Can does not imply ought

‘Ought implies can’ is an ethical principle ascribed to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant which claims that if a person is morally obliged to perform a certain action, then logically that person must be able to perform it. It makes no sense to say that somebody ought to do something that it is impossible for them to do. As a corollary, a person cannot be held responsible for something outside their control.

On the other hand, the converse relationship ‘Can implies ought’ does not apply. Just because a person can do something, it does not logically follow that they ought to do it.

When the Australian Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam Government in 1975, a common argument in favour was that he had the power to do it. However, this was an irrelevant red herring – hardly anybody disputed the power of the Governor-General to dismiss the Prime Minister. What they did dispute was whether he ought to have done it.

To give another example, in most cases it is lawful to tell lies, and it is often possible to get away with lying. But that does not mean that lying is acceptable behaviour (except for ‘white lies’ to avoid hurting somebody’s feelings or to otherwise minimise harm).  

In terms of logic, this reverse relationship is a logical fallacy known as ‘Affirming the consequent’ (sometimes called the fallacy of the converse) which consists of invalidly inferring the converse from the original statement. This fallacy takes the following form:

Premise 1: If P, then Q.

Premise 2: Q.

Conclusion: Therefore, P. 

Applying this form to the current case:

Premise 1: If you ought to do something, then you can do it.

Premise 2: You can do it.

Conclusion: Therefore, you ought to do it.

I realise that this is not a very common fallacy, and pointing it out might just seem like common sense, but it does have relevance for critical thinking and logical argument.

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Filed under Logical fallacies

3 responses to “Can does not imply ought

  1. A better form of the original would be “Ought *presupposes* can”. But the fallacy you complain of is alive and well (and here the Whitlam example is a good one) . I don’t think it’s just the simple inversion that you suggest,which would fool no one. It’s more like an equivocation between “He had the right to do so” (a statement about legal fact) and “He was right to do so” (a value judgment). Likewise, people often claim to justify ungenerous actions by saying that they are within their rights

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      • I know, and was not criticising you for doing so! Unfortunately, I don’t know enough German to tell, even if I were to study the matter, whether his concept of “implies” was clearly separated from “presupposes”. And a quick search shows that Kant’s actual meaning is debatable: Kant and ‘Ought Implies Can’, Markus Kohl
        The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 65, Issue 261, October 2015, Pages 690–710, https://doi.org/10.1093/pq/pqv044
        “Although Kant is often considered the founding father of the controversial principle ‘Ought Implies Can’ (OIC), it is not at all clear how Kant himself understands and defends this principle. …”

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