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 2009.
Introductions For an introduction to the actualism and possibilism debate, I would recommend Ross 2012.
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50 found
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  1. 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: (...)
  2. 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 (...)
  3. Consequentialism, Alternatives, and Actualism.Erik Carlson - 1999 - Philosophical Studies 96 (3):253-268.
  4. 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 (...)
  5. Utilitarianism and Future Mistakes: Another Look.Angela Curran - 1995 - Philosophical Studies 78 (1):71 - 85.
  6. 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.
  7. Deliberation, Foreknowledge, and Morality as a Guide to Action.Erik Carlson - 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 (...)
  8. Doing the Best We Can: An Essay in Informal Deontic Logic.Fred Feldman - 1986 - 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.
  9. 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 (...)
  10. The Logic of Obligation, 'Better' and 'Worse'.Lou Goble - 1993 - Philosophical Studies 70 (2):133 - 163.
  11. Doing the Best One Can.Holly S. Goldman - 1978 - In Alvin Goldman & Jaegwon Kim (eds.), Values and Morals. Reidel. pp. 185--214.
  12. Erratum: Dated Rightness and Moral Imperfection.Holly S. Goldman - 1977 - Philosophical Review 86 (2):281 -.
  13. Dated Rightness and Moral Imperfection.Holly S. Goldman - 1976 - Philosophical Review 85 (4):449-487.
  14. Oughts and Determinism: A Response to Goldman.P. S. Greenspan - 1978 - Philosophical Review 87 (1):77-83.
  15. 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 (...)
  16. The Background of Circumstances.Lloyd Humberstone - 1983 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64:19-34.
  17. Does Ought Imply Ought Ought?Daniel Immerman - forthcoming - Philosophical Quarterly.
    Knows-knows principles in epistemology (KK principles for short) 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 (OO principles for short). Several epistemologists have recently offered new defenses 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 seem natural (...)
  18. 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.
  19. Oughts, Options, and Actualism.Frank Jackson & Robert Pargetter - 1986 - Philosophical Review 95 (2):233-255.
  20. Critical Notice of Michael Zimmerman's, Living with Uncertainty. [REVIEW]Clayton Littlejohn - 2009 - Philosophical Books 50 (4):235–247.
  21. 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 (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 (...)
  22. 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 (...)
  23. 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 (...)
  24. 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 (...)
  25. 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 (...)
  26. 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 (...)
  27. 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 (...)
  28. Opting for the Best: Oughts and Options.Douglas W. Portmore - manuscript
    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 (...)
  29. 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 (...)
  30. 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 (...)
  31. 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 (...)
  32. Maximalism and Moral Harmony.Douglas W. Portmore - 2016 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
    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 (...)
  33. 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 (...)
  34. Actualism, Possibilism, and Beyond.Jacob Ross - 2012 - 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 (...)
  35. Utilitarian Principles for Imperfect Agents.Jordan Howard Sobel - 1982 - Theoria 48 (3):113-126.
  36. Utilitarianism and Past and Future Mistakes.Jordan Howard Sobel - 1976 - Noûs 10 (2):195-219.
  37. Deontic Logic and the Role of Freedom in Moral Deliberation.Richmond A. Thomason - 1981 - In Risto Hilpinen (ed.), New Studies in Deontic Logic.
  38. 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 (...)
  39. 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 (...)
  40. Objective Consequentialism and Avoidable Imperfections.Rob van Someren Greve - 2013 - 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 (...)
  41. Rebuttal to Coleman.Jean-Paul Vessel - unknown
    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.
  42. 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.
  43. 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 (...)
  44. Defending a Possibilist Insight in Consequentialist Thought.Jean-Paul Vessel - 2009 - Philosophical Studies 142 (2):183 - 195.
    There is a heated dispute among consequentialists concerning the following deontic principle.
  45. Prosaic Possibilism.M. Vorobej - 2000 - Philosophical Studies 97 (2):131-136.
  46. 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).
  47. 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 (...)
  48. 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.
  49. 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 (...)
  50. Where Did I Go Wrong?Michael J. Zimmerman - 1990 - Philosophical Studies 59 (1):55 - 77.