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 my trouble in more detail. When I ask people to say what they mean by a theory’s being action-guiding, or I ask for necessary and sufficient conditions for a theory’s being action-guiding, I either get nothing or just more metaphor. But I don’t know how to understand an argument with a metaphor as a premise. Sometimes I get “a theory’s being action guiding is for the theory to be such that every agent is always in a position to know what it is she ought to do according to that theory”. And I can see how one might put that to use in an argument for subjectivism. But it’s just obvious that that notion of “action-guidingness” can’t be put to use in an argument for OIC being true—of course a theory could be such that a person is always in a position to know what she morally ought to do according to it without it being the case that she can always do everything she morally ought to do according to it. If there is this “action-guiding” intuition that’s supposed to do double-duty getting us both subjectivism and also OIC being true, that being-in-a-position-to-know condition won’t do it. (And it’s going to be extremely suspicious if the account of action-guidingness is going to just be “you gotta be in a position to know blah & X” where X is going to be that part of the action-guidingness thought that delivers the truth of OIC. Then what we have here is no argument at all; just a brute intuition—that some kind of subjectivism is true and that OIC is true—masquerading as an argument.)

Furthermore, when I try to get myself into the metaphorical sense of action-guidingness, I search for intuitive, everyday notions of guidingness, and the ones I glom onto are ones for which, in a very ordinary and intuitive sense, something can be a guide that helps me in doing what I want to do without its being the case that I can always do what it guides me to do. Take, for instance, a guidebook. Suppose I head off to London to do some sight-seeing. I don’t know what to see in London, so I buy a guidebook at the airport. When I finally arrive in London and open the book, I see that it is a very irreverent book. On the first page, there is written “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY!”. On the second page, it says “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY, DAMMIT!”. On the third page, it says: “WHAT ARE YOU, AN IDIOT??! SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY!” So, accordingly, I head off to Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, Westminster Abbey is closed for renovations and won’t be open at all while I’m on my trip. Disappointed and frustrated with my guidebook I’m just about to toss it in the trash, when I just so happen to open it to the fourth page, where it says: “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY!!!!! But IF you’re a complete and total idiot and you don’t see Westminster Abbey, then see the Houses of Parliament!”. And on the fifth page it reads : “SEE WESTMINSTER ABBEY! But IF you’re a complete and total moron and you don’t see Westminster Abbey or even the Houses of Parliament, then see the Tower of London!”. And then on the sixth page…. Now I’m grateful I didn’t throw it away. I read through the rest of the guidebook and use it to help me with on sight-seeing tour, in the obvious way. Now here’s my claim: that guidebook is helpful and useful to me on my trip. What’s more, it’s helpful qua guidebook. So, I conclude, it has guided me during my trip, for any intuitive notion of guidance one might have. However, and here’s the important point: the only demand it makes, is one that I can’t conform to. Thus, it issues demands that I can’t conform to, nonetheless it is “action-guiding” for me. Hence, whatever action-guidingness amounts to, a theory can be action-guiding even if it issues demands that we can’t conform to. (True it offers guidance by way of its conditional demands. But conditional demands are not demands (and conditional moral obligation is not moral obligation). And any objective moral theory and any moral theory which denies OIC can be action-guiding in this sense: viz., in virtue of the conditional obligations it issues.). So, for me, it turns out, on the only intuitive notion of “action-guiding” that I possess, a moral theory can indeed be action-guiding even if it issues demands I can’t conform to.

What am I missing?

24 Replies to “Moral Theory and “Action-Guidingness”

  1. Hi Peter,
    nice post.
    Are you thinking that a moral theory is not action-guiding in the sense you’re discussing/worrying about unless it recommends, or directs us towards, particular actions?
    Another way in which a moral theory could be action-guiding, I take it, is by giving us aims or goals. Which particular actions to choose, or avoid, may then depend on what is possible, and/or on what other moral values or restrictions might also be relevant in the circumstances.
    It might not always be possible to achieve these aims/goals. But if it is not even possible to try, or attempt, to do so, then that seems to be a problem. In other words, a success-condition might indeed be too strong. But it seems plausible to suppose that it should be possible to try to achieve the moral goal(s) in question.
    In sum: do you think that action-guidance always needs to be about specific actions (as opposed to general aims and/or restrictions)? And doesn’t a requirement that it should be possible to try to achieve these goals seem pretty plausible?

  2. Here’s a first pass at action-guidingness that I think is non-metaphorical (and seems to dovetail with Sven’s response above):
    For any moral consideration C that gives a normative reason for S to do X, it’s possible (in some sense) for S to treat C as a motivating reason for doing X.
    This way of understanding it need not require that X be possible to achieve—it could be satisfied as long as we could be motivated to see Westminster Abbey despite its closure—so it can’t help us get the standard version of OIC either. But maybe it could tell us other important things about normativity.

  3. Thanks Sven and Aaron,
    These proposals of what it is for a theory to be action-guiding may indeed be plausible. I’m not sure. (I’ll have to think about them more.) That said, I can’t see how these understandings of “action-guidingness” can get us anything like the the truth of OIC or the kinds of subjectivisms those authors who appeal to action-guidingness in their arguments want to establish. For example, suppose Zeus exists and is causally isolated from all of us; I’d imagine that those theorists who appeal to action-guidingness in their arguments would want it to be the case that a moral theory that had it that what it is morally obligatory to do is what Zeus wants us to do would not be an action-guiding moral theory. But in acting, I can certainly aim to/try to/be motivated to do what Zeus wants me to do. I can act in the hope that what I’m doing is what Zeus wants me to do. Doing what Zeus wants me to do could be my motivating reason in performing the actions that I do. Insofar as trying to do something and being motivated to do something require at most, wanting to achieve X through my action and having that want cause what I do (in the right way), it’s hard to see how such a constraint would rule out any objective or OIC-denying moral theories.

  4. Thanks for your reply, Peter.
    For the record, I wasn’t meaning to suggest that if we think that it should be possible to at least try to respect the standards offered by moral theories, then we therefore need to adopt some subjectivist theory of the general domain of ethics. The thought was rather that theories can be action-guiding without necessarily homing in on individual actions, and that “ought implies can” doesn’t necessarily imply a success-requirement.
    Anyway, as I said, I think I would agree with you that accepting those two ideas would not get us very far in an argument towards subjective theories of morality, should we wish to argue in favor of some such theory.

  5. Thanks, Sven.
    Yeah, I didn’t mean to suggest that you were supporting an action-guidingness argument for a subjective moral theory. I’m just interested to see if there is any notion of action-guidingness that will support such arguments or arguments for OIC. As it seems to me that appeals to action-guidingness are appealed to all over the place to try to establish these things, I’m at a complete loss as to what is going on here.
    Can anyone who is sympathetic to these kinds of arguments help me out here?

  6. I think of the “action-guiding” character of morality as a feature of normative judgments in general, not just of the True Moral Theory. Very roughly, it is the principle that if you are rational, and you believe that you ought to F, you will be motivated to F. Call this principle “Normative Judgment Internalism” (or NJI for short).
    Although this principle could be used to argue for “‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can'” (OIC), any such argument would obviously have to rely on a number of additional premises. These premises would probably be more controversial than OIC itself. Still, it might be a sound argument for OIC.
    Here is a proposal about how such an argument might go:
    1. No rational agent will be motivated to do something that she rationally believes to be something that she can’t do.
    2. If OIC were false, then it would be possible for an agent to rationally believe that she ought to F while simultaneously rationally believing that she can’t F.
    3. NJI.
    Therefore, OIC is not false.
    I’m inclined to think that all three premises of this argument (or something like them) are true. Since the argument is valid, I’m inclined to think that this argument (or something like it) is sound — though as I mentioned, it may not be the most dialectically effective way of arguing for OIC!

  7. Thanks from me too, Peter.
    It sounds like we’re all agreed on the primary issue: we can’t move directly from the general idea that moral theories are action-guiding to classical OIC. That said, I think it would be a mistake to think we haven’t got a hold of the real AG-ness unless it implies OIC. But maybe that wasn’t your point.

  8. Thanks Ralph!
    I think I remember seeing something like this argument before. I think if sound it proves too much. Here’s why: I can’t think of a way of supporting premise 1 that wouldn’t also support something like:
    1*: No rational agent will be motivated to do something that she rationally believes to be something she will not do.
    But 1* with your other premises will give us something like: Ought Implies Will (OIW): if I ought to phi then I will phi.
    I take it that OIW is obviously false, and so I reject the argument.

  9. Hi Aaron,
    Yeah. I’m perfectly open to some claim of the form that morality (or normative judgments) is (are) necessarily action-guiding. But given that I’m not sure what the necessary action-guidingness of morality amounts to, I have no idea how it is supposed to yield OIC or subjectivism about moral obligation.

  10. Thanks Pete!
    Your premise 1* together with my premises 2 and 3 doesn’t entail OIW. To make the argument valid, we’d have to replace my premise 2 with:
    2*: If OIW were false, then it would be possible for an agent to rationally believe that she ought to F at the same time as rationally believing that she won’t F.
    However, it seems to me, whereas my old premise 2 is true, this new premise 2* is false.
    This is because even if OIW is false, there is an alternative explanation of why a rational agent can’t rationally believe that she ought to F at the same as time rationally believing that she won’t F: a rational agent who believes that she ought to F will be intend to F, and this intention will rationally require her to believe that she will F. This is possible because if you rationally intend to F, you can rationally base a belief that you will F on your intention to F.
    By contrast, it cannot be rational for you to base your belief that you can F on your intention to F. A rational intention to F presupposes a rational belief that you can F, and cannot serve as a rational basis for such a belief. This is why 2 and 2*, though superficially similar, differ in truth value.

  11. Peter — Just two comments:
    1) In your response to Sven and Aaron, you invoke the notion of a *try*. This makes me think that you and I are not so far apart, despite the fact that you claim to be an objectivist, and I call myself a “splitter”. For it’s my view that we can define subjective norms in terms of the notion of a try — e.g. subjective utilitarianism would be the view that what’s subjectively right is what constitutes the best try at promoting utility. (Then the view that what’s subjectively right is what maximizes expected utility would be one answer — obviously the most common answer among utilitarians — to the Q of what constitutes the best try at promoting utility.) Are we that far apart?
    2) I’d certainly consider myself someone who, in his written work, employs metaphor in characterizing the notion of guidance. Let me at least try to give you an idea of why I’m doing this, for it is quite deliberate. Here’s the idea: the notion of an unguided action, or a “leap of faith” as I call it, is conceptually prior to the notion of a guided one. As I understand the notion of a “leap”, part of what it is to take a leap is to token a certain phenomenology. So the task for someone like me is to communicate to the reader what that phenomenology is.
    Now, one way to get people to understand what that phenomenology is is just to ask them to imagine being in a certain kind of situation (in my case, a situation of uncertainty), and then just say “That! That experience in that situation! That’s what I’m talking about!” But that method has its limitations of course. So how else can we pin down a certain phenomenology? Well, I think one way of doing it is by using metaphor. In my 2012 OSNE paper, I use the metaphor of “directionality”. (The original version of that paper had much more elaborate metaphors, but that version was like 70 pages and basically nobody at the conference read it!)
    I don’t know if you’d want to say that the metaphor of directionality I use in my OSNE paper fails to provide you with an understanding of what action-guidance amounts to. But suppose you do. Then I’d want to say the following:
    a) I consider it a very live possibility that you do understand the notion perfectly well; it’s just that you falsely believe that you don’t, perhaps because you’re generally mistaken about what it takes to understand something. For example, I think you’d be mistaken in this way if you thought that you don’t understand a concept unless you can give necessary and sufficient conditions for something’s falling under that concept. (I don’t know if you think that or not — just an example.)
    b) I would say that you possess a level of understanding of action-guidance that’s adequate for my purposes insofar as your degree of understanding does not by itself rule out your being persuaded by a sound argument for the conclusion that guided actions are, ceteris paribus, and in a certain sense, *better* than unguided “leaps of faith”. (Which, I should say, seems like the kind of thing subjectivists should want, right? I mean, why would a theory’s ability to guide action speak in its favor unless guiding action were a good thing?) I provide a rough version of such an argument in this little piece I wrote for The Philosophers’ Magazine. I’m developing a more worked-out version of the argument now. But yeah, I guess I’d say that if subjectivists and “splitters” have good arguments that action-guidance is valuable in some way, and you understand the notion well enough to be persuaded by those arguments, then you understand the notion well enough. But I have not yet made an adequate case in print for the value of guidance, and as far as I know, nobody else has either. So I can’t begrudge you for suspending judgment. Our side has work to do.

  12. Thanks for clearing up my confusion Ralph. Yeah, that was sloppy on my part. I think your argument equivocates on the word “intention”.
    You write: “a rational agent who believes that she ought to F will intend to F, and this intention will rationally require her to believe that she will F. This is possible because if you rationally intend to F, you can rationally base a belief that you will F on your intention to F.”
    I reject your claim that a rational agent who believes that she ought to F will intend to F. Though I reject that claim I do accept the following claim: A rational agent who believes she ought to F will have an intention to F. But “intention” is ambiguous as between a strong reading—“intending”—and a weaker reading—“having the intent”. I can’t buy a lottery ticket rationally intending to win it (because I can’t rationally believe I will win it), but in buying the ticket my intention is to win (I bought it with that intent, and not the intent, say, to make a purchase in order to be able to use the customer restroom). The strong reading is one for which the strong belief criterion, i.e., if you are rational and intend to F, then you believe you will F, is true. The weak reading is one for which the strong belief criterion is false. A rational agent may know that she is very often akratic and so know that she can’t rationally believe that she will do what she as a rational agent believes she ought to do. But even such an akratic agent can’t be rational if she believes she ought to F and doesn’t have the intention, in the weak sense, to F. But, if that’s right, then one certainly can’t rationally base a belief that one will F on one’s having an intention, in the weak sense (the only sense for which the claim that a rational agent who believes she ought to F will have an intention to F is true), to F.

  13. Hi Andrew,
    In response to your (1): by “try” I meant to be invoking the mental action of trying. I think your “try” in “subjective utilitarianism would be the view that what’s subjectively right is what constitutes the best try at promoting utility” may well be different from mine. I’m not sure. But the subjectivity of your view lies not in its defining norms in terms of mental actions like trying, rather it lies in the fact that its account of what makes a try best supervenes only on the try-er’s evidence. Just because I might accept that moral norms in the first instance apply to mental actions of trying, I’ll count as an objectivist because I’ll hold that what makes one trying better than another are the objective facts concerning those tryings—what they cause, etc.
    In response to your (2): I should clearly look at your 2012 OSNE paper. But if the notion of action-guidingness that it is claimed that is a necessary feature of morality is ultimately going to be cashed out in terms of phenomenology, then I’m really not sure how any substantive conclusions about the true moral norms can be derived from it (phenomenology is so very contingent, how can necessary truths about morality fall out from something like that). But, then again, I don’t know how it is supposed to go. Maybe some very robust conclusions like OIC and subjectivism about moral obligation can be pulled from a claim about phenomenology, but I have no idea how the rabbit can be pulled out of that hat. As to the metaphor of directionality, I haven’t seen it. Maybe when I do, I’ll see the light.
    As regards your (a): I certainly grant that one can understand a notion without possessing necessary and sufficient conditions for it. Of course that’s true! (I think I understand knowledge but I can’t give you necessary and sufficient conditions for it.) But I just don’t understand this particular notion of action-guidingness that’s being appealed to. My request for necessary and sufficient conditions (heck, just some necessary conditions OR sufficient conditions) does not betray an implicit belief that understanding a notion requires having necessary and sufficient conditions for it; rather, when one doesn’t understand a notion (or believes she doesn’t understand a notion) one way to go about trying to get help understanding it is to ask other people for necessary and sufficient conditions (or just some necessary conditions, or some sufficient conditions). But insofar as I believe I don’t understand the notion and I find that others can’t give me any necessary or sufficient conditions (that will do the philosophical work they rely on the notion of action-guidingness to do), then I get suspicious about whether they do indeed have any clear/coherent notion in mind. (True, they can say: “Here’s a necessary truth regarding our notion of action-guidingness: an action-guiding theory is one that isn’t objectivist or one that denies OIC”. But of course that’s no help at all to me in evaluating their arguments.)
    [Also, there’s more to be said here. I don’t just leave things with the complaint: “Hey you guys! I don’t understand this notion. Explain it to me!” Rather I look hard to see what notions of “guiding” I have and see if they do the trick for my interlocutors. And, as I say, I DO have a notion of “guiding”. What’s more, I claim everyone gets my notion of guiding. (See my Westminster Abbey story above.) But on that notion of guiding, it does not seem that the guidingness of morality, if it is necessarily so guiding, will yield any claims about the truth of OIC or of subjectivism about moral obligation.]
    As regards your (b): mayhaps I do possess that level of understanding. But the only way for me to know if I have it is to know whether I’ve “ruled out” being persuaded by your argument. Heck, I don’t really know what your argument is, so I can’t know if I’ve ruled it out. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. (I should say, though, I don’t see how “guided actions” being better than “leaps of faith” in some sense, is going to get us that the true moral theory must be action guiding (in the sense needed for the arguments I’m trying to evaluate). But again, I guess, the proof is in the pudding.)

  14. Thanks for the thorough response!
    It may help to say that, at least as I understand it, it’s part of the very concept of the goodness of a try or attempt at A-ing that it depends on a probability distribution over possibilities, and one’s success at A-ing in those possibilities. This is all to say, “good try” is by definition a probability-relative notion, and as such, I think it’s possible to simply define subjective rightness in terms of the notion of trying, as I do in that OSNE paper. This doesn’t strike me as inconsistent with the view that whether something is a good try also depends on what it causes; it’s just which causal consequences make a try good must depend on the aforementioned probabilities.
    It’s also worth saying that I don’t think that evidential probabilities are all that important as far as action-guidance goes. As you’ll see in that OSNE paper, the important ones are “minimal” probabilities (or as they’re better known in the phil. of language literature, epistemic probabilities). (This ends up being not that important re: action-guidance under non-normative uncertainty, but really important for action-guidance under normative uncertainty.)
    Re: the contingency of phenomenology — it’s my view that tokening certain phenomenologies (this use of “phenomenologies” is prob. ungrammatical, but whatevs) is constitutive of being uncertain in the relevant sense, and of taking unguided actions. Of course, you might deny that; but if it’s true, then it’s not clear how any worry about basing arguments for necessary claims on contingent facts gets off the ground.
    With that said, I am troubled, I must say, by this question of why we should think that subjective norms are true on grounds of their role in guiding action under uncertainty, even if we can show that this guidance is in some way good or important. In fact, I’ve been tempted by the line that these norms may not be true, but rather that they may just be useful tools in bringing about what’s objectively valuable or reason-giving. I’d then construe, e.g., debates about what to do under conditions of normative uncertainty not as debates about which theory is true, but as debates about which theory is the best qua tool to bring about objective value. But I didn’t really pursue that line, in part because I’ve not been persuaded by any of the arguments against the truth of subjective norms — either those relative to probabilities of non-normative claims or those relative to probabilities of normative ones. (Again, I’m a splitter, not a pure “subjectivist”.) Also, I kinda just don’t care about truth that much, to put it over-simply.
    Sorry if this was a little jumbled; my wife and I were re-Ferberizing a kid while I was writing…

  15. Hi Peter,
    Maybe it would be good to distinguish the ought entails can principle from a less controversial obligation entails isn’t absurd to you principle. On this way of thinking, the demand for guidance is more about aversion to moral theories giving absurd recommendations, than to their not giving any guidance at all or giving non actionable guidance (that violates ought/obligation implies can).
    Also, for my own part, I can best motivate subjectivism by bringing in considerations about accountability. That is why I suggest emphasizing obligation over ought. This is morality after all.
    Start from the idea that if someone says that you are obligated to phi, that at least implies that someone has warrant to blame you if you don’t phi. Next add that one can have warrant to blame someone for not phi-ing only if their phi-ing wouldn’t be absurd from their point of view (perhaps idealized in a subjectivist friendly way). Phi-ing is doable in roughly Velleman’s sense. Based on these assumptions we can get to the view that if someone says that you are obligated to phi, then that at least implies that from your point of view it would not be absurd to phi.
    Now whether we can get to the stronger entailment view depends on whether being obligated entails being liable to blame. But that seems like a way to go, and then we can get subjectivist restrictions on obligation, not just unmisleading obligation talk.
    In any case, I think that focusing on obligation rather than ought is important here. It is much easier to deny that ought is connected to warranted blame than it is to deny that obligation is connected to blame.

  16. Hi Peter,
    Sorry. I am thinking my post was unhelpful because it is unclear that my thoughts can be connected with the guidance metaphor. It is a log shot, but maybe this helps?
    My son goes to see his school guidance counselor because he is struggling to figure out which schools to apply to. Now imagine that the guidance counselor just tells my son to apply to only a school in remote northern Canada that my son has never heard about. My son can’t even imagine any reason he would have to go there. The guidance counselor is unable to explain to my son why the school would be good for him at all.
    Now he might be right about it being a good school for my son – maybe he will meet his soulmate only if he goes there – but since he is advising my son to make an absurd choice from my son’s point of view, this guy sucks as a guidance counselor. More generally, you are bad at giving guidance if you advise someone to follow a standard that provides nothing but (or lots of?) absurd recommendations.

  17. Hi Brad,
    Thanks for trying to help me get a grip on this notion of action-guidingness. I guess, however, though I’m skeptical of OIC, I think an Ought Implies Isn’t Absurd to You (OIIAY) principle is far more controversial than OIC. Whether something is absurd to me will be waaaaay too subjective. Whether something is absurd to me will just be a function of my beliefs or seemings, etc. It might come apart not just from the actual facts but even from the evidence available to me. I guess I simply find a subjectivism that strong too hard to take credible. (In fact, that kind of subjectivism is absurd to me.) And if we’re going for something as subjective as that, then why not go whole hog and just endorse: Ought Implies Seems Eminently Reasonable to You, or Ought Implies You Believe You Ought? What motivates OIIAY that wouldn’t motivate these principles? In other words, I’m skeptical that there will be a stable motivation for OIIAY. (Below I’ll say a little bit about the accountability stuff you mention.)
    I’m all for focusing on obligation as opposed to ‘ought’. In fact, this is my preference when I talk about, write on, and discuss these issues. I guess I don’t find the claim that Blameworthy Implies Ought Not (at least an unrestricted version of it) that plausible (though this is a little bit of a long story). But I also don’t accept that X’s phi-ing is blameworthy only if not phi-ing wouldn’t be absurd from X’s point of view. What is absurd from X’s point of view is just a function either of some seeming of X’s or of some belief of X’s; but those things don’t seem to undercut my resentment or indignation of them, in any way, when they phi. After all something could be absurd to X no matter what the evidence available to X was. Something could be absurd to X no matter what else she believed (including the belief that she ought not to phi (after all, she might find one of her own beliefs absurd)). You do mention idealizations and maybe you’d try to get around these problems with those idealizations. But here, as with many attempts to appeal to idealized agents, the only motivation to add the idealizations, it seems to me, are going to be to avoid obvious counterexamples, and that’s ad hoc if anything is. (And adding the idealizations also tends to undercut whatever motivations were offered for the principle in the first place.)
    As regards your guidance counselor example, I’m not sure that helps me all that much. Yeah he’s a shitty guidance counselor, but that’s because we expect a guidance counselor to do more than just say what we ought to do. He’s shitty because his job is to lay out the considerations in favor of different schools so that your son can then choose himself among them. I’m not sure why this is a good analogy for the guidance that morality is supposed to necessarily offer. What’s more the analogy again runs into trouble when we consider that what seems absurd to one of his students is a function of contingent features of their mental states. He might lay out a great case for going to Colgate to a student, but to the student going to Colgate is just absurd because he can’t get weed cheaply enough at Colgate. It doesn’t follow from the fact that this kid finds the guidance counselor’s advice absurd that the guidance counselor is in any way doing a shitty job. He may well be doing a great job even though the twerp he’s advising finds his advice absurd. (I predict that here’s where the idealizations are going to get wheeled in; but I think I’ll have the same response here as I do above.)
    I still haven’t gotten a grip of the notion of guidance that’s being appealed to in all these arguments for subjectivism and for OIC. I guess I’m just missing it. (I have laid out a case in which it seems that something can indeed be guiding without its being the case that one can do what it demands (my guidebook example above). What’s wrong with my saying, in light of that, that morality can be action-guiding even if OIC is false?)

  18. Hi Peter,
    I think we are talking past one another here. I should have said how I was using ‘absurd’. I was thinking, roughly, that phi-ing is absurd for A iff A can’t see anything good about phi-ing. I was taking ‘absurd’ to mean ‘without reason’ not just ‘something I don’t accept’. So the guidance counselor in your example might be doing fine – the kid can’t seriously be thinking that the lack of weed makes all the good features of the school bad or neutral. He presumably just thinks they are outweighed. And going there would be absurd only if he saw no substantive good in going.
    And, yes, I was assuming you would idealize relative to evidence or something, but did not try to spell that out in part because I realize there are hard questions about how to motivate and specify a sound idealization procedure.

  19. Hi Brad,
    My complaints about the “absurd” criterion were meant to cover your definition of absurd as “without reason”. I still don’t think people are off the blameworthiness hook, or the obligation hook, if they simply don’t see any reason to phi. (Some who try to motivate this will say something like “If he can’t see any reason to do it, how can you reasonably expect him to do it?!!” But this reply equivocates on the word ‘expect’. Of course it is unreasonable for me to expect him to do it, on the sense of ‘expect’ according to which I expect something just in case I believe it will happen (I have no reason to believe he’ll do it, and good reason to believe he won’t do it). But it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to do it in the normative sense of ‘expect’–hold him accountable.) I was indeed thinking that the kid sees nothing good about going to Colgate and one thing bad about it, viz., he can’t weed cheaply there. Nevertheless, the guidance counselor seems to be doing a good job in recommending Colgate. Here’s where the idealization stuff is, of course, going to be wheeled in to dispense with this counterintuitive consequence. But, as I’ve said, I’m skeptical of this maneuver because (a) it seems quite ad hoc, and (b) adding idealizations like these invariably strips the proposal of its intuitive motivation (extensional adequacy of the account is what drives the particular idealizations added (for instance: it’s never added as an idealization that the agent in question have abilities other than she actually has, but why not?), as opposed to others–but then the game is given away).

  20. Couple more thoughts:
    I guess the analogy with the guidance counselor is supposed to bring out the general idea that a respectable moral code should hold that we are obligated by reasons that we can in principle recognize and endorse. You could give this a Kantian twist by demanding that the moral code/theory be autonomous or maybe appeal to Darwall’s idea that a respectable moral code is one that agents can rationally hold themselves to. Even if you don’t buy this idea it seems to run deep in the Kantian tradition.
    I guess you could hold that only the basic principles behind a code need to be based on reasons that people can recognize and accept and allow that concrete moral obligations don’t need to meet that standard. But this is not something that people in the Kantian tradition would accept, I wouldn’t think.

  21. Hi peter,
    Fair enough. I wasn’t proposing a defense just trying to explain a relevant conception of guidance. It sounds like you now understand a relevant conception of guidance but reject it. Is that right?

  22. Hi Brad,
    I’m not sure I do understand a relevant conception of guidance. Is this what it was supposed to be?
    A moral theory is action-guiding just in case it only delivers verdicts that the agent in question can see some reason to do (sees some good in doing) (i.e., only delivers verdicts that aren’t “absurd”, in your terminology).
    If that is the understanding of guidance, then it seems weird to call that guidance. (If this is what it is, there are more apt names. And that leads me to think that maybe this isn’t what people are appealing to.) But fair enough. Maybe this is what is meant when people appeal to the action-guidingness of morality. But my request wasn’t just an account of what it means for a moral theory to be action-guiding, I wanted an account of action-guidingness that’s supposed to be able to play the role that it is plausibly supposed to play, i.e., establishing subjectivism and OIC, etc for those who appeal to it. And I just don’t see how this account of action-guidingness is gonna do THAT. Take Jones who doesn’t know which action maximizes utility. The objective moral theory says take the option which maximizes utility. Surely, Jones sees something good in maximizing utility (sees some reason to maximize utility). So objective utilitarianism is an action-guiding moral theory. Take Smith. In his situation the moral theory declares that he is morally obliged to snap his finger and thereby stop global warming, something he can’t do. Smith can indeed see something good in snapping his fingers and thereby stopping global warming (see some reason to snap his finger and thereby stop global warming). Hence, this OIC-denying moral theory is action-guiding. But surely those who use action-guidingness to argue for subjectivism don’t want objective utilitarianism to turn out to be an action-guiding moral theory. And surely those who use action-guidingness to argue for OIC don’t want the above OIC-denying moral theory to count as action-guiding.
    So I’m not sure how it is that this account of action-guidingness could at all be what people are appealing to when they appeal to action-guidingness to argue for subjectivism and OIC. (Now of course, one can add the idealizations to the account of action-guidingness to avoid these problems for appealing to this account of action-guidingness in arguing for subjectivism and OIC, but then (in addition to the above problem with idealizing) it’s clear that the idealizations are doing all the heavy lifting.)

  23. Peter — I want to try to convince you that you understand guidance in the sense I have in mind. One of your lines of thought seems to be this: “Look, all these subjectivists (and splitters, I guess) think that you can only be guided by something if you can be guided by the demands it makes. But my “guidebook” example shows that’s false. So either they’re wrong, or what they mean by “action-guidance” is not what I mean.”
    Here’s my take on that guidebook example: First, let me get two things out of the way. The first is that I don’t know anything about the philosophy of conditionals, so consider me out of my depth here. The second is that I just tend not to like “demands” talk. This is partly for what we might call “Norcrossian” reasons, but partly because I don’t think I fully grasp your idea of a demand. As I read, e.g., the last sentence in your guidebook example, it issues three demands — one primary one, one backup one, and one backup to the backup.
    But anyway, as a splitter, I’m perfectly happy to think of utilitarianism, say, as telling you “You should maximize utility, but if you don’t know what will maximize utility, then you make your best attempt at promoting utility (which may consist in maximizing expected utility”). That strikes me as perfectly action-guiding, and if you want to say it only makes one demand — “You should maximize utility” — and that I can’t be guided by that demand (since I can’t intentionally act under the description “maximizing utility” if I don’t know what will maximize utility), then that’s cool with me.
    So yeah, maybe I’m missing something since I have no theoretical understanding of how conditionals work, but I’m happy to think of what I call subjective norms as backup norms and as not issuing demands in the sense of “demand” you must have in mind to say what you do about the “guidebook” example. With that said, there are different sorts of contingencies for which one might want to spell out a backup or second-best norm. “Maximize expected utility” is the second-best when the reason you can’t just act on the best norm is that you don’t know what would constitute doing so; when we say, e.g., “You shouldn’t shoot heroin, but if you do, you should use a clean needle”, the “you should use a clean needle is the second-best when the reason you can’t do the best is that you’re motivationally not up to avoiding heroin.

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