The Best Argument for 'Ought Implies Can' Is a Better Argument Against 'Ought Implies Can'

Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3 (2016)
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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 obligations guide than theories which endorse “ought” implies “can.” The paper also argues that any intuitions about specific cases that seem to provide evidence that “ought” implies “can” do not actually give us this evidence. Rather, these intuitions pose similar problems for theories which accept “ought” implies “can” as they pose for theories which reject the principle. Some theories which reject “ought” implies “can” will fit our intuitions at least as well, if not better, than theories which accept it. So, intuitions do not favor accepting that “ought” implies “can,” and appeal to general principles favors its denial.



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Brian Talbot
University of Colorado, Boulder

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