All over there are arguments that employ the following premise: Necessarily, the true moral theory is action-guiding. I must confess that I don’t really have a grip on what this notion is. And yet it is often appealed to to do some very heavy-lifting: most often to establish that some form of subjectivism about moral obligation is true and also that ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’ is true. But given that I don’t understand what this action-guidingness is supposed to amount to, I don’t know how to understand these arguments, let alone evaluate them. Mayhaps someone here can help me out with this. Can anyone articulate for me in a non-metaphorical way what it means to say that a theory is action-guiding?
Here’s my trouble in more detail. When I ask people to say what they mean by a theory’s being action-guiding, or I ask for necessary and sufficient conditions for a theory’s being action-guiding, I either get nothing or just more metaphor. But I don’t know how to understand an argument with a metaphor as a premise. Sometimes I get “a theory’s being action guiding is for the theory to be such that every agent is always in a position to know what it is she ought to do according to that theory”. And I can see how one might put that to use in an argument for subjectivism. But it’s just obvious that that notion of “action-guidingness” can’t be put to use in an argument for OIC being true—of course a theory could be such that a person is always in a position to know what she morally ought to do according to it without it being the case that she can always do everything she morally ought to do according to it. If there is this “action-guiding” intuition that’s supposed to do double-duty getting us both subjectivism and also OIC being true, that being-in-a-position-to-know condition won’t do it. (And it’s going to be extremely suspicious if the account of action-guidingness is going to just be “you gotta be in a position to know blah & X” where X is going to be that part of the action-guidingness thought that delivers the truth of OIC. Then what we have here is no argument at all; just a brute intuition—that some kind of subjectivism is true and that OIC is true—masquerading as an argument.)
Furthermore, when I try to get myself into the metaphorical sense of action-guidingness, I search for intuitive, everyday notions of guidingness, and the ones I glom onto are ones for which, in a very ordinary and intuitive sense, something can be a guide that helps me in doing what I want to do without its being the case that I can always do what it guides me to do. Take, for instance, a guidebook. Suppose I head off to London to do some sight-seeing. I don’t know what to see in London, so I buy a guidebook at the airport. When I finally arrive in London and open the book, I see that it is a very irreverent book. On the first page, there is written “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY!”. On the second page, it says “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY, DAMMIT!”. On the third page, it says: “WHAT ARE YOU, AN IDIOT??! SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY!” So, accordingly, I head off to Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, Westminster Abbey is closed for renovations and won’t be open at all while I’m on my trip. Disappointed and frustrated with my guidebook I’m just about to toss it in the trash, when I just so happen to open it to the fourth page, where it says: “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY!!!!! But IF you’re a complete and total idiot and you don’t see Westminster Abbey, then see the Houses of Parliament!”. And on the fifth page it reads : “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY! But IF you’re a complete and total moron and you don’t see Westminster Abbey or even the Houses of Parliament, then see the Tower of London!”. And then on the sixth page…. Now I’m grateful I didn’t throw it away. I read through the rest of the guidebook and use it to help me with on sight-seeing tour, in the obvious way. Now here’s my claim: that guidebook is helpful and useful to me on my trip. What’s more, it’s helpful qua guidebook. So, I conclude, it has guided me during my trip, for any intuitive notion of guidance one might have. However, and here’s the important point: the only demand it makes, is one that I can’t conform to. Thus, it issues demands that I can’t conform to, nonetheless it is “action-guiding” for me. Hence, whatever action-guidingness amounts to, a theory can be action-guiding even if it issues demands that we can’t conform to. (True it offers guidance by way of its conditional demands. But conditional demands are not demands (and conditional moral obligation is not moral obligation). And any objective moral theory and any moral theory which denies OIC can be action-guiding in this sense: viz., in virtue of the conditional obligations it issues.). So, for me, it turns out, on the only intuitive notion of “action-guiding” that I possess, a moral theory can indeed be action-guiding even if it issues demands I can’t conform to.
What am I missing?