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Bykvist on Objective versus Subjective Moral Oughts

Dr. Krister Bykvist [1] from Oxford University gave a talk entitled ‘Objective verus Subjective Moral Oughts’ [2]this past Monday at the Oxford Moral Philosophy Seminar [3]. A copy of Krister’s talk can be found here [2] and he would welcome any comments/suggestions. Here’s an abstract of his talk:

It is common in normative ethics to abstract away from any epistemic shortcomings of the agent. In this highly idealized debate, virtue ethics will simply tell you to do what the virtuous person would do (or what would display the most virtuous motive), whereas Kantian ethics will tell you to do what is based on a universalizable maxim, and utilitarianism, what would maximize general happiness. But is it right to ignore the epistemic situation of the agent?

The obvious option is to reformulate moral theories so that they take into account the epistemic limitations of the agent. Virtue ethics will now tell you to do what you have good reason to believe a virtuous person would do. Similarly, Kantianism will now tell you to act on what you have good reason to think is a maxim that could be universalized. Utilitarianism will tell you to do what you have good reason to think would maximize happiness (or, more plausibly, what would maximize expected happiness.)

The aim of this paper is to critically examine this epistemic reformulation of standard moral theories. I will pay especially close attention to Michael Zimmerman’s epistemic account, since it is by far the best-developed account in the literature. His account is presented in his recent book Living with Uncertainty (CUP 2008).

Zimmerman’s main reason to move to an epistemic account has to do with the famous ‘Jackson-case’ that are often seen as serious challenge for the objective view of rightness. In a Jackson-case, the intuitively reasonable option is something the agent knows to be objectively wrong, no matter what happens. Zimmerman thinks this shows that the primary notion of moral rightness should be epistemically constrained. I will be arguing that this is a mistake. We need to distinguish between what is rational to do, given the agent’s beliefs and preferences, and what is morally right. Objective moral rightness should be retained as the primary concept of moral rightness.