Inability and Obligation in Moral Judgment

Wesley Buckwalter, John Turri

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It is often thought that judgments about what we ought to do are limited by judgments about what we can do, or that “ought implies can.” We conducted eight experiments to test the link between a range of moral requirements and abilities in ordinary moral evaluations. Moral obligations were repeatedly attributed in tandem with inability, regardless of the type (Experiments 1–3), temporal duration (Experiment 5), or scope (Experiment 6) of inability. This pattern was consistently observed using a variety of moral vocabulary to probe moral judgments and was insensitive to different levels of seriousness for the consequences of inaction (Experiment 4). Judgments about moral obligation were no different for individuals who can or cannot perform physical actions, and these judgments differed from evaluations of a non-moral obligation (Experiment 7). Together these results demonstrate that commonsense morality rejects the “ought implies can” principle for moral requirements, and that judgments about moral obligation are made independently of considerations about ability. By contrast, judgments of blame were highly sensitive to considerations about ability (Experiment 8), which suggests that commonsense morality might accept a “blame implies can” principle.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 21 Aug 2015


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