A few more thoughts on ‘can,’ ‘ought,’ and death

1) FAP: S can do A only if S can do not-A

Why did we affirm FAP?  Because we need a principle that accounts for the logical structure of abilities and dispositions which grant us a use of ‘can’ that predicates over a range of counterfactually obtaining states (and within a range of possible worlds).  Without FAP we cannot speak of dispositions and abilities and without the latter categories, we lose the vantage point from which to reason counterfactually in toto about any thing as it is part of the concept of a unified object, whether agent or non-agent, that it persists and endures through a range of changing states and remains self-identical as it sheds layer upon layer of predicative skin.   FAP gives us the moral agent in tact and as such FAP gives us the venue without which it would be impossible to do moral philosophy at all.

2) K: Ought implies can

Why did we argue that the appropriate conjunct of K is FAP instead of FAO? Because K + FAO implies ‘ought implies opportunity’ but as moral agents are material beings and as such, are sensitive to external conditions, an agent does not have the power to, in every case, see to it that she has the opportunity to discharge her obligation.  Further, if ‘ought implies opportunity’ then it is impossible for an agent to do other than she ought as we saw earlier that the concept of opportunity is logically dependent on the concept of ability and from this taken with the principle of FN – if S ought to A and can A and has the opportunity to do A then S does A – it would make it necessary that no agent ever did other than she ought have and thus, that no wrong had ever been done in the history of human action.  This would render the concept of failure void and with it we would lose the ability to evaluate actual states against ideal states, nor would be able to speak of moral education and improvement. But if moral philosophy is to have a subject-matter than this cannot be the case.  Hence, we affirm the alternative conjunction ‘K + FAP’ and judge to our satisfaction that ‘ought implies ability’.

2)b) There is a further argument in favour of K + FAP: the view that ‘ought implies telos’. Here, we take telos to mean ‘essential purpose’ and see that on this view, ‘S ought to do A’ implies that it is essential to the concept of S that it do A.  If S does not-A then either S is not a S or S has been impeded from or did not have the opportunity to do A.   But if the ability to do A holds for S, then S is an S.

3) If doing A is a telos of S then when S does not-A some failure has occurred. What remains is to distinguish what we can call, following Bernard Williams, intrinsic failure from extrinsic failure. Intrinsic failure describes a scenario when the impediment to doing what S ought to do stems from S herself so that we can render S responsible for not doing what she is obligated to do, or what was her telos. Extrinsic failure describes a situation in which the failure to do A has a source beyond the agent who has failed to do as she should. But to say that the source is intrinsic to S is to say that S did something or failed to do something which resulted in her lacking the opportunity to do as she should. In other words, if S is responsible for not doing A then she was under obligation to see to it that she have the opportunity to do A. If, on the other hand, she is not responsible for failing to do her duty, then we do not cite another obligation or telos of S’s to explain why she failed to do A; instead we cite an external constraint that prevented her from doing what she ought to do or what it was her purpose to do.

4) Ascriptions of blame and moral responsibility will tell us then what we judge the source of a wrong to be. They will also tell us what we judge an agent’s abilities and obligations to be, and thus, tell us what particular speciations of a general genus S falls under or is thought to fall under.  For example, if Jones is responsible for killing Smith, then Jones is a rational being, an adult human, and able to act on her reasons and intentions.  If the source of the wrong is in Jones then she is morally responsible for killing Smith. Now, as we said above, if the source of the wrong is in Jones then it has to be attributable to Jones as Jones or agent qua agent and not qua material body.  A brain tumour is not an intrinsic property but a belief is.  Thus, if S is blameworthy for failing to do A then she was obligated to see to it that she have the opportunity to do A.  But is she blameworthy for failing to see to it that she have the opportunity to do A?  Do we not embark on an infinite regress of obligations if we anchor ascriptions of moral responsibility and blameworthiness to further obligations and abilities?   Though we do embark on a regress it is not infinite.  The regress of obligations bottoms out in a telos. The telos is an ability and an obligation that one discharges and expresses just by having it, or, just by being the kind of thing that has it. If S loses its telos then it is no longer a S. It is because by reference to a telos that we can explain an agent’s actions that we can give an “infinite explanation” (Rödl, citing Hegel) of any and all of its actions, including its failures. In short, a telos names an ability that provides its own opportunity. This is fruitful indeed, for it is appropriate that the only thing to end an infinite regress is an infinite explanation. This is what teleological judgment allows us to provide, and it is nothing short of a grounding condition for our moral judgments about what S does and what happens to her for it is nothing short of a grounding condition for our judgments about what S is.

5) Now, we said that understanding what an agent’s telos is will let us understand what her obligations and abilities qua agent are.  What are the obligations and abilities basic to all forms of agency? Another way to ask this question is to ask what is the content of agency that we can derive purely from its form?   If we want to say, as I think is uncontroversial, that agency requires the ability to act on reasons and for reasons then an essential element of agency will be first and foremost, the ability to consider reasons and to make judgments.   In other words , an agent is a thinking thing. Though it bears repeating for our purposes what the requirements of thought as such would need to be in order to be possible, I cannot provide a transcendental deduction here. Suffice it to say that one can think only if one can make inferences and that one can only make inferences if one can make inferences about something and that this requires the ability to make temporal judgments about a unified object as it changes in time.  If our subject cannot do this then it ipso facto cannot act for reasons since it cannot entertain thoughts. Now, we said also that an agent has the ability to act for reasons in addition to her ability to consider reasons. This implies that she is able not only to differentiate thoughts but also to evaluate them and judge of one that it is better than another. This means that she is able to compare thoughts to an ideal and to derive inferential and motivational force from that thought which most approximates that ideal.   This means that an agent must have an intuition of the Good in addition to an intuition of time. To have an intuition of the Good is to have a preference for some states over others and to feel obligated to do as she prefers. Now, if our agent is not bound by external conditions then she is divine, as she, in accordance with principle FN (S necessarily does A when it ought to, can, and has the opportunity to), has the power to do what she ought since she is free of extrinsic intervention. But since it is the case that states obtain that are not in line with our preferences, we can infer our own finitude and receptivity. Hence we learn that it is not of the concept of agency in general but of finite human agency that S be sensitive to extrinsic conditioning. Here we discover the teleological structure of human agency at the limit point of external conditioning.  If the agent loses the ability to think, to prefer, to act on preferences and to have the content of her judgments partially constituted by external states that obtain through her receptive faculties, then she is no longer a human agent.

6) We have seen that not all states of human agency are preferable and that it is not within an agent’s power to guarantee that all of its states will be those which it finds Good.  Is agency itself therefore Good? Agency itself is judgeable as good or bad only if it can be judged against an ideal and that ideal, seems to be, divine agency, which as we saw, was the power to bring about states in perfect accord with one’s preferences. Now, if divine agency is impossible then the only alternative to agency is death, which is the null state and the absence of all judgment, including possibility. But if divine agency is possible then the alternative to its actualization is the polar opposite ideal, which would be one wherein an agent has no power at all to bring about states that are in line with its own preferences.  This is certainly a picture of hell.  Given that it is possible for an agent qua finite agent to find itself in a hellish or near-hellish state, it may seem rational for it to reject its own existence as an agent and instead opt for death. Even though, strictly speaking, when the agent opts for death, she opts for the Good (since this is the only way – representing A as preferable to B – she can opt for anything) the intended outcome is thought to be pure void, i.e. an impossible state.

7) On what grounds does the finite human agent infer death as a genuine possibility? On what grounds does she choose death as a genuine possibility? Is there something in us, some telos, that is not thought, that is not life? I phrase the question this way because the speculative possibility of suicide seems to fly in the face of FN if we refuse to see suicide as opting for the Good. Here, the suicide chooses the void state as if it were the better state of a disjunction but there is a difference between choosing death because it represents the Good and choosing death because it represents the void. The former seems to represent death as being akin to a dreamless sleep-like state; the latter devests it of any representation at all. Kant’s prohibition against suicide only makes sense if one is already a proponent of life and agency, but if one longs for life without agency one can opt for animal or vegetative consciousness with for example, drugs and certain meditative states, even if only temporarily. And if one opts for nothingness, although one may not be entitled to do so when judged as an agent what if one is judged as a mere entity? Insofar as consciousness is not synonymous with agency, it seems we as finite agents have the right to opt out of our own agency since agency is afterall, something we have been thrown into, by luck, by fate, by society and so on. But this means finite agents are the only entities whose telos is optional, that is, who have no obligation to be what they are. Is this because we are also void?

More to think about…


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