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Is Objective Consequentialism Compatible with the Principle that “Ought” Implies “Can”?


Some philosophers hold that objective consequentialism is false because it is incompatible with the principle that “ought” implies “can”. Roughly speaking, objective consequentialism is the doctrine that you always ought to do what will in fact have the best consequences. According to the principle that “ought” implies “can”, you have a moral obligation to do something only if you can do that thing. Frances Howard-Snyder has used an innovative thought experiment to argue that sometimes you cannot do what will in fact have the best consequences because you do not know what will in fact have the best consequences. Erik Carlson has raised two objections against Howard-Snyder’s argument. This paper examines Howard-Snyder’s argument as well as Carlson’s objections, arguing that Carlson’s objections do not go through but Howard-Snyder’s argument fails nonetheless. Moreover, this paper attempts to show that objective consequentialism and other objectivist moral theories are compatible with the principle that “ought” implies “can”. Finally, this paper analyses a special kind of inability: ignorance-induced inability.

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  1. As McCloskey (1973, p. 62) put it: “We are not truly free to do the right or obligatory act if we cannot in advance know what is the right act. ‘Ought implies can’, and ‘Can’ implies ‘Can know’. […] Yet if utilitarianism is to remain the success theory, that it is actual consequences that count, then it is committed to the view that we may be subject to obligations of which it is impossible for us to be aware.” Howard-Snyder’s (1997) was the first in a whole series of articles that reinvestigate the topic, cf. Carlson 1999; Howard-Snyder 1999 & 2006; Qizilbash 1999; Mason 2003; Miller 2003; Wiland 2005; Moore 2007; and Andrić (2015).

  2. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 241, footnote omitted.

  3. See, e.g., pp. 242, 243, 247.

  4. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 242.

  5. Howard-Snyder 1997, pp. 242–243.

  6. “All possible situations”, just like “some possible situations” in the next premise, only quantifies over situations that involve you as an agent.

  7. A similar summary is given in Howard-Snyder 1999, p. 106.

  8. An action is non-basic if and only if it is performed by performing another action. An action is basic if and only if it is not non-basic. The distinction between basic and non-basic actions has been put forward in Danto 1963 and Chisholm 1964. It is controversial whether there are basic actions and if there are, whether they are bodily movements (as I assume), volitions (McCann 1974), or skilled actions (Baier 1971; Ripley 1974).

  9. Stanley 2011.

  10. Ryle 1945, 1949, chapter 2. For an instructive overview, see Fantl 2012.

  11. Stanley and Williamson 2001, pp. 412–416 and section 3.

  12. See the references in Stanley 2011.

  13. Another objection suggests itself: Though knowledge how to beat Karpov at chess seems to require propositional knowledge, the knowledge appears to be about good chess moves and strategies rather than about chains of by-relations. However, the intellectualist might reply that if someone has the former knowledge, then, in order to know how to beat Karpov, she must be able to infer the latter knowledge. As an analogy, someone who knows how to open a safe must not only know the right combination but also which bodily movements she has to make in order to open the safe.

  14. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 244–245.

  15. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 245.

  16. The three major accounts of ability are the conditional analysis (see, e.g., Moore 1912, chapter 6, and Ayer 1954), a modal account (see, e.g., Lehrer 1976; Lewis 1976; Kratzer 1977; Hurley 2000) and the new dispositionalism (see, e.g., Smith 2003; Vihvelin 2004, and Fara 2008).

  17. Cf. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 244.

  18. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 245.

  19. Austin 1956, p. 218.

  20. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 244.

  21. Carlson 1999, p. 91.

  22. Carlson 1999, p. 92. The objection has already been addressed in Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 243.

  23. Carlson 1999, p. 92, footnote omitted. The locus classicus for the fine-grained view is Goldman 1970, chapter 1. The loci classici for the coarse-grained view are Anscombe 1957, pp. 45–46, and Davidson 1963, p. 686.

  24. Howard-Snyder 1999, p. 107 talks about how we do “in fact understand and use” the principle that “ought” implies “can”.

  25. Wiland 2005, p. 357.

  26. Maier 2011.

  27. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 245.

  28. Howard-Snyder 1997, p. 245.

  29. Carlson 1999, p. 94, footnote omitted.

  30. Should the box in Fig. 3 (also?/only?) single out the basic action? Perhaps. But for the question we are concerned with (Is objective consequentialism compatible with Ought Implies Can?), this does not matter.

  31. Howard-Snyder 1999.

  32. Moreover, as Howard-Snyder 1999, p. 109, points out, if an act type is nothing but the set of all acts that have a certain property in common, Carlson may not even be able to uphold his distinction.

  33. I think that the lack of knowledge-which issue -- unlike the lack of knowledge-how problem -- is ultimately fatal to objective consequentialism; see Andrić (2015).

  34. I am grateful to a referee for Philosophia for raising this objection.


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This paper has benefited from the comments of audiences in Saarbrücken and Konstanz. I am especially grateful for the help received from Christoph Fehige, Sebastian Köhler, and Attila Tanyi. Research on this paper has been funded by a project grant of the German Research Foundation (Grant number: TA 820/1-1).

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Correspondence to Vuko Andrić.

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Andrić, V. Is Objective Consequentialism Compatible with the Principle that “Ought” Implies “Can”?. Philosophia 44, 63–77 (2016).

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  • Objective consequentialism
  • “Ought” implies “can”
  • Ignorance-induced inability