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Revisiting the ought implies can dictum in light of disruptive medical innovation


It is a dominant dictum in ethics that ‘ought implies can’ (OIC): if an agent morally ought to do an action, the agent must be capable of performing that action. Yet, with current technological developments, such as in direct-to-consumer genomics, big data analytics and wearable technologies, there may be reasons to reorient this ethical principle. It is our modest aim in this article to explore how the current wave of allegedly disruptive innovation calls for a renewed interest for this dictum. As an effect of prevention and prediction oriented technological innovation, an increased focus on assumedly controllable lifestyle risks may be anticipated. For lay people who might turn into patients, this may entail a reinforced behavior-based individual responsibilisation. Holding on to the OIC dictum, such responsibilisation seems to require that individuals can actually control what is framed as ‘lifestyle risks’ when there is not always a reliable consensus about what one should do. As such, reference to OIC may be mobilised in function of a political task of designing institutions so as to enable such choice and control.

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