The Data Against Kant


February 21, 2016

The Data Against Kant

The history of moral philosophy is a history of disagreement, but on one point there has been virtual unanimity: It would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do.

This principle — that “ought” implies “can,” that our moral obligations can’t exceed our abilities — played a central role in the work of Immanuel Kant and has been widely accepted since. Indeed, the idea seems self-evidently true, much as “bachelor” implies “man.”

But is it actually true? In 1984, the philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (above) outlined a series of thought experiments that, he contended, demonstrated that “ought” does not always imply “can.” Though his argument found some adherents, most philosophers were not convinced. We think that the consensus view that “ought” implies “can” is mistaken. In a psychological study to be published in the May issue of the journal Cognition, we offer empirical evidence suggesting that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong was right.

His thought experiments go something like this: Suppose that you and a friend are both up for the same job in another city. She interviewed last weekend, and your flight for the interview is this evening. Your car is in the shop, though, so your friend promises to drive you to the airport. But on the way, her car breaks down — the gas tank is leaking — so you miss your flight and don’t get the job.

Would it make any sense to tell your friend, stranded at the side of the road, that she ought to drive you to the airport? The answer seems to be an obvious no (after all, she can’t drive you), and most philosophers treat this as all the confirmation they need for the principle.

Suppose, however, that the situation is slightly different. What if your friend intentionally punctures her own gas tank to make sure that you miss the flight and she gets the job? In this case, it makes perfect sense to insist that your friend still has an obligation to drive you to the airport. In other words, we might indeed say that someone ought to do what she can’t — if we’re blaming her.

Three decades after Professor Sinnott-Armstrong made this argument, we decided to run his thought experiments as scientific ones. (We partnered with Professor Sinnott-Armstrong himself, along with the philosopher Felipe De Brigard.) In our study, we presented hundreds of participants with stories like the one above and asked them questions about obligation, ability and blame. Did they think someone should keep a promise she made but couldn’t keep? Was she even capable of keeping her promise? And how much was she to blame for what happened?

We found a consistent pattern, but not what most philosophers would expect. “Ought” judgments depended largely on concerns about blame, not ability. With stories like the one above, in which a friend intentionally sabotages you, 60 percent of our participants said that the obligation still held — your friend still ought to drive you to the airport. But with stories in which the inability to help was accidental, the obligation all but disappeared. Now, only 31 percent of our participants said your friend still ought to drive you.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong’s unorthodox intuition turns out to be shared by hundreds of non-philosophers. So who is right? The vast majority of philosophers, or our participants?

One possibility is that our participants were wrong, perhaps because their urge to blame impaired the accuracy of their moral judgments. To test this possibility, we stacked the deck in the favor of philosophical orthodoxy: We had the participants look at cases in which the urge to assign blame would be lowest — that is, only the cases in which the car accidentally broke down. Even still, we found no   relationship between “ought” and “can.” The only significant relationship was between “ought” and “blame.”

This finding has an important implication: Even when we say that someone has no obligation to keep a promise (as with your friend whose car accidentally breaks down), it seems we’re saying it not because she’s unable to do it, but because we don’t want to unfairly blame her for not keeping it. Again, concerns about blame, not about ability, dictate how we understand obligation.

So here we face the other possibility, one less flattering to most moral philosophers: It’s their moral judgments that are distorted.

While this one study alone doesn’t refute Kant, our research joins a recent salvo of experimental work targeting the principle that “ought” implies “can.” At the very least, philosophers can no longer treat this principle as obviously true.

In the last decade or so, the “experimental philosophy” movement has argued for greater use of empirical science to inform and shape the discussion of philosophical problems. We agree: Philosophers ought to pay more attention to their colleagues in the psychology department (even if they can’t).

10 thoughts on “The Data Against Kant

  1. Veritas, CLF, Conrad try to unravel this . Words have meaningful connotations. But I find it difficult to agree with the proposition that it would be absurd to suggest that we should do what we couldn’t possibly do. I am accustomed to thinking that we should try to push ourselves to the limit to expand our frontier of knowledge by doing and experimenting. Please get me out this mental bind since I cannot understand why “ought” implies “can”. But then Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is difficult to understand.–Din Merican

  2. I have always thought that “ought” connotes an “aspiration” and remains as such.

    Even in the English Common Law of Tort, there is a maxim that you “ought to have known” the existence of a certain state of affairs of which you in reality have no direct knowledge at all but which, as a matter of legal construction, that hypothetical knowledge is imputed in order that your actions or omissions in question “would” incur legal liability.

    “Ought” is therefore a “convenient fiction”, contextually indeterminate, yet imposes an active realization of a state of affairs after the fact. Hence, I suppose, the author’s despair of being asked to do the impossible. Impossible because if it could be done, it would have been done. It was not done because it couldn’t have been in the first place?

    Thus it is different from “pushing ourselves to the limit” because in this case there is every possibility that the aspired future end-result could be achieved and therefore “ought” to give it a try, whereas the “ought” that the author was despairing of is more in the context of “you didn’t bid your father goodbye before he died, but you ought to have”

  3. Ought and can?
    The above article is a very badly written piece, imho. I don’t think the writer understood Kant all that well and that the research by psychological or ‘behavioral science’ does no justice to Kantian thought. It’s plain stupid and probably carried out by hyper-Utilitarians..

    Categorical (Ought) vs Hypothetical (Can) Imperatives in Kantian -Speak. This is found in his “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.” He recognizes the tensions between reason and happiness; and that “Making man happy is quite different from making him good.” and that virtue is therefore sometimes painful.

    In general, Kant’s moral imperative means that it is our duty to act in such a way as to render ourselves “worthy of happiness”. By that means, we “hope to partake” in keeping up with our sense of worth. It becomes an act of faith.

    In the Kantian model, happiness – at least in this life, was not necessarily part of nature’s plan. Moral virtue was what Reason recognized as the “highest practical function”. Not merely development of a good will. (e.g: We are all fundamentally racist, even though we ‘try’ not to be ethnocentric. Such are the prevailing circumstances.)

    Of course, all this was counterintuitive and often deniable. It’s not consonant nor consistent with our insistence that happiness was all about reason, virtue and truth.

    This lecture might be easier to understand:

  4. Oy vey, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, one of my atheist brethren.

    A couple of points. I think Wayne’s legal definition of “ought” as opposed to the jurisprudential sense implies obligation or duty.

    CLF did the heavy lifting in terms of defining the subject which for me in a strange way leads back to Wayne’s point but that’s a discussion for another thread.

    Ultimately though, the problem I have with these empiricists mode of inquiry is that it results in binary thinking.

  5. Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher to explicitly formulate the principle of “ought implies can”since reason commands that such actions should take place, it must be possible for them to take place. Many philosophers use his principle “ought implies can” as a basic test of moral obligation. If something is a moral obligation, then we ought do it. However, we can turn the principle around into a second principle by using a basic rule of logic called contraposition: “Can’t implies ought not.” In other words, if you can’t do N, then you have no duty to do N. It also mean we should not blame people for failing to do what they can’t possibly do. The second principle tells us that our obligations are restricted to what is humanly possible. The real world puts a limit on ethical responsibility.

  6. Yes Conrad, Wayne did it the legalistic ‘way’ which is valid. I commented without seeing his commentary.

    The problem with this empirical psychological ‘statistical’ study was that it imposed the Categorical Imperative as something nebulous and therefore ‘impossible’ – as if it were a choice. All that does, is to confirm that Hypothetical Imperatives are more ‘convenient’ for most folk – who do not see the ‘goodwill’ choices as a ‘Duty’.

    Psychology deals with emotive reasoning and motives; while philosophy deals with human proclivities and the process of ‘thought’ (the-ought). Religion is in another category altogether and requires a ‘Leap of Faith’ (Kierkegaard). Kant’s moral imperatives stem from Enlightenment Rationality, which the Western Church as usual, made a big fuss about.

    Kant was a deeply religious brainiac who realized that ‘the Kingdom is Within You’ requires more than just feeling or ‘being’ Good. It requires deep introspection, unflinching duty and virtuous acts divorced from our base emotions. Yet to this day, we have all these pious folk who insist that happiness and success is ‘God given’ – and that Hyper materialism and thorough misunderstanding of the indwelling Holy Spirit’s role (Feel Good/Ecstasy) is the path to ‘heaven on earth’.

    Just watch those flurs speaking in tongues (charismatics) or engaging in corporate confessions (evangelicals)! Or those gullible brainwashed idiots who insist on ‘martyrdom’ for a cause of a Strage Inhuman Deity. This is especially prevalent in generations of the Great ‘Me First’ (Impulse) Society.

    What Kant was reiterating (in a convoluted fashion) was the Christian concept of Man’s propensity to Evil. The clueless Christians being what they are, crucified him because he gave a better explanation. Darwin ultimately agreed.

    This then became my definition of the Original Sin – which is not naturally or genetically acquired (hardwired), but by emotionally driven and psychologically conditioned (softwired) by society and culture. Good and Evil is programmed into us. So i guess i’ll be labelled a Heretic, aka Semi Pelagian, which i’m not. Haha..

    It is not our ‘duty’ to conform to what others insist is ‘Tradition’, ‘Goodwill’ and ‘Society’, if it conflicts with our understanding, reason and duty to Others. Therein is our path to personal Freedom, for it starts with Freewill.

    Yes, the bigger issue is Laws used to subvert ‘Natural’ Justice.

  7. ==“Making man happy is quite different from making him good.” and that virtue is therefore sometimes painful.==

    When a couple makes a vow to be together for life, involved parties “ought to” keep their vows. Yet, many could not do so.
    So, should then society still keep the categorical imperative to celebrate when a couple vowed to stay faithful to each other for life in public?

    Above article is challenging our perception of moral philosophy. It is telling us that society is moving towards a study of moral psychology.
    What we perceive as morality is merely a social contract that could change throughout time.

    For myself, who surrenders into a higher conscious, I take refuge in a Jesus who chose a Samaritan (a cousin of Jewish tribe whom the Jewish despised during Jesus’ time) woman who had married 5 times and living with a unmarried man as his chosen voice to share the good news. It would neither agrees or disagrees with Kantian’s effort to objectify our understanding of moral truth.

    Kantian categorical imperative is a mere guidance to illustrate or to objectify why society accepts some social construct as moral truth. It is bound to be a hair splitting mental exercise.

  8. Er.., katasayang, if psychology (study of the soul/mind) wants to be regarded as a hub ‘science’ – it has nothing to say about morality. Leave that to philosophy – the “friend or love of wisdom”.

    I dwell in both worlds, and believe me, you can not analyse philosophy scientifically. Psychological morality is like masturbatory morality – ‘tembak kosong’ and devolves into neurotic animal husbandry like milking cows and artificial insemination of goats. It should stay its course and stop pretending it has all the answers to ‘being’ human.

    Jesus Christ recognized that animal part which is self interest, that’s why he did His Duty, even though he had to undergo bucketloads of hematohidrosis (sweat blood), because of His Humanness. Here’s to you:

    Btw, Ted Neely was more than ‘gifted’ and was the closest anyOne could have depicted the ‘Christ Pantocrator’ icon that became Orthodox Christianity description of our Messiah. Is it sad that Andrew Lloyd Webber is a homosexual? Perhaps he loved God more than he knows. Remember the 4 Loves? Storge, Philia, Eros and Agape, in Koine Greek that the NT was written in? Which category do we fall into? All or none? Or izzit the psychological colloquialism fails.

  9. Yes, Man, unlike the animal Kingdom, seems to have the singular need to give an “Explanation”, (right, wrong or rubbish), for anything and everything simply because he can or just nothing better to do after a hearty meal.

    Alan Lightman in his short book, “The Accidental Universe” postulates that if the latest Big Idea of a “Multi-Universe”, (i.e. an infinite number of universes with multiple dimensions contemporaneously inhabiting the infinite Cosmos), is true, then the need to explain the Universe is ultimately futile because we can, ipso facto, explain only “our” Universe and nothing else. Just as an einsteinian fish can only “explain” why the Universe must be all water otherwise there would be no fish at all.

    Thus whether “ought” ought to be just a philosophical toy to amuse and impress philosophy students enough to get them to pay for the salary of their professors is itself worthy of a heated philosophical discourse.

    However, some people prefer or ought to say, when asked why oneself is happy, sad or just plain silly, as in this song entitled, “I am I”

    Sorry the song is in Cantonese but basically it says please don’t ask me how or why I am happy, sad, etc, because I can only answer, I am I.

    So in a way it’s like saying please don’t tell me what I ought or ought not to do because I can only answer, “I am I”, and therefore also “You are You”

    Perhaps the authors of the article ought to study enough Cantonese to appreciate a really fine song. Surely this is not “impossible”?

  10. “Yes, Man, unlike the animal Kingdom, seems to have the singular need to give an “Explanation”, (right, wrong or rubbish), for anything and everything simply because he can or just nothing better to do after a hearty meal.”

    Hmm, I sense great pessimism in Wayne, in the philosophical sense of course !

    Anyway, it’s not about giving explanation but the search for explanation , the curious man understands that the spiritual bleeds into the scientific, although anyone making such a claim would be dismissed.

    Besides I like these kinds of threads. I always like it when CLF weighs in and LaMoy, katasayang and now you Wayne. Good stuff.

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