Estlund’s Defense of Ideal Political Theory

In “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” (2011) David Estlund defends what are sometimes called “ideal” or utopian political theories against the charge of being incompatible with human nature. For example, a utopian socialist or egalitarian political theory might require a degree of selflessness from the citizenry that it is entirely unrealistic to expect flesh and blood humans to possess. Therefore, it is said, the political theory is defective and false. To this familiar objection, the familiar reply from defenders of utopian political theory is to claim that human nature is indeed up to the demands of their theory, or at least it will be once the dog-eat-dog pressures imposed by capitalism have been swept away and we enter the New Jerusalem.

But Estlund does not take this tack. What distinguishes his defense of utopian political theory is a willingness to agree for the sake of argument that we can know in advance that people will never bring themselves to act as the theory requires—which means he acknowledges that the theory should never be implemented, since to do so would bring catastrophic social dysfunction. Nevertheless, this does not invalidate the theory! Such a utopian political theory would remain the normative ideal: we ought to rebuild society on the model it prescribes and comply with its moral demands on our personal actions. Only, since we will never so comply, we ought not to rebuild society in the way it prescribes. But that does not mean there is anything wrong with the theory.

In what follows, I will elaborate and critique Estlund’s argument. TL;DR: The main thrust of his argument makes a valid and interesting point, but not one that saves ideal theory’s bacon.

To get clearer on just what Estlund is saying, first note that he does not reject the principle that ought implies can. If it were impossible to implement a given utopian political theory or for the citizens to comply with its demands on their personal actions, then Estlund would be willing to take that as refuting the theory. But, he says, compliance is not impossible. For example, people are perfectly capable of acting unselfishly. They just have to do it! The fact that they may be unwilling doesn’t mean they can’t.

This distinction—between what people can do and what they can bring themselves to do—is the hub of Estlund’s argument. Estlund nicely illustrates the distinction with Plato’s utopian requirement of certain parents to surrender their infants permanently to the state for communal, anonymous rearing. In any normal situation, this clearly is not beyond parents’ physical capacity. However, many may find themselves unable to bring themselves to do it. And this might be so even though these parents are fully persuaded of Plato’s theory and passionately want to do the right thing by surrendering their newborns. Nevertheless, they can’t bring themselves to. They are not physically incapable of meeting the requirement; they are motivationally incapable. Furthermore, this might not be due to any personal idiosyncrasy of these parents—some phobia or mental breakdown. It may be in the very nature of human beings to be constitutionally unable to bring themselves to surrender their newborns in this fashion. Nevertheless, according to Estlund, being unable to bring oneself to do a thing is not the same as—and does not imply—being unable to do that thing. Therefore, the “ought implies can” rule cannot be invoked to disqualify the normative theory in question, in this case Plato’s theory.

Thus, Estlund’s argument hinges on the claim that, as he puts it, “‘can’t will’ does not imply ‘can’t do’.” But unfortunately, so far as I can see, he never directly defends this claim. He acknowledges that he must make and defend it (213). And by the end of the paper, he claims to have done so (236). But he hasn’t, at least not so far as I can see.

What he argues for instead is that motivational incapacity is not “requirement-blocking.” That is, he argues directly that incapacity to bring oneself to Φ does not disqualify a normative requirement to Φ, and this is so even if the motivational incapacity is an essential feature of human nature. The “argument” is by intuition pump. Several examples are deployed to show that we should not allow motivational incapacity to scotch normative requirements. Thus, Bill says he is motivationally unable to bring himself to wrap his garbage properly and bring it to the public dump. He therefore dumps it by the side of the road. He feels bad about this and wishes he could summon the willpower to dispose of his trash properly, but he is inveterately selfish and just can’t bring himself to do it. Estlund says it’s obvious this won’t do: “It would be silly for Bill to propose this as requirement-blocking. This motivational incapacity is patently powerless to block the requirement in the individual case” (220). That completes the argument. Again, if observed human motivational capacities could constrain moral requirements, then we would have to accept arguments of the form: “This tendency to partiality is what people are motivationally like, as a matter of human nature. Therefore, requirements to be otherwise are specious and false.” For example: “People tend to a certain degree of cruelty, and this is part of what they are motivationally like as a matter of human nature. (Suppose this is so.) Therefore, requirements to be otherwise are specious and false” (224). Estlund comments:

That is an absurd argument. The form of argument is bad, and so no prerogative in favor of partiality can be inferred from the fact, if it is one, that humans are naturally partial or selfish. I conclude that if the partiality of the parent is permissible when he refuses to deliver the infant to Plato’s nursery, this is not because it is a characteristic feature of human motivation. (224)

How does Estlund know that this argument is “absurd” and that Bill’s argument is “silly”? The two arguments depend on the idea that “can’t will” implies “can’t do,” which Estlund wishes to refute. But here his “refutation” seems to amount to no more than calling the idea silly and absurd. All this means is that he does not take seriously the idea of motivational incapacity. An indication of this is that he sets aside “clinical” cases of phobia, addiction, compulsion, etc. (219). Presumably, the reason is that addiction, say, might be considered a case of genuine inability to will a certain action, with the result that the addict really cannot perform it. Again, later in the paper, he considers a case derived from the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-bottomed walkway that projects out over a 4000-foot drop. It is conceivable that many people would find walking on such a structure terrifying and therefore would be unable to bring themselves to do so. “Suppose someone could only save some lives by crossing such a high glass bridge, but can’t bring themselves to do it. Is that motivational incapacity requirement-blocking?” (230). He replies that it is excusing but not requirement-blocking. That is, he is willing to consider such a motivational incapacity as excusing a person from blame, apparently by the principle—though he is not explicit—that in this case, “can’t will” implies “can’t do,” since motivational incapacity is the only basis for accepting the failure to act as excusable.

But, if this is correct, then Estlund does not show that “can’t will” doesn’t imply “can’t do.” Which is only to be expected, since it’s hard to see how “can’t will” could fail to imply “can’t do.” Rather, what Estlund shows, if his examples are successful, is that it is not true that we can’t will unselfish, impartial, etc. actions. The reason for the failure of “ought implies can”-based arguments against utopian theories of justice, from a supposed natural motivational incapacity to do as such theories require, is that there really is no such motivational incapacity.

Unfortunately, this is not how Estlund sees his conclusion. As noted above, his claim is that, “even if people can’t will the act or bring themselves to do it, that doesn’t imply that people can’t do it” (236). Frankly, this strikes me as incoherent. It is true that there are some things we might count ourselves as doing without willing, such as reflexive actions, sleepwalking, throwing up, etc. But what is in question here are actions like disposing of your garbage in a proper receptacle instead of dumping it by the side of the road or working extra hours every day for the common good instead of taking it easy and watching TV. These are actions which you do by your own muscle power from impulses that you generate in the usual conative way. This is just what it is to motivate or bring yourself to do something.

It is possible that Estlund has kidded himself into thinking that “can’t will” doesn’t imply “can’t do” with a piece of definitional legerdemain. He proposes to define “be able to do” as follows:

A person is able to (can) do something if and only if, were she to try and not give up, she would tend to succeed. (212)

Estlund focuses on the “tend to” aspect of this definition, which prevents mere chance success from counting as ability. That is, being able means that trying leads to success reliably. But the aspect we ought to focus on is the purely counterfactual nature of the trying it requires, with the strange consequence that a person counts as able to do something who is totally unable even to try to do it. For it remains true that if she were to try, she would tend to succeed. This is like defining being able to fly as: “If I were to flap my wings vigorously enough, I would (tend to!) be lifted off the ground.” By this definition, I can fly! Never mind that I don’t even have wings. But if I were to have them and flap them vigorously, I would achieve lift off. Again, by Estlund’s definition of “able to,” it seems that a person who is brain dead is able to dance a jig.

Based on the above, I conclude that Estlund fails to show that “can’t will” doesn’t imply “can’t do,” but succeeds in showing that we can do (because we can will, in spite of his denials) arduous things that we may not want to do but that utopian political theories require.

It may seem surprising to say that people could live the life of Mother Teresa if only they would. But I am inclined to think it is true. I do not live my life like Mother Teresa—far from it—but I do not excuse this by saying I could never bring myself to do it. Rather, it’s that I don’t want to and I don’t see why I should. People often say, “I could never do X,” when what they mean is that they never would. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that an assertion of inability conveniently forecloses the normative question of whether one ought to do X. Saying, “I would never…” might imply that, after all, there is some question about it. In any event, I doubt it is ever literally true that one cannot bring oneself to do what one is physically capable of doing. (Setting aside the “clinical” cases. I’m skeptical of many of those as well, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Never mind the Grand Canyon Skywalk—is there some reason I couldn’t bring myself to jump off a cliff into a 4000-foot void? It seems to me that I am entirely capable of deciding to do such a thing and carrying out the decision. In World War I, soldiers climbed out of trenches en masse and marched into machine gun fire. It is true that, many times, there was an officer behind them pointing a gun at them. But not always.

This raises a final point of Estlund’s that I have yet to mention. Estlund’s primary argument in this essay is that “observations about what humans can or cannot bring themselves to do” cannot be a basis for disqualifying arduous moral requirements. A rejoinder might be that, even if humans can indeed bring themselves to fulfill arduous moral requirements, aren’t those requirements suspect just because they are so arduous? Isn’t there something wrong with a moral theory that requires parents to surrender their infant children to the state forever or to forego every luxurious meal or vacation in order to work harder to increase the social product? Estlund considers this objection in section VI (pp. 221–225). He is willing to allow that there might be something to it. “I will accept for the sake of argument that [a certain moral theory is ‘too demanding’]. Let’s say, then, that ‘ought’ implies ‘not unreasonably demanding’” (223). However, he insists that this is not a concession “human nature” in the sense of what people can or cannot bring themselves to do. Rather, there must be some other flaw in such an arduous moral theory, some moral basis for permitting the beleaguered subjects of the socialist utopia a little R&R, though he does not say what that might be. “What moral basis one might give for this moral judgment is a complex and difficult question” (223).

However, he gives an interesting further argument for why motivational incapacity should not be allowed to disqualify moral requirements, which is that this would allow moral defects in human nature to overrule the requirements of justice and morality. Thus, as cited above, it could be said that since people are naturally selfish or cruel, we cannot morally require them to be otherwise. But it seems wrong to hold that the requirements of morality should yield to the (supposed) facts of human evil (e.g., 227–228). To be clear, this is not his primary argument, but it seems to be an important consideration for him, and it raises an important point, with which I shall conclude: How is he so sure what motivational parameters of human nature count as morally defective?

The basic argument of Estlund’s paper is: People say socialism makes unrealistic moral demands on human behavior. But I say, So what?! [209] That doesn’t defeat the moral demands of justice! And he goes on to argue (exactly how is not completely clear to me, see above) that a lack of human willpower is not sufficient to show that human beings can’t comply with socialism’s behavioral demands. So, “ought implies can” cannot be invoked to defeat those normative demands.

But was the problem ever really about willpower? No doubt people may often say, especially in casual discussion, “People will never bring themselves to live that way. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” But I doubt that’s the real or primary problem. Suppose that I were to propose a moral theory that required everyone to stand on one foot whenever standing still and to voluntarily cut off one digit of one finger every time they lapse from the requirement to stand on one foot. I imagine there would be widespread failure to comply with this moral code. And we might say that people just don’t have the willpower to comply, even though they find the code noble and inspiring and passionately wish that they could comply. They wish they had more willpower, but they don’t (220). I agree that it would be silly (220) to propose lack of willpower as requirement-blocking. And part of the reason would be that this lack of willpower doesn’t mean they can’t comply (because, in my own view, the lack of willpower is not complete). But another part of the reason it’s silly to be talking about willpower here is that the widespread failure to comply, despite people’s being inspired by the beauty of this moral code, points to a deep incompatibility between the code and the requirements for human happiness, flourishing, and life satisfaction. It’s understandable that people express this incompatibility in terms of what people “can bring themselves to do,” but that doesn’t mean it is a problem about willpower.

17 thoughts on “Estlund’s Defense of Ideal Political Theory

  1. The “can’t will does not imply can’t do” formulation is deceptive. Of course, if one cannot intend to PHI, then one cannot PHI (i.e., intentionally PHI). The broad point is that the degree of motivational capacity to PHI, by itself, has no bearing on whether one ought to PHI (or whether one is normatively required to PHI). However, it seems right to me that literally zero motivational capacity to PHI entails not being able to intend to PHI and so as well not being able to PHI. So, if ought implies can, then it cannot be that one ought to PHI. So replace ‘degree of motivational capacity’ with ‘non-zero degree of motivational capacity’ in what I just said. But really that concedes the substance of Estlund’s claim. I suspect that, often, and in relevant cases, one “cannot bring oneself to” precisely because the cost is too high — the putative ethical requirement is too demanding and hence merely putative.


    • Maybe I have a peculiar view, but I think the issue of cost and desires—what one wants and doesn’t want—is separate from the issue of will. By “will” I mean something like executive function. It seems to me that we can simply decide or choose to act and execute that decision/choice, and this does not have to proceed from an antecedent desire. This is not unlike Kant hypothesizing, on the one hand, a desire-driven action system, common to humans and other animals, and on the other hand, a reason-driven will that is exclusive to humans (except that the will I’m talking about isn’t essentially a faculty of reason).

      If all that isn’t too abstract for intelligibility, the implication is that what you can bring yourself to do is anything at all within your physical capacity. And this is why I take a strong view that willpower cannot be invoked, via “ought implies can,” to defeat any supposed moral requirements. Estlund is right to say that what the moral requirements or prerogatives should be is a matter for moral theory itself. But here is where our desires and our emotional and physical requirements are liable to have a large impact. Our “motivational incapacities” will indeed constrain the viability of supposed moral requirements, and quite strongly, I imagine. So, if Estlund thinks he has saved socialism (say) from its unrealistic demands by blocking the argument from “ought implies can,” then I reply that the problem lies elsewhere.

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      • I’m sorry, I was not clear. My initial point was that using ‘can’t will’ to formulate either (i) the principle linking motivational deficit or incapacity to inability to do the thing or (ii) the principle linking motivational deficit or incapacity to requirement-defeat is a mistake or confusion. If you do, the first principle, construed as “can’t will implies can’t do,” will look true (but Estlund says it is false). But also, if you don’t, the second principle, construed as “it being really hard to motivate yourself to PHI does not preclude it being the case that you are normatively required to PHI,” looks true (as Estlund wants). We should, then, just forget about the literal inability to intend or will oneself to PHI.

        The main thing for Estlund is the second principle. I find his examples convincing (and argument through cases and intuition here to be appropriate). I was also meaning to defend this principle (correctly formulated) — not the first principle (and this was confused or unclear in what I wrote before).

        It is important, though, to specify the variety of the ought or requirement here (in a respect that will become clear). Suppose that the motivational deficit is severe. Suppose this translates into a .0001 percent chance that the individual agent (or society) can meet the moral requirement (to PHI). And suppose that one can easily almost meet it (by PSI-ing). In this case, it seems that the normatively, morally best practical plan is to PSI! I don’t think Estlund wants to deny this. But then the question is raised: just what is the status of the ought or requirement to PHI? What is the status of such an ideal or moral requirement? Something like this looks to be true: it is not action-guiding (at least not directly so). I think Estlund acknowledges this and is fine with it. But he will insist that one (or society) is morally required to PHI. I’m not sure what that comes to, but I think the substantive question is what role this standard for evaluating action plays (if it does not play the directly action-guiding role). I think Gaus addresses this point in his treatment of Estlund.


        • In a long footnote (note 24), Estlund addresses the “action-guiding” status of an idealized moral requirement that will not be fulfilled. He thinks it is often the case that one should not act on the requirement if it won’t be fulfilled, meaning that in such a case, it is not action-guiding. The example is Professor Procrastinate (215–216), who has a normative requirement to write book reviews for a journal but gums up the works at the journal when he accepts book review assignments which he does not fulfill. Estlund thinks that in such a case, Professor Procrastinate should not accept the assignments, since he knows he will never write the reviews. This doesn’t block the moral requirement, but the moral requirement is to accept the assignment and write the review. Since he won’t write the review, he ought not accept the assignment. But doesn’t this mean the requirement is not action-guiding? Estlund says it is action-guiding “in whatever way may be demanded of normative statements.” This seems to mean that it guides the action of accepting and writing. Since this won’t be done, the assignment should not be accepted. In this regard, the requirement is not action-guiding—but you can’t have everything!

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          • Why would it be the case that the assignment should not be accepted? From the standpoint of the stipulated (conjunctive) requirement to accept and write, it is pointless to accept (since one will not write the review). Accept or not accept, one is doomed not to meet the (conjunctive) requirement. The requirement, then, cannot help one in deciding what to do; it speaks equally, and strongly if it is a requirement, against both the option of accepting and the option of not accepting.

            (Of course, accepting is a waste of time and usually, because of this, one ought not to accept. But this is a function of a broader normative context (roughly that of opportunity cost to oneself) – not the normative status of the putative requirement itself. Also, given the broader moral context one naturally assumes to be present, one is obligated (or at least has strong moral reason) not to accept. One is needlessly, inconsiderately wasting others’ time! But that, too, is beside the point.)

            We might also wonder about requirements that are simply requirements (or putative requirements) to perform single actions. (We would have this sort of case here if one agreed to write the review, this agreement generating a requirement to write the review.) What Estlund says here does not speak to these cases (though they are perhaps more typical) – yet he seeks to draw general conclusions.

            Where does this leave us? Well, if I am right that it being super-unlikely that I will PHI makes it impossible for the putative requirement that I perform PHI to do its action-guiding work (since it puts PHI-ing and not-PHI-ing on equally negative footing choice-wise) – then any such putative requirement to PHI will have to play some other non-action-guiding normative or evaluative role (if it is to play any normative or evaluative role at all). I think the right question to ask here is what this role might be.


            • Estlund’s view seems to be that if, for example, a normative requirement tells Prof. Procrastinate that he should accept the book review assignment and write the review, then it is, simply in that way, action-guiding. Even so, if Prof. Procrastinate can predict with near certainty that he will never write the review, then the requirement “has nothing to offer” about what he then ought to do. So, Estlund wants to say that the normative requirement can be action-guiding with respect to some choices (accept and write) but not others (what to do if one knows one will not write). Just because a requirement is not action-guiding in some circumstances does not mean it isn’t action-guiding at all. This is just a footnote. He is not laying out a full account of “action-guidance.” He wants to answer the challenge that an ideal theory can’t count as normative because it is not action-guiding. His answer is that it is action-guiding, just not in the circumstance that we won’t comply.

              I have no views on this myself. Before now, I never heard the phrase “action-guiding.” Offhand, it seems true to say that a normative rule should be action-guiding. What else does “normative” mean than how things should be? And what does it mean to speak of how anything “should” be that can’t be changed? But then this just seems to be another form of the stricture that ought implies can.

              It’s worth pointing out that some forms of ideal theory seem perfectly acceptable. For example, perfect Aristotelian virtue is probably beyond anyone’s reach, so much so as to be impossible for practical purposes. But this hardly falsifies Aristotelian virtue theory. What the theory requires of us is not radically at odds with our natural desires and interests. More importantly, the more we act in accordance with its requirements, the better off we are. This is the opposite of the sort of “ideal” theory in which catastrophe follows in the wake of attempting but failing to comply. Estlund’s own example of this is Kantian morality. Perfect compliance with the Categorical Imperative is probably impossible, but there’s nothing radically unnatural about trying (give or take a “one thought too many”) and nothing catastrophic about trying and failing.

              So, attempting to reach an all-but-impossible moral ideal is not necessarily misguided. It all depends on the supposed ideal.


        • @Michael: I definitely misunderstood you before. I took you to be agreeing with David Potts (against Estlund), and I took myself to be agreeing with both of you. But I gather I’m really agreeing with DP, not you.

          I would need an example to make sense of this thought:

          Suppose that the motivational deficit is severe. Suppose this translates into a .0001 percent chance that the individual agent (or society) can meet the moral requirement (to PHI).

          I don’t think it’s intelligible to speak of a probability to perform a moral requirement. If the performance of the act is fundamentally an exercise of agency, then in the case of an individual agent (setting aside a society), either she has the capacity to perform it or not. There’s no such thing as a fractional capacity to perform an act.

          If not, talk of probabilities has to be interpreted epistemically. For epistemic reasons, we may only be able to predict with 0.0001% accuracy that a person will perform a given act, or perform the part of the act that’s outside of the control of her will. But that doesn’t help Estlund at all.

          Regardless of any motivational deficit, I don’t see how it makes sense to say that a person is only 0.0001% capable of performing a morally obligatory act. And apart from that, and the epistemic interpretation I just gave, I don’t see how to interpret the idea of a 0.0001% chance of meeting a moral requirement. It just doesn’t seem like a coherent idea.

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          • There is some probability, maybe small or maybe large that any given agent will meet any given normative requirement. Right? I do think it would be odd (though not impossible and not rationally unmanageable) for this to be a premise is practical reasoning (the Professor Procrastinate case is and has to be a case of this, I think, because of a tie-in between practical reasoning and action-guidingness). I put matters this way (in terms of how likely it is that the agent will PHI not in terms of motivational deficit or “cannot bring oneself to” with respect to PHI-ing) because (a) Estlund seems to take this sort of thing to be the salient general feature (motivational deficit being only one way that the action becomes unlikely) and (b) I object to Estlund always using the limiting case (‘X will not PHI’; or in the more specific case, ‘X cannot will herself to PHI’). With regard to this last point, I think the salient feature includes the near-limit cases (i.e., .01 or .0001 percent chance that X will PHI not just X will not PHI; and it being very hard for X to motivate herself to or form the intention to PHI not just X cannot form the intention to PHI)… I’m not sure this addresses your concerns squarely, but it is what came to mind!


  2. I haven’t (yet) read Estlund’s paper, but assuming that DP has accurately summarized Estlund’s argument, it seems to me that he’s conclusively rebutted it.

    I think we’re all agreeing here, but this is how I’d put things: The basic distinction at the heart of Estlund’s argument–“between what people can do and what they can bring themselves to do”–is a false distinction that does nothing to bear out Estlund’s claim. The distinction is supposed to save him from having explicitly to reject “ought implies can,” but it doesn’t. Either he’s tacitly rejecting “ought implies can,” or he’s asserting something straightforwardly false. He hasn’t identified a defensible alternative to those two options.

    For S to be able to perform an action, X, is for S to be capable of bringing about the sufficient conditions of X. S’s having the physical capacity to bring about X is insufficient for being capable of bringing about X. A physical capacity combined with a literal motivational incapacity for bringing about X is insufficient for bringing X about. If S literally has zero motivational capacity to do whatever it takes to bring about the physical actions that constitute X-ing, he cannot do it. It’s that simple.

    Whereas if S has the physical capacity and the motivational capacity, but claims “not to be able to bring himself” to perform X, if we set aside the possibility that he has, in the literal sense, zero motivational capacity to perform X, then “not being able to bring himself” is just straightforwardly false. He has the capacity; he’s simply choosing not to actualize it. But (barring the hypothesis of zero motivational capacity) if you can choose not to actualize, you can choose to actualize. So, however unpalatable the action (or absurd the demand to perform it), S has the capacity. And if he has, Estlund’s claim fails.

    It’s possible for a person to be confused, acting in bad faith, self-deceived, or just wrong about whether he has the capacity to perform a given action. That epistemically confusing middle ground gives Estlund’s argument a certain prima facie plausibility. In cases where a person is confused about his own capacities (or under-estimates them), that fact can’t nullify a moral obligation to perform the act, and yet it’s tempting to say that the agent lacks the motivational capacity to perform it. That just strikes me as a confusing misdescription of the situation. He has the motivational capacity; he’s just sabotaged it so as to be able to tell himself that he lacks it.

    Estlund’s use of the example from Plato’s Republic doesn’t help him at all. Suppose a woman has a very arduous childbirth, and gives birth to a child. Now the Platonic authorities come to take the child away, giving her the opportunity to do it voluntarily. There really are only two possibilities here (or a set of possibilities reducible to two): either the act of childbirth, in some cases, for some people, is so psychologically overwhelming that it literally renders the woman incapable of physically letting go of the newborn; or not.

    In the first case, Platonic communism violates “ought implies can,” at least in this particular case (or cases like them). Otherwise, not.

    Short of this “childbirth made it impossible” case, the mother can, however wretched the demand, give up her child. To think otherwise is to conflate the mother’s incapacity to perform the action with the irrationality or extravagance of the demand to perform it (or the absurdly, quixotically high cost of performing it). But people fully are capable of performing totally irrational, extravagant actions, as well as actions that involve a quixotically high cost. Nothing about the Platonic example proves otherwise. The example just calls attention to the unreasonability of the demand, not to parents’ supposed incapacity to perform it.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the utopianism which Estlund seems to be defending has both left- and right-wing versions. The left-wing version comes up in the version of socialism that demands extreme sacrifice for the collective. But one right-wing version comes up in business management. When I cleaned operating rooms in the hospital, our managers used to foist on us the “ideal” of the “30 minute turnover.” “Turnover” refers to the preparation of an OR suite between cases. The clock starts when you wheel out the patient who’s done, and ends 30 minutes later, when (supposedly) the next patient is to be wheeled in. Within 30 minutes, according to this “ideal,” you were obliged to clean, sterilize, and prep the OR for the next case (regardless of any variation between cases, or any other factor). It was never made clear whether this “ideal” governed each individual case, or was supposed to work out as an average across, say, weeks of cases.

    Either way, it was either impossible to satisfy or else possible-but-unreasonable. No one really knew. Neither option, nor the uncertainty regarding which one was true, ever deterred our managers. They neither knew nor cared whether the ideal was impossible or merely unreasonable, or whether there was any distinction to be drawn between the two. The “Ideal of the 30 minute turnover” functioned as a regulative norm, regardless, supplying yet another day of Sisyphean labor in the OR, at $13/hr.

    So conceived, “the ideal” is a tyranny, whichever form it takes.

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  3. I stopped participating in this thread awhile back, but just because I got busy with other things. I’ve come back to it now (and reviewed the thread). Here, then, are my more-settled thoughts. I’m hoping this is a good warm-up for getting back to the Gaus.

    (1) I agree with David Potts that, if one literally cannot will oneself to PHI (and we can substitute ‘motivate’ for ‘will’ here as long as we use ‘motivate’ in the broad sense that does not denote what ‘desire’ does in ordinary language) then one is unable to (non-accidentally, intentionally) PHI. So, applied to the case derived from a proposed ideal in Plato’s Republic, if the mothers literally cannot will to give up their babies to the government, then they also cannot do this. And so, if ought implies can, it cannot be that they ought to do this.

    (2) I’m not sure why Estlund prefers to use terms indicating a categorical deficit of will or motivation to describe the relevant cases. I suspect that he means to pick out a larger class of (substantial) deficit in will or motivation to adhere to a proposed moral requirement, but uses the categorical terms, not because he means to indicate categorical deficits, but because such phrasing more-closely tracks common usage (e.g., “I just cannot bring myself to not let the old lady have the seat on the bus”). In any case, I take the most basic point (whether it is best attributed to Estlund or Estlund*) to be this: if agent A has a significant deficit of will or motivation with respect to intending to PHI, this is compatible with it being the case that A is morally required (and therefore ought) to PHI. If this is right, then the appeal to ought-implies-can to get the “requirement blocking” work done here is an illusion. It could plausibly do this work only in the categorical-deficit cases. The important thing is establishing that motivational or will-power deficit with respect to PHI-ing is consistent with it being the case that one ought to PHI (and, in particular, that one is morally required to PHI).

    (3) For the idiosyncratic cases, I find Estlund’s cases intuitively compelling. However, cases that appeal to universal human motivational (or will-power) capacities are potentially different. For the question of necessary (perhaps constitutive) connections between human-universal motivations and human-universal normative standards is very much a live one. So even if we suppose that the principle [humans being morally, normatively required to PHI is consistent with humans lacking any easily-exercised capacity to intend to PHI] is technically true, it is of little help in sorting the cases. Which universal motivational elements relevant to PHI-ing (or adhering to standard S) are necessary for it being normatively, morally required that one PHI (or adhere to S)? Maybe, however people are using the terms in making the point that Estlund is arguing against, they have plausibly requirement-blocking elements in mind. There is a difference, intuitively, between a stubbornly “selfish” or impulsive morality-recalcitrant population (that simply “won’t comply” with proposed moral standard or requirement S) and proposed moral standard or requirement S going against deep-seated, universal human motivations. But I’m not sure how to characterize this difference. (If one thinks that normativity and motivation are pretty much independent things, one can avoid the force of my point here. I don’t think this position, traditionally associated with Moorean realism and epistemic intuitionism about morality or normativity, is very plausible. For any normative standard, S, to apply to one, there are necessary conditions that are conditions of one’s motivational psychology.)

    (4) One might think that, when folks say that a proposed moral requirement S is unrealistic (or that people or enough people will not comply) they mean to say that complying with S has too high a cost (say, to the agent). If so, they are using the language of will-power (or motivation) to get at what is really a normative condition. In this case, what is doing the requirement-blocking is a normative thing, not a motivational (or will-power) thing. Though I can sometimes talk myself into this view, I never stay talked into it. Estlund agrees that there is this kind of requirement-blocking, but rightly notes that how this goes is complicated. But I don’t think he thinks this is the kind of requirement-blocking that folks are getting at when they disqualify a proposed moral requirment by saying that it is unrealistic or that people will not, in general, comply.

    (5) If we suppose that the target sort of moral normativity is socially constructed, not just there to discover, what we are doing (and describing) in considering proposed moral requirements in the relevant sorts of cases might be different. Both circumstantial and internal (will-power, motivational) causal barriers to “imposing” S on ourselves — not just relevant standing normative considerations, moral and otherwise — are relevant to whether we should do so. This kind of “constructivist” assumption is a big one (and would have to be spelled out in greater detail), but it holds some promise in solving the riddle of why we seem to think that such causal (and in particular motivational or will-power factors) can help us rule-in or rule-out proposed moral requirements (but without appeal to ought-implies-can). The extent to which we are capable of doing a good job at complying with S makes a difference as to whether we should make compliance with S normative for ourselves. (This point would apply to more than just universal motivational capacities. It would also apply to idiosyncratic motivations in groups of people. Intuitively, we would need something like a “goes against basic, non-constructed normative standards” defeater for at least the motivation or will-power based requirement-defeaters. We don’t want this kind of view failing to yield the advisability of a bunch of assholes adding some constructed moral fiber to their collective normative diet.)

    (6) Since I don’t think Estlund has shown us why and how there are interesting cases of moral requirements that genuinely apply to us but that — due to general motivational features of human nature — we will not (or most likely will not?) will ourselves to comply with, I don’t think we have to worry about normative requirements that are not action-guiding (or about whether the Professor Procrastinate case provides insight into why and how action-guidingness might work in the case of normative requirements that we won’t comply with or whatnot).


    • Re the “connections between human-universal motivations and human-universal normative standards” and “when folks say that a proposed moral requirement S is unrealistic (or that people or enough people will not comply) they mean to say that complying with S has too high a cost (say, to the agent),” maybe a specific case would help.

      Consider this cartoon mocking socialism. This is just the sort of case Estlund is talking about. And people will say, “the trouble is that people will never act as socialism requires to bring about a good society; therefore, socialism is a false ideal.”

      And I think Estlund is right to reply that if this is supposed to mean that people literally can’t comply with what socialism requires of them, then it is just false. They can comply. Estlund and I agree this far. However, we diverge at this point, because Estlund apparently agrees that people can’t bring themselves to comply—they lack the willpower—but says that, nevertheless, somehow they can still comply. I think it’s incoherent to say that somebody can do something they can’t bring themselves to do. If you really can’t bring yourself to do A, then you can’t do A. How could you?

      So, the problem is not a lack of willpower. The problem is that what socialism expects of people is unreasonable. Our motivational processes are not configured to keep us working hard at a task that has no intrinsic value when we can see easier ways to get what we desire. This would seem in fact to be an elementary prediction of evolutionary biology. And it is especially true when we see the product of our exertion being awarded to others who contribute little.

      I think maybe this is what you are getting at in your point (3). I find your point (4) hard to follow. People use the language of willpower “to get at what is really a normative condition.” What does that mean?

      My own suggestion was that talk along the lines of “people will never do as socialism requires” expresses socialism’s incompatibility with our motivational psychology in the way I just described—and which you seem to be in agreement with. It doesn’t seem unnatural to me to use the language of “willpower” to make this point; meaning that people will find it hard to comply with socialism’s behavioral strictures.

      Trouble arises only if we take this “willpower” talk to mean that people literally can’t make themselves do as socialism requires. But it’s Estlund who does this. Has anyone ever seriously advocated that people’s failure to behave in accordance with socialism’s requirements is purely a failure of will?

      Estlund’s essay is useful for helping to clarify the issues of willpower and motivation in regard to “ideal” moral and social theories. But ultimately I think this is all a distraction from the questions we ought to be asking the proponents of ideal theories—and which they should be endeavoring to answer—such as what justifies thinking in terms of ideals in moral theory, and what should be the relation between what is ideal and what is “reasonable.” For example, if socialism’s demands are unreasonable—indeed, so unreasonable that we should never try to implement socialism (which is Estlund’s position)—then what is the value of upholding socialism as an ideal? I’m not saying this is deliberate on Estlund’s part. But it does seem that his concentration on the easy part (showing that moral requirements are not defeated by people’s claims to lack willpower) has facilitated his neglect of the difficult part.

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      • My [4] is quite similar to your proposal: proposed moral requirements are ruled out if they are unreasonable. I would cash out ‘reasonable’ here in Scanlonian contractualist terms, as something like the proposed moral requirement asking too much of us. So: the ruling out, if it is done, is done by normative elements, not motivational elements. But I’m inclined to dismiss this interpretation because it does not seem to be what we mean when we say things like “that’s just unrealistic given how people are.” I think Estlund is right that the thought here is that there is a will-power or more broadly motivational requirement-defeater.

        One worry I have about your criticism of Estlund is that I think he means to refer to substantial motivational (or will-power) deficits (with respect to complying with the requirement in question) that might well fall short of literal inability to will to comply. If so, then, because I agree with you that literal-cannot-will-to-PHI entails cannot-PHI, Estlund should not have used the language of categorical motivational or will-power deficit. I don’t know if this is the correct interpretation of Estlund, but I think it is. Regardless of whether I’m addressing Estlund or Estlund*, the interesting question — I think — is whether substantial motivational (or will-power) deficit (with respect to compliance with some proposed moral requirement) is a defeater of the requirement (of it being genuine or having normative force for us).

        I provide two potentially complementary answers to this question. First, if the topic is moral requirements that are putatively in effect presently, then the answer to the question depends on whether the motivational lack undermines the motivational basis (or necessary condition) for the normative force of the requirement. So, in this sort of case, Estlund or Estlund* is technically right, sheer motivational (or will-power) lack does not rule out the proposed moral requirement. But we need to sort the different sorts of motivational (or will-power) deficits and his conclusion does not get this work done. The right kind of motivational deficit might well get the requirement-defeating work done. Second, if the topic is moral requirements that, though we are not presently under them, we might put ourselves under them, then any causal barriers to compliance, whether broadly motivational or not, are relevant — and it is plausible that large motivational (or will-power) barriers rule out prospective requirements that we might “put ourselves under” (more generally: if it is super-difficult for me to PHI, or to will myself to PHI, this makes it pretty unlikely that I ought to PHI; or it being difficult to PHI, or will to PHI, provides reason or normative force against PHI-ing). With regard to this sort of possible moral requirement, Estlund or Estlund* seems to be wrong: sufficient difficulty in motivating the will to comply would seem perfectly well capable of ruling out a prospective moral requirement (or, more precisely, ruling out the advisability of our doing the things we need to do in order to “put ourselves under it” or “make it normative for us”).


        • Hi Michael,

          My [4] is quite similar to your proposal: proposed moral requirements are ruled out if they are unreasonable. I would cash out ‘reasonable’ here in Scanlonian contractualist terms, as something like the proposed moral requirement asking too much of us. So: the ruling out, if it is done, is done by normative elements, not motivational elements. But I’m inclined to dismiss this interpretation because it does not seem to be what we mean when we say things like “that’s just unrealistic given how people are.” I think Estlund is right that the thought here is that there is a will-power or more broadly motivational requirement-defeater.

          When you say the ruling out is done by “normative elements,” what does that mean? That’s what I was asking. What are “normative elements” (“normative condition” in your previous comment)? Are these moral constraints? When I said that socialism makes “unreasonable” expectations, I meant only that socialism’s behavioral requirements cut against our natural desire structure (“natural” not merely in the sense of being frequently observed, but from the perspective of evolutionary biology).

          I don’t know that I’ve been especially clear about this, but by “motivation,” I mean our desires, where these are conceived as motivators that are relatively independent of our executive decisions. I think of desires as different from the will. You might desire food, comfort, an iPhone, not to be bitten by a spider, the good opinion of others. These are produced by a variety of mechanisms, some of which are physiologically basic and others of which are obscure, to me anyway, involving conceptual and associationistic aspects of our psychology. Generally speaking, they are not under executive control. I mean, although you can choose to ignore being hungry, you don’t choose to be hungry or not hungry. And I think it is the same for all other desires, as well. This is what I think of as motivation.

          The will is different. It is not a matter of desire. It is expressed by words like choice, decision, and intention. With these the psychological mechanism is entirely different from desire, because choice is a matter of executive control. You don’t choose whether to be hungry, but you do choose whether to eat. I don’t know that there are any limits at all on what we can choose (aside from logical, physical, and physiological constraints, obviously). The will is associated with reason by Kant, but I don’t know that reason necessarily has much to do with it. We do associate it with the ego, going back as far as Plato, and this seems to make some sense. The ego is an executive controller.

          Anyway, back to Estlund. In my opinion, it’s unfortunate that he speaks of willpower as an issue of motivation, for reasons which should now be clear. His language suggests to me that he really is talking about the will most of the time. Especially telling is that his favored expression is what one can “bring oneself” to do. He has obviously chosen it deliberately as conveying what he wants to say, and it strongly suggests choice: what we can executively make ourselves do. So, as this simply is not a matter of our desires, it’s unfortunate that he speaks of it as a motivational issue.

          I did not mean to suggest that the unreasonableness of socialism’s behavioral demands, as going against our natural drives and desires, is necessarily a defeater, by the way. I was only suggesting this as an interpretation of what people mean when they say that people will never act as socialism requires. Again, we seem to agree about this. It’s Estlund who wants to make this about willpower, right?

          In general, I don’t think a simple argument to the effect that “moral theory M requires people to A, but people will never do this/that’s asking too much/it’s unnatural/we aren’t motivated that way” is sufficient to defeat M. I think Estlund is perfectly right about that. One of his examples (if I remember right) is Kant’s categorical imperative. People will never follow the C.I. the way Kant’s theory demands or the way they could, in fact, do. Does that defeat Kant’s moral theory? I don’t think so.

          So, although it’s a very bad sign for socialism that its behavioral demands are so unnatural, I would hardly say that’s all there is to it. It’s a complex theory that needs to be evaluated as a package.

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          • The normative element here is just one having normative reason (not just motivation) not to meet the proposed requirement. If the reason (or normative pressure) here is strong enough (and perhaps it also needs to be of the right sort), then the proposed requirement is “too demanding” — and that rules it out. Estlund acknowledges this kind of ruling-out. I agree with you entirely about choosing (or executive function) being distinct from desire or motivation for choosing (though I do sometimes follow Estlund is speaking of both things under an broader category of motivation).

            I’m also with you (and Estlund) regarding your list of the things that don’t do the requirement-defeating work (unrealistic, people won’t do that, etc.). However, I take it that both of us (at least so far) still differ from Estlund in thinking the literally-cannot-will is a requirement-defeater (because literally-cannot-will implies cannot-do and cannot-do is incompatible with ought). Is that right?

            I’ve started going through the piece in more detail (rereading it, as I had read it years ago and was sort of shooting from the hip and going from memory). I have several further interpretations (and substantive thoughts) now, not necessarily compatible with what I’ve said here so far. I’ll put at least one of these thoughts in a separate reply. Thanks, David, this has been quite helpful.


          • Consider Bill, the garbage-dumper. Suppose that, given his asshole-y motivational set, he “cannot bring himself” to refrain from dumping the garbage (and suppose that, for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism, this is literal: he is unable to do this). You and I have been arguing that, because of this, Bill cannot refrain from the trash-dumping. And so it cannot be that Bill ought (in the sense of being morally required) to refrain from dumping the trash.

            But we should perhaps distinguish two different types of ability-type properties here. First, Bill’s inability to do the thing given the motivational or will-power barriers presently in his motivational set. Second, Bill’s ability or inability to do the thing, depending on whether he can remove these barriers. After all, when we scold or object to wrong-doing, the aim is at least as much to change the motivation (and will) as it is to merely change the behavior. Which ability-property is relevant to the ought-implies-can principle? If the latter, then, in order to invoke the principle and get the requirement-defeat, we have to specify that Bill cannot change his motivational set such that the absolute will-power barrier is removed. My intuition is that it is the latter kind of ability-property that is what is relevant to the relevant kind of ought here.

            However, I think there is a related normative angle here that is more important. Bill’s trash-dumping needs to be both objectionable (something that it would be appropriate for an observer or patient/victim to resent, object to, etc.) and something that Bill, in some sense, has requirement-type reason to refrain from doing. (At least often, when we say that Bill is morally required not to dump the trash, we mean both that Bill is under a certain requirement, in an individual or personal sense of some kind, not to dump and that it is appropriate for the rest of us to resent, get morally angry, object, etc.). Plausibly, if Bill has anything close to a normal moral psychology, he has a rational route (probably pretty short) to feeling guilty about dumping the trash. And, from here, his rational route leads to his having a kind of immediately action-guiding normative reason to refrain from dumping the trash. All of this adds up to Bill having a kind of reason, right now, to refrain from dumping the trash. It is a moral-psychology-activation and reasoning-from-this conditional normative reason, not an immediately action-guiding normative reason (that would require Bill desiring to refrain or at least willing, against his desires narrowly construed, to refrain).

            This speaks to our needing to know just what sort of normative property [X being morally required to PHI] is. Without this, we don’t know what kind of reasons or ought-properties we are talking about and it is difficult to know how to apply the ought-implies-can principle. But I think the kind of picture I present here explains and vindicates what Estlund wants to explain: that Bill’s recalcitrant desire (or will-power) is perfectly compatible with Bill being morally required to refrain from dumping the garbage (even if his motivational or will-power barriers are substantial, even when they are absolute given where he stands motivationally and will-power-wise).

            (Perhaps Bill is morally required to refrain from dumping the garbage even if he cannot change his recalcitrant motivation or will. For, even in this case, it remains true that, if Bill were to notice his basic moral reactions and reason soundly from them, he would come to have narrowly action-guiding requirement-type reason to refrain from dumping the garbage (he would feel guilty and strongly regulate himself against dumping the garbage). If that is right, then can’t-do does not imply not-morally-required-to. On the other hand, ought-implies-can does seem to apply to the narrowly normative or individually-action-guiding ‘ought’.)

            (Gotta run. Please excuse any typos!)


            • Hi Michael,

              Yes, I see your point and I think it’s a good one. The way I might put it: our customary motives and habits are partly formed by us and can be reformed. Therefore, if someone’s current “character” is weak, even to the point of making it most unlikely that he will comply with a given moral requirement on a given occasion, his incapacity doesn’t let him off the moral hook because his incapacity is his own doing and within his power to correct. This reasoning is familiar from Aristotle (NE, Book III) and reminds me of an illustration from Pride and Prejudice:

              I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoiled by my parents, who, though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my{454} own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight-and-twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled.

              Is this compatible with being literally incapable of doing what one ought, given one’s current character? I wonder. If you can’t correct your behavior, how are you going to reform your habits and characteristic desires? The answer to this depends on lots of details about how it is that we ought to do X, how we come to recognize such facts, how desires and habits work, etc.

              Is this what Estlund has in mind? I doubt it, if only because if it were, it would be easy and appropriate for him to say so, and he doesn’t. Furthermore, he claims at the end of the paper (236) to have “argued” that inability to bring oneself to X doesn’t imply that one can’t X. So, if the “argument” is that although one may be unable to bring oneself to X at the moment, one can still eventually alter one’s motivational capacities, it should appear in the paper.

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