Vlad Chituc on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Veganism

Intro From Vlad Chituc’s Website

I work with Dan Ariely in the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, and I’m broadly interested in ethics and the cognitive sciences. I focus particularly on areas that intersect with philosophical questions, and I collaborate frequently with philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Felipe De Brigard, and my good friend Paul Henne. Right now, I’m working on projects involving corruption, moral rebels (and moral conformity), intergroup conflict, and whether “ought” implies “can.” I’m broadly interested in two (related) questions, one theoretical and one practical: how do we figure out what our moral obligations are, and how can we actually follow through with the moral obligations we hold (consider: the average vegetarian eats a serving of meat every day).

To begin, would you outline the problem of “ought” implies “can”?

Very roughly and briefly, the principle that “ought” implies “can,” which I’ll abbreviate to OIC for short, says that our obligations can’t exceed our abilities. This is one of those philosophical principles that makes a lot of sense on its surface and is usually treated as obvious or axiomatic, more often a step in someone’s argument than an outright conclusion. And it also carries a lot of philosophical weight: for example a lot of ethical theories, I think most often consequentialist ones, get hit with a “demandingness objection.” Take Bob Corbett who explicitly cited OIC to criticize Peter Singer’s argument about giving a lot more of our income to help the global poor in Famine, Affluence and Morality. And a lot of debates in free will, at least insofar as those debates relate to whether we can be morally responsible in a deterministic universe, seem to hinge on OIC in a really critical way.

Things can get very choppy very fast once we dig in, though. For example this principle is almost always attributed to Kant —”duty commands nothing but what we can do,” he wrote in Religion Within Boundaries of Mere Reason— but Robert Stern at the University of Sheffield has a great paper suggesting maybe Kant didn’t actually hold OIC as firmly as we tend to think. And there are some weird implications that fall out of it—if my obligations don’t exist once I can’t keep them anymore, can I get out of an obligation just by making myself unable to meet it? And say if I make my friend a promise to meet them at a certain time and it turns out I can’t make it, it seems a lot like suddenly I have all this other stuff I need to do — call my friend, apologize, give them an excuse or justification, otherwise make it up to them, and so on. But I didn’t promise to do any of that. I only promised what I promised, and if my promise doesn’t hold anymore, since I cant keep it and I can’t be obligated to do what I can’t, why should I apologize? What do I even have to apologize for? I didn’t say “Hey Paul I’ll meet you for lunch and also promise to call you and apologize in case I can’t make it.”

I also think a lot of the problems for denying OIC lose their force once you think about them a bit, too. A common criticism usually goes something like: “what’s the point of having moral obligations we can’t keep? Isn’t morality supposed to help guide our actions?” Peter van Inwagen said something like this to us in an email when we first started working on the project. But I think this type of question might seem really weird to, say, an evangelical Christian. “WWJD?” certainly seems intended to guide, but I think the entire point of Christ’s sacrifice was that we couldn’t actually do what Jesus would do. After all, we can’t be saved by works alone, emphasis on can’t, which is why we need grace, etc. So really, impossible obligations aren’t necessarily any less weird and useful than frictionless planes in physics or idealized models in economics.

What reason is there to deny OIC?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, this prolific and wonderful philosopher here at Duke that I collaborate with quite a bit, has this great paper criticizing OIC. One of his points is that there’s this tension in the way that a lot of philosophers talk about the principle. Without getting too technical, OIC is usually taken as a conceptual or analytic entailment—which is just to say that ought implies can because that’s just what the words mean. Part of what the concept “ought” is necessarily has the concept “can” built in there. Just like how “bachelor” implies a “male.” But Walter points out that an awful lot of philosophers talk about blame when they’re defending OIC. Usually they say something along the lines of “it’d be unfair to blame someone for what they cannot do.” But isn’t that weird? If OIC is analytically or conceptually true, then blame has absolutely nothing to do with it. Blame is completely orthogonal to the meaning of the words “ought” and “can,” so why do so many philosophers talk about it in relation to OIC?

So Walter suggested that in cases like this, philosophers are just trying to avoid unfairly blaming someone and overgeneralizing. If I make someone a promise, but I have a family emergency, it’d seems pretty messed up to say “no you should totally keep your promise.” From that, it seems like something like OIC might be true. But reaffirming that obligation only seems messed up because we feel like we’re blaming someone by saying that. And Walter suggested there are some cases where it’s perfectly fine to blame someone who is unable to meet an obligation—say instead of having a family emergency, I can’t keep my promise because I’m blackout drunk. In that case, it doesn’t seem so weird to say “no of course you still have an obligation.”

Now I think all of this together is pretty persuasive, but none of it is really a knock-down argument, and obviously I’m skimming over a broad literature really roughly. But me and my collaborators wanted to take these arguments a step further.

There’s actually an interesting story on how we get started on this research. I was out with my good bud Paul Henne, who is a graduate student in the Philosophy department here at Duke. We were rooommates at the time, and he just kind of randomly asked me what I thought about OIC, and I said “of course ought implies can, why wouldn’t it?” But then he told me that he had been doubting it after reading Walter’s paper, and so we kept talking about it. We realized there were some empirical predictions that shook out of both Walter’s paper and also this traditional view of OIC, and Paul and I had been trying to collaborate on something for a while so it seemed like a good fit. And then we brought in Felipe De Brigard, a Philosopher and Neuroscientist also here at Duke that Paul and I also collaborate with for some more help and guidance. And then we started running some studies.

So weirdly enough, I am basically the least qualified out of any of us to be discussing this philosophical problem in depth, since I’m the only one who doesn’t have or isn’t working toward a PhD in philosophy. But I think OIC is a particularly interesting case where empirical results are actually really informative, so I think I have a bit to contribute to the conversation.

Could you outline some of the experiments, and criticism in general?

Our argument is roughly as follows. First, if there is an analytic or conceptual entailment between “ought” and “can,” we actually should expect to see this in the real world. I know this is a super touchy subject and a lot of philosophers feel like they’re fighting a turf war (and there are a lot of bad empirical encroachments on normative subjects; I’m looking at you Sam Harris), but our argument is pretty simple. If one concept necessarily implies another concept, and these aren’t specialized concepts—they’re just the ones we expect every day people to be using and thinking about—and if the people we’re studying are in good epistemic positions and so on, then we should expect such a fundamental relationship between the concepts to be reflected in how they actually use the words. If philosophers and nonphilosophers alike have the same concepts, A and B, and if philosophers are claiming that A necessarily entails B, and you show that everyone seems perfectly comfortable saying “not B” but also “A,” then that’s fairly strong evidence against the existence of a necessary conceptual relationship.

So we gave subjects stories based on Walter’s paper—Adams makes a promise he later can’t keep, and this is either his own fault (high blame) or not (low blame). First, we see that our subjects were perfectly comfortable saying that it’s true that Adams still ought to keep his promise in the high blame condition. And in the low blame condition, we see people making judgments that fit neatly with “ought” implies “can.”

But in our second study, we wanted to really zero in on that low blame condition. Are people making judgments that fit with OIC because of a relationship between “ought” and “can,” or is Walter right? Do we just feel bad saying Adams ought to keep his promise because it feels like we’re blaming him for something that’s not his fault? Well we gave people another version of the low blame condition, and asked our subjects to rate 1) how much they thought Adams could keep his promise, 2) how much Adams was to blame for not keeping his promise, and 3) whether it was true that Adams ought to keep his promise. And again, we saw that on the whole people said in this low blame condition that it’s not true that Adams ought to keep his promise, which neither us nor an OIC supporter should find surprising. But what was surprising is why they made that judgment. When we looked at the relationships between their 3 different answers, we saw no correlation at all between judgments of “ought” and “can.” Only judgments between “ought” and “blame.” So even when people are making the “right” judgments that OIC supporters would expect, there is no logical, conceptual, or analytic relationship between “ought” and “can” to speak of. It seems like they’re supporting OIC in their responses, but they’re really not. All the work is being done here by “blame.”

This fits really neatly with some cool research on excuse validation by John Turri and Peter Blouw. A lot of times, if we learn that someone is breaking a rule because of some extenuating circumstance, we deny that they broke the rule at all. So it seems like one thing we do when we don’t want to blame someone is downplay their obligations, since saying they should keep their promise or follow a rule, even if that promise or rule still exists, comes across like we’re blaming them.

So I skimmed through all of that pretty quickly, and it’s really complicated and more nuanced than people give us credit for, so I encourage readers, especially the skeptical ones, to check out the two papers we’ve published about this, our empirical work in Cognition and the philosophical argument in Analysis, which are both relatively short and go into a lot more detail. Please read the Analysis, one, though, since that covers the more controversial aspects in a lot more detail than our empirical paper does, and a lot of people seem to not realize it exists or ignore it and make bad arguments we’ve already addressed.

And to be blunt, I think a lot of the criticism we’ve been getting is pretty stupid. A lot of people act like what we’re doing is using straw polls to settle moral or philosophical issues, and I don’t know how anyone making a good faith effort to read our work can walk away with that impression. We’ve also been getting a few people begging the question by saying something like “there are lots of cases where people make wrong judgments! we can’t look at biases in behavioral economics and use that to tell economists what’s actually true,” which I think misses the point on two different levels. First, OIC is what’s up for debate here; you can’t say “but these people disagreed with OIC so all we’re seeing is people making bad judgments,” since you’re evaluating the judgments based on what we’re trying to settle. That argument can’t work without just assuming that OIC is true, which I’m told is bad form. And second, we’re not just pointing to folk judgements and building a theory around them. I don’t know why so many people get that impression, but we’re making a pretty specific argument about what we should expect to see if there really is a specific kind of relationship between different concepts.

And that’s not to say that there haven’t been some good criticism of our work. I’ve been lucky enough to review a paper that devoted a good chunk really thoughtfully engaging with and criticizing our work, which should hopefully be out in some form or another soon. And Derek Leben, an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, presented a paper at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology a few months ago right after Paul and my presentation, presenting some studies and criticizing our work, and that was really insightful and a lot of fun too. But these people actually engaged with the arguments we were making.

Speaking of ethical theories, you’ve written about veganism: specifically, why “ethical meat” is problematic: could you outline a little bit about why that is, and some of your concerns relating to veganism, climate, and ethics?

Yeah! I used to talk about veganism a lot more than I do now, since I’ve had a lot else going on that I’ve been working on and writing about. I think it’s a really interesting topic for a lot of reasons, particularly from a psychological standpoint. Paul Bloom, who I think is one of the sharpest dudes around who I’ve learned a lot from and admire tremendously, said something really interesting when he was talking to Sam Harris about this on Harris’s podcast. He said “I’ve heard defenses of meat eating, and they’re some of the worst arguments I’ve ever heard in my life,” which I think is very candid and funny and true. But what really stuck with me when he said “We can ask ourselves what it’s like to knowingly do evil. And this is what it feels like.”

Because I totally get that. Personally, I seriously love meat. I’m not kidding. I’ve never eaten anything in my life that has tasted better than a steak. But Paul is right, the argument for eating meat really more or less just boils down to “but I want to?” and in no other moral domain do we think wanting to do something, even really, really badly, gives us license to do something that causes serious harm. And we all know by now that animals live hellish existence in factory farms, lives that on the whole are more suffering than not. And the plus I get from eating a real burger over a veggie burger doesn’t come even close to outweighing the amount of suffering that the real burger contributes to the life of a cow. And the fact that this really, really simple and obvious conclusion goes ignored really, really often gives a lot of insight into the nuances of our moral lives: our moral behavior goes a lot deeper than our moral commitments, and there are a lot of social and environmental factors that play a huge role.

Now some people try to get around that by only wanting to eat “ethically raised” meet, which I am sympathetic towards. If you absolutely can’t not eat meat, it’s better you eat a cow who lead a decent life than a hellish one. But that’s a small, small fraction of the meat in existence, and I know a lot of people who are into ethical meat and none of them check where the meat at a buffet comes from before eating it. And “ethical meat” is essentially a luxury good that can’t plausibly scale at any sustainable level to be widely accessible. And even if it could be, it still does serious, serious damage to, say, the environment. Animal agriculture is consistently one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses, let alone the ridiculous water costs. It is never going to be better for the environment to eat something that eats plants to get energy instead of the plants themselves.

And even if an animal doesn’t suffer, it’s a hard case to make that ending the experience of another living thing because you want to eat it is okay, even if at that point it’d lived a good life. We don’t think it’d be fine to raise people who wouldn’t have existed otherwise, give them good lives, and then kill them painlessly to harvest their organs. But really none of this is much different to what we do to even the best treated farm animals, in fact that’s a better deal than the one we give to the best treated farm animals and would do more good than steak does, but that still feels wrong. And the vast majority of farm animals experience much, much worse.

So there’s really no ethically defensible way to justify eating animal products, and I think that’s pretty much a no-brainer. And I really admire people like Paul who say “yeah, I know it’s wrong, I know people in the future are going to look back on us and say ‘y’all did fucking what to chickens and pigs and cows?’ I just don’t feel this moral issue like I do other moral issues, and I want to eat meat, so that’s basically that.” And in that sense, it’s not that much different from someone who knows they shouldn’t drink so much, or eat that extra slice of cake with dessert, or exercise so little, or whatever else. But just don’t act like binge drinking is safe, eating cake is healthy, and exercise is actually pointless.

I also expect this to convince literally no one (also it may not seem like it, but I’m actually a very chill vegan! I’m not particularly anal or preachy about it, and I only give ethical arguments when people ask!) The psychological research about eating meat and moral rebels and all that is really really interesting and fun to talk about.

Lastly, could you introduce us to your dog? I’ll pick this up with you in next episode of Informal Hour, which will be online soon.

My dog’s name is Toad. He is perfect, and I don’t deserve him. He’s seriously the sweetest, most energetic dog I’ve ever met. Extremely cuddly and a huge fan of my baking. Absolutely loves all food, even vegan food. For some reason, every time I bake bread he just drools uncontrollably. Literal puddles of drool everywhere. Motherfucker absolutely loses his shit for bread, I really don’t get it but it’s flattering. I got him because he was living on the street in Puerto Rico and just randomly showed up at the house Laurie Santos, my undergraduate advisor, stays in while she does field work to study rhesus macaques. A few people from the lab who were there with her rescued him and got him taken care of and cleaned up and vaccinated and all that, but he still needed a home. I was about to graduate and figured I was an adult who could have a dog, so I said I’d take him. A few days ago, exactly, I’ve had him for four years.

There are some giant portraits of him hanging up on the walls at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale.

He’s also a pit bull, and pit bulls are really, really great dogs. I’ve been reading this book actually by a local writer here in Durham, Bronwell Dickey, called Pit Bull, and it traces the breed’s history from this beloved, All-American family dog to this really awfully stereotyped monster, a relatively recent perception that’s really only a few decades old. The book seems like it’s about Pit Bulls, and it is, but some of the most interesting stuff comes from how we as people respond to and engage with the breed and what that says about us, so on a certain level it’s really a book about human psychology told through the story of a breed I love, so obviously I can’t recommend this book enough.

And I think owning this dog is actually really interesting from an ethical and human-behavior-just-in-general perspective, because from an impartial, rational point of view it’s a fucking horrible, completely stupid idea. If someone told me I could save either the life of my dog or a random stranger on the other side of the world, I would choose my dog. I’d barely have to think about it. I’ve spent I don’t know how many thousands of dollars on him by now, money I literally probably could have used to save at least a few lives in the developing world. I don’t even force a vegan diet on him (which, guys, please don’t do that to dogs). And even given all of that, I feel guilty about exactly none of it. Every night I sleep like a baby, with my dog cuddled in right next to me. I think something like that is a really interesting and funny thing to observe in yourself. There’s something kind of beautiful and human about it; I think it makes me get a little bit more where Bernard Williams is coming from.

Toad the Dog (Vladchituc.com)

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