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There is No Moral Ought and No Prudential Ought

Elizabeth Harman (Princeton University)

It is natural to think that there are a number of different oughts. There is a moral ought, there is a prudential ought, etc. Furthermore, it is natural to think that each ought is such that one ought to do the best thing one could do, where the sense of best at issue varies with the kind of ought it is. Thus, it is natural to think: morally, a person ought to do the morally best thing she could do; and prudentially, a person ought to do the prudentially best thing she could do. One might also express these thoughts by saying: morality recommends that one do the morally best thing one could do; and prudence recommends that one do the prudentially best thing one could do.

These natural thoughts suggest the further thought that the moral ought and the prudential ought often conflict, and thus that often, morally, one ought to do something although, prudentially, one ought to refrain from doing it.

While these thoughts are natural, and they express a commonly-held view, I will argue that these thoughts are wrong. My modest aim is to show that there is an alternative view to the view I describe above. My more ambitious aim is to show that my alternative view is correct. Once the two views are contrasted, I think it will be clear that although the commonly-held view is indeed common, it is not supported by or warranted by ordinary moral thinking or ordinarily-recognized moral phenomena, and we do better at capturing moral reality – and normative reality more broadly – by jettisoning the common view in favor of the alternative view I outline.

The alternative view denies all the natural thoughts above. It holds that there is no distinctively moral ought, though there are some ought facts that are distinctively moral. Similarly, there is no distinctively prudential ought, though there are some ought facts that are distinctively prudential. Finally, the alternative view holds that distinctively moral ought claims never conflict with distinctively prudential ought claims: it is never the case that, morally, one ought to do something, while prudentially, one ought to refrain.
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When and Where

Map Angell Hall - 1171 (Tanner Library)

December 2017

3:00pm - 5:00pm

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