Do the right thing: An account of subjective obligation

Elinor Mason*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Subjective rightness (or 'ought' or obligation) seems to be the sense of rightness that should be action guiding where more objective senses fail. However, there is an ambiguity between strong and weak senses of action guidance. No general account of subjective rightness can succeed in being action guiding in a strong sense by providing an immediately helpful instruction, because helpfulness always depends on the context. Subjective rightness is action guiding in a weaker sense, in that it is always accessible and comprehensible to the agent. Hence traditional belief formulations say roughly, "do what you believe is best." This is not yet a satisfactory formulation, because it cannot make sense of our ongoing subjective duty to improve our beliefs. The notion of 'trying' does capture the dynamic and diachronic nature of our subjective obligation. Thus, we should formulate subjective obligation in terms of trying: "try to do well by morality."

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Studies in Normative Ethics
EditorsMark C Timmons
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9780198808947
ISBN (Print)9780198808930
Publication statusPublished - 9 Nov 2017


  • Action guidance
  • Culpable ignorance
  • Fred Feldman
  • Holly Smith
  • Michael Zimmerman
  • Subjective 'ought'
  • Subjective obligation
  • Subjective rightness
  • Trying


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