Utilitarianism has often been understood as a theory that concerns itself first and foremost with the rightness of actions; but many other things (e.g., moral rules, motives, laws, etc.) are also properly subject to moral evaluation, and utilitarians have long understood that the theory must be able to provide an account of these as well. In a landmark article from 1976, Robert Adams argues that traditional act utilitarianism faces a particular problem in this regard. He argues that a on a sensible utilitarian account of the rightness of an agent’s motives, right motives will sometimes conflict with right actions, leaving the theory internally incoherent. The puzzle Adams raises has received a good deal of attention but few proposed solutions. Fred Feldman, however, has offered a solution that seems to be gaining adherents. In this paper I argue that Feldman’s approach cannot succeed. At bottom, it relies on a version of the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’—and subsequently an account of an agent’s alternatives—that is far too restrictive to be plausible. Despite the failure of this solution, however, I argue that the conflict Adams develops is not as theoretically troubling as he suggests. While traditional act utilitarianism may fail for other reasons, it will not fail due to the conflict between acts and motives.
Philosophia – Springer Journals
Published: Sep 26, 2017
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