32. “Ought Implies Can” [SER]

This rather simplistic, ethical formula was used by German philosopher Immanuel Kant to outline that if an individual is morally obliged to perform a certain action, that individual must thus perform the action logically as well. He pens:

“For if the moral law commands that we ought to be better human beings now, it inescapably follows that we must be capable of being better human beings.”

So long as the moral action falls under natural conditions; it should be possible to achieve it. Kant conjectured that his principle fell under a “categorical imperative”. This categorical imperative argued that humans were rational, self-conscious entities, with impure choices of freedom. Therefore, it could be argued that Kant believed that this principle’s only limitation was free will. However, there are other, more subtle and surreptitious limitations to this principle that have seemingly been overlooked.

A person might possess physical and/ or mental limitations which would restrain him/ her from accomplishing what they ought to do. Unobservant individuals will clearly not pick up on subtle clues, whilst dilettantes cannot get at the heart of any field of study, and idlers will be retrained from accomplishing anything due to their intrinsic lackadaisical state of mind. Therefore, free will is not the only limitation, since our individual physical and mental problems are also limitations. However, these limitations cannot be generalized, which could explain Kant’s seeming dismissal of these.

This passage’s main attribution goes along the Latin mantra “ad impossibilia nemo tenetur”. This asserts that an individual is allowed to dismiss a moral obligation, so long as it is impossible to fulfill or accomplish the given task or objective. Other philosophical interpretations conjectured that if one “can” accomplish a task, there is no reason he/ she should not then do what “ought” to be done.

The importance of the “Ought Implies Can” principle has been manifested in many fields, from moral and legal philosophy to deontic logic.

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4 thoughts on “32. “Ought Implies Can” [SER]

  1. “….it could be argued that Kant believed that this principle’s only limitation was free will.”

    I feel like Kant did not overestimat the power of “free will” but its applicability in certain areas. Free will is the only reason why the principle might be faulty. Individuals with limitations in certain areas independent of effort will always fail to gain succes because of their inaccessibility to achieve the possible for which matter makes their overall goal impossible. The individual’s limitation is not mental or physical, it’s his “free will” of accepting the condition that limits him.

    If you can’t see colors it’s not free will that’s stopping you, it’s your visual condition, or so it is thought. Would it be possible to describe color in such detailed and expansive way that a blind person could actually see the color due to its detailing? Could a person with a broken spine wall again by simple will power healing it’s spine by itself?


  2. ‘Ought implies can’ is an ethical formula so it stresses we should necessarily be capable of doing things that we morally ought to do. Free will is what makes this formula so adaptive and non-binding and free will (if you believe that it exists, which is a debate for another day) is focused necessarily on acts of our own will or volition. I possess the free will to slap someone in the face, but I might not be able to catch a ball blindfolded regardless of whether I ‘willed’ to do so. ‘Ought implies can’ endorses a particular form of moral behaviour and not physical behaviour and free will is ultimately what would limit someone following the formula thoroughly.


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