In “Oughts, Options, and Actualism”
(Philosophical Review 1986),
Frank Jackson and Robert Pargetter defended the “actualist” view
that, for every act-type A, you ought to do A if and
only if your conduct would be (in the relevant way) better if
you did A than if you did not.
In my opinion, this is a deeply
objectionable view. It makes the truth about whether or not you ought
to do A dependent on the brute non-moral facts about what you
would do if you did A
(and about what you would do if you did not do A) –
even if these brute non-moral facts reflect only your utter
wickedness and depravity. In this sense, this “actualist” view
gives an agent’s wickedness the power to effect a radical
transformation in the obligations that the agent has.
example, imagine a wicked paedophile, who has just abducted a
10-year-old girl and imprisoned her in his secret cellar. Suppose that it is still possible – though unfortunately quite unlikely – that the paedophile will repent of his evil plans, and return the girl unharmed to her parents. Surely, if
anything is clear about this case, it is clear that it is not true
that the paedophile ought to rape the girl.
But (shockingly, as it seems to me) actualists like Jackson and
Pargetter may well disagree…
Suppose that it is also true in this
case that if the paedophile did not rape the girl, he would torture
her to death, whereas if he did rape her, he would not subject her to
any additional torture, and would not kill her. So, presumably, the
paedophile’s conduct would be at least somewhat better if he raped
her than if he didn’t. Hence actualists must say that the
paedophile ought to rape the
girl. This seems to me a reductio ad absurdum
of the actualist view.
alternative to this actualist view is, in my opinion, vastly more
plausible. Jackson’s appeal to counterfactual or subjunctive
conditionals does not yield acceptable results if it is applied to
thin and unspecific act-types (like ‘not raping the girl’); it
yields acceptable results only when applied to much thicker
or more detailed
act-types (like ‘not raping the girl, or harming her in any way, but returning her to her
parents immediately and turning oneself in to the police’).
In particular, I suggest, such
counterfactual conditionals only yield acceptable results when
applied to act-types that are evaluatively maximally specific,
in the following sense. A is a maximally specific act-type (in
relation to the situation of the agent at the relevant time) if and
only if none of the different possible ways in which the agent can do
A in that situation differs from any of the other ways in any evaluatively or
normatively significant respect. Then we can say that, out of these
maximally specific act-types, the agent ought to do an act-type that
is such that, if the agent did it, his conduct would be no worse than
if he did any of the other act-types.
would recommend extending this picture to the thinner and more unspecific
act-types in the following way: If in the circumstances, the agent’s
doing B is in the appropriate way entailed
by his doing A (or in other words, if his doing B is an essential
part of his doing A), then if the agent ought to do A, he also ought
to do B.
Jackson and Pargetter’s
well-known example of Professor Procrastinate seems to me to
be clearly a case of a “second-best” or conditional
that Professor Procrastinate is not going to write the review, he
should decline the invitation to write it.
is true, but only in the exactly the same way as other familiar
examples of the second-best conditional ‘ought’:
that you’re not going to stop shooting up heroin, you ought at
least to shoot up with clean needles.
the positive proposals that I have made here are controversial.
However, it should not be controversial, in my opinion, that Jackson’s and
Pargetter’s actualist view has consequences that are, at least prima facie, quite grotesquely implausible.