Objective consequentialism and the licensing dilemma


Frank Jackson has put forward a famous thought experiment of a physician who has to decide on the correct treatment for her patient. Subjective consequentialism tells the physician to do what intuitively seems to be the right action, whereas objective consequentialism fails to guide the physician’s action. I suppose that objective consequentialists want to supplement their theory so that it guides the physician’s action towards what intuitively seems to be the right treatment. Since this treatment is wrong according to objective consequentialism, objective consequentialists have to license it without calling it right. I consider eight strategies to spell out the idea of licensing the intuitively right treatment and argue that objective consequentialism is on the horns of what I call the licensing dilemma: Either the physician’s action is not guided towards the intuitively right treatment. Or the guidance towards the intuitively right treatment is ad hoc in some respect or the other.

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  1. 1.

    Jackson (1991, pp. 462–463). A similar case has been described prior to Jackson in Regan (1980, pp. 264–265).

  2. 2.

    Jackson (1991, pp. 462–463).

  3. 3.

    As Feldman (2006) shows, subjective consequentialism is not action-guiding in the sense that you can actually calculate the expected values of your options in each situation. It remains a task for subjective consequentialists, then, to show how exactly their theory is action-guiding. I will not try to show this. But I think it can be shown. My opinion is based on the observation that in cases like the Case of Jill you can easily see without calculation which of the actions has most expected value.

  4. 4.

    Zimmerman (2008, p. 18) even goes as far as to frame his argument against objective moral theories such as objective consequentialism as an ad hominem one by pointing out that any conscientious person in the position of Jill would prescribe the drug that only partly cures John.

  5. 5.

    Persson (2008) distinguishes between an objective criterion for what we ought to do and a subjective criterion for what we ought to try. This seems to be just another formulation of the view under consideration. I think that the underlying idea becomes clear in this quotation: “We could roughly distinguish between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’ side of an action which is intentional under some description. The internal side is what we decide, intend and try to do, while the external side is what we in fact do, intentionally or unintentionally, what changes we in fact cause in our attempt”, Persson (2008, p. 351). I think that my argumentation in this section can easily be adapted to any distinction between an objective criterion for the external and a subjective criterion for the internal side of actions.

  6. 6.

    As Bykvist (2010, p. 85) illustrates, a variety of subjective consequentialism that focuses on actual beliefs would sanction beliefs that even may be bizarre. In this paper, I confine myself to a version of subjective consequentialism that focuses on what it is reasonable to believe.

  7. 7.

    The distinction between a criterion of rightness for actions and a decision procedure is very popular since Bales (1971).

  8. 8.

    The view under consideration in this section can be understood as based on the idea that, as Tännsjö (1995) formulates it, “if, consistently, we try to maximize expected utility, then, in the long run, probably, we end up with better results than consistently applying any conceivable alternative strategy” (p. 589). (Tännsjö himself, though, defends the view that I consider in Sect. 10, cf. Tännsjö (1995, pp. 589–590). For a criticism of the ideas mentioned in Tännsjö (1995), see Bergström (1996, Sect. 6).

  9. 9.

    The position that an agent ought to perform an act if and only if it is an option such that what would happen if the agent performed it is better than what would happen if she did not perform it is called actualism. Actualism is defended, for example, in Jackson and Pargetter (1986). The main alternative to actualism is possibilism. Possibilism says that an agent ought to perform an act if and only if it is an option such that what could happen if the agent performed it is better than what could happen if she did not perform it, whereby “could” refers to what the agent can do. Cf. Zimmerman (2008, Chap. 3.1).

  10. 10.

    Concerning the issue of “blameless wrongdoing”, see Parfit (1984, pp. 31–35), and the related discussion concerning “global consequentialism” in Pettit and Smith (2000).

  11. 11.

    This idea has often been mentioned since Moore (1912, pp. 98–101).

  12. 12.

    For straightforward consequentialist accounts of blaming and praising, see Norcross (2006, pp. 224–247) and, especially, Shaw (1999 pp. 134–138). (Notice, though, that Norcross defends an unusual kind of consequentialism, namely scalar consequentialism, according to which acts are not right or wrong but better or worse than their alternatives).

  13. 13.

    Against the assertion of the first connection, you might hold that if an action is right, then it ought to be done. But I think that this is not true. For (1) there might be more than one right action and you can, and thus ought, only choose one of them, and (2) supererogatory actions are right but it is not the case that you ought to perform them.

  14. 14.

    The first version is mentioned in Bykvist (2010, pp. 90–91); the second seems to be defended in Smith (2006, pp. 145–147).

  15. 15.

    Smith (2006, p. 141).

  16. 16.

    Smith (2006, pp. 142–145).

  17. 17.

    Smith (2006, p. 145).

  18. 18.

    For a prominent objection to the mixed view, see Zimmerman (2008, pp. 6–7).


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Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at the University of Mannheim in spring 2010 and at Saarland University in summer 2010. I am grateful to Krister Bykvist, Christoph Fehige, Bernward Gesang, Benjamin Kiesewetter, Marcel Mertz, Oliver Petersen, Daniel Ramöller, Julius Schälike, Peter Schulte, Attila Tanyi, Ulla Wessels, and Joachim Wündisch for comments and suggestions.

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Andrić, V. Objective consequentialism and the licensing dilemma. Philos Stud 162, 547–566 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-011-9781-7

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  • Objective consequentialism
  • Subjective consequentialism
  • Frank Jackson
  • Action-guidance
  • Licensing dilemma