Moral rights and the limits of the ought-implies-can principle: Why impeccable precautions are no excuse

Inquiry 48 (4):307 – 355 (2005)
Abstract
This essay argues against the commonly held view that "ought" implies "can" in the domain of morality. More specifically, I contest the notion that nobody should ever be held morally responsible for failing to avoid the infliction of any harm that he or she has not been able to avoid through all reasonably feasible precautions in the carrying out of some worthwhile activity. The article explicates the concept of a moral right in order to show why violations of moral rights can occur even when no one has acted wrongfully in any fashion. In so doing, it will effectively be maintaining that strict liability (i.e., liability irrespective of the presence or absence of culpability) exists in morality as well as in law. When we take account of the distinction between exoneration and extenuation, we can see that scrupulously thorough precautions are never sufficient to constitute an excuse in morality. Having made that point with some extended examples, the article goes on to consider a number of possible objections - objections that lead into discussions of some basic distinctions within moral philosophy and some central principles within deontic logic.
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