Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 3, pp 703–723 | Cite as

What ability can do

  • Ben SchwanEmail author


One natural way to argue for the existence of some subjective constraint on agents’ obligations is to maintain that without that particular constraint, agents will sometimes be obligated to do that which they lack the ability to do. In this paper, I maintain that while such a strategy appears promising, it is fraught with pitfalls. Specifically, I argue that because the truth of an ability ascription depends on an (almost always implicit) characterization of the relevant possibility space, different metaethical accounts take obligation to be constrained by different senses of ability. As a result, what initially looks to be a point of consensus—that ability constrains obligation—turns out to be a point of contention, and arguments with this at the foundation are much more likely to obscure, rather than resolve, metaethical disputes. Despite this, appeals to ability in metaethics aren’t doomed to be fruitless. On the contrary, if we can independently establish a particular sense of ability as the normatively relevant one, then we have good grounds for ruling out metaethical accounts that are inconsistent with it. In the final section, I make just such an argument. What seems right about the thought that ability constrains obligation is that an agent cannot be obligated to do that which her circumstances prevent her from doing. I argue that only a sense of ability that is both epistemically and motivationally restricted adequately respects the limits of agential control.


Ought implies can Ought Obligation Ability Control Objectivism Constructivism Perspectivalism Perspectivism 



I’m deeply indebted to Jeff Behrends, Matthew Braich, Clinton Castro, Adam Marushak, David O’Brien, Sarah Paul, Douglas Portmore, Russ Shafer-Landau, and Scott Simmons for reading and providing feedback on previous drafts of this paper. I’m also grateful to Frank Cabrera, Hadley Cooney, Alex Hyun, Zi Lin, Josh Mund, Emi Okayasu, Alan Sidelle, Reuben Stern, Olav Vassend, and the MIT Ethics Reading Group, as well as audiences at the 2016 meeting of the Ohio Philosophical Association and the 2016 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress for extremely helpful discussions. Finally, I owe many thanks to an anonymous referee for excellent comments and criticisms.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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