Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Stakes of the Actualism-Possibilism Dispute

I should say "disputes", since the issue of evaluating options is importantly different from that of selecting options. As Jackson & Pargetter put it in their seminal 1986 paper, 'Oughts, Options, and Actualism':
There are two matters that need to be borne in mind when considering what ought to be done in terms of the option approach. One is the evaluation of options. We have urged the plausibility of evaluating options in terms of what agents would do were they to adopt them. That is Actualism. The other matter is how to select the right set of options. That depends on exactly which question you want the answer to. If you want the answer for some action as to whether an agent ought to do it, look at the set consisting of the action and what the agent would do instead; if you want the answer as to what an agent ought to do at or during some time, look at all the maximally relevantly specific actions possible at or during that time. (p.255)

I whole-heartedly agree with their Actualism, for reasons articulated in my post 'Ignoring Reality Ain't So Ideal Either'. When possibilists say that Professor Procrastinate ought to agree to review the paper (since he could, even though he actually won't, do the job on time) they are making a substantive error in their evaluation of the token decision that Prof. P. faces at this time.

I have more difficulty grasping the point of the 'selection' debate. In a recent PEA Soup post, Ralph Wedgwood argues that it's most intuitively plausible to look at all the maximally specific actions available, not only when assessing what an agent ought to do at a time, but even when asking the more specific question whether they ought (at this time) to φ. If φ-ing is something awful, and the agent has a better option ψ available, surely they ought not to φ (even if it happens that if they don't φ, they'll do something even worse). Whereas Jackson & Pargetter see the relevant options in this case as either φ-ing or doing the worse thing, Wedgwood insists that we include ψ-ing as among the relevant options here too. This effectively collapses the question "ought I to φ?" into the question "what ought I to do? (Perhaps, φ?)"

I don't see much room for substantive debate here. Everyone agrees that, between the options of φ-ing or doing what they'd otherwise do (i.e. something worse), the agent should φ. Everyone also agrees that what the agent ought to do at this time is to ψ instead. What remains is a merely semantic question: whether to interpret the English phrase "Ought I to φ or not?" as questioning the former normative claim or the latter. Does this really matter?


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