Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Objectivism about moral obligation is the view that an agent’s moral obligations do not depend on her beliefs or her evidence. The three leading theories in normative ethics (viz., consequentialism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics) have all traditionally been formulated as versions of objectivism. (For example, the traditional formulation of consequentialism requires agents to maximize value, not to do what they believe maximizes value or to do what their evidence suggests maximizes value.) In my dissertation, I argue that if we pay closer attention to how we use the phrase “moral obligation” and reflect more carefully on the nature of obligation more generally, we will find ourselves with good reasons to reject objectivism. Furthermore, I contend that our reasons for rejecting objectivism also speak against prospectivism, the view that an agent’s moral obligations depend on her evidence, and in favor of subjectivism, the view that an agent’s moral obligations depend on her beliefs. Finally, I argue that none of the most common objections to subjectivism are successful. Thus, we have most reason to be subjectivists about moral obligation.
A number of significant implications follow from this. For example, if we accept subjectivism about moral obligation, as well as the standard view that moral rightness and wrongness can be defined in terms of moral obligation, then we must also accept subjectivism about moral rightness and wrongness. And if we accept subjectivism about moral rightness and wrongness, then given some additional plausible assumptions, we must also accept (i) that an agent’s act is morally wrong if and only if she is blameworthy for performing that act, (ii) that agents rarely act morally wrongly, (iii) that we are rarely justified in believing that others have acted morally wrongly, and (iv) that we are rarely justified in saying that others have acted morally wrongly. Even if we can somehow resist these claims, however, the fact that we have most reason to accept subjectivism about moral obligation forces us to rethink not only how our moral concepts fit together but also how to talk about the morality of one another’s acts.
Spelman, Jonathan Trevor, "Moral Obligation, Evidence, and Belief" (2017). Philosophy Graduate Theses & Dissertations. 60.