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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 December 2016

Zofia Stemplowska*
Politics, University of Oxford


This essay offers an account of feasible actions. It criticizes the conditional account of feasibility and offers instead what I call the constrained account of feasibility. The constrained account is superior, I argue, on account of how it deals with the problem of motivational failure to act and with collective action. According to the constrained account, roughly put, an action is feasible when the agent or agents performing it know how to perform it and are appropriately responsive to incentives. The essay shows that some collective requirements for action that appear feasible are not in fact feasible.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2016 

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1 The conditional account is not the only account out there. See for example Alan Hamlin, “Political Feasibility,” e-IR 29 August 2012, [accessed 1 November 2015] and Wiens, David, “Political Ideals and the Feasibility Frontier,” Economics and Philosophy 31 (2015): 447–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar I focus on the conditional account since I plan to preserve its spirit even if not the letter.

2 For discussion, see Geoffrey Brennan and Nicholas Southwood, “Feasibility in Action and Attitude,” in Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen et al., eds., Hommage á Wlodek: Philosophical Papers Dedicated to Wlodek Rabinowicz, (, 2007) [accessed 1 May 2014]; and Wiens, David, “‘Going Evaluative’ to Save Justice From Feasibility — A Pyrrhic Victory,” The Philosophical Quarterly 64 (2014): 301–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Cohen, G. A., Rescuing Justice and Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Gheaus, Anca, “The Feasibility Constraint on the Concept of Justice,” The Philosophical Quarterly 63 (2013): 445–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar for reasons to reject that “ought” implies “is feasible.” Those who believe in genuine moral dilemmas also have a reason to reject it.

3 My focus throughout will be on the feasibility of actions.

4 Estlund, David, Democratic Authority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 1314.Google Scholar

5 Gilabert, Pablo and Lawford-Smith, Holly, “Political Feasibility: A Conceptual Exploration,” Political Studies 60 (2012): 809825.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 Brennan and Southwood, “Feasibility in Action and Attitude.”

7 Ibid., 10.

8 Gilabert and Lawford-Smith, “Political Feasibility,” 815.

9 In this I follow David Wiens, “Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice,” European Journal of Political Theory (forthcoming).

10 Or perhaps “and more easily possible.”

11 In addition to Gilabert and Lawford-Smith, “Political Feasibility,” Alan Hamlin, “Political Feasibility,” suggests that this is one meaning of feasibility.

12 Brennan and Southwood, “Feasibility in Action and Attitude,” 8–10. Others are skeptical too: cf. David Wiens’s “restricted possibility account” in his “Political Ideals and the Feasibility Frontier,” Economics and Philosophy 31 (2015): 447–77.

13 I leave it open whether everyone in the relevant collection of people must join, or merely a sufficient number of them, since I am not here trying to establish what any given individual is required to do. Similarly, my definition of collective action above is agnostic about who are the individuals who join in or must join in.

14 It could be objected that the conditional account makes no such suggestion since “the agent” in that account must be understood as everyone who is required to act, but since everyone who is required to act in this example cannot be called “an agent” (it’s merely a collection of individuals), then there is no agent who would succeed in trying. Notice, however, that we could simply re-characterize the proposed action as one to be performed by agent 1 and agent 2 . . . and agent 3 billion, and, if so, its success would be extremely likely conditional on them each trying to touch his or her nose next Tuesday.

15 At this point some might worry, of course, whether “mere unwillingness” is an impossibility or even a category mistake. For example, some worry that if determinism is true then there is no such thing as simple unwillingness; unwillingness always signals motivational inability since the unwilling agent cannot choose otherwise than she does. I follow Wallace and others in thinking that determinism need not preclude the agent having the ability to do something else than she does, but I hope to put the issue of determinism to one side here. See R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994). As it happens, I am not that troubled by it in any case since I argued elsewhere that in key normative contexts (punishment, blame, liability) we should treat actions that are under mere deterministic guidance control as if they were under our ultimate control. See Zofia Stemplowska, “Holding People Responsible for What They Do Not Control,” Politics, Philosophy and Economics 7 (2008): 355–77 and “Harmful Choices,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 10 (2013): 488–507.

16 It might be that a person simply succumbs to sleep while fully motivated not to do so, but my hunch (informed by first-hand experience) is that the ability to motivate oneself to stake awake sometimes goes before sleep arrives.

17 Gilabert and Lawford-Smith, “Political Feasibility,” 818.

18 At this point it might be tempting to try to side-step the whole problem of identifying distinct types of motivational failure by appealing to a different rationale for the view that motivational failure alone does not signal the inability to perform the action. Thus, Estlund, David, “Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (2011): 207237 CrossRefGoogle Scholar has proposed (in the context of a debate about moral requirements) that even genuine motivational inability does not block the agent’s ability to perform the action. In other words, even agents who genuinely cannot achieve the right motivational state to undertake action A could have the ability to perform action Φ. However, I do not share the intuition that the question of whether someone has the ability to do Φ can be settled without interrogating the exact nature of their motivational failure.

19 David Wiens, “Motivational Limitations on the Demands of Justice,” European Journal of Political Theory (forthcoming).

20 In the future we may also have a brain account — are the synapses firing the right way but we are not (yet?) able to identify a one to one correspondence between brain activity and motivational states.

21 Since this is a counterfactual condition there is a possibility of sequencing such that the agent both renders herself insensitive to all incentives but also no longer sees the action as wrong. I would bite the bullet here and accept that the action is in such cases no longer feasible for the agent. The introduction of the counterfactual clause also raises the question of why the clause cannot be dropped altogether and feasibility made a function of the normative desirability of action such that if an action is seen by the agent as so wrong that there is no I to which she would respond, the action should be seen as not feasible for her. There are three key advantages of avoiding such a move, however: first, as mentioned above, the lack of motivation to pursue an action out of normative convictions expresses our agency rather than limits it. Second, sometimes people may do what they find morally unthinkable by accident or in a fit of passion and an account of feasible action that decouples feasibility from desirability makes it easier to explain such situations: the action was feasible after all. Third, such an account makes it easier to attribute appropriate moral praise to people who abstain from doing what is undesirable: the action was feasible but they chose to avoid it.

22 Does the proposal give the right answer in the case of someone who fails to respond to incentives to not Φ because Φ-ing there and then is the sole thing she wholeheartedly ever wants to do or have come about? Although the person does not respond to incentives, not desisting from Φ seems to be due to her mere unwillingness rather than genuine motivational inability, and the action to desist seems feasible for her. Such people are hard to imagine: it’s not enough to think here of someone whose sole wish is to climb Mount Everest under the exact conditions of her current life — we must assume that she would rather do that than see any other state of affairs come about. I am prepared to bite the bullet that in cases of such unique single mindedness, it is in fact not feasible for the person to desist from Φ-ing.

23 G. A. Cohen, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice,” Ethics 99 (1989): 906–944, 918–19.

24 I assume that there also isn’t here a singular agency, such as a dictator, who can simply use the individuals involved.

25 See Gilabert and Lawford-Smith, “Political Feasibility,” 818.

26 I am not saying that deciding to do Φ is the only way to engage agency in the doing of Φ, but it is one way of engaging it.

27 She may, of course, be in position precisely because an incentive has been offered to her to do Φ, but this cannot be assumed since it is not generally true of all feasible actions. If the agent’s knowledge comes from an incentive it must be a separate incentive that has actually been offered to (or encountered by) the agent.

28 Strictly speaking, the Proposal could continue along the lines of “unless the I is actually offered to the agent by time T rather than merely hypothesized” but we can sidestep this complication.

29 Where we can use the standard mathematical formula for calculating combined probability of joint action: that is, it is enough that the doing of Φ1 . . . Φn in concert by the agents is likely rather than that each individual Φn is likely.

30 David Estlund, “Prime Justice,” in Kevin Vallier and Michael Weber, eds., Political Utopias (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

31 He adds: “The intuition that something goes morally wrong here cannot be handled by saying it is a matter of conditional obligations: each should act so long as the other does. The antecedent is not met, so no such conditional obligation has been violated either.” Estlund, ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 But compare Lawford-Smith, Holly, “The Feasibility of Collectives’ Action,” Australian Journal of Philosophy 90 (2012): 453–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 Strictly speaking, then, we could say that feasibility is about possibility, but it is about the possibility of action by agents who know how to do what is needed; it is not about a possible confluence of events that make some outcomes possible; it is about acting not about things occurring. Cf. David Wiens’s “Restricted possibility account” in his “Political Ideals and the Feasibility Frontier,” 447–77.

35 I am indebted to George Rudebusch for criticism of my previous formulations.

36 See endnote 10.