Philosophical Studies

, Volume 158, Issue 2, pp 343–360 | Cite as

Options and the subjective ought

  • Brian Hedden


Determining what you ought to do can be broken down into two stages. The first stage is determining what your options are, and the second stage is ranking those options. While the second stage has been widely explored by philosophers of all stripes, from ethicists to decision theorists to epistemologists to action theorists, the first stage has gone largely unaddressed. And yet, without a theory of how to conceive of your options, the theory of practical rationality—of how you ought to act—will be incomplete.

I will argue that the fact that what you ought to do depends on your uncertainty about the world ultimately forces us to conceive of your options as consisting of all and only the decisions you are presently able to make. In this way, oughts apply only to decisions, and not to the non-mental acts that we ordinarily evaluate for moral and rational permissibility.

This change in our conception of your options is not of mere bookkeeping interest; it has substantive...


Expected Utility Expect Utility Theory Practical Rationality Causal Decision Theory Evidential Decision Theory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank Dan Greco, Caspar Hare, Richard Holton, Heather Logue, Tyler Paytas, Agustín Rayo, Miriam Schoenfield, Paulina Sliwa, Matthew Noah Smith, Robert Stalnaker, Roger White, and Steve Yablo, as well as audiences at the 2011 MITing of the Minds Conference, the 2011 Bellingham Summer Philosophy, and the 2011 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, for very helpful comments.


  1. Anscombe, G. E. M. (1957). Intention. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bratman, M. (1987). Intentions, plans, and practical reason. Stanford, CA: CSLI.Google Scholar
  3. Chisholm, R. (1963). Contrary-to-duty imperatives and deontic logic. Analysis, 24, 33–36.Google Scholar
  4. Elga, A. (2010). Subjective probabilities should be sharp. Philosopher’s Imprint, 10.Google Scholar
  5. Frankfurt, H. (1969). Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility. Journal of Philosophy, 66, 829–839.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Hare, C. (2010). Take the sugar. Analysis, 70, 237–247.Google Scholar
  7. Jackson, F., & Robert, P. (1986) . Oughts, options, and actualism. Philosophical Review, 95, 233–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Jeffrey, R. (1965). The logic of decision. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  9. Jeffrey, R. (1992). Preference among preferences. In Probability and the art of judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Joyce, J. (1999). The foundations of causal decision theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Joyce, J. (2005). How probabilities reflect evidence. Philosophical Perspectives, 19, 153–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kavka, G. (1983). The toxin puzzle. Analysis, 43, 33–36.Google Scholar
  13. Levi, I. (1974). On indeterminate probabilities. Journal of Philosophy, 71, 391–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lewis, D. (1981). Causal decision theory. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 59, 5–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Pollock, J. (2002). Rational choice and action omnipotence. Philosophical Review, 111, 1–23.Google Scholar
  16. Smith, M. N. (2010). Practical imagination and its limits. Philosophers’ Imprint, 10.Google Scholar
  17. von Wright, G. H. (1951). Deontic logic. Mind, 60, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. White, R. (2009). Evidential symmetry and mushy credence. In Oxford studies in epistemology (Vol. 3). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Linguistics and PhilosophyMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations