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Oughts and Cans: Badness, Wrongness, and the Limits of Ethical Theory


Many philosophers argue that reasonably well-off people have very demanding moral obligations to assist those living in dire poverty. I explore the relevance of demandingness to determining moral obligation, challenging the view that “morality demands what it demands” and that if we cannot live up to its demands that’s our problem, not morality’s. I argue that not only for practical reasons but also for moral-theoretical ones, the language of duty, obligation, and requirement may not be well-suited to express the nature of our responsibilities in these matters. But it is nevertheless morally imperative to reduce global poverty and inequality. Distinguishing between the Ought of states of affairs and the Ought of moral obligation, I defend an approach that looks to institutions to alter the environment within which people make choices and that employs our understanding of human psychology to encourage changes in behavior.

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