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Objectivism and Prospectivism about Rightness

by Elinor Mason

In this paper I present a new argument for prospectivism: the view that, for a consequentialist, rightness depends on what is prospectively best rather than what would actually be best. Prospective bestness depends on the agent’s epistemic position, though exactly how that works is not straightforward. I clarify various possible versions of prospectivism, which differ in how far they go in relativizing to the agent’s limitations. My argument for prospectivism is an argument for moderately objective prospectivism, according to which the right thing to do is what would make sense given reasonable beliefs, reasonable probability estimates and a reasonable understanding of value.

My argument is an argument for this form of prospectivism over objectivism. Arguments about prospectivism and objectivism usually use an example with the following form: an agent has a choice between options – one she knows would be acceptable, while the other could either be catastrophic or very good. Objectivists argue that the right thing to do is what would in fact be best (though the agent cannot know which option that is) while prospectivists argue that the agent’s ignorance is relevant, and the right thing to do is to compromise. The question is how we should understand the underlying argument. It is not about action guidance. Moderately objective prospectivism is not action guiding, because an actual agent may not have access to reasonable beliefs, probability estimates and so on. Another common argument is that the objective notion is the primary one. I show that there are no good grounds for this claim.

My argument uses the distinction between rightness and goodness to show that a consequentialist theory, that bases rightness on goodness, should take into account how much goodness is at stake. Crucially, potential losses as well as gains are relevant. So long as goodness, rather than rightness, is in the driving seat, we should not be “bestness fetishists.” As the name suggest, this would be an irrational privileging of the best option. This argument does not apply to pure deontology: a pure deontology does not use the notion of goodness at all, and so there is nothing to compromise with. If the agent does not know what is right, there is nothing further to say.

I end by arguing against a recent strategy that aims to show that although objectivism is true (the right option is the best one), we should sometimes do what is wrong (i.e. what is prospectively best). I argue that insofar as this is correct, it is simply prospectivism with awkward terminology.

ISSN 1559-3061
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