Spring 2021 - PHIL 421W E100

Advanced Topics in Ethical Theory (4)

Ought Implies Can

Class Number: 2202

Delivery Method: Remote


  • Course Times + Location:

    Mo 4:30 PM – 6:20 PM

    We 4:30 PM – 6:20 PM
    SWH 10051, Burnaby

  • Prerequisites:

    two 300 level PHIL courses; it is strongly recommended that students have taken some prior course in moral theory.



A highly focused, advanced examination of a selection of topics in normative or meta-ethics. May be repeated for credit. Writing.


Selected Topics: Ought Implies Can

[Note: this course is to be taught concurrently with PHIL 823.]  

This course will cover central issues in the debate about the ‘ought implies can’ principle. This is typically understood to be something like the following:

    If an individual ought to do something, then she can do it.

There is much debate over how to understand a principle of this form. In particular, what kind of ‘ought’ are we talking about? What kind of ‘can’? What kind of a conditional is it? And, most importantly, is there some version of these that makes the principle true?

We will cover some of the historical underpinnings of the contemporary debate, then turn to the contemporary literature. There, we’ll look at articles that focus on the principle itself, as well as ways in which the principle interacts with other neighboring issues. We’ll discuss the connection between ‘ought implies can’ and, for example, moral dilemmas, free will, and the semantics and pragmatics of ‘ought’. There will be some planned spare time at the end to discuss a particular issue in further depth or cover some new material, as determined by seminar participants.


PHIL 421W may be applied towards the Writing Requirement (and the upper division Writing Requirement for Philosophy Majors). This course may be repeated for credit if the topic is different.

By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • Identify and reconstruct philosophical arguments
  • Formulate their views as well-argued essays
  • Conduct independent research
  • Engage critically with a variety of views about obligation and ability

This course is excellent preparation for: law school, graduate school in philosophy, public policy degrees, business school, or for anyone wishing to participate in public deliberation with their fellow citizens.


  • Participation in live Zoom discussions 20%
  • Bi-weekly assignments 25%
  • Presentation 15%
  • Term paper 40%


Course delivery: remote, synchronous. Online presence is required during scheduled time.


Written work for this course will be submitted via Turnitin, a third party service licensed for use by SFU. Turnitin is used for originality checking to help detect plagiarism. Students will be required to create an account with Turnitin, and to submit their work via that account, on the terms stipulated in the agreement between the student and Turnitin. This agreement includes the retention of your submitted work as part of the Turnitin database. Any student with a concern about using the Turnitin service may opt to use an anonymous identity in their interactions with Turnitin. Students who do not intend to use Turnitin in the standard manner must notify the instructor at least two weeks in advance of any submission deadline. In particular, it is the responsibility of any student using the anonymous option (i.e. false name and temporary e-mail address created for the purpose) to inform the instructor such that the instructor can match up the anonymous identity with the student.



Students must have access to internet and a computer/other device that permits streaming video, word processing and teleconferencing with Zoom.


All readings will be made freely available on the course website.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

Thinking of a Philosophy Major or Minor? The Concentration in Law and Philosophy? The Certificate in Ethics? The Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate?
Contact the PHIL Advisor at philmgr@sfu.ca   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in spring 2021 will be conducted primarily through remote methods. There will be in-person course components in a few exceptional cases where this is fundamental to the educational goals of the course. Such course components will be clearly identified at registration, as will course components that will be “live” (synchronous) vs. at your own pace (asynchronous). Enrollment acknowledges that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes. To ensure you can access all course materials, we recommend you have access to a computer with a microphone and camera, and the internet. In some cases your instructor may use Zoom or other means requiring a camera and microphone to invigilate exams. If proctoring software will be used, this will be confirmed in the first week of class.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who believe they may need class or exam accommodations, including in the current context of remote learning, are encouraged to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112).