Ought, Agents, and Actions

Philosophical Review 120 (1):1-41 (2011)
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Abstract
According to a naïve view sometimes apparent in the writings of moral philosophers, ‘ought’ often expresses a relation between agents and actions – the relation that obtains between an agent and an action when that action is what that agent ought to do. It is not part of this naïve view that ‘ought’ always expresses this relation – on the contrary, adherents of the naïve view are happy to allow that ‘ought’ also has an epistemic sense, on which it means, roughly, that some proposition is likely to be the case, and adherents of the naïve view are also typically happy to allow that ‘ought’ also has an evaluative sense, on which it means, roughly, that were things ideal, some proposition would be the case.1 What is important to the naïve view is not that these other senses of ‘ought’ do not exist, but rather that they are not exhaustive – for what they leave out, is the important deliberative sense of ‘ought’, which is the central subject of moral inquiry about what we ought to do and why – and it is this deliberative sense of ‘ought’ which the naïve view understands to express a relation between agents and actions.2 In contrast, logically and linguistically sophisticated philosophers – with a few notable exceptions3 – have rejected this naïve view. According to a dominant perspective in the interpretation of deontic logic and in linguistic semantics, for example, articulated by Roderick Chisholm (1964) and Bernard Williams (1981) in philosophy and in the dominant paradigm in linguistic semantics as articulated in particular by..
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