The Day I Lost My Idealism About Philosophy, A History Boy, 18/03/2015

This isn’t really going to be part of my ongoing exchange with Steve Fuller about his new book, even though it was sparked by a brief comment in Knowledge: A Philosophical Quest in History. That exchange continues in detail tomorrow, discussing more details of the origins of modern science in theodicy. 

In part of a much larger discussion that you’ll hear about in more detail next week when our discussion of individual psychology and intuition in scientific inquiry, Fuller mentions an infamous piece of philosophical dogma, the phrase “Ought implies can.” The phrase has complex meanings. 

I found that narrative approaches to moral dilemmas in
health care, even on sitcoms like Scrubs or the
occasional episode of Star Trek, handled them with
more nuance, thoughtfulness, and insight than some
of the bioethics papers and discussions I came across
in academic journals.
Fuller parses a modern, straightforwardly naturalistic meaning, “limiting the scope of moral obligation to an agent’s capacity to act.” You’re only obligated morally in contexts where you can actually do something about it. He also discusses its origin in Kant’s philosophy, where the concept displays its theological heritage, saying that our “normative legitimacy rests on the capacity to enforce one’s will.” 

My old office-mate Monte* wrote her doctoral thesis in bioethics, the moral philosophy of health care, medical practice, and biotechnology. I didn’t know much about bioethics until I got to McMaster, where one of the senior professors in the philosophy department was Elisabeth Gedge, one of Canada’s leading lights of bioethics philosophy.

* This is a very creative spin on the practice of polite online anonymizing. Anyone who knows my history at McMaster knows who I’m talking about. I’m just tired of simple initial nicknames because I know too many people with first names that begin with B, J, and S, and don’t want my readers to believe that they’re all the same three people.

Reading “Ought implies can” reminded me of Monte’s doctoral project, and the exploratory paper I wrote a detailed commentary for when we did our PhD seminar together in 2009. Bear in mind that I re-read that commentary essay this morning for the first time pretty much since that year. So this post is very much a product of memory.

Her doctoral thesis was, at that early stage, about examining the anxiety over moral residues in administrative health care workers, the stress and sympathetic pain that comes with wanting to help people but being institutionally unable to help as much as you want. 

One of her central tasks, as her PhD seminar laid out, was defending the existence of moral residue. It was a commonly held intuition in bioethics (at least at the time) that “Ought implies can” in a literal sense. You would only be morally troubled by what you could take action to change. Because you ought to do something, that alone implied that you can.

It perplexed me that the typical use of the phrase “Ought implies can” in bioethics had this meaning, that we could not be morally troubled by what was beyond our power to change, and that if we were morally troubled then we could act to change it. Yet I still remember this seminar class more vividly than quite a lot of others. It was the first time I realized that a philosophical discussion could let its definitions and easy intuitions draw it so far from the nuance of a concept’s origin, or even the truth of what it described.

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