"Ought" Implies "Can"

Philosophy 41 (156):101 - 112 (1966)
Abstract
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 courses of physical instruction, the other about such exhortations to duty, as are worth persevering with. It would be hopeless to keep on teaching a boy the moves and tricks of rugby football if he could never co-ordinate well enough to get his eye in, so to speak. Correspondingly, it would be meaningless to recommend that someone ought to do something the specification of which involved a contradiction, and pointless to suggest that he ought to do something which, for quite general reasons, was not, and was certain to remain not, within his power. So each dictum expresses a bluff, no-nonsense wisdom which we should count on before involving ourselves in certain more detailed commitments. But probably this is as far as the comparison between the two sayings can well be taken.
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DOI 10.1017/S0031819100058484
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