John Taurek (1977) argued that in conflict situations–situations in which we can save some people only by failing to save some others–the numbers don’t count–i.e., it is not morally wrong to save the smaller group instead of the larger group. His argument is controversial. Here I offer a degrees-of-moral-wrongness argument for the conclusion that, contra Taurek, the numbers do count.
Actualism, as I understand it, is the view according to which in determining what it is permissible to do at a time, t, one should consider only what would happen were one to do it and compare that with what would happen were one to do each of the other things one can do at t. Many object to Actualism (call this the Standard Objection) on the grounds that if it is true, then people are able to get out of present obligations in virtue of their potential future wrongdoing. That seems right to me. Actualists have a set of standard replies to this kind of argument, though. Mightn't there be a stronger objection to Actualism, however, one to which Actualists can't offer the same kind of replies that they do to the Standard Objection? I think there might. This objection is that Actualism seems to allow people to get out of having present moral obligations, not in virtue of their potential future wrongdoing, but, instead, in virtue of their potential future supererogatory behavior.
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 an argument against subjectivism about moral wrongness I’ve been kicking around. (By ‘subjectivism’ here I just mean any theory which is not “objective”—that is, a subjective theory is one that has it that that in virtue of which one’s behavior is wrong (when it is wrong) is either one’s beliefs about, or one’s evidence concerning, one’s situation.) I thought I’d post it and see if it has any legs.
I have a very short argument to the effect that the promising-relevant pro tanto moral obligation is not a pro tanto moral obligation to keep one's promises but, rather, a pro tanto moral obligation to not break one's promises.[The argument crucially depends on the notion of a conditional release from a promise. Whereas an unconditional release (or a simple release) is a promisee's saying to a promisor something like "You don't have to phi", where phi-ing is something the promisor had promised the promisee to do, a conditional release is a promisee's saying to a promisor something like "If C, then you don't have to phi". I take it that both simple and conditional releases are altogether ordinary moral phenomena.]
Here's the argument: Suppose that on Monday A says to B "I promise to lend you my recording of Don Giovanni on Wednesday" and on Tuesday, B says to A "If you let me hold onto this copy of Cosi fan Tutte which you lent me the other day and were planning to take back today, then you don't have to lend me your Don Giovanni tomorrow." In this case, it seems that the following two courses of action are both permissible: (1) A takes back his Cosi fan Tutte on Tuesday and on Wednesday lends B his Don Giovanni, and (2) A does not take back his Cosi fan Tutte and on Wednesday does not lend B his Don Giovanni. However, option (1) involves the keeping of a promise and the breaking of no promises and option (2) involves neither the keeping nor the breaking of any promises. If there were a pro tanto moral obligation to keep a promise, as opposed to merely not breaking one, in this case (1) should be obligatory and (2) impermissible. If, on the other hand, the only promising-relevant pro tanto moral obligation were to not break one's promises, then, as neither involves the breaking of a promise, both courses of action would be permissible, which, I contend, is in fact the case.