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Ought Implies Can

Edited by Guglielmo Feis (Università degli Studi di Milano)
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Summary The "Ought implies Can" (OIC) thesis establishes a link between obligations and abilities. It is associated with Kant, but the Kantian attribution is debated. Its main interpretation goes along the latin motto "ad impossibilia nemo tenetur" and allows you to discharge an obligation when you lack the possibility to do what is commanded. Others interpret it as saying that, given the fact that you have the relevant "Can", there is no way not to do what you Ought to.  OIC has been used as an (unquestionable) principle in many fields. from moral and legal philosophy (moral dilemmas, alternate possibilities) to deontic logic and epistemology (doxastic voluntarism). Since the 1960's it has undergone multiple criticisms from many areas.
Key works A spectrum of arguments for and against OIC can be found in Vranas 2007. Martin 2009 and Graham 2011 have further objections. For a discussion on the Kantian attribution see Stern 2004.  For the history of OIC, see Moore 1922. Dahl 1974 and Jacquette 1991 are helpful for relevance to deontic logic (see von Wright 1963 and von Wright 1983 for different uses). For the debate on "imply" see Streumer 2003.  For OIC in the debate on moral dilemmas see McConnell 2010.  The debate on OIC and the principle of alternate possibilities starts with Frankfurt 1988 and goes on at least up to Copp 2008. OIC enters the debate over doxastic volutarism with Alston 1988.  It is endorsed by Chuard & Southwood 2009 and rejected by Ryan 2003.
Introductions Vranas 2007; McConnell 2010; Chuard & Southwood 2009; Stern 2004; Streumer 2003.
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  1. Scott F. Aikin (2005). Who is Afraid of Epistemology's Regress Problem? Philosophical Studies 126 (2):191 - 217.
    What follows is a taxonomy of arguments that regresses of inferential justification are vicious. They fall out into four general classes: (A) conceptual arguments from incompleteness, (B) conceptual arguments from arbitrariness, (C) ought-implies-can arguments from human quantitative incapacities, and (D) ought-implies can arguments from human qualitative incapacities. They fail with a developed theory of “infinitism” consistent with valuational pluralism and modest epistemic foundationalism.
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  2. William P. Alston (1988). The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification. Philosophical Perspectives 2:257-299.
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  3. Jonny Anomaly (2008). Internal Reasons and the Ought-Implies-Can Principle. Philosophical Forum 39 (4):469-483.
  4. Guy Axtell (2001). Teaching James's “The Will to Believe”. Teaching Philosophy 24 (4):325-345.
    Many readers have viewed William James's "The Will to Believe" as his most distinctive and resonating lecture. Yet for all the scholarly attention it has received, the complexities of the "pragmatic defence," and the issues it raises concerning evidential and pragmatic reasoning are still often misunderstood. In this paper I explicate a neglected "core" argument tied closely to James's thesis statement, and provide charts and other tools useful in presenting James' lecture in the philosophy classroom. This argument, based on the (...)
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  5. Dirk Baltzly (2000). Moral Dilemmas Are Not a Local Issue. Philosophy 75 (2):245-263.
    It is sometimes claimed that the Kantian Ought Implies Can principle (OIC) rules out the possibility of moral dilemmas. A certain understanding of OIC does rule out the possibility of moral dilemmas in the sense defined. However I doubt that this particular formulation of the OIC principle is one that fits well with the eudaimonist framework common to ancient Greek moral philosophy. In what follows, I explore the reasons why Aristotle would not accept the OIC principle in the form in (...)
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  6. Thomas M. Besch (2011). Factualism, Normativism and the Bounds of Normativity. Dialogue 50 (02):347-365.
    The paper argues that applications of the principle that “ought” implies “can” (OIC) depend on normative considerations even if the link between “ought” and “can” is logical in nature. Thus, we should reject a common, “factualist” conception of OIC and endorse weak “normativism”. Even if we use OIC as the rule ““cannot” therefore “not ought””, applying OIC is not a mere matter of facts and logic, as factualists claim, but often draws on “proto-ideals” of moral agency.
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  7. P. Bloomfield (2007). Two Dogmas of Metaethics. Philosophical Studies 132 (3):439 - 466.
    The two dogmas at issue are the Humean dogma that “‘is’ statements do not imply ‘ought’ statements” and the Kantian dogma that “‘ought’ statements imply ‘can’” statements. The extant literature concludes these logically contradict each other. On the contrary, it is argued here that while there is no derivable formal contradiction, the juxtaposition of the dogmas manifests a philosophical disagreement over how to understand the logic of prescriptions. This disagreement bears on how to understand current metaethical debate between (...)
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  8. Doreen Bretherton (1962). 'Ought' Implies 'Can Say'. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 63:145 - 166.
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  9. Frederick E. Brouwer (1969). A Difficulty with 'Ought Implies Can'. Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1):45-50.
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  10. James Brown (1977). Moral Theory and the Ought--Can Principle. Mind 86 (342):206-223.
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  11. Krister Bykvist & Anandi Hattiangadi (2007). Does Thought Imply Ought? Analysis 67 (296):277–285.
  12. B. Sharon Byrd (2010). Kant's Doctrine of Right: A Commentary. Cambridge University Press.
    Introduction and methods of interpretation -- The idea of the juridicial state and the postulate of public law -- The state of nature and the three leges -- Iustitia tutatrix, iustitia commutativa, and iustitia distributiva and their differences -- The right to freedom -- The permissive law in the Doctrine of right -- The external mine and thine -- Intelligible possession of land -- The "state in the idea" -- The state in reality -- International and cosmopolitan law -- The (...)
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  13. Erik Carlson (1999). The Oughts and Cans of Objective Consequentialism. Utilitas 11 (01):91-96.
    Frances Howard-Snyder has argued that objective consequentialism violates the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. In most situations, she claims, we cannot produce the best consequences available, although objective consequentialism says that we ought to do so. Here I try to show that Howard-Snyder's argument is unsound. The claim that we typically cannot produce the best consequences available is doubtful. And even if there is a sense of ‘producing the best consequences’ in which we cannot do so, objective consequentialism (...)
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  14. Ian Carter (2001). Ought Implies Practically Possible. In Freedom, Power and Political Morality: Essays for Felix Oppenheim. Palgrave. 79-95.
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  15. Roderick M. Chisholm (1967). He Could Have Done Otherwise. Journal of Philosophy 64 (13):409-417.
  16. Philippe Chuard & Nicholas Southwood (2009). Epistemic Norms Without Voluntary Control. Noûs 43 (4):599-632.
    William Alston’s argument against the deontological conception of epistemic justification is a classic—and much debated—piece of contemporary epistemology. At the heart of Alston’s argument, however, lies a very simple mistake which, surprisingly, appears to have gone unnoticed in the vast literature now devoted to the argument. After having shown why some of the standard responses to Alston’s argument don’t work, we elucidate the mistake and offer a hypothesis as to why it has escaped attention.
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  17. Michelle Ciurria (2012). A New Mixed View of Virtue Ethics, Based on Daniel Doviak's New Virtue Calculus. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 15 (2):259-269.
    In A New Form of Agent-Based Virtue Ethics , Daniel Doviak develops a novel agent-based theory of right action that treats the rightness (or deontic status) of an action as a matter of the action’s net intrinsic virtue value (net-IVV)—that is, its balance of virtue over vice. This view is designed to accommodate three basic tenets of commonsense morality: (i) the maxim that “ought” implies “can,” (ii) the idea that a person can do the right thing for the wrong reason, (...)
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  18. D. G. Collingridge (1977). 'Ought-Implies-Can' and Hume's Rule. Philosophy 52 (201):348 - 351.
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  19. David Copp (2008). 'Ought' Implies 'Can' and the Derivation of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. Analysis 68 (297):67–75.
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  20. Robert C. Cummins, Pierre Poirier & Martin Roth (2004). Epistemological Strata and the Rules of Right Reason. Synthese 141 (3):287 - 331.
    It has been commonplace in epistemology since its inception to idealize away from computational resource constraints, i.e., from the constraints of time and memory. One thought is that a kind of ideal rationality can be specified that ignores the constraints imposed by limited time and memory, and that actual cognitive performance can be seen as an interaction between the norms of ideal rationality and the practicalities of time and memory limitations. But a cornerstone of naturalistic epistemology is that normative assessment (...)
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  21. Norman O. Dahl (1974). Ought Implies Can and Deontic Logic. Philosophia 4 (4):485-511.
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  22. John R. Danley (1988). “Ought” Implies “Can”, or, the Moral Relevance of a Theory of the Firm. Journal of Business Ethics 7 (1-2):23 - 28.
    Since ought implies can, i.e., one cannot be obligated to do what one cannot do, the question of corporate responsibility cannot be discussed intelligibly without an inquiry into the range of corporate or managerial discretion. Hence, the moral relevance of a theory of the firm. Within classical or neo-classical economic theory, for instance, firms which act other than to maximize profit are eliminated. They cannot do otherwise, and thus either have no obligations at all or only the duty to maximize (...)
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  23. Daniel Doviak (2011). A New Form of Agent-Based Virtue Ethics. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 14 (3):259-272.
    In Morals From Motives, Michael Slote defends an agent-based theory of right action according to which right acts are those that express virtuous motives like benevolence or care. Critics have claimed that Slote’s view— and agent-based views more generally— cannot account for several basic tenets of commonsense morality. In particular, the critics maintain that agent-based theories: (i) violate the deontic axiom that ought implies can , (ii) cannot allow for a person’s doing the right thing for the wrong reason, and (...)
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  24. Julia Driver, Promising Too Much.
    This paper begins with the idea that we can learn a good deal about promising by examining the conditions and norms that govern promise- breaking. Sometimes promises are broken as a deliberate plan, other times they are broken because they are simply incompatible with other, more signifi cant moral norms, or because it becomes clear that they are impossible to keep. There are cases where people make promises that are actually incompatible with each other. Politicians, for example, often give such (...)
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  25. Julia Driver (1983). Promises, Obligations, and Abilities. Philosophical Studies 44 (2):221 - 223.
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  26. Don Fawkes (1990). Regarding Rich's “Compatibilism Argument” and the 'Ought- Implies-'Can' Argument. Southwest Philosophy Review 6 (2):123-124.
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  27. John Martin Fischer (2003). ‘Ought-Implies-Can’, Causal Determinism and Moral Responsibility. Analysis 63 (279):244–250.
  28. Harry G. Frankfurt (1988). What Are We Morally Responsible For. In The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge University Press. 95-113.
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  29. Danny Frederick (2011). Scarcity and Saving Lives. The Reasoner 5 (6):89-90.
    I argue that, because of scarcity, the right to life cannot imply an obligation on others to save the life of the right-holder, and that collectivising resources for health care not only ensures that resources are used inefficiently and inappropriately but also removes from people the authority to make decisions for themselves about matters of health, life and death.
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  30. Danny Frederick (2010). Why Universal Welfare Rights Are Impossible and What It Means. Politics, Philosophy and Economics 9 (4):428-445.
    Cranston argued that scarcity makes universal welfare rights impossible. After showing that this argument cannot be avoided by denying scarcity, I consider four challenges to the argument which accept the possibility of conflicts between the duties implied by rights. The first denies the agglomeration principle; the second embraces conflicts of duties; the third affirms the violability of all rights-based duties; and the fourth denies that duties to compensate are overriding. I argue that all four challenges to the scarcity argument are (...)
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  31. Henrik Friberg-Fernros (2011). Allies in Tension: Identifying and Bridging the Rift Between R2p and Just War. Journal of Military Ethics 10 (3):160-173.
    Abstract It has become almost commonplace to regard the concepts of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and Just War as not only compatible but rather closely connected. Contrary to this position I argue here that some Just War criteria are in significant tension with R2P. This tension results from the fact that Just War only makes war permitted while R2P prescribes an obligation. But R2P and Just War not only are in significant tension, but also suffer from inverted weaknesses: R2P is (...)
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  32. Matthias Fritsch (2008). Deconstructing Ought Implies Can. Proceedings of the Xxii World Congress of Philosophy 10:109-115.
    The present paper aims to view three ways of thinking time by Emmanuel Levinas. We distinguish existential, historical, and eschatological time demonstrating how they are connected with his central notion of responsibility toward the Other. The following analysis reorders and interprets what Levinas has said in response of Martin Heidegger’s and Hegel’s position. The text does not make any other claims but aims to offer a possible reading and exegesis of Levinas’s philosophy and open a further discussion on these topics.
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  33. G. C. Goddu (2006). More on Blameworthiness and Alternative Possibilities. Journal of Moral Philosophy 3 (1):69-75.
    The derivation of the generally held Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), roughly ‘you are morally responsible only if you could do otherwise’, from an even more generally held moral principle, K (for Kant), that roughly speaking ‘ought implies can’, has recently been the focus of significant debate. In this paper I shall argue that by focusing on PAP interpreted in terms of commissions alone an alternative derivation of PAP interpreted in terms of omissions is being overlooked. The advantage of the (...)
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  34. P. A. Graham (2011). 'Ought' and Ability. Philosophical Review 120 (3):337-382.
    A principle that many have found attractive is one that goes by the name “'Ought' Implies 'Can'.” According to this principle, one morally ought to do something only if one can do it. This essay has two goals: to show that the principle is false and to undermine the motivations that have been offered for it. Toward the end, a proposal about moral obligation according to which something like a restricted version of 'Ought' Implies 'Can' is true is floated. Though (...)
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  35. Peter A. Graham (2011). Fischer on Blameworthiness and “Ought” Implies “Can”. Social Theory and Practice 37 (1):63-80.
    I argue that Fischer’s attempts to undermine the “Ought” Implies “Can” principle (OIC) fail. I argue both against his construal of the natural motivation for OIC and against his argument for the falsity of OIC. I also consider some attempts to salvage Fischer’s arguments and argue that they can work only if the true moral theory is motive determinative--i.e., it is such that, necessarily, any action performed from a motive which renders one of the blame emotions appropriate is morally impermissible, (...)
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  36. James Griffin, Ought Implies 'Can'.
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  37. W. A. Hart (1998). Nussbaum, Kant and Conflicts Between Duties. Philosophy 73 (4):609-618.
    Martha Nussbaum has claimed that it is possible for a moral agent to be confronted, through no fault of his own, with an irresolvable conflict between his moral duties; and cites Kant as someone who takes the opposing view. Kant did indeed take the view that conflict between duties was inconceivable, but Nussbaum has failed to grasp his main reason for doing so, namely the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. When that principle is properly understood it can be seen that (...)
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  38. Robert J. Hartman (2011). Involuntary Belief and the Command to Have Faith. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 69 (3):181-192.
    Richard Swinburne argues that belief is a necessary but not sufficient condition for faith, and he also argues that, while faith is voluntary, belief is involuntary. This essay is concerned with the tension arising from the involuntary aspect of faith, the Christian doctrine that human beings have an obligation to exercise faith, and the moral claim that people are only responsible for actions where they have the ability to do otherwise. Put more concisely, the problem concerns the coherence of the (...)
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  39. Anandi Hattiangadi (2010). The Love of Truth. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 41 (4):422-432.
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  40. Lawrence L. Heintz (1975). Excuses and '"Ought" Implies "Can"'. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5 (3):449 - 462.
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  41. G. P. Henderson (1966). Ought" Implies "Can. Philosophy 41 (156):101 - 112.
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  42. Ulrike Heuer (2010). Reasons and Impossibility. Philosophical Studies 147 (2):235 - 246.
    In this paper, I argue that a person can have a reason to do what she cannot do. In a nutshell, the argument is that a person can have derivate reasons relating to an action that she has a non-derivative reason to perform. There are clear examples of derivative reasons that a person has in cases where she cannot do what she (non-derivatively) has reason to do. She couldn’t have those derivative reasons, unless she also had the non-derivative reason to (...)
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  43. Pamela Hieronymi (2008). Responsibility for Believing. Synthese 161 (3):357-373.
    Many assume that we can be responsible only what is voluntary. This leads to puzzlement about our responsibility for our beliefs, since beliefs seem not to be voluntary. I argue against the initial assumption, presenting an account of responsibility and of voluntariness according to which, not only is voluntariness not required for responsibility, but the feature which renders an attitude a fundamental object of responsibility (that the attitude embodies one’s take on the world and one’s place in it) also guarantees (...)
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  44. Pamela Hieronymi (2007). Rational Capacity as a Condition on Blame. Philosophical Books 48 (2):109–123.
    In "Rational Capacities" Michael Smith outlines the sense of capacity he believes to be required before blame is appropriate. I question whether this sense of capacity is required. In so doing, I consider different ways in which blame might be conditioned.
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  45. Pamela Hieronymi (2004). The Force and Fairness of Blame. Philosophical Perspectives 18 (1):115–148.
    In this paper I consider fairness of blaming a wrongdoer. In particular, I consider the claim that blaming a wrongdoer can be unfair because blame has a certain characteristic force, a force which is not fairly imposed upon the wrongdoer unless certain conditions are met--unless, e.g., the wrongdoer could have done otherwise, or unless she is someone capable of having done right, or unless she is able to control her behavior by the light of moral reasons. While agreeing that blame (...)
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  46. Jaakko Hintikka (1981). Some Main Problems of Deontic Logic. In Risto Hilpinen (ed.), Deontic Logic: Introductory and Systematic Readings. Sold and Distributed in the U.S.A. And Canada by Kluwer Boston. 59-104.
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  47. Brad Hooker (2005). Some Questions Not to Be Begged in Moral Theory. International Journal of Applied Philosophy 19 (2):277-284.
    This paper starts by considering Sterba’s argument from non-question-beggingness to morality. The paper goes on to discuss his use of the “ought” implies “can” principle and the place, within moral theorizing, of intuitions about reasonableness.
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  48. John F. Horty (2003). Reasoning with Moral Conflicts. Noûs 37 (4):557–605.
    Let us say that a normative conflict is a situation in which an agent ought to perform an action A, and also ought to perform an action B, but in which it is impossible for the agent to perform both A and B. Not all normative conflicts are moral conflicts, of course. It may be that the agent ought to perform the action A for reasons of personal generosity, but ought to perform the action B for reasons of prudence: perhaps (...)
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  49. Frances Howard-Snyder (2006). “Cannot” Implies “Not Ought”. Philosophical Studies 130 (2):233 - 246.
    I argue for a version of “ought” implies “can”. In particular, I argue that it is necessarily true that if an agent, S, ultima facie ought to do A at T’, then there is a time T* such that S can at T* do A at T’. In support of this principle, I have argued that without it, we cannot explain how it is that, in cases where agents cannot do the best thing, they often ought to do some alternative (...)
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  50. Frances Howard-Snyder (1999). Response to Carlson and Qizilbash. Utilitas 11 (01):106-111.
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