The Journal of Ethics

, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 351–373 | Cite as

A Defense of the Objective/Subjective Moral Ought Distinction

  • Kristian Olsen


In this paper, I motivate and defend the distinction between an objective and a subjective moral sense of “ought.” I begin by looking at the standard way the distinction is motivated, namely by appealing to relatively simple cases where an agent does something she thinks is best, but her action has a tragic outcome. I argue that these cases fail to do the job—the intuitions they elicit can be explained without having to distinguish between different senses of “ought.” However, these cases are on the right track—I argue that more sophisticated versions of the cases provide strong motivation for the distinction. I then discuss two important problems for the distinction: the “which ‘ought’ is more important?” problem, and the “annoying profusion of ‘oughts’” problem. I argue that each of these problems can be solved in several different ways.


Objective ought Subjective ought Just-plain ought Blameworthiness Value 



Many people gave me valuable feedback on drafts of this paper. Thanks especially to Fred Feldman, Luis Oliveira, Scott Hill, and an anonymous referee for this journal.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of New HampshireDurhamUSA

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