Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Holly M. Smitha1

a1 Philosophy, Rutgers University


Twentieth century philosophers introduced the distinction between “objective rightness” and “subjective rightness” to achieve two primary goals. The first goal is to reduce the paradoxical tension between our judgments of (i) what is best for an agent to do in light of the actual circumstances in which she acts and (ii) what is wisest for her to do in light of her mistaken or uncertain beliefs about her circumstances. The second goal is to provide moral guidance to an agent who may be uncertain about the circumstances in which she acts, and hence is unable to use her standard moral principle directly in deciding what to do. This paper distinguishes two important senses of “moral guidance”; proposes criteria of adequacy for accounts of subjective rightness; canvasses existing definitions for “subjective rightness”; finds them all deficient; and proposes a new and more successful account. It argues that each comprehensive moral theory must include multiple principles of subjective rightness to address the epistemic situations of the full range of moral decision-makers, and shows that accounts of subjective rightness formulated in terms of what it would reasonable for the agent to believe cannot provide that guidance.


I am grateful for discussion on these topics to participants in my graduate seminar during the spring of 2008, and in particular to Preston Greene, who convinced me that principles of objective rightness might include reference to the agent's beliefs. I am also grateful to the other contributors to this volume (especially Mark Timmons) for helpful discussion, as well as to the participants (especially Evan Williams and Ruth Chang) in the Rutgers University Value Theory discussion group, the participants in Elizabeth Harman's 2009 ethics seminar, the participants in the 2009 Felician Ethics Conference (especially Melinda Roberts), the participants in the 2009 Dartmouth workshop on Making Morality Work (Julia Driver, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Mark Timmons, and Michael Zimmerman), and to Nancy Gamburd, Alvin Goldman, Preston Greene, and Andrew Sepielli for comments on earlier versions of this essay. Ellen Frankel Paul provided welcome encouragement to clarify a number of key points.