Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Objectivism and Prospectivism about Rightness

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Objectivism and Prospectivism about Rightness

Article excerpt

IMAGINE THAT I AM IN MY CAR, approaching a junction I know well. It is the middle of the night, there are rarely other cars and the chances that I would see a car coming if there was one are pretty good. Of course, there is a small chance that there is another car coming, and that if I speed through I will not see it, and, in that case, at the speed I am going, a crash would probably involve fatalities. On the other hand, if I get home more quickly, I can send an important email before the London stock exchange opens, and potentially save a lot of people a lot of money. Is it morally permissible for me to speed through the junction without stopping? What if we stipulate that there is no car coming? I cannot know it, but let us say that speeding through would in fact be perfectly safe. The question is about how rightness is determined. Is it determined by what is actually the case, or by what I believe to be the case?

A longstanding debate within moral theory, and consequentialism especially, concerns the extent to which rightness depends on the agent's epistemic and other limitations. Objectivists claim that the right action is the one that actually would have the best consequences. (1) Prospectivists claim that the right action is the one that is prospectively best--for now, let us gloss that as the one that it would be rational to choose given the agent's unavoidable epistemic limitations. (2) Subjectivism is usually formulated in terms of what the agent actually believes would be morally appropriate. (3) My aim in this paper is to explore what is at issue between proponents of objectivism and proponents of prospectivism. I do not discuss subjectivism here; for reasons that will become apparent, we should think of subjective rightness as being in a rather different category to prospective and objective rightness. I argue that prospectivism is the correct account of moral rightness. Morality requires that, where possible, we build uncertainty into our ranking of options.

1. The Regan/Jackson Example

Recent debate in the literature is based around an example that appears to show that prospectivism must be correct. Donald Regan, Frank Jackson and others have presented versions of this example. Jackson's version is as follows:

   Jill is a physician who has to decide on the correct treatment for
   her patient, John, who has a minor but not trivial skin complaint.
   She has three drugs to choose from: drug A, drug B, and drug C.
   Careful consideration of the literature has led her to the
   following opinions. Drug A is very likely to relieve the condition
   but will not completely cure it. One of drugs B and C will
   completely cure the skin condition; the other though will kill the
   patient, and there is no way that she can tell which of the two is
   the perfect cure and which the killer drug. What should Jill do?

Let us stipulate that, in fact, drug B will cure the condition. Then, according to the standard conception, it would be objectively right for Jill to prescribe B. Jackson's point is that this is irrelevant--clearly she ought to prescribe drug A. She should not be trying to do what is objectively right and she should not be trying to do what is most likely to be objectively right, rather, she should do what she knows is objectively wrong: She should prescribe the safe drug.

If we are convinced by Jackson's claim that Jill ought to prescribe the safe drug, we have a strong argument against objectivism. Objectivism tells us that it would be wrong to prescribe the safe drug, and so apparently must disagree that Jill should prescribe it.5 The prospective view says that Jill ought to do what is prospectively best, where that is usually what has highest expected utility.6 Going prospective solves the problem raised by Jackson's example--what we ought to do is prescribe the safe drug, and that is also what is right according to prospectivism.

It is not completely clear how the argument for prospectivism works here. …

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