Should I Keep Promises I Can’t?

In the attempt to bring more scientific evidence to philosophical claims, there is a relatively new branch of philosophy called “experimental philosophy” which merges the questions and methods of philosophy and psychology.  Disciplinary purists would scoff at such endeavors, for probably their own philosophical reasons and psychological motivations.

That said, the findings of such experiments are worth philosophical consideration.  Take, for example, some recent experiments on whether the ethical truism that “ought implies can” is actually the best explanation for the relationship between obligation and ability.  New York Times writers   report on these findings in a recent article found here.

For just a few highlights . . .

“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.'”

“In our study, we presented hundreds of participants [with concrete scenarios] 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.”


“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.”



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