In “Oughts, Options, and Actualism” (Philosophical Review 1986), Frank Jackson and Robert Pargetter defended the “actualist” view that, for every act-type A, you ought to do A if and only if your conduct would be (in the relevant way) better if you did A than if you did not.
In my opinion, this is a deeply objectionable view. It makes the truth about whether or not you ought to do A dependent on the brute non-moral facts about what you would do if you did A (and about what you would do if you did not do A) – even if these brute non-moral facts reflect only your utter wickedness and depravity. In this sense, this “actualist” view gives an agent’s wickedness the power to effect a radical transformation in the obligations that the agent has.
example, imagine a wicked paedophile, who has just abducted a
10-year-old girl and imprisoned her in his secret cellar. Suppose that it is still possible – though unfortunately quite unlikely – that the paedophile will repent of his evil plans, and return the girl unharmed to her parents. Surely, if
anything is clear about this case, it is clear that it is not true
that the paedophile ought to rape the girl.
But (shockingly, as it seems to me) actualists like Jackson and Pargetter may well disagree...
Suppose that it is also true in this case that if the paedophile did not rape the girl, he would torture her to death, whereas if he did rape her, he would not subject her to any additional torture, and would not kill her. So, presumably, the paedophile’s conduct would be at least somewhat better if he raped her than if he didn’t. Hence actualists must say that the paedophile ought to rape the girl. This seems to me a reductio ad absurdum of the actualist view.
The alternative to this actualist view is, in my opinion, vastly more plausible. Jackson’s appeal to counterfactual or subjunctive conditionals does not yield acceptable results if it is applied to thin and unspecific act-types (like ‘not raping the girl’); it yields acceptable results only when applied to much thicker or more detailed act-types (like ‘not raping the girl, or harming her in any way, but returning her to her parents immediately and turning oneself in to the police’).
In particular, I suggest, such counterfactual conditionals only yield acceptable results when applied to act-types that are evaluatively maximally specific, in the following sense. A is a maximally specific act-type (in relation to the situation of the agent at the relevant time) if and only if none of the different possible ways in which the agent can do A in that situation differs from any of the other ways in any evaluatively or normatively significant respect. Then we can say that, out of these maximally specific act-types, the agent ought to do an act-type that is such that, if the agent did it, his conduct would be no worse than if he did any of the other act-types.
Then I would recommend extending this picture to the thinner and more unspecific act-types in the following way: If in the circumstances, the agent’s doing B is in the appropriate way entailed by his doing A (or in other words, if his doing B is an essential part of his doing A), then if the agent ought to do A, he also ought to do B.
Jackson and Pargetter’s well-known example of Professor Procrastinate seems to me to be clearly a case of a “second-best” or conditional ‘ought’:
Given that Professor Procrastinate is not going to write the review, he should decline the invitation to write it.
This is true, but only in the exactly the same way as other familiar examples of the second-best conditional ‘ought’:
Given that you’re not going to stop shooting up heroin, you ought at least to shoot up with clean needles.
Admittedly, the positive proposals that I have made here are controversial. However, it should not be controversial, in my opinion, that Jackson’s and Pargetter’s actualist view has consequences that are, at least prima facie, quite grotesquely implausible.