Dispensing with the Subjective Moral 'Ought'

In Mark C. Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, Volume 11 (2022)
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There are cases in which, intuitively, an agent’s action is both morally right in one sense, and morally wrong in another sense. Such cases (along with other intuitions about blameless wrongdoing and action-guidance) support distinguishing between the objective moral ‘ought’ and the subjective moral ‘ought.’ This chapter argues against drawing this distinction, on the grounds that the prescriptions delivered by an adequate objective moral theory must be sensitive to the mental states of agents. Specifically, an adequate theory of the objective moral ‘ought’ must respect a strong ought-implies-can principle—morally ought implies agentially can—in order to prescribe actions to real-life agents. An agent’s mental states determine what is agentially possible for that agent; thus, what an agent objectively morally ought to do is in part determined by the agent’s mental states. This chapter describes the structure of a compelling non-ideal moral theory that is both objective and mental state-sensitive. This non-ideal theory illuminates the shortcomings of extant objectivist and subjectivist moral theories, and illustrates how we can dispense with the subjective moral ‘ought.’

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Amelia Hicks
Kansas State University


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