The Harvard Review of Philosophy


published on May 23, 2017

Maria Svedberg, Torbjörn Tännsjö

Consequentialism and Free Will
The Conditional Analysis Resuscitated

Many moral theories incorporate the idea that when an action is wrong, it is wrong because that there was something else that the agent could and should have done instead. Most notable among these are consequentialist theories. According to consequentialism an action A is wrong if and only if there was another action B that the agent could have performed such that, if the agent had performed B instead of A, the consequences would have been better. Relatively little attention has been given to the question of how to understand the meaning of ‘could have’ in this specific context. However, without an answer to this question, consequentialist theories fail to yield determinate verdicts about the deontic status of actions in real scenarios. It is here argued that the following conditional analysis provides the required answer and gives us the most plausible version of consequentialism: the agent could have done B instead of A if and only if, there is a decision such that had the agent made this decision, then she would have done B, and not A. Such a conditional analysis has been universally rejected as an analysis of the general meaning of ‘could have’, but we show that in the specific context of specifying the meaning of ‘could have’ in a consequentialist criterion of right and wrong action, all the standard objections to it fail.

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