On the possibilities for action: ability, opportunity, authority, and competence

Lennart Nordenfelt

in Rationality and Compulsion

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2007 | ISBN: 9780199214853
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754517 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

On the possibilities for action: ability, opportunity, authority, and competence

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Let me summarize. I have identified an important notion of competence, constituted by know-how and by physical and mental skill. Supported by my examples I argue that the term ‘ability’ and its verbal associate ‘being able’ sometimes refer to competence and not to full ability. The person who counts has the competence for counting to a billion, but since he or she soon gets sick and tired of counting, does not succeed in doing so. The author and the footballer likewise have the competence for their respective tasks, but fail to realize them because of lack of attention, fatigue or injury.

Typical is that competence is a more enduring and basic state of the human being than full ability is. For temporary reasons, such as the ones mentioned above, the person may be prevented from execution of this competence. But when we look upon the situation precisely in these terms, i.e. as a situation of prevention from the execution of a competence, we say that the competence is still there. This statement is compatible with the recognition of the fact that also competence may get lost. Cases of illness exist which permanently or for a long time destroy some basic properties of the person, including his or her competence to perform many tasks.

To say, then, that a person can perform F, in the competence sense of can, is tantamount to saying something general and basic about this person. It belongs to the same level of abstraction as describing the personality of the person. We say of a particular man that he is of the kind that can do such and such. But saying that a man is of such a kind does not entail that he will at any moment, when he tries and where the right opportunity is there, succeed in doing such and such. The general competence is distinct from present full ability.

Chapter.  6603 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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