I feel like I have not written a philosophy post in a while. It’s almost as if something important is missing on WC. I’ll make up for that here by responding to my good friend Czar on whether ought implies can. For those not familiar with the principle of ought implies can, it is popular within ethical philosophy to analyze whether we are morally obligated to do something. For example, let’s suppose I said you ought to save the world from a large asteroid by destroying it with laser beams from your eyes. You would find this absurd because it is not within your power to do so. Or perhaps more fundamentally, if you ought to act in a way that is loving, then it is assumed that you can choose to do so. Someone who is determined not to love cannot have the ability to do otherwise. For example, we would not ascribe moral responsibility to a robot precisely because it is pre-determined to act as it does. Similarly, if we couldn’t choose to love, then we don’t have an obligation to love. That seems fairly straightforward, right? You’d think so but according to Czar’s counter-example, that’s not the case.
I’d recommend reading the article yourself, but to quickly summarize his counter example: If person P signs a contract to pay rent at a stipulated time, they have an obligation to pay it. However, if P knowingly and deliberately lacks the necessary funds to pay for it then they simply cannot pay for the rent at the stipulated time. But if the principle of ‘ought implies can’ is true, then a person who is incapable of paying for the rent has no obligation to pay it. This is clearly absurd, therefore, the principle is false. I don’t think this objection succeeds, however, as it seems to me just necessarily true that something must be able to choose otherwise in order to have an obligation. The best way to address this counter-example is to start by clarifying what we mean by “ought” and “can”. There are different senses in which ought can be used here. One can be a normative statement about the nature of something. For example, a dog ought to have a four legs and if it did not then that’s a defect in its nature. We don’t consider the dog responsible though, at least not in the sense that it could’ve chosen to be otherwise.
The sense by which we are using it here is applicable to rational beings with the capacity for libertarian freedom. Can is a potential for a certain act, but a potential for an act can depend on prior conditions that make such an act possible. Thus something is morally obligatory for someone if their choice/s can lead to actualizing their potential to act for an obligatory end. By now the problem with Czar’s counter-example should be clearer. It restricts P’s obligation for A at t2, as if the obligation only obtains at t2. If we treated this principle that way, we wouldn’t need to work to pay for our bills because the obligation does not obtain until the bills are received. To avoid this error, a more appropriate interpretation of the principle can be phrased as follows:
(M**) P ought to do A at t2 only if P can act for A.
Acting for an end is not restricted to t2, it can be done prior to t2 at t1 if P is working to actualize that end by meeting the conditions necessary for reaching A. In this case, it is necessary that P has a job that is sufficient for making the payments on his rent. However, if P was shot and was hospitalized for an extended period of time, then it seems absurd to suggest the he ought to have paid for his rent. These are circumstances that are simply beyond one’s control. Of course if P got in an accident due to driving with a cell phone then he can rightly be blamed but if not then he cannot rightly be deemed at fault. The reason the counter-example had some prime facie soundness to it was because it assumed that a person was still responsible without being able to do A at t2. The question that was not asked was why P was still obligated to do A. Only until we analyze the prior moments that led up to t2 can we understand how it is possible to hold that person morally responsible.