Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 11, pp 3077–3097 | Cite as

Tragedy and the constancy of norms: towards an Anscombian conception of ‘ought’

  • Kristina GehrmanEmail author


This paper presents an Anscombian alternative to the traditional deontic conception of ought. According to the Anscombian conception of ought developed here, ought is general as opposed to ‘peculiarly moral’, norm-referring instead of law- or obligation-referring, and ‘heroic’ in the sense that it does not presuppose that individuals can do or be as they ought. Its connection to matters of fact can, moreover, be clearly stated. In the first part of the paper, I describe some significant logical characteristics of this conception, and argue that it provides a more suitable account of the oughts of ethics as compared to the deontic conception. One particular strength of the Anscombian conception of ought is that it does justice to the possibility of tragedy in human life, where tragedy is understood as the possibility that a thoroughly well-intentioned individual might sometimes ensure her own moral imperfection, precisely by doing what is morally right or best at every step along the way. To motivate this feature of the view, I sketch a corresponding picture of responsibility for actions in terms of ownership of one’s deeds. This conception of responsibility allows that what one ought to do is not always constrained by what one can do, while saving the intuitions about fairness and the practical scope of moral norms that principally motivate ‘ought implies can’. To illustrate and motivate the overall account I discuss a number of cases, including the character Winston from George Orwell’s 1984.


Anscombe Ought Responsibility Ought implies can Natural normativity 



I am grateful to my colleagues at the University of Tennessee, especially Clerk Shaw, Jon Garthoff, and Josh Watson, to Paul Nichols, and to an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for helpful discussion of this paper at various stages of development. I would also like to acknowledge the University of Tennessee Humanities Center for Fellowship support during 2015-2016 which furthered completion of this essay.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA

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