I’ve long been a believer in the principle that if you ought to do something, then it has to be the case that you are able to do that thing (that is, ought-implies-can), though I realize that this principle has problems with respect to issues of agency (assuming determinism). I’ve got a different sort of question about it, though, looking at it from the perspective of dirty hands cases. Let me get at my question with an example.
The evil empire known as the Los Angeles Lakers was dismissed from its championship run by this year’s blue-collar wonder team, the Detroit Pistons. A friend recently told me that he’d given up being a lifelong Laker fan because of way the L.A. media and the team have packaged the Kobe Bryant situation as “Kobe’s Ordeal,” rather than as a serious ordeal for his alleged victim, or even merely as Kobe himself has tried to package it, namely as a failure of fidelity. They’ve turned it into another obstacle for him to face (“From the court of law to the basketball court! Amazing!”), rather than as a moral failing on his part.
Now it seems to make sense for my friend to say “I think we Laker fans ought to rescind our allegiance.” That is, it seems natural to say we’ve got a legitimate ought-claim here. But it also seems that the ought-claim holds only if there’s a point to rescinding one’s allegiance. But what would be the point of my friend taking a stand here? Either it’s because without making his stand, my friend couldn’t live with himself; or it’s because he wants to put pressure on the organization and media to take the allegations against Kobe more seriously. If it’s the first, no problem. But what if it’s the second? (That is, what if he could live with himself? After all, he knows that the allegations against Kobe are serious; he just wants to put pressure on others to take the matter seriously.) Then we’ve got a problem. Knowing the irrationality of fandom, my friend realizes that his stand won’t effect any real social change. So this seems like one version of a dirty hands problem – if compliance with your apparent obligation is rendered pointless because of widespread noncompliance by others, then you might as well not comply yourself, it seems.
So, to get to my question, my impression is that discussions of dirty hands cases tend to focus on just that question: whether there is an obligation to do act A in these kinds of dirty hands cases (where the point of A requires widespread compliance with A, and where everyone else is, wrongly, doing ~A, in which case doing A yourself is pointless). I’m wondering, however, whether one couldn’t take the other side, and assume that there is, in fact, an obligation even in cases of widespread noncompliance, and instead deny that ought implies can. That is, my friend can’t do what (by hypothesis) he ought to do, namely make his stand to the end of producing social change, because the noncompliance of others makes it impossible for him to achieve his end. But if ought doesn’t imply can, then we could still say that he ought to make his stand. And this would be true of any principled stand where one must either play along with convention and get one’s hands dirty or take a principled stand to no good effect. I’m not too familiar with the literature here, so if anyone out there in the blogosphere is more familiar and can help me on this one, please chime in.