Against Some Recent Arguments for ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’: Reasons, Deliberation, Trying, and Furniture

Abstract

Many philosophers claim that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. In light of recent empirical evidence, however, some skeptics conclude that philosophers should stop assuming the principle unconditionally. Streumer, however, does not simply assume the principle’s truth; he provides arguments for it. In this article, we argue that his arguments fail to support the claim that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    For this example, and for the rest of this paper, we take ‘slavery’ to refer to past legal chattel slavery in the United States—given that slavery unfortunately remains a moral problem today. We thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this clarification.

  2. 2.

    Streumer defines ‘ought’ as having the ‘most reason’ to perform an act. Philosophers diverge greatly on how to understand oughts and obligations. Some consider oughts to be all-things-considered duties (Ross 2002) or obligations (Vranas 2007), while Streumer cashes out oughts in the OIC debate with what moral agents have the most reason to do (for discussion, see Mizrahi 2015b; Mizrahi 2012).

  3. 3.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this reading of Brown.

  4. 4.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.

  5. 5.

    Moreover, people often ought to perform complex actions which require a corresponding mental state, such as giving a genuine apology, but they are unable to have that corresponding mental state when it is beyond what they can will intentionally (King 2014).

References

  1. Brown, J. (1977). Moral Theory and the Ought--Can Principle. Mind, 86(342), 206–223.

  2. Brownlee, K. (2010). Reasons and ideals. Philosophical Studies, 151(3), 433–444.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Buckwalter, W., & Turri, J. (2015). Inability and Obligation in Moral Judgment. PLoS One, 10(8), e0136589.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Chituc, V., Henne, P., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & De Brigard, F. (2016). Blame, not ability, impacts moral “ought” judgments for impossible actions: Toward an empirical refutation of “ought” implies “can”. Cognition, 150, 20–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Cohen, Y. (2017). An Analysis of Recent Empirical Data on ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’. Philosophia, 1–11.

  6. Copp, D. (1997). Defending the principle of alternate possibilities: Blameworthiness and moral responsibility. Nous, 31(4), 441–456.

  7. Driver, J. (1983). Promises, obligations, and abilities. Philosophical Studies, 44, 221–223.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Hannon, M. (2017). Intuitions, reflective judgments, and experimental philosophy. Synthese, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1412-1.

  9. Hare, R. M. (1963). Freedom and Reason. New York: Clarendon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Henne, P., Chituc, V., De Brigard, F., & Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2016). An empirical refutation of “Ought” Implies “Can”. Analysis, 76, 283–290.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Heuer, U. (2010). Reasons and impossibility. Philosophical Studies, 147(2), 235–246.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kant, I., & Smith, N. K. (1933). Critique of Pure Reason. London: Macmillan and Co..

    Google Scholar 

  13. King, A. (2014). Actions That We Ought, But Can't. Ratio, 27(3), 316–327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kissinger-Knox, A., Aragon, P., & Mizrahi, M. (2017). Ought Implies Can, “Framing Effects, and Empirical Refutations”. Philosophia, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-017-9907-z.

  15. Kurthy, M., Lawford-Smith, H., & Sousa, P. (2017). Does ought imply can? PLoS One, 12(4), e0175206.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Mizrahi, M. (2009). “Ought” Does Not Imply “Can”. Philosophical Frontiers: A Journal of Emerging Thought, 4(1), 19–35.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Mizrahi, M. (2012). Does 'Ought' Imply 'Can' from an Epistemic Point of View? Philosophia, 40(4), 829–840.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Mizrahi, M. (2015a). Ought, Can, and Presupposition: An Experimental Study. Methode-Analytic Perspectives, 4(6), 232–243.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Mizrahi, M. (2015b). Ought, Can, and Presupposition: A Reply to Kurthy and Lawford-Smith. Methode, 4(6), 250–256.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Moore, G. E. (1922). Philosophical Studies. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co..

    Google Scholar 

  21. Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: OUP.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Phillips, J., & Cushman, F. (2017). Morality constrains the default representation of what is possible. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(18), 4649–4654.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Portmore, D. W. (2011). Commonsense consequentialism: Wherein morality meets rationality (Vol. 2). New York: OUP.

  24. Ross, W. D. (2002). The right and the good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Sidgwick, H. (1884). The Methods of Ethics. London: Macmillan and Co..

    Google Scholar 

  26. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (1984). Ought conversationally implies can. The Philosophical Review, 93(2), 249–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (1985). “Ought to Have” and “Could Have”. Analysis, 45(1), 44–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Southwood, N. (2016). “The thing to do” implies “can”. Noûs, 50(1), 61–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Streumer, B. (2003). Does ‘ought’ conversationally implicate ‘can’? European Journal of Philosophy, 11(2), 219–228.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Streumer, B. (2007). Reasons and impossibility. Philosophical Studies, 136(3), 351–384.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Streumer, B. (2010). Reasons, impossibility and efficient steps: reply to Heuer. Philosophical Studies, 151(1), 79–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Turri, J. (2017). How “ought” exceeds but implies “can”: Description and encouragement in moral judgment. Cognition, 168, 267–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Vranas, P. B. (2007). I ought, therefore I can. Philosophical Studies, 136(2), 167–216.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Zimmerman, M. (1996). The concept of moral obligation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

We are thankful to the members of MAD Lab and the IMC Lab at Duke University. We are also thankful for the comments of an anonymous reviewer at Philosophia.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Paul Henne or Jennifer Semler.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Henne, P., Semler, J., Chituc, V. et al. Against Some Recent Arguments for ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’: Reasons, Deliberation, Trying, and Furniture. Philosophia 47, 131–139 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-017-9944-7

Download citation

Keywords

  • Ought implies can
  • Obligation
  • Ought
  • Blame
  • Ability