Wesley Buckwalter and John Turri
Published: August 21, 2015
Morality is central to human social life [1–3]. Fulfilling moral obligations often requires us to put other people’s interests before our own. Sometimes this is easy, but other times it is hard. For example, it is plausible we are obligated to alleviate terrible suffering if we can do so at very little cost to ourselves, as happens when we donate money to famine relief or vaccination programs. But how far does this obligation extend? Some argue that it extends to the point where we would be making ourselves worse off than the people receiving charitable aid . Many have found this suggestion implausible, sometimes on the grounds that the requirements for morality are limited by our psychology [5–7]. Given the way we are constituted, perhaps we are simply incapable of donating that much. This raises an important question: how demanding is morality and what are the limits of moral requirements?
According to a longstanding principle of moral philosophy, moral requirements are limited by ability. This is often glossed by the slogan that “ought implies can” (hereafter “OIC” for short). The principle says that one is obliged to perform an action only if one can perform the action. Support for OIC can be traced back to at least Cicero . A more explicit articulation comes from Immanuel Kant, who writes, “Duty commands nothing but what we can do,” and that, “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”.
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