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Presumably if one thinks that ethics simply tells one how to choose between available options then this worry will not occur. So if what one ought to do is the best of the available options, well then if one ought to do x then one can do x.

Hi Bruce--jeez, "can" I identify with restricted travel expenses?--of course--whether I ought to or not--which leads me to:

"Ought" expresses two judgments, one value-laden, and the second an assessment of possibility in some nondescript sense. That's all well-known. But that it entails "can" as well in assessing a moral judgment of a correspondent ability-possibility of the responsibility for assessed "oughts" is what this is all about.

Today we ought in some abstract sense feed everyone in the world who is hungry. Can we? Well, sure, if we dissolve all existing barriers to the economical feasibility of that in an equally abstract sense. Can we do that practically? No--the multicultural/multipolitical realities are such that we can't.

So I'd argue that any "can" connected to an "ought" must be parsed in terms of what "can" means. There is "can"-agonistes, where of course given that we have unrestrained counterfactual individual and collective powers in relatively close worlds where we can fulfill oughts against all odds, and thus feed the world--and there is "can" chained to human foibles much more realistically in closer worlds where it seems we often "can't" do what the abstract sense of "ought" requires, and thus some must starve. Yet even in the latter worlds we "can" do some restrictive somethings, like contribute to Oxfam if we are capable of doing so.

"Ought" it seems to me must be chained to a pragmatic sense of "can" if anything is to be accomplished with respect to our actual world.


As I hinted at in an earlier comment on one of Michael’s posts, I have recently been collecting data on the relationship between free will beliefs and a variety of other moral, religious, and political beliefs. I will try to post some of the results soon. For now, let it suffice to say that we do indeed find interesting and predictable correlations between free will beliefs and political psychology. We've used a number of the psychometric tools used by Jost and colleagues for their ground-breaking work on system justification. Our goal was to extend their research by looking at how people's religious and political beliefs hook up to their beliefs in free will, determinism, dualism, retributivism, and the like. Some of preliminary results will appear in Gregg Carusso's forthcoming volume on illusionism (which contains a chapter by you as well!). But that’s a conversation for another day. I don’t want to distract from your interesting question about ought implies can! I did want to at least say that not only did Paulhus and Carey find correlations between free will beliefs and both just world beliefs and right wing authoritarianism, but I also have data that contains similar correlations. So, take that for what it’s worth. Whether we would find similar correlations among philosophers may be something on which I can shed some light. Eddy and I may have some salient data from a study we ran last year mostly on philosophers. I will have to go back and check now…

I'd also like to congratulate and thank Thomas Nadelhoffer for his great work in bringing the blog to life. Also, I have learned a lot from, and really enjoyed, ALL of the previous guest-bloggers, who have done such a great job (of course, I exempt myself, because I lack the "moral standing to praise" in this instance. (Of course, that's not to say that I didn't do a great job!!)

Bruce: right, the world or nature/nurture deals us some cards, and we have to play them. The initial hand we have is out of our control, and, unfortunately, justice or fairness doesn't seem to be involved in the process. This sucks--agreed.

And I myself am inclined to give up the Maxim (Ought-Implies-Can).

But I still think there is some plausibility to the idea that morality should not essentially be unfair, even though the world is, as it were. That is, perhaps there is an intuition or inchoate idea that, once nature deals us our cards--not just initial inputs but certain circumstances as we go on with our lives (that are out of our control), then morality "kicks in" and should not require that we do something we can't do (and couldn't ever have done). So, relative to admittedly arbitrary "inputs" and contexts, morality asks us to do the best we can, but not more than that. (Well, leave aside supererogation for now.)

Again: I myself am not a proponent of "Ought-Implies-Can", but I'm not sure that a rejection of the Maxim follows from the indisputable fact that life is unfair.


A quick follow-up to my previous (no doubt underdeveloped and epigrammatic) message. I have benefited in thinking about this and related issues from conversations with Patrick Todd and reading his very interesting (as yet unpublished) mansuscript, "The Perfection of Morality". He pushes the idea that morality itself should be conceptualized in such a way that it--as opposed to the world, as it were--is not unjust.

So one might think of it this way: even in an imperfect world, morality should be perfect--it is part of our concept of, or in some sense the very nature of *morality*, that is should not make unfair demands of us.

Again: I am not a proponent of the Maxim, but I feel the tug of Todd's arguments here.

Thanks for the comments. Dan, it seems to me that even if we are choosing among available options, the problem may still come up. As I understand Bernard Williams, he would insist that it would certainly come up for the ancient Greeks; on at least one reading of Antigone, she is faced with the tragic dilemma that she ought to obey the laws of the polis and she ought to honor her dead brother, and in following the latter she must violate the former. And that seems to be the case at times, even if one chooses the best of the available options.
Alan, the question of how ought is restricted by the limits of “can” is a tough problem indeed. It seems just wrong to suggest that I ought to rescue the 747 that is plunging to disaster, but not wrong to suggest that I ought to be less selfish even if I lack the capacity to do so. To take a very sad example, from Gary Watson’s wonderful writings concerning the brutal murderer, Robert Harris. Robert’s father abused Robert’s mother terribly because of her pregnancy with Robert (Robert’s father was convinced he was not the biological father); and Robert’s mother reported that because of the awful abuse she suffered, she could never bring herself to love Robert, though Robert desperately craved that affection; yet she always believed that she should have loved him, though she could not do so. That seems a case in which she could not do what she honestly felt she was morally obligated to do (and the consequences were awful, ultimately resulting in Robert becoming a brutal murderer – not, of course, that that was the only cause). So I certainly agree that deciding what limits “can” places on ought is a very tough question; but it still seems to me there are cases where the “ought” category is larger than the “can”; and I would be very interested in knowing whether we agree on that.
Thomas, as you already know, I am terrible on delayed gratification; I ought to have greater patience, but it is a virtue that I cannot develop; and I am very eager indeed to see the results of your tantalizing study of correlations between free will beliefs and political psychology. The studies by British criminologists Michael Cavadino and James Dignan – which focus on the relations between political/economic/belief systems (including beliefs about free will) and criminal justice systems, but which are actually much broader – are fascinating; if you haven’t happened across them, they would provide a good deal of grist for the marvelous mill you and Eddy are operating.
John, I was happily aware that you reject “ought implies can,” and I like your arguments for that conclusion very much; I like even more the fact that we finally agree on something (just kidding: we also share a fondness for Frank Sinatra). Your ideas on this subject, as always, are very carefully developed; and Patrick Todd’s work on this sounds most interesting. Just a question. Supposing that there are things we ought to do but cannot do; it seems to me that is evidence of an unjust world, not of an unjust morality. If we can’t always do what morality demands, that indicates that the world does not match our moral ordering (the point that Williams emphasizes); but it does not make our morality itself unfair. (Though of course it would make it unfair to blame or punish us for failing to meet unattainable moral goals – but that is just another powerful specific instance of the universal wrongness of holding people morally responsible! Sorry; just couldn’t resist the temptation.)


Thanks! And by the way, I bet we agree on more than just Sinatra. (Do you like the Sex Pistols??? Suicidal Tendencies--the rock group, that is, with their lovely [if poignant] song, "Institutionalized"). Seriously: neither of us is a libertarian, right? That's not nothing!

You write: "Supposing that there are things we ought to do but cannot do; it seems to me that is evidence of an unjust world, not of an unjust morality." It is delicate, and maybe, but maybe not. By the way, I'm assuming that the cannot here includes past times--times before the relevant action, so there is a temporal indexation and structure here. But let that go. It might be that what is problematic is not (just) the world here, but our morality: our morality might be excessively demanding. That is, our morality might be conceptualizing matters in an unduly strict way, positing that we have an all-things-considered or decisive reason to do what we cannot do, rather than merely a pro tanto reason.

Thomas Nadelhoffer posted the following comment (it didn’t get on the Typepad list for some reason unfathomable to me, so I’m posting his comment here):

To sharpen the point, I think it might help to focus on a very robust kind of moral duty and responsibility—e.g., what Galen Strawson calls ultimate heaven and hell style responsibility. Imagine for the sake of argument that after your death, you find yourself descending into the fiery pits of an everlasting hell. Shortly before you’re led through the gates of damnation, an especially mean spirited demon informs you that the universe was set up in such a way that you couldn’t have possibly done the things you need to have done to get into heaven—i.e., despite your best efforts, heaven was closed to you. In short, your failure to do the impossible landed you in eternal damnation. Am I the only person who would find this state of affairs completely unfair? I realize this is only one of many ways of getting at the ought implies can intuition—but at least in this case, it seems clear to me that without the descriptive can, the normative ought loses its moral sense. P.S. I realize Calvinists won’t share my intuition! So, the unavoidable hell example is for all the nonCalvinists!

John, if not being libertarians counts as a point of agreement, then indeed there are lots of common points: Neither of us is a Tea Party activist, nor a member of the Taliban, nor a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Actually, I do believe that we have more positive points of agreement; in any case, when I read your work, I invariably find much more to agree with than to disagree (though sometimes I didn’t realize I agreed with it until I read your work). On your last comment, that “morality might be conceptualizing matters in an unduly strict way,” certainly that is a possibility, and no doubt sometimes occurs. But there also seem to be times when the demands of morality are strong and also legitimate, but the demands are beyond our capacities (not because our moral standards are too demanding or strict, but because our world itself is unjust). Consider the somewhat graphic example proposed by Thomas. (Actually, I think his “especially mean spirited demon” was one of the kinder ones: he didn’t want you to spend eternity blaming yourself; but that’s another story.) The problem in this case is likely to be both that the world created by this God is unjust (since we can’t escape damnation); and the moral rules proposed are not legitimate (they probably require worship, and by my lights the arguments by James Rachels on why such a demand would destroy morality are powerful arguments). But suppose we modify the example, so that we get a powerful moral demand that is legitimate. For me, a good candidate would be: Do not hold or act upon racist attitudes. That seems to me a legitimate moral ought: You ought to reject (and if you harbor them, then eliminate) racist attitudes. And yet psychologists tell us that even those who regard racism as an especially vile character trait often find it impossible to totally eradicate that trait (it lurks deep among our nonconscious beliefs, and can continue to influence behavior even among those who strive not to be racists). That is, there are apparently some people – psychologists tell us there are probably many people – who consciously affirm the moral wrongness of racism, but who cannot totally eliminate racism from their attitudes nor even from their behavior. If so, that seems to me a case in which there is a strong and legitimate moral obligation that (because the world is not just, and tribalism, ethnic bias, and racism run deep in our evolved nature) we cannot meet; but that in no way changes the fact that we ought not be racists. In this case, it strikes me as more plausible to say that the world is unjust (and so some cannot do what they ought to do) than to deny the ought statement.

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your reply. If it is better all things considered for Antigone to honour her brother and show her respect to the Gods through burying her brother than for her to show obedience to the city’s laws by not burying him, then she ought to bury her brother and ought not to not bury him. That there is a reason to not bury him does not mean she ought not to bury him. It is not the case that you ought to do everything that you have a reason to do. You ought to do what is best of the available options.

Similarly in the case of the person unable to cease having racist thoughts, or having his actions subconsciously influenced by racism. What he ought to do is the best of the available options – which might be to minimise the racist attitudes (perhaps this might be aided by having psychoanalysis etc in which case if he can have psychoanalysis he should) and minimise their affects upon the difference he makes to the world (e.g. by double or treble checking when he makes decisions dealing with people of different races; and choosing not to sit on hiring and promotion panels where his attitudes might influence him – unless he has reason to believe that those who will take his place will be more biased; and so on). In sum what he ought to do is make the best of a bad job.

Thus, rather than seeing the world as unjust one could rather, as I suggest, take it be the case that what one ought to do is that act which is the best of the available options. If one takes ethics to ultimately be choice-of-act guiding, then this is the natural picture.

The alternative is to see oughts as attached to states of affairs : but then your problem arises. For example you then might say ‘the state of affairs of antigone burying her brother ought to pertain’ and ‘the state of affairs of antigone burying her brother ought not to pertain’ and ‘the state of affairs of no-one having racist thoughts ought to pertain’. But these are mere exhortations.


Thanks for your post. I'm also trying to defend that 'ought' implies 'can'. Imagine a world where a supernatural power prevents all good people from doing any morally right thing, and allows only wrong acts performed by bad people. This would be a world with no justice, no benevolent acts, etc. Evil would reign unopposed. A horrible world. But if we give up OIC, morally good people, in spite of all their (necessarily unsuccessful) efforts, would still keep the burden of their unfulfilled duties; and if not to satisfy one's moral duties makes one blameworthy, this horrible world would still be much worse: in addition to all its injustice, evil, etc. there would also be the sad fact that all good people living there would be morally blameworthy.

You would deny that this additional negative fact would obtain by holding that there is no moral responsibility, wouldn't you? But this is another discussion.

For those that cannot wait to see Thomas’ results—which are quite interesting and really worth checking out—the wait is almost over! The edited collection he mentioned is due out in early June (sorry for the shameless plug) and it includes original contributions by Derk Pereboom, Galen Strawson, Ted Honderich, Bruce Waller, Neil Levy, Saul Smilansky, Thomas Nadelhoffer and Daniela Goya Tocchetto, Benjamin Vilhauer, Susan Blackmore, Manuel Vargas, Shaun Nichols, John-Dylan Haynes and Michael Pauen, Thomas W. Clark, Mark Hallett, Susan Pockett, and Maureen Sie. The chapters by Bruce and Thomas are must readers for those interested in the connection between just world belief and belief in FW and MR.

Not to put Bruce on the spot, but he also makes an interesting case for the claim that compatibilists, pace their conscious denial that the world is just, may nevertheless be committed (at least to some degree) to an unconscious belief in a just world. This may be most apparent in the commitments of Dennett and others that the unjust distribution of initial conditions and abilities which leads some to perform immoral acts (e.g., Robert Harris)—acts they ought not perform—is somehow irrelevant when it comes to holding agents morally responsible (when it comes to praising and blaming them) since there is a “leveling out” of abilities or a “plateau” which all competent adults ultimately reach. Maybe Bruce wants to expound on this point, but perhaps such plateau arguments reveal an unconscious commitment to a belief in a just world (a world where everything ultimately levels out and all are equally morally responsible in the basic-desert sense). What do the rest of you think?

Following on Gregg's point about Dennett's commitments, in Elbow Room he claims that though we are lucky in our starting points, over the longer term luck cancels out. Interesting that a philosopher like Dennett thinks he can assert claims like without data (philosophers constantly make empirical claims without data, but Dennett is one might have thought to buck this trend). In any case, the claim is false: luck tends to ramify rather than cancel out. But I don't think we should follow Bruce - at least if Gregg has him right - in accusing compatibilists of wishful thinking. If compatibilists is a thesis about determinism and free will, one can be a compatibilist and a free will or moral responsibility skeptic.

Neil and Bruce--

Aren't there data that supports a sense of "luck-bucking can" in at least one sense--collective efforts over time--that result in some moral progress? Though we no doubt are still significantly explicitly and implicitly racist, sexist, religiously intolerant, etc. etc. there has to be on the whole some real measure of progress on all those fronts (besides having an African-American President here in the States, here more particularly in Wisconsin we have an overtly lesbian Senator--though I am still open to explaining these things in a data-driven way that could show I'm wrong; Reconstruction had its token examples of tolerance after all). While we can point to significant individuals who apparently "could" do important things on their own--MLK, Sanger, etc.--the only reason they finally "could" was that they were effective leaders who inspired many others whose collective "could" shifted the world toward a moral point of view.

“Ought implies can” attempts to establish some sort of metaphysical power as a necessary condition for morality, and an absence of a just world potentially undercuts the truth of that antecedent. But why not just modally qualify the antecedent as possible and require that some sense of “can”—individual or collective—might be possible as well, if not in an individual sense of metaphysical dual-able power, then perhaps a collective sense where actions of collective individuals might produce more just worlds?

We will never have a truly just world, but there is still a possibility that the collective strength of many small "cans" might move us all toward a more just world. Of course such a collective "can" must not merely have the power of reason, but socio-economic power that faces huge resistance from the dark side, at least in this actual world.

Thanks for the interesting idea. I have doubt about OIC in general. And I shared your skepticism when I first heard of the fairness argument for OIC. But according to the prardigm cases of a unjust world as you put it here, grading papers or repaying money, I find it more plausible to describe such a world as unfriendly or indifferent to morality, rather than unjust. I suppose many people (myself included) would agree with you in that the world is morally unfriendly or indifferent, at least sometimes.

But to say the world is unjust, to my ear, it sounds like saying the demand of morality doesn't adjust or respond to such an unfriendly world. So when the situation makes it impossible for you to fulfill the obligation, morality doesn't care and still demands you to do it. If the world is unjust in this way, OIC is false. However, it is more controversial that the world is unjust in this sense. For one thing, it is not a typical factual description of the world. On the other hand, even if there are cases of unresponding moral demand, sometime it is an unjust demand, however, sometimes it is a just one (grading papers).

Hi Alan,

I share the sense that there has been genuine moral progress, over the past two centuries. I also think that that progess has been speeding up: women and homosexuals were easy targets for laughs on tv in the 1970s, in a way that is not acceptable now. I fear that progress has stalled recently, maybe even gone into reverse, but I think that we need more historical perspective to be sure. But I don't see how any of this is indicates that we escape luck. Allan Buchanan recounts somewhere his luck in escaping his southern upbringing at a time when he was stll cognitively flexible enough to see the ideas of his youth for that they were. I think our situation, in the countries which have been most affected by moral progress, is his writ large.

Sorry if this is incoherent or more than usually stupid. Just got off a plane from Sydney to Milan and haven't slept for 30 hours.

Dan, you make a good case for limiting “oughts” to what is within our powers: I like your point about “what he ought to do is make the best of a bad job.” Still, it seems to me simpler to take the position that there are things we ought to do that we cannot do, because the world is not just. After all, don’t we agree that there is considerable injustice in the world? So if we accept that, why should we deny that the person who cannot get beyond his racist views (perhaps even with psychological help) cannot do what he ought to do, unjust as that may be. Then we can straightforwardly acknowledge the wrongness of racist attitudes, and that we ought not hold them (even if we can’t help it). That strikes me as a cleaner way of conceptualizing the issue – though it is certainly not a knock down argument.

Carlos, great to hear from you. I found your Ways of Skepticism a marvelous book, particularly for your rich cases that seem to me to focus the key issues in a particularly clear manner. And your post focuses this issue very nicely. I agree, in your scenario, that world would be really bad if we considered all the good people living there to be morally blameworthy; but that’s why we should do away with blame and moral responsibility; after all, in our own world – it seems to me – there are many times when people (of varying degrees of goodness and badness) cannot do what they ought to do; and adding blame to the picture just makes it worse. But on this, I doubt that we’ll reach agreement today; perhaps not tomorrow, either. But thanks to you, the shape of that disagreement is much clearer.

Gregg, I’m very much looking forward to your book; I usually agree with Woody Allen, that I would not wish to be a member of any club that would admit me; but I’m delighted to be a member of the club of contributors to your book. And you’re right, of course; I do think the plateau arguments owe something to deep belief in a just world; but right now I have troubles enough with the able defenders of ought implies can; if I provoke the plateau theorists and they come at me with a flanking movement, I’m afraid I’ll be overwhelmed.

Neil, I agree that it is surprising that Dennett – who obviously has a powerful commitment to the importance of psychological study in dealing with philosophical questions – suggests that “luck averages out”; however, he later argues that this is not really intended as a literal claim, but rather as a metaphor for thinking of the “moral responsibility game” as the best one available, and as fair as we can get in this (admittedly unjust) world. But certainly I agree that the effects of luck are cumulative; and your Hard Luck makes that point with great force and clarity. And I agree with your response to Alan: it does seem that some things are getting better at a remarkably rapid rate; though as you note, some things definitely are not – particularly the problems with the environment and the problem (which you emphasize in your book) of growing disparity of wealth between and within nations. But I would also agree with you that when we recognize the pervasive influence of moral luck, we will make greater progress, not less. (By the by, why are you posting on Flickers when you haven’t slept for 30 hours? Sounds like a Flickers addiction; I’m not sure if psychologists have assigned a name to your malady. Perhaps folks on the board might propose one.)

Alan, I think I agree entirely with the excellent points in your post, particularly the importance of collective action; but I also agree with Neil that nothing in the denial of ought implies can would compromise such action.

Jiajun, interesting distinctions, and certainly one could take the view that the world is not unjust, but only morally unfriendly or indifferent; but I’m not sure that’s strong enough. It seems to me that sometimes the wicked really do prosper, and those who deal treacherously are sometimes happy; and even without the wisdom of the Prophets, there do seem to be times in which we simply cannot do what we believe (and perhaps correctly) that we ought to do. It seems to me better to recognize that the world is not such that we can always do what we genuinely ought to do (and of course, that would also be a reason not to blame those who fail; and that seems to me a peachy moral for the story; though obviously many will not concur).

Hi Bruce

Thanks for your reply. I can see why someone might be tempted to take your position.

It is certainly unfair that some in the world are subject to racism. However it is also unfair that some in the world are born blind. Bad things happen to some people which are not the result of one or more persons failing to do something that they could and ought to have done. So you can say the world is unfair/unjust in that sense.

The world is also unfair/unjust due to some people failing to do things they could and should have done (e.g. some black children have teachers whose racism impacts negatively on that child’s education, and some black children do not; some politicians, journalists etc fail to devote sufficient energy to establishing to their own satisfaction that manmade climate change is in all probability taking place and to taking steps to reduce it etc.).

And we can straightforwardly understand ‘No one should starve’ to mean not ‘You ought to feed everyone’ but rather ‘Everyone should strive to reduce as far as possible the number of starving people’. And saying ‘No one should have racist thoughts,’ to mean ‘Everyone should strive to reduce, and ideally eliminate, the influence of racism on their and others’ thinking and decision-making’. And so on

Now imagine saying to someone ‘You ought to levitate’ or ‘You ought to cure this person’s cancer’ where the cancer is incurable or ‘You ought to save both those people from the canal’ where he can only save one. What are you conveying to this person? Are you helping him in his decision-making at all? What is the point in saying such things to him?

I suggest that in saying to a person ‘You ought to x’ one is only conveying something to him if he can x – for then one is conveying one's belief that were he to have moral understanding then he would do x.

ps Just for clarification: I take it that whilst most racist thought and action is of the sort that could and should be eliminated, some is not but is rather of the type referred to in earlier posts - something that the racist agent could not do anything about. It is being subject to this latter type of racism which is analogous to being born blind.

The internalist/externalist debate in epistemology seems partly about which is the greater praise: to affirm that the agent did the best she could with the evidence available? Or that she arrived at a judgment via a reliable process? To which I say, we need both concepts. And once we acknowledge that we need both, the question of whether some particular term ("knowledge") tracks more closely with one or the other loses most of its interest.

I want to say the same here. We need the concept of an "ought" that has the potential to outrun the "can", and we also need the concept of an "ought" which lives strictly within the confines of the "can" and makes the best of a bad job. The former is somewhat analogous to externalist-knowledge. This ought can damn you for doing the best you can with the resources available, when that's just not good enough. But consider: just as we would benefit from a reliable source over a rational one if we could only have one or the other, so we would benefit from living with someone who does what he ought in this stronger sense, rather than someone who makes the best of a bad job.

But in our deliberations about what to do next, we also need the more "internalist" approach to oughts. We don't want to get stymied just because all the options are unacceptable. It can still be very important to find the least unacceptable one.

We could make a terminological stipulation about "ought" in favor of one of these ways, and invent a new term, or conscript an old one, for the other. But why? I don't see much payoff.

So, both/and. It's habit forming, and goes far beyond determinism and free will.

The Maxim obviously entails the Life is not Unfair Principle {LINUP}. To the extent that I begin to doubt the latter, I need to start rescinding obligations. Dan D's take on this situation is absolutely spot on: sometimes we need to 'fake it until we can make it'. Applied to the Harris case, there is no way that mother could not have at least feigned affection for her son. Genuine love would have likely ensued. And if it had not, the obligation to pretend and pretend hard would have remained in effect. There are some things in life that you just DO. {I sometimes have to tell my students 'Nike it'.} Or as CA Campbell put the point, free will raises its beautiful head when we are faced with difficult tasks that we are at least able to attempt. God, as TS Elliot maintained, only holds us responsible for what we try or fail to try to do.

So if OIC is false, what upper bound is there on oughts? Suppose some man levitating would produce a better outcome than anything he actually can do. Would "He should levitate" be true?

I can think of one reason why "He should levitate" would still be false, which is that an ought might block lesser oughts. In which case "He ought to make this the best of all possible worlds" would be the only true ought.

Perhaps we don't need an upper limit on oughts (perhaps oughts don't block lesser oughts), but we'd still need an upper limit on blaming (or non-MR equivalents). Surely it'd be wrong to change our behaviour towards the man in any way simply because he did not levitate. One way or another, it seems to me, what we can (or think we can) do is going to play an important role in what we ought to do.

'The former is somewhat analogous to externalist-knowledge. This ought can damn you for doing the best you can with the resources available, when that's just not good enough.'

An agent cannot be blamed for failing to do the impossible. As is often said in Catholic circles, God will not ask more of you than you can provide. Obligations are never impersonal; they always pertain to specific agents with specific powers. We seem to be conflating in the stronger 'ought' 'What needs to be done' with 'What he/she should do'. To wit: 'The team could sure use a homer' vs. 'He ought to hit a homer'. Said of a situation in which a singles hitter is at the plate, the former may well be true while the latter is false. Given the human condition, we have no right to expect anything more than "someone who makes the best of a bad job."

In connection with Robert's remarks, I think that the distinction between general and individual-specific moral obligations is important in discussing OIC. If I have made a promise to visit a friend but I have suffered an accident and I'm in the hospital, I think I am released from my obligation to act as I promised, but this does not refute the general claim that people should keep their promises.

Excellent comments, which do a great deal to sharpen the issue; and several focus on questions that I find very difficult. Dan raises the very interesting question of why one would ever want to say to someone that he or she ought to do something that the person cannot do: as Dan asks, “What is the point in saying such things to him?” Paul, I think, has one answer (though I’m not suggesting that he would agree with all that follows): sometimes we need “oughts” that outrun the “can”; there are times when it is important to note that there are things that ought to be done even if doing them is beyond the capacity of the individual (or perhaps even beyond the capacity of any group), so that we can set that as an important long-term goal. And sometimes we want to say that “Granddad ought to stop smoking” even though we know that he cannot, so that our children will be discouraged from following their grandfather in this regard; indeed, Granddad may very well say this to his grandchildren: “I ought to stop smoking, but I can’t (and so don’t you start)”. And it seems to me quite legitimate to say “we ought to abolish all our racist attitudes,” even if we think that (given our evolved nature) that ideal is impossible to achieve; it is still important to recognize it and promote it as an ideal. (Incidentally, Martin Luther had another use for ought statements, even though he insisted that we have no power to do what we ought to do, given our depraved nature; such ought statements make us keenly aware of our own weak and depraved natures, by making it clear to us that we are incapable of doing what we ought to do; and Luther thought it quite important that we be keenly aware of our depravity.) On Paul’s point, I like the dual nature of “ought” statements (perhaps they have even more sides that two); whether that corresponds to the external/internal debate in epistemology is an interesting further question. In Hard Luck, Neil Levy has a really interesting discussion of how the internal/external debate applies to some of the questions related to free will and moral responsibility; so I’ll pass that on to him for next month, since he is much better qualified to examine that comparison than I.

Mark raises a really tough question of what the “upper limits” of ought claims should be. I think they should go beyond “cans”, but there are limits. It is useful to say that I ought to save a child from drowning, even if I am paralyzed by fear and cannot do so; and worth noting that Granddad should not smoke, even if Granddad lacks the capacity to overcome his addiction; but it is not useful – it seems silly – to suggest that I should levitate, or that I should leap into the sky and save the 747 now plunging toward destruction. Even if I cannot do something, it seems useful to point out I should do that if it is something that humans can sometimes do under the right circumstances. It helps by setting worthwhile goals and making note of worthwhile behavior that others might do (and that I might do under different conditions); unless we can make ourselves into Super heroes, it is of no use to say I ought to rescue doomed jetliners. But I doubt that we can draw a precise line between legitimate and overambitious ought statements.

Robert, I completely agree that an agent cannot be blamed for failing to do the impossible; but it seems to me there are still cases in which one ought to do that which is impossible. But that is likely to be an ongoing point of disagreement. I like the quote from T. S. Eliot, my favorite poet; but I like Eliot’s poetry better than his theology/philosophy. Sometimes it’s a good idea to “fake it until we can make it” (sounds like an element of Pascal’s Wager?). But I don’t think we can always “fake it,” nor can we always try, or try hard. Martin Seligman’s work indicates that there are conditions of learned helplessness in which the ability to even try is totally extinguished; and as Albert Bandura notes, when we attempt to do something that we have very little confidence that we can do (a case in which we have a very low sense of task self-efficacy) we cannot try as hard as when we have a much stronger sense of self-efficacy (and at the lowest ebb, we cannot try at all). “We may not always succeed, but we can always try” is a nice idea, but as I understand the psychological evidence, it is not true; I suspect it might be part of our deep belief in a just world (everyone has a capacity to try, some try harder and do more and thus deserve more, so the inequities in our society are not unjust – while neglecting the social factors that shape our capacity to exert effort).

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Books about Agency

3QD Prize 2014: Marcus Arvan