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A Consequentialist Distinction between What We Ought to Do and Ought to Try


G. E. Moore raised the question of whether consequentialists ought to maximize actual rather than expected value, and came down in favour of the former alternative. But rather recently Frank Jackson has presented an example which has been widely thought to clinch the case in favour of the alternative view. This article argues for a sort of compromise between these rival views, namely that while we ought to do what maximizes actual value, we ought to try to do what maximizes expected value. It is claimed that consequentialists could consistently adopt this view, though in Jackson's case they are certain that, if they try to maximize expected value, they shall most likely not maximize actual value.

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1 Moore G. E., Ethics (Oxford, 1966 [first published 1912]), pp. 98101.

2 ‘Decision-theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection’, Ethics 101 (1991), pp. 462–3. In an unpublished paper by Derek Parfit, ‘What We Together Do’ (1988), there is a similar sort of case. Parfit refers to Donald Regan as inspiration.

3 Jackson, ‘Decision-theoretic Consequentialism’, p. 471.

4 See Zimmerman Michael J., ‘The Relevance of Risk to Wrongdoing’, The Good, the Right, Life and Death, ed. McDaniel Kris, Raibley Jason R., Feldman Richard and Zimmerman Michael J. (Aldershot, 2006), p. 162.

5 Moore, Ethics, pp. 100–1.

6 See e.g. Derek Parfit, ‘On What Matters’ (unpublished MS, 2008), sect. 15. In fact, Parfit recognizes further senses alongside the two mentioned.

7 Cf. Zimmerman Michael J., ‘Is Moral Obligation Objective or Subjective?’, Utilitas 18 (2006), p. 332.

8 See Appendix.

9 For helpful comments I am grateful to participants in a seminar at the Department of Philosophy, Gothenburg University, at which the present article was presented as a paper. But I am particularly grateful to Derek Parfit and Michael Zimmerman.

10 ‘Reasons’, Reason and Value: Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, ed. R. Jay Wallace, Philip Pettit, Samuel Scheffler and Michael Smith (Oxford, 2005).

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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