). (F2) Her φ-ing well is the best thing that she could possibly do, her refraining from φ-ing is second best, and her φ-ing poorly is the worst thing that she could possibly do. And, (F3) as a matter of fact, she would actually φ poorly if she were to φ. Actualists and possibilists disagree about whether the subject ought to φ in such cases. Actualists say 'no', and possibilists say 'yes'. To illustrate, consider the case that I call Cookies: If Gifre were to eat some cookies, he would continue eating one after another until he finishes the whole bag and is sick to his stomach. But if, after eating just one cookie, he were to decide to stop and put the bag away, he would then stop after having eaten just one cookie, which is what would be best. Second best would be his refraining from eating some cookies. And worst of all would be his eating all the cookies. The problem is that although he would stop eating after having eaten just one cookie if he were to decide then (that is, after having eaten the first cookie) to stop and put the bag away, he is in fact going to decide, after tasting how delicious they are, to continue eating them. And this unfortunate decision will lead to his eating all of them and becoming sick to his stomach. Moreover, there’s nothing that Gifre can do now to change the fact that he would continue eating the whole bag if he were eat some cookies. Thus, even if he were, say, to resolve now to put the bag of cookies away after eating just one, he would change his mind after eating the one and continue eating the whole bag. Now, whereas actualists hold that Gifre ought to refrain from eating some cookies given that he would actually eat all the cookies if he were to eat some cookies, possibilists hold that, because he could possibly eat just one cookie if, and only if, he were to eat some cookies, he ought to eat some cookies. More generally, actualists hold that, for any subject S and any act φ that she could possibly perform, the normative status of S’s φ-ing depends only on what would actually happen if she were to φ and how that compares to what would actually happen if she were to perform various alternatives to φ. And, by contrast, possibilists hold that, for any subject S and any act φ that she could possibly perform, the normative status of S’s φ-ing depends only on what could possibly happen if she were to φ and how that compares to what could possibly happen if she were to perform various alternatives to φ.
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 2012, Woodard 2009Timmerman & Cohen 2016, and Portmore 2019.
Introductions For an introduction to the actualism and possibilism debate, I would recommend Timmerman & Cohen 2019.
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  1. added 2020-06-28
    Actualism Doesn’T Have Control Issues: A Reply to Cohen and Timmerman.Andrew T. Forcehimes & Luke Semrau - 2019 - Philosophia 47 (1):271-277.
    Recently, Cohen and Timmerman, 1–18, 2016) argue that actualism has control issues. The view should be rejected, they claim, as it recognizes a morally irrelevant distinction between counterfactuals over which agents exercise the same kind of control. Here we reply on behalf of actualism.
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  2. added 2020-06-16
    Maximalism and Moral Harmony.Douglas W. Portmore - 2018 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (2):318-341.
    Maximalism is the view that an agent is permitted to perform a certain type of action if and only if she is permitted to perform some instance of this type, where φ-ing is an instance of ψ-ing if and only if φ-ing entails ψ-ing but not vice versa. Now, the aim of this paper is not to defend maximalism, but to defend a certain account of our options that when combined with maximalism results in a theory that accommodates the idea (...)
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  3. added 2020-02-25
    Sweatshops and Free Action: The Stakes of the Actualism/Possibilism Debate for Business Ethics.Travis Timmerman & Abe Zakhem - forthcoming - Journal of Business Ethics.
    Whether an action is morally right depends upon the alternative acts available to the agent. Actualists hold that what an agent would actually do determines her moral obligations. Possibilists hold that what an agent could possibly do determines her moral obligations. Both views face compelling criticisms. Despite the fact that actualist and possibilist assumptions are at the heart of seminal arguments in business ethics, there has been no explicit discussion of actualism and possibilism in the business ethics literature. This paper (...)
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  4. added 2020-01-05
    How Should We Accommodate Our Future Misbehavior? The Answer Turns on How Bad It Will Be.Daniel Immerman - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-20.
    Professor Procrastinate receives an invitation to review a book. Best would be to accept it and then write the review. But if he accepts it, he will never get around to writing. And this would be worse than declining. Should he accept? Possibilists say yes, Actualists say no, and I say we need more information. In particular, we lack some information about the level of goodness of the various options. For example, we lack information regarding how much better it would (...)
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  5. added 2019-09-19
    Ways to Be Blameworthy: Rightness, Wrongness, and Responsibility.Elinor Mason - 2019 - Oxford University Press.
    Elinor Mason draws on ethics and responsibility theory to present a pluralistic view of both wrongness and blameworthiness. Mason argues that our moral concepts, rightness and wrongness, must be connected to our responsibility concepts. But the connection is not simple. She identifies three different ways to be blameworthy, corresponding to different ways of acting wrongly. The paradigmatic way to be blameworthy is to act subjectively wrongly. Mason argues for an account of subjective obligation that is connected to the notion of (...)
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  6. added 2019-09-12
    Effective Altruism’s Underspecification Problem.Travis Timmerman - 2019 - In Hilary Greaves & Theron Pummer (eds.), Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 166-183.
    Effective altruists either believe they ought to be, or strive to be, doing the most good they can. Since they’re human, however, effective altruists are invariably fallible. In numerous situations, even the most committed EAs would fail to live up to the ideal they set for themselves. This fact raises a central question about how to understand effective altruism. How should one’s future prospective failures at doing the most good possible affect the current choices one makes as an effective altruist? (...)
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  7. added 2019-06-20
    An Argument for Objective Possibilism.Peter A. Graham - 2019 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 6.
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  8. added 2019-06-05
    Avoidable Harm.Peter A. Graham - 2020 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 101 (1):175-199.
    Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, EarlyView.
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  9. added 2019-05-29
    Actualism and Possibilism in Ethics.Travis Timmerman & Yishai Cohen - 2019 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  10. added 2019-01-17
    Moral Offsetting.Thomas Foerster - 2019 - Philosophical Quarterly 69 (276):617-635.
    This paper explores the idea of moral offsetting: the idea that good actions can offset bad actions in a way roughly analogous to carbon offsetting. For example, a meat eater might try to offset their consumption of meat by donating to an animal welfare charity. In this paper, I clarify the idea of moral offsetting, consider whether the leading moral theories and theories of moral worth are consistent with the possibility of moral offsetting, and consider potential benefits of moral offsetting. (...)
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  11. added 2019-01-15
    How to Be an Actualist and Blame People.Travis Timmerman & Philip Swenson - 2019 - Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility 6.
    The actualism/possibilism debate in ethics concerns the relationship between an agent’s free actions and her moral obligations. The actualist affirms, while the possibilist denies, that facts about what agents would freely do in certain circumstances partly determines that agent’s moral obligations. This paper assesses the plausibility of actualism and possibilism in light of desiderata about accounts of blameworthiness. This paper first argues that actualism cannot straightforwardly accommodate certain very plausible desiderata before offering a few independent solutions on behalf of the (...)
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  12. added 2018-11-06
    What’s a Rational Self-Torturer to Do?Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    This paper concerns Warren Quinn’s famous “The Puzzle of the Self-Torturer.” I argue that even if we accept his assumption that practical rationality is purely instrumental such that what he ought to do is simply a function of how the relevant options compare to each other in terms of satisfying his actual preferences that doesn’t mean that every explanation as to why he shouldn’t advance to the next level must appeal to the idea that so advancing would be suboptimal in (...)
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  13. added 2018-03-12
    What Pedro Could Do.Christopher Woodard - manuscript
    This paper discusses Bernard Williams's famous case of Jim and the Indians. It contrasts two ways of diagnosing the alleged errors of Act Utilitarianism in considering this case. One approach suggests that Act Utilitarianism fails to appreciate the importance of what Jim does; it fails to understand the significance of Jim's agency. This paper favours an alternative diagnosis, according to which Act Utilitarianism fails to appreciate the importance of what Pedro could do; it fails to understand the significance of Pedro's (...)
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  14. added 2018-02-08
    Do the Right Thing.Elinor Mason - 2017 - In Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 7. pp. 117-135.
    Subjective rightness (or ‘ought’ or obligation) seems to be the sense of rightness that should be action guiding where more objective senses fail. However, there is an ambiguity between strong and weak senses of action guidance. No general account of subjective rightness can succeed in being action guiding in a strong sense by providing an immediately helpful instruction, because helpfulness always depends on the context. Subjective rightness is action guiding in a weaker sense, in that it is always accessible and (...)
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  15. added 2018-01-06
    Doing the Best One Can.Holly Smith - 1978 - In Holly Smith, Alvin Goldman & Jaegwon Kim (eds.), Values and Morals. Dordrecht, Netherlands: pp. 186-214.
    in Values and Morals, eds. Alvin Goldman and Jaegwon Kim (Reidel, 1978), pp. 186-214.
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  16. added 2017-11-25
    Does Ought Imply Ought Ought?Daniel Immerman - 2018 - Philosophical Quarterly 68 (273):702-716.
    Knows-knows principles in epistemology say that if you know some proposition, then you are in a position to know that you know it. This paper examines the viability of analogous principles in ethics, which I call ought-ought principles. Several epistemologists have recently offered new defences of KK principles and of other related principles, and there has recently been an increased interest in examining analogies between ethics and epistemology, and so it seems natural to examine whether defences of KK and related (...)
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  17. added 2017-06-23
    Opting for the Best: Oughts and Options.Douglas W. Portmore - 2019 - New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.
    The book concerns what I take to be the least controversial normative principle concerning action: you ought to perform your best option—best, that is, in terms of whatever ultimately matters. The book sets aside the question of what ultimately matters so as to focus on more basic issues, such as: What are our options? Do I have the option of typing out the cure for cancer if that’s what I would in fact do if I had the right intentions at (...)
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  18. added 2017-01-30
    The 'Actual' in Actualism.Julia Driver - 2009 - In Ian Ravenscroft (ed.), Minds, Ethics, and Conditionals: Themes From the Philosophy of Frank Jackson. Oxford University Press.
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  19. added 2017-01-14
    Against Securitism, the New Breed of Actualism in Consequentialist Thought.Jean-Paul Vessel - 2016 - Utilitas 28 (2):164-178.
    In Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality, Douglas Portmore introduces a novel position regarding the actualist securitism – a position he argues is theoretically superior to the standard views in both the actualist and possibilist camps. After distinguishing the two camps through an examination of the original Procrastinate case, I present Portmore's securitism and its implications regarding his modified Procrastinate case. I level two serious objections against securitism: that it implausibly implies that morality is radically more demanding for the virtuous (...)
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  20. added 2016-12-12
    The Concept of Moral Obligation.Michael J. Zimmerman - 1996 - 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 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 normative (...)
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  21. added 2016-12-08
    Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality.Douglas W. Portmore - 2011 - New York, USA: Oxford University Press USA.
    Commonsense Consequentialism is a book about morality, rationality, and the interconnections between the two. In it, Douglas W. Portmore defends 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. Broadly construed, consequentialism is the view that an act's deontic status is determined by how its outcome ranks relative to those of the available alternatives on some evaluative ranking. Portmore argues that outcomes should be (...)
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  22. added 2016-12-08
    Deliberation, Foreknowledge, and Morality as a Guide to Action.Carlson Erik - 2002 - 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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  23. added 2016-12-05
    Living with Uncertainty: The Moral Significance of Ignorance.Michael J. Zimmerman - 2008 - 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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  24. added 2016-10-26
    Actualism Has Control Issues.Yishai Cohen & Travis Timmerman - 2016 - Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 10 (3):1-18.
    According to actualism, an agent ought to φ just in case what would happen if she were to φ is better than what would happen if she were to ~φ. We argue that actualism makes a morally irrelevant distinction between certain counterfactuals, given that an agent sometimes has the same kind of control over their truth-value. We then offer a substantive revision to actualism that avoids this morally irrelevant distinction by focusing on a certain kind of control that is available (...)
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  25. added 2016-08-20
    Procrastinate Revisited.Frank Jackson - 2014 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 95 (4):634-647.
    How is what an agent ought to do at time t related to what they ought to do over a period of time that includes t? I revisit an example that sheds light on this question, taking account of issues to do with the agent's intentions and the distinction between subjective and objective obligation.
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  26. added 2016-08-20
    I Won’T Do It! Self-Prediction, Moral Obligation and Moral Deliberation.Jennie Louise - 2009 - 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, 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 be appropriate in deliberation. The discussion illuminates (...)
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  27. added 2016-05-17
    What's Wrong with Possibilism.C. Woodard - 2009 - Analysis 69 (2):219-226.
    Argues (1) that the debate between actualists and possibilists in deontic logic distorts what is really at issue, and (2) that reframing the debate as being about reasons strongly suggests that those with possibilist sympathies should adopt more moderate claims (which may nevertheless be distinct from actualism).
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  28. added 2016-04-10
    Maximalism Vs. Omnism About Reasons.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    The performance of one option can entail the performance of another. For instance, I have the option of baking a pumpkin pie as well as the option of baking a pie, and the former entails the latter. Now, suppose that I have both reason to bake a pie and reason to bake a pumpkin pie. This raises the question: Which, if either, is more fundamental than the other? Do I have reason to bake a pie because I have reason to (...)
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  29. added 2016-04-10
    Maximalism Vs. Omnism About Permissibility.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    The performance of one option can entail the performance of another. For instance, I have the option of baking a pumpkin pie as well as the option of baking a pie, and the former entails the latter. Now, suppose that both of these options are permissible. This raises the issue of which, if either, is more fundamental than the other. Is baking a pie permissible because it’s permissible to perform some instance of pie-baking, such as pumpkin-pie baking? Or is baking (...)
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  30. added 2016-02-17
    Consequence and Contrast in Deontic Semantics.Fabrizio Cariani - 2016 - Journal of Philosophy 113 (8):396-416.
    Contrastivists view ought-sentences as expressing comparisons among alternatives. Deontic actualists believe that the value of each alternative in such a comparison is determined by what would actually happen if that alternative were to be the case. One of the arguments that motivates actualism is a challenge to the principle of agglomeration over conjunction—the principle according to which if you ought to run and you ought to jump, then you ought to run and jump. I argue that there is no way (...)
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  31. added 2016-02-10
    Moral Obligations: Actualist, Possibilist, or Hybridist?Travis Timmerman & Yishai Cohen - 2016 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94 (4):672-686.
    Do facts about what an agent would freely do in certain circumstances at least partly determine any of her moral obligations? Actualists answer ‘yes’, while possibilists answer ‘no’. We defend two novel hybrid accounts that are alternatives to actualism and possibilism: Dual Obligations Hybridism and Single Obligation Hybridism. By positing two moral ‘oughts’, each account retains the benefits of actualism and possibilism, yet is immune from the prima facie problems that face actualism and possibilism. We conclude by highlighting one substantive (...)
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  32. added 2015-10-14
    Maximalism and Rational Control.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    Maximalism is the view that if an agent is permitted to perform a certain type of action (say, baking), this is in virtue of the fact that she is permitted to perform some instance of this type (say, baking a pie), where φ-ing is an instance of ψ-ing if and only if φ-ing entails ψ-ing but not vice versa. Now, the point of this paper is not to defend maximalism, but to defend a certain account of our options that when (...)
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  33. added 2015-10-14
    Morality, Rationality, and Performance Entailment.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    The performance of one option can entail the performance of another. For instance, baking an apple pie entails baking a pie. Now, suppose that both of these options—baking a pie and baking an apple pie—are permissible. This raises the issue of which, if either, is more fundamental than the other. Is baking a pie permissible because it’s permissible to bake an apple pie? Or is baking an apple pie permissible because it’s permissible to bake a pie? Or are they equally (...)
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  34. added 2015-01-22
    Acts, Attitudes, and Rational Control.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    I argue that when determining whether an agent ought to perform an act, we should not hold fixed the fact that she’s going to form certain attitudes (and, here, I’m concerned with only reasons-responsive attitudes such as beliefs, desires, and intentions). For, as I argue, agents have, in the relevant sense, just as much control over which attitudes they form as which acts they perform. This is important because what effect an act will have on the world depends not only (...)
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  35. added 2014-08-14
    Does Scrupulous Securitism Stand-Up to Scrutiny? Two Problems for Moral Securitism and How We Might Fix Them.Travis Timmerman - 2015 - Philosophical Studies 172 (6):1509-1528.
    A relatively new debate in ethics concerns the relationship between one's present obligations and how one would act in the future. One popular view is actualism, which holds that what an agent would do in the future affects her present obligations. Agent's future behavior is held fixed and the agent's present obligations are determined by what would be best to do now in light of how the agent would act in the future. Doug Portmore defends a new view he calls (...)
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  36. added 2014-08-04
    Where Did I Go Wrong?Michael J. Zimmerman - 1990 - Philosophical Studies 59 (1):55 - 77.
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  37. added 2014-03-30
    The Logic of Obligation, 'Better' and 'Worse'.Lou Goble - 1993 - Philosophical Studies 70 (2):133 - 163.
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  38. added 2014-03-27
    Utilitarianism and Future Mistakes: Another Look.Angela Curran - 1995 - Philosophical Studies 78 (1):71 - 85.
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  39. added 2014-03-22
    Consequentialism, Alternatives, and Actualism.Erik Carlson - 1999 - Philosophical Studies 96 (3):253-268.
  40. added 2014-03-21
    Prosaic Possibilism.M. Vorobej - 2000 - Philosophical Studies 97 (2):131-136.
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  41. added 2014-02-28
    Acts, Attitudes, and Rational Choice.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    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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  42. added 2013-08-14
    Consequentialism and Coordination Problems.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    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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  43. added 2013-07-22
    Combinative Consequentialism and the Problem of Act Versions.Johan E. Gustafsson - 2014 - 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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  44. added 2013-04-01
    Rebuttal to Decker and Goble.Jean-Paul Vessel - unknown
    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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  45. added 2013-04-01
    Consequentialism and the World in Time.M. Oreste Fiocco - 2013 - 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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  46. added 2012-10-06
    Knowing Yourself—And Giving Up On Your Own Agency In The Process.Derek Baker - 2012 - 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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  47. added 2012-08-02
    The Relevance of Risk to Wrongdoing.Michael J. Zimmerman - 2005 - 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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  48. added 2012-08-02
    The Background of Circumstances.Lloyd Humberstone - 1983 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64:19-34.
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  49. added 2012-08-02
    Deontic Logic and the Role of Freedom in Moral Deliberation.Richmond A. Thomason - 1981 - In Risto Hilpinen (ed.), New Studies in Deontic Logic.
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  50. added 2012-08-01
    What Are Our Options?Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    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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