Ought Implies Can

Edited by Guglielmo Feis (Università degli Studi di Milano)
About this topic
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 & 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. added 2020-04-26
    Six Arguments Against ‘Ought Implies Can’.Jonah Goldwater - 2020 - Southwest Philosophy Review 36 (1):45-54.
    Opponents of ‘ought implies can’ (OIC) often proceed via cases or counterexamples; hypothetical situations are described in which one is unable to do what one intuitively ought to do. I proceed differently. I offer six arguments against OIC via general principles; no cases. Though each argument would suffice to refute OIC if sound, redundancy is always a failsafe.
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  2. added 2020-04-19
    A Millian Objection to Reasons as Evidence.Guy Fletcher - 2013 - Utilitas 25 (3):417-420.
    Stephen Kearns and Daniel Star have recently proposed this thesis: [Reasons as Evidence: Necessarily, a fact F is a reason for an agent A to PHI.
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  3. added 2019-12-11
    The Priority of the Epistemic.Parker Crutchfield & Scott Scheall - forthcoming - Episteme.
    Epistemic burdens – the nature and extent of our ignorance (that and how) with respect to various courses of action – serve to determine our incentive structures. Courses of action that seem to bear impossibly heavy epistemic burdens are typically not counted as options in an actor’s menu, while courses of action that seem to bear comparatively heavy epistemic burdens are systematically discounted in an actor’s menu relative to options that appear less epistemically burdensome. That ignorance serves to determine what (...)
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  4. added 2019-11-04
    Recent Experimental Work on “Ought” Implies “Can”.Jen Semler & Paul Henne - 2019 - Philosophy Compass 14 (9).
    While philosophers generally accept some version of the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, recent work in experimental philosophy and cognitive science provides evidence against a presupposition or a conceptual entailment from ‘ought’ to ‘can’. Here, we review some of this evidence, its effect on particular formulations of the principle, and future directions for cognitive scientists and philosophers.
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  5. added 2019-09-19
    Conflicts of Normativity.Andrew Reisner - 2004 - Dissertation, University of Oxford
    The thesis contains my early work arguing against evidentialism for reasons for belief (chapter 1), my early argument that rationality is not normative (chapter 2), an argument that rationality is not responding reasons, at least understood in one way (chapter 2), a general discussion of how normative conflicts might (appear to) arise in many different ways (chapter 3), a discussion of how to weigh pragmatic and evidential reasons for belief (chapter 4), and a discussion of the general structure of normativity (...)
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  6. added 2019-07-06
    What We Ought and What We Can.Alex King - 2019 - New York, NY, USA: Routledge.
    Are we able to do everything we ought to do? According to the important but controversial Ought Implies Can principle, the answer is yes. -/- In this book Alex King sheds some much-needed light on this principle. She argues that it is flawed because we are obligated to perform some actions that we cannot perform, and goes on to present a suggested theory for anyone who would deny the principle. She examines the traditional motivations for Ought Implies Can, and finds (...)
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  7. added 2019-06-15
    NDPR: What Can Philosophy Contribute to Ethics? (By James Griffin). [REVIEW]Bradford Cokelet - 2017 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2017.
    Summary of Griffin's book. Raises objections to his ought implies can principle and his negative assumptions about human nature.
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  8. added 2019-06-06
    ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’ and the Derivation of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities.David Copp - 2008 - Analysis 68 (1):67-75.
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  9. added 2019-06-06
    Needs, Rights, and Collective Obligations.Bill Wringe - 2005 - Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 57:187-208.
    In this paper, I argue that a well-known objection to subsistence rights developed by Onora O'Neill - namely, that such rights would generate obligations without an obligation-bearer, can be answered if we take such rights to impose an obligation on the world's population, taken collectively.
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  10. added 2019-06-06
    The Rejection of Objective Consequentialism: A Comment: Mozaffar Qizilbash.Mozaffar Qizilbash - 1999 - Utilitas 11 (1):97-105.
    Frances Howard-Snyder argues that objective consequentialism should be rejected because it violates the principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ in asking us to do what we cannot. In this comment I suggest that Howard-Snyder does not take sufficiently seriously the chief defence of objective consequentialism, which reformulates it so that it applies only to actions we can perform. Nonetheless, I argue that there are arguments relating to ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ which discredit objective consequentialism even if it is thus reformulated. These arguments (...)
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  11. added 2019-06-06
    Frankfurt on 'Ought Implies Can' and Alternative Possibilities.David Widerker - 1991 - Analysis 51 (4):222.
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  12. added 2019-06-06
    Regarding Rich’s “Compatibilism Argument” and the ‘Ought- Implies-‘Can’ Argument.Don Fawkes - 1990 - Southwest Philosophy Review 6 (2):123-124.
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  13. added 2019-06-06
    Compatibilism and the ‘Ought’-Implies-‘Can’ Argument.Gregory Rich - 1989 - Southwest Philosophy Review 5 (2):9-16.
  14. added 2019-06-06
    Excuses and "Ought" Implies "Can".Lawrence L. Heintz - 1975 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5 (3):449-462.
    I will attempt to do two things in this paper.In Part I) I will show that H.A. Prichard failed to appreciate the limitations of the application of the ‘“ought” implies “can”’ principle. Where the ‘can’ is not the ‘can’ of physical impossibility the principle is false; the principle can be shown to be false when it is read this way by an examination of the role of excuses, which is not that of removing obligations. Part II) demonstrates how the misapplication (...)
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  15. added 2019-05-10
    Ability, Responsibility, and Global Justice.Wesley Buckwalter - 2017 - Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research 34 (3):577-590.
    Many have argued we have a moral obligation to assist others in need, but given the scope of global suffering, how far does this obligation extend? According to one traditional philosophical view, the obligation to help others is limited by our ability to help them, or by the principle that “ought implies can”. This view is primarily defended on the grounds that it is a core principle of commonsense moral psychology. This paper reviews findings from experimental philosophy in cognitive science (...)
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  16. added 2019-05-04
    Is Motivation Internal to Value?J. David Velleman - 1998 - In C. Fehige & U. Wessels (eds.), Preferences. Walter de Gruyter.
    The view that something's being good for a person depends on his capacity to care about it – sometimes called internalism about a person’s good – is here derived from the principle that 'ought' implies 'can'. In the course of this derivation, the limits of internalism are discussed, and a distinction is drawn between two senses of the phrase "a person's good".
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  17. added 2018-09-06
    Guidance, Obligations and Ability: A Close Look at the Action Guidance Argument for Ought-Implies-Can.Nick Hughes - 2018 - Utilitas 30 (1):73-85.
    It is often argued that the requirement that moral obligations be ‘action guiding’ motivates the claim that one can be obligated to ϕ only if one can ϕ. I argue that even on its most plausible interpretation, this argument fails, since the reasoning behind it leads to the absurd conclusion that one is permitted to ϕ if one cannot ϕ.
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  18. added 2018-08-14
    Kant, Ought Implies Can, the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, and Happiness.Samuel Kahn - 2018 - Lexington Books.
    This book examines three issues: the principle of ought implies can ; the principle of alternate possibilities ; and Kant’s views on the duty to promote one’s own happiness. It argues that although Kant was wrong to deny such a duty, the part of his denial that rests on a conception of duty incorporating both OIC and PAP is sound.
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  19. added 2018-04-22
    If You Can't Change What You Believe, You Don't Believe It.Grace Helton - forthcoming - Noûs.
    I develop and defend the view that subjects are necessarily psychologically able to revise their beliefs in response to relevant counter-evidence. Specifically, subjects can revise their beliefs in response to relevant counter-evidence, given their current psychological mechanisms and skills. If a subject lacks this ability, then the mental state in question is not a belief, though it may be some other kind of cognitive attitude, such as a supposi-tion, an entertained thought, or a pretense. The result is a moderately revisionary (...)
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  20. added 2018-04-17
    Contrary-to-Duty Scenarios, Deontic Dilemmas, and Transmission Principles.Benjamin Kiesewetter - 2018 - Ethics 129 (1):98-115.
    Actualists hold that contrary-to-duty scenarios give rise to deontic dilemmas and provide counterexamples to the transmission principle, according to which we ought to take the necessary means to actions we ought to perform. In an earlier article, I have argued, contrary to actualism, that the notion of ‘ought’ that figures in conclusions of practical deliberation does not allow for deontic dilemmas and validates the transmission principle. Here I defend these claims, together with my possibilist account of contrary-to-duty scenarios, against Stephen (...)
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  21. added 2018-04-10
    The Culpable Inability Problem for Synchronic and Diachronic ‘Ought Implies Can’.Alex King - 2019 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 16 (1):50-62.
    My paper has two aims: to underscore the importance of differently time-indexed ‘ought implies can’ principles; and to apply this to the culpable inability problem. Sometimes we make ourselves unable to do what we ought, but in those cases, we may still fail to do what we ought. This is taken to be a serious problem for synchronic ‘ought implies can’ principles, with a simultaneous ‘ought’ and ‘can’. Some take it to support diachronic ‘ought implies can’, with a potentially temporally (...)
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  22. added 2018-03-18
    Against Some Recent Arguments for ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’: Reasons, Deliberation, Trying, and Furniture.Paul Henne, Jennifer Semler, Vladimir Chituc, Felipe De Brigard & Walter Sinnott-Armstrong - 2019 - Philosophia 47 (1):131-139.
    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’.
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  23. added 2018-02-17
    Symmetry, Rational Abilities, and the Ought-Implies-Can Principle.Matthew Talbert - 2016 - Criminal Law and Philosophy 10 (2):283-296.
    In Making Sense of Free Will and Moral Responsibility Dana Nelkin defends the “rational abilities view.” According to this view, agents are responsible for their behavior if and only if they act with the ability to recognize and act for good reasons. It follows that agents who act well are open to praise regardless of whether they could have acted differently, but agents who act badly are open to blame only if they could have acted on the moral reasons that (...)
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  24. added 2018-02-17
    Three Challenges (and Three Replies) to the Ethics of Belief.Brian Huss - 2009 - Synthese 168 (2):249-271.
    In this paper I look at three challenges to the very possibility of an ethics of belief and then show how they can be met. The first challenge, from Thomas Kelly, says that epistemic rationality is not a form of instrumental rationality. If this claim is true, then it will be difficult to develop an ethics of belief that does not run afoul of naturalism. The second challenge is the Non-Voluntarism Argument, which holds that because we cannot believe at will (...)
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  25. added 2018-02-17
    Who is Afraid of Epistemology’s Regress Problem?Scott F. Aikin - 2005 - 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: conceptual arguments from incompleteness, conceptual arguments from arbitrariness, ought-implies-can arguments from human quantitative incapacities, and 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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  26. added 2017-11-06
    Reasons and Impossibility.Bart Streumer - 2007 - Philosophical Studies 136 (3):351-384.
    Many philosophers claim that it cannot be the case that a person ought to perform an action if this person cannot perform this action. However, most of these philosophers do not give arguments for the truth of this claim. In this paper, I argue that it is plausible to interpret this claim in such a way that it is entailed by the claim that there cannot be a reason for a person to perform an action if it is impossible that (...)
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  27. added 2017-10-25
    Marcel van Ackeren and Michael Kühler (Eds.): The Limits of Moral Obligation: Moral Demandingness and Ought Implies Can. [REVIEW]Lukas Naegeli - 2018 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 95 (1):148-152.
  28. added 2017-09-20
    ‘Ought Implies Can’ and the Law.Chris Fox & Guglielmo Feis - 2018 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 61 (4):370-393.
    In this paper, we investigate the ‘ought implies can’ thesis, focusing on explanations and interpretations of OIC, with a view to clarifying its uses and relevance to legal philosophy. We first review various issues concerning the semantics and pragmatics of OIC; then we consider how OIC may be incorporated in Hartian and Kelsenian theories of the law. Along the way we also propose a taxonomy of OIC-related claims.
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  29. added 2017-09-18
    "Ought Implies Can,” Framing Effects, and "Empirical Refutations".Alicia Kissinger-Knox, Patrick Aragon & Moti Mizrahi - 2018 - Philosophia 46 (1):165-182.
    This paper aims to contribute to the current debate about the status of the “Ought Implies Can” principle and the growing body of empirical evidence that undermines it. We report the results of an experimental study which show that people judge that agents ought to perform an action even when they also judge that those agents cannot do it and that such “ought” judgments exhibit an actor-observer effect. Because of this actor-observer effect on “ought” judgments and the Duhem-Quine thesis, talk (...)
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  30. added 2017-09-16
    Moral Failure — Response to Critics.Lisa Tessman - 2016 - Feminist Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1):1-18.
    I briefly introduce Moral Failure as a book that brings together philosophical and empirical work in moral psychology to examine moral requirements that are non-negotiable and that contravene the principle that “ought implies can.” I respond to Rivera by arguing that the process of construction that imbues normative requirements with authority need not systematize or eliminate conflicts between normative requirements. My response to Schwartzman clarifies what is problematic about nonideal theorizing that limits itself to offering action-guidance. In response to Kittay, (...)
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  31. added 2017-09-04
    On the Theoretical Significance of G. A. Cohen’s Fact-Insensitivity Thesis.Kyle Johannsen - 2017 - Res Publica 23 (2):245-53.
    G. A. Cohen’s claim that fundamental principles are ‘fact-insensitive’ has not received an especially warm welcome from the philosophical community. While some philosophers have expressed doubts about the plausibility of his claim, others have complained that even if his thesis is true, it is also relatively insignificant. In my paper, I argue that the fact-insensitivity thesis, if true, provides considerable support for value pluralism, and is thus of interest for that reason. Though Cohen himself assumes a plurality of fundamental principles, (...)
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  32. added 2017-08-14
    An Analysis of Recent Empirical Data on ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’.Yishai Cohen - 2018 - Philosophia 46 (1):57-67.
    Recent experimental studies dispute the position that commonsense morality accepts ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’, the view that, necessarily, if an agent ought to perform some action, then she can perform that action. This paper considers and supports explanations for the results of these studies on the hypothesis that OIC is intuitive and true.
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  33. added 2017-07-17
    Sound Advice and Internal Reasons.Ariela Tubert - 2016 - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 97 (2):181-199.
    Reasons internalism holds that reasons for action contain an essential connection with motivation. I defend an account of reasons internalism based on the advisor model. The advisor model provides an account of reasons for action in terms of the advice of a more rational version of the agent. Contrary to Pettit and Smith's proposal and responding to Sobel's and Johnson's objections, I argue that the advisor model can provide an account of internal reasons and that it is too caught up (...)
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  34. added 2017-06-23
    Opting for the Best: Oughts and Options.Douglas W. Portmore - 2019 - New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.
    The book concerns what I take to be the least controversial normative principle concerning action: you ought to perform your best option—best, that is, in terms of whatever ultimately matters. The book sets aside the question of what ultimately matters so as to focus on more basic issues, such as: What are our options? Do I have the option of typing out the cure for cancer if that’s what I would in fact do if I had the right intentions at (...)
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  35. added 2017-04-01
    ‘Ought Implies Can’: Not So Pragmatic After All.Alex King - 2017 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 95 (3):637-661.
    Those who want to deny the ‘ought implies can’ principle often turn to weakened views to explain ‘ought implies can’ phenomena. The two most common versions of such views are that ‘ought’ presupposes ‘can’, and that ‘ought’ conversationally implicates ‘can’. This paper will reject both views, and in doing so, present a case against any pragmatic view of ‘ought implies can’. Unlike much of the literature, I won't rely on counterexamples, but instead will argue that each of these views fails (...)
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  36. added 2017-03-14
    What Ability Can Do.Ben Schwan - 2018 - Philosophical Studies 175 (3):703-723.
    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 (...)
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  37. added 2017-01-28
    ‘“Ought” Implies “CAN”’1: PHILOSOPHY.G. P. Henderson - 1966 - Philosophy 41 (156):101-112.
    The dictum ‘“ought” implies “can”’ has a status in moral philosophy in some respects like that of ‘a good player needs good co-ordination’ in talk about ball-games. Clearly, you say something important but not conclusive about proficiency in playing a ball-game when you say that it requires good co-ordination: similarly, you say something important but not conclusive about obligation when you say that it implies a certain possibility or power or ability. Each dictum is a reminder: the one about such (...)
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  38. added 2017-01-17
    The Best Argument for 'Ought Implies Can' Is a Better Argument Against 'Ought Implies Can'.Brian Talbot - 2016 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3.
    To argue that “ought” implies “can,” one can appeal to general principles or to intuitions about specific cases. One general truism that seems to show that “ought” implies “can” is that obligations must be able to guide action, and putative obligations that are unfulfillable are unable to do so. This paper argues that obligations that are unfulfillable can still guide action, and that moral theories which reject the principle that “ought” implies “can” are actually better able to account for how (...)
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  39. added 2017-01-16
    VII—‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can Say’.Doreen Bretherton - 1963 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 63 (1):145-166.
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  40. added 2017-01-15
    “Cannot” Implies “Not Ought”.Frances Howard-Snyder - 2006 - 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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  41. added 2016-12-12
    Deontic Morality and Control.Ishtiyaque Haji - 2002 - Cambridge University Press.
    This book addresses a dilemma concerning freedom and moral obligation. If determinism is true, then no one has control over one's actions. If indeterminism is true, then no one has control over their actions. But it is morally obligatory, right or wrong for one to perform some action only if one has control over it. Hence, no one ever performs an action that is morally obligatory, right or wrong. The author defends the view that this dilemma can be evaded but (...)
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  42. added 2016-12-08
    Reasons and Guidance.Jonathan Way & Daniel Whiting - 2016 - Analytic Philosophy 57 (3):214-235.
    Many philosophers accept a response constraint on normative reasons: that p is a reason for you to φ only if you are able to φ for the reason that p. This constraint offers a natural way to cash out the familiar and intuitive thought that reasons must be able to guide us, and has been put to work as a premise in a range of influential arguments in ethics and epistemology. However, the constraint requires interpretation and faces putative counter-examples due (...)
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  43. added 2016-12-08
    Kant's Doctrine of Right: A Commentary.B. Sharon Byrd & Joachim Hruschka - 2010 - Cambridge University Press.
    Published in 1797, the Doctrine of Right is Kant's most significant contribution to legal and political philosophy. As the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals, it deals with the legal rights which persons have or can acquire, and aims at providing the grounding for lasting international peace through the idea of the juridical state. This commentary analyzes Kant's system of individual rights, starting from the original innate right to external freedom, and ending with the right to own property and (...)
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  44. added 2016-12-08
    I Ought, Therefore I Can.Peter B. M. Vranas - 2007 - Philosophical Studies 136 (2):167-216.
    I defend the following version of the ought-implies-can principle: (OIC) by virtue of conceptual necessity, an agent at a given time has an (objective, pro tanto) obligation to do only what the agent at that time has the ability and opportunity to do. In short, obligations correspond to ability plus opportunity. My argument has three premises: (1) obligations correspond to reasons for action; (2) reasons for action correspond to potential actions; (3) potential actions correspond to ability plus opportunity. In the (...)
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  45. added 2016-12-08
    An Unsolved Problem for Slote's Agent-Based Virtue Ethics.Jacobson Daniel - 2002 - Philosophical Studies 111 (1):53 - 67.
    According to Slote's ``agent-based'' virtue ethics, the rightness orwrongness of an act is determined by the motive it expresses. Thistheory has a problem with cases where an agent can do her duty onlyby expressing some vicious motive and thereby acting wrongly. In sucha situation, an agent can only act wrongly; hence, the theory seemsincompatible with the maxim that `ought' implies `can'. I argue thatSlote's attempt to circumvent this problem by appealing to compatibilism is inadequate. In a wide range of psychologically (...)
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  46. added 2016-12-08
    'Ought' Implies 'Can' and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities.G. Yaffe - 1999 - Analysis 59 (3):218-222.
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  47. added 2016-11-17
    An Empirical Refutation of ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’.Paul Henne, Vladimir Chituc, Felipe De Brigard & Walter Sinnott-Armstrong - 2016 - Analysis 76 (3):283-290.
    Most philosophers assume that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, and most of them hold that this principle is true not only universally but also analytically or conceptually. Some skeptics deny this principle, although they often admit some related one. In this article, we show how new empirical evidence bolsters the skeptics’ arguments. We then defend the skeptical view against some objections to the empirical evidence and to its effect on the traditional principle. In light of the new evidence, we conclude that philosophers (...)
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  48. added 2016-09-21
    Legendary Quotations and Lack of References.David Baumgardt - 1946 - Journal of the History of Ideas 7 (1/4):99-102.
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  49. added 2016-08-26
    Die Zweite Kehre Der Transzendentalphilosophie.Giovanni Cogliandro - 2005 - Hegel-Jahrbuch 7 (1):234-240.
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  50. added 2016-06-06
    Does “Ought” Imply “Feasible”?Nicholas Southwood - 2016 - Philosophy and Public Affairs 44 (1):7-45.
    Many of us feel internally conflicted in the face of certain normative claims that make infeasible demands: say, normative claims that demand that agents do what, given deeply entrenched objectionable character traits, they cannot bring themselves to do. On the one hand, such claims may seem false on account of demanding the infeasible, and insisting otherwise may seem to amount to objectionable unworldliness – to chasing “pies in the sky.” On the other hand, such claims may seem true in spite (...)
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