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How should we accommodate our future misbehavior? The answer turns on how bad it will be


Professor Procrastinate receives an invitation to review a book. Best would be to accept it and then write the review. But if he accepts it, he will never get around to writing. And this would be worse than declining. Should he accept? Possibilists say yes, Actualists say no, and I say we need more information. In particular, we lack some information about the level of goodness of the various options. For example, we lack information regarding how much better it would be to accept and write than it would be to decline. In the course of defending my view, I discuss its implications for ethical theory and our everyday actions.

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  1. 1.

    This case, or ones similar to it, are discussed in e.g. Baker (2012, 641), Cariani (2016), Goldman (1978, 185–186), Jackson and Pargetter (1986, 235), Littlejohn (2009), Portmore (2011, 151), Portmore (2013), Timmerman (2015, 1512), van Someren Greve (2013, 482–483), [Vessel, 28, 166], Woodard (2008, 18).

  2. 2.

    By the “objective all-things-considered moral sense of ‘ought’ ”, I mean a moral sense of “ought” that takes all relevant information into account, not merely the information that the subject possesses, and is not overridden by some other moral ought.

  3. 3.

    For those who endorse this position, see e.g. Feldman (1986), Goldman (1978), Greenspan (1978), Humberstone (1983), Thomason (1981), Vessel (2009), Vorobej (2000), Zimmerman (1996).

  4. 4.

    For those who endorse this position, see e.g. Goble (1993), Goldman (1976), Jackson and Pargetter (1986), Sobel (1976, 1982).

  5. 5.

    See e.g. Carlson (1999), Cohen and Timmerman (2016), Gustafsson (2014), McKinsey (1979), Portmore (2011, 208), Timmerman (2015, 1525).

  6. 6.

    See e.g. Carlson (1999), Cohen and Timmerman (2016), Gustafsson (2014), McKinsey (1979), Portmore (2011, 208), Timmerman (2015, 1525).

  7. 7.

    Compare: suppose I promise to pick up my friend from the airport at 6 and then stay home because I don’t feel like going. Suppose it’s now 5:55 and I can’t get to the airport in time. It seems like I nonetheless have the obligation to pick her up at 6 and this is because there are things I could have done—driving to the airport—that would have made it possible to pick her up.

  8. 8.

    Note that I’m not assuming the distinction between these is perfectly sharp. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this.

  9. 9.

    This negative position does not seem to have been defended in the literature. One possible exception is Christopher Woodard, who has developed a view according to which an agent is obliged to do X just in case he has overall reason to do so, and in which we have both actualist and possibilist reasons; see Woodard (2008, 2009). While this view is somewhat non-committal on how these reasons combine to form overall reasons, his writings suggest that he thinks adding modal and action-theoretic information will not be enough to settle on a verdict regarding what Professor Procrastinate ought to do.

    It is perhaps worth noting that in endorsing my view, one need not endorse Woodard’s view; I am not committed to the view according to which one has an obligation to do X just in case one has overall reason to do something, nor am I committed to the existence of both actualist and possibilist reasons. As I note later on in this paper, there are many different types of normative ethical position one can endorse while accepting my view. And many of these do not (or need not) have Woodard’s commitments. For example, there are various forms of deontology and virtue theory that are consistent with my view.

  10. 10.

    First, and most obviously, they will all be could-but-won’t cases. In addition, as I noted earlier, some theorists think that certain modal and action-theoretic information is relevant to determining what characters in such cases ought to do. And, as I also noted, information like this isn’t typically given when describing could-but-won’t cases. Nonetheless, I would like to try to hold this sort of information consistent between cases.

    In order to ensure parallel structure between the cases I will present, I hereby stipulate that they all share the following features: (i) There are things that the characters could have done in the past so as to avoid their current situation. (ii) Likewise, there are ways they could have formed their character in the past so as to bring it about that if they chose option A they would choose option 1. (iii) But they have not done these things. And thus, there is nothing they can do in the present, at the very moment, that would ensure that if they were to choose option A, they would then choose option 1. (Or, at the very least, there is nothing they can do that is not so extreme as to be obviously morally unacceptable.)

    So, for example, regarding Procrastinate, (i) There are things he could have done in the past—e.g. not becoming a professor—that would have ensured that he didn’t find himself in the situation he presently does. (ii) And there are also ways he could have formed his character—developing better habits—that would have made it such that if he accepted the invitation, he would have followed through. (iii) But alas he chose to be a professor and did not form his character in this way. And thus there is nothing he can do at this very moment to ensure that if he accepts the invitation, he will follow through.

    One might ask: why have I chosen to specify the modal and action-theoretic information as I have. The reason is because it seems the most natural way to understand this sort of case. So, for example, it would be weird to think there was nothing Procrastinate could have done to keep himself from finding himself in this situation or to change his habits. And, of course, if there was something he could reasonably do right now to ensure that he completed the review, he should accept and do it. For example, suppose that if he were to attach a sticky note to his computer which said “write the review” then he would follow through. In such a case, he should obviously accept the invitation and write the note.

  11. 11.

    As I read the case, Goldman is taking it as implicit that whether the language requirement passes doesn’t matter too much. She says that the benefit it provides is “pleasure the students will ultimately take in being able to use a foreign language” (Goldman 1976, 460) and seems to treat this as being a less serious matter than the graduate student having “a serious emotional breakdown” as a result of not seeking counseling (Goldman 1976, 454). That said, and at the risk of belaboring the obvious: nothing about my view commits me to saying that language requirements are unimportant. Rather, my view says the following: the more inclined we are to say that passing the language requirement is incredibly important, the more inclined we should be to say the faculty member ought to go to campus.

  12. 12.

    Here is the case in Goble’s words:

    Consider: Fred is lazy and given to daydreaming. He knows he ought to work in his garden on Sunday afternoon and that to work in his garden he must have his hoe. He means to work in his garden and so he picks up his hoe and goes out to his garden plot. There, however, instead of actually working the soil around his radishes, he pauses to contemplate the wonder of growing things. Fred can become quite rhapsodic. In his reverie he reflects how the garden unites himself, a man, to the earth, and how indeed all people are bound to the earth …Fred is given to such lapses. Of course, they are avoidable. …Fred’s daydreams, in most cases, are harmless; he comes out of them in a few minutes and works in his garden with greater vigor than if he did not have those moments. This day, however, it matters a great deal. This day there is a lunatic loose in the neighborhood. This person too worships gardens. Carrying a great scythe over his shoulder, he stalks the suburbs, seeking people at work in their flower beds or vegetable patches. When he comes upon someone diligently laboring in his or her garden, he will pause to chat a while about cabbages or calendula and then go on his way. But he despises all idleness; when he finds someone standing around daydreaming instead of working, then he becomes violent. He wields his scythe, and cuts the idler down to size. So it is with Fred. The Reaper strikes. It’s all over very quickly (though not painlessly). …I grant that Fred ought to work in his garden. But is it also true that he ought to pick up his hoe, when doing so he will meet this terrible fate? (Goble 1993, 138–139).

  13. 13.

    See e.g. Baker (2012, 645) and Timmerman (2015, 1511).

  14. 14.

    Here is the fuller—and more graphic—description of the case that Wedgwood provides:

    For example, imagine a wicked paedophile, who has just abducted a 10-year-old girl and imprisoned her in his secret cellar. Suppose that it is still possible—though unfortunately quite unlikely—that the paedophile will repent of his evil plans, and return the girl unharmed to her parents. Surely, if anything is clear about this case, it is clear that it is not true that the paedophile ought to rape the girl.

    Suppose that it is also true in this case that if the paedophile did not rape the girl, he would torture her to death, whereas if he did rape her, he would not subject her to any additional torture, and would not kill her. So, presumably, the paedophile’s conduct would be at least somewhat better if he raped her than if he didn’t. Hence actualists must say that the paedophile ought to rape the girl. This seems to me a reductio ad absurdum of the actualist view (Wedgwood 2009).

  15. 15.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for expressing this worry.

  16. 16.

    As an aside, I should note that the view also predicts another related phenomenon, which I will call Relative Likelihood: If we hold fixed the level of goodness of outcomes (that are, or will be, under your control), but adjust the chances that they will occur, we can alter what you morally ought to do.

    For example, suppose that if I go to Thanksgiving at my in-laws, even though it’s possible for me to control myself, I’m extremely likely to fly into a rage. In this case, I probably shouldn’t go. By contrast, suppose I have an extremely low chance of flying into a rage when I visit them at Thanksgiving. In this case, it is fine for me to go.

    The expected utility theory explains this result because it says that what you ought to do turns on both the goodness of the outcomes and the likelihood that they will occur. By contrast, Actualists and Possibilists cannot accept Relative Likelihood or the cases it helps explain. For Actualists, all that matters is knowing which outcome will actually obtain, and for Possibilists, all that matters is knowing the best possible outcome that could obtain. So neither can endorse the claim that if we hold fixed the level of goodness of outcomes (that are, or will be, under your control), but adjust the chances that they will occur, we can alter what you ought to do. Likewise, neither can accept the claim that altering the chances that I will fly into a rage alters whether that I should go to Thanksgiving. All that matters—if one is an Actualist—is whether I will fly into a rage, and all that matters—if one is a Possibilist—is whether it is possible for me to avoid the rage. Neither cares what the chance are that I will fly into the rage.

  17. 17.

    I should note that it’s not merely Aristotelians that could say this; a similar story could be told on a Rossian deontological view, where we weigh various duties against each other (Ross 1930).

  18. 18.

    I should note that Korsgaard, in her article, does not simply endorse this common-sense view and move on. Rather, she thinks that the expression “very bad” is somewhat unhelpful—how are we to determine if something counts as very bad or not? For this reason, she goes on to offer a theory, similar in structure to that of the common-sense approach, that more precisely fills in what it takes to be “very bad” (Korsgaard 1986).

  19. 19.

    Cases with this structure—those in which I can act badly so as to prevent someone from acting even worse—can have a lot of intuitive pull. For instance, Doug Portmore, in his book Commonsense Consequentialism, indicates that cases with this sort of structure—in particular, a case in which murdering someone else would lead to an ever-so-slightly better outcome than not doing so—were what convinced him to no longer be a utilitarian (Portmore 2011, 3–4).

  20. 20.

    Note that discussion in this section bears similarities to discussion in Woodard (2008).

  21. 21.

    For example, some of these arguments turn on the sorts of advice it would be appropriate to give to characters like Professor Procrastinate (Feldman 1986, 55–56), (Jackson and Pargetter 1986, 237), (Zimmerman 1996, 198). And, as the reader can perhaps anticipate, I’m inclined to say that those endorsing (and criticizing) this argument haven’t considered the view that what advice one should give someone turns on the degrees of goodness and badness of the various options.

  22. 22.

    For example, I suggested in Sect. 2.1 that perhaps information about chances of outcomes is also relevant.


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Thanks for helpful comments to Asia Ferrin, Ting Lau, Doug Portmore, Fritz Warfield, Chris Woodard, attendees at a philosophy club meeting (Thomas Ferguson, Nate Fulton, Greg Glatz, Tino Petrocelli, Dan Rabinoff, Elena Rabinoff, Casey Woolwine), an audience at the Great Plains Philosophy Conference, and an anonymous referee.

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Immerman, D. How should we accommodate our future misbehavior? The answer turns on how bad it will be. Philos Stud (2020).

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  • Actualism
  • Possibilism
  • Moral obligations
  • Non-ideal theory