Getting clear on ‘can’

In this entry I argue that the following principle has paramount importance in moral theory:

FAP: S can do A at t only if S can do not-A at t.

In taking up the defense of such a principle I hope to bring out the fact that there are, broadly speaking, two senses of the word ‘can’ that need concern the moral philosopher and that understanding how these two senses are applied in various cases (and misapplied) will shed equal light on some of our most belabored ethical puzzles and on our deepest moral intuitions. FAP is, I argue, the key to distinguishing the two senses of ‘can’ we need to hold distinct in order to do moral philosophy.

The first thing to notice is that ‘can’ plays a pivotal role in how we conceptualize the lion’s share of our moral principles. It is part and parcel for example, of our concept of obligation that ‘ought implies can’. The same goes for our judgments of moral responsibility and blameworthiness. It is not clear, however, just what function ‘can’ plays in these principles nor whether it plays the same function in each case. ‘Can’ is an ambiguous term. In this essay, I want to suggest a method for disambiguating these senses of ‘can’ in a way that preserves ascriptions of both moral responsibility and deontic anchors. It is my contention that developing an understanding of FAP is crucial if we are to understand how to adjudicate our moral discourse.

In defending FAP, I place myself in opposition to those who argue that Frankfurt-type cases (henceforth FTCs) demonstrate it to be a patent falsehood that for an agent to be able to do some action A, she must also have it within her power to do otherwise. Specifically, it has been held by some philosophers (see for example, Harry G. Frankfurt, Moral Responsibility and Alternate Possibilities, Michael J. Zimmerman, The Concept of Moral Obligation, and Ishtiyaque Haji, Deontic Morality and Control) that FTCs render FAP false in virtue of the fact that the presence of a counterfactual intervener ensures that the agent has exactly one course of action open to her despite her acting on the supposition that she has, at the time of action, some number of available alternatives. The thought is that if S does some action A, at time t, believing all the while that she could have done not-A, her doing A and only A is, nonetheless, fully determined insofar as any genuinely accessible world wherein she would have recourse to some possible alternative is ruled out tout court by the positing of the counterfactual intervener. We might say that FTCs render S’s choice at t ‘saturated’ by A for the fact that any garden of forking pathways available to S at t – n will, at t, collapse into one and only one available future: S does A.

Now, assuming for our purposes here, that FTCs are actually possible – (there would be good reason to think that they are once we understand that and how actions can be overdetermined not because the beliefs that cause them supervene on physical states but because its is likely that the same action can be caused by a variety of beliefs in the form of reasons. See Eric Marcus Rational Causation, and Crawford Elder Familiar Objects and their Shadows) – it is clear that, wherever FTCs apply, in some commonsense idea of ‘can’, the sentence ‘S can do other than A’ is undeniably false. This is the notion of ‘can’ that is modally rigid, for it applies only to actually obtaining states of affairs insofar as they do obtain or to the extent that it is known beyond any doubt that they will obtain. Following Haji’s terminology, we can call this sense of ‘can’ ‘opportunity’.

To be sure, it is clear from the logical structure of FTCs that FAP cannot survive if we take it to mean that

S has the opportunity to do A only if S has the opportunity to do not-A

But there is another sense of ‘can’, one which I would argue is more fundamental than opportunity and one that can withstand the acidity of FTCs.

In his thought experiment of the fallen plate J.J.C. Smart articulates a notion of ‘can’ that is applicable even in cases where circumstance fixes it that one and only one of a range of possible states of affairs obtains. If I drop a plate on the floor and fortuitously find that it does not break I am perfectly entitled to say to myself that it ‘could have’ broken. When I say this, I express a judgment about the plate’s disposition or ability to break, and it is in this sense that the alternative possibility, that of the plate’s breaking, is represented, even if, as in the case of FTCs, this ability never finds opportunity for expression.

‘Can’, in this more supple sense, is a modal term that predicates over a range of counterfactually obtaining states. It is, for this reason, invulnerable to negation by the sort of counterfactual intervention that is represented in Frankfurt examples. We do not want to say that the plate is unbreakable, not like a tin plate is, or a diamond is, even in the presence of Frankfurt’s resourceful intervener.

If we read FAP as implying this second sense of ‘can’, a sense which we will call ‘ability,’ then we secure a principle that can ground our understanding of the differences and connections between moral concepts such as obligation, responsibility and blameworthiness by linking them to the parallel differences and connections that hold between ability and opportunity. For the remainder of this piece, I will be using ‘can’ to mean ability, unless otherwise stated.

We said earlier that ability is more fundamental than opportunity. What this means is that it is more conceptually basic than its rigid sibling and as such, ability acts as a grounding concept for opportunity. To put it simply, opportunity only makes sense in the context of an ability. A plate has the opportunity to break only insofar as it is able to break. An agent has the opportunity to perform an action only insofar as she has the ability to perform that action or, formally,

OA: S has the opportunity to do A only if S can do A.

It makes no sense to say that an agent has the opportunity to perform brain surgery if the agent cannot perform brain surgery just as it makes no sense to say that the jello has the opportunity to shatter when jello cannot do this. Thus, the converse of OA, call it

AO: S can do A only if S has the opportunity to do A

is false. From these reflections we demonstrate that while opportunity implies ability, ability does not imply opportunity.

Consider the fact that the opportunity analog to FAP

FAO: S has the opportunity to do A only if S has the opportunity to do not-A

is certainly false (at least in FTCs). It is made doubtful by the fact that S does A at t but does not do not-A at t. If FAO were true then FTCs would not have the requisite force to bind the agent to one particular action since it is the job of the counterfactual intervener to bar S from having the opportunity to do otherwise than she does. Another way to put this is to say that FAO, were it true, would render the difference between ability and opportunity void. But accepting this comes at the high cost of denying any sense to the notion of ‘can’ that refers to disposition. And we have already seen that if the latter goes, so does opportunity go with it. It would seem less costly to simply affirm the fact that while ‘S does A at t’ does not entail ‘S has the opportunity to do not-A at t’ (which is refuted by the fact that S does A at t but does not do not-A at t) ‘S does A at t’ does entail that ‘S can do not-A at t’, holding fast to a notion of ‘can’ that predicates over a range of counterfactual alternatives and as such, is FTC-proof.

Now that we have made explicit the conceptual differences between these two sense of ‘can’ as they relate to non-moral cases, we can employ them in our study of our major moral concepts. First, we will take, what many believe to be axiomatic, the Kantian ‘ought implies can’ principle which states that

K: S ought to do A only if S can do A

In line with our preliminary findings regarding ‘can’, we may take K to either mean ‘ought implies opportunity’ or that ‘ought implies ability’. If we assume the former then the agent has no obligation to perform an action if she does not have the opportunity to perform that action. Under the surveillance of the Frankfurt intervener, this renders it impossible for S to do anything she ought not to as FTCs stipulate that she never have the opportunity to do other than she does. If oughts corresponded to opportunities than there would be no room for failure and no possibility of moral infraction. If, on the other hand, we take K to refer to ability we do not saddle ourselves with such an absurdity. For it may seem perhaps harsh to hold S under obligation to perform an action that she does not have the opportunity to perform, but we need only stipulate further that in such cases, she is also obliged to see to it that she have the opportunity required to dispatch her duty.
Furthermore, if we add to K the following principle

FN: if S ought to do A and S can do A and S has the opportunity to do A then necessarily S does A.

this gives us a rule for discerning where failure occurs in the process if S does not-A.

Since ought implies can, then if S ought to do A then S can do A. Therefore, we get a disjunction:

either S does not-A because she lacks the opportunity to do A or S does not-A because she lacks the obligation.

The third option, S does not-A because she lacks the ability to do A is ruled out of hand by FAP, since if S lacks the ability to do A then necessarily ~’S does A’. But from FAP we get from ‘S does A’ also S can do not-A Thus, if S does not-A, necessarily S lacks either the opportunity or the obligation but never the ability to do A.

How do we decide whether the lack is on the side of the ought or on the side of the opportunity?
If S lacks the obligation to do A then no wrong has been committed when S does not-A.

If S lacks the opportunity to do A it is not the case however, that no wrong has been committed by S’s doing not-A. Here S fails to fulfill her obligation and commits a wrong. (From K and its partner OW: S ought to do A only if it is wrong for her to do not-A).

Is S blameworthy for doing not-A in every case that S ought to do A?

Here is my answer:

No. S is not blameworthy for doing not-A in every case that S ought to do A.

Here is my reason:

S is blameworthy for failing to do A at t1 only if S has, at t0, an obligation to see to it that she have the opportunity to do A at t1.

This renders:

S is blameworthy for doing not-A at t1 only if S has, at t0, the ability to see to it that she has at t1, the opportunity to do A.
Blameworthiness and moral responsibility occur only when the doing of a wrong at t1 is traceable to the doing of a wrong at t0.

If at t0, no wrong was committed then at t1, S is not blameworthy nor morally responsible for doing not-A.

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