One of my biggest issues with normative ethical theories (like utilitarianism and deontology) is that they don’t address the difference between what one is morally obligated to do, and what is morally permissible. Utilitarianism particularly is guilty of this. If an action brings about greater happiness, you have to do it. If an action brings about more sadness, you can’t do it. But this isn’t intuitive at all, there have to be certain actions that are morally good but not morally required. Here’s an example:
1. You have $300. You need to pay some bills and buy food for yourself, and you also want to spend a little on seeing a movie. Paying these expenses will bring you some happiness. However, the $300 will create more happiness in others if you donate it all. So, are you morally obligated to donate your money?
2. Your child needs a life-saving surgery that costs $300. You want to use it for an upgrade of your car stereo. Are you morally obligated to pay for your child’s surgery?
Intuitively, most of us would claim that in #1 you are morally allowed to keep the money for ourselves, as anyone who is reading this from a purchased computer believed this idea. We certainly praise people who donate all their money (meaning that the donation has greater moral value), but we don’t obligate people to make the donation.
On the other hand, we would condemn anyone who didn’t spend the $300 on their children’s surgery. Doing so is morally obligatory, and spending the $300 on yourself is morally impermissible.
To clarify, a good way to think about it is an action is morally obligatory if the alternative is morally impermissible. So there are two types of moral dilemmas: ones where either action is morally permissible, and ones where one action is morally obligatory and the other is morally impermissible.
Deontology understand this difference a little better. All actions are either morally permissible or morally impermissible, depending on Kan’ts categorical imperatives. However, deontology does not classify positive actions as morally obligatory, rather it focuses on actions that are morally obligatory not to do.
So the question remaining: when are actions merely morally better versus morally obligatory? I don’t have a nice straightforward answer yet, other than simple intuition. This post is more about pointing out the flaws in the popular ethical theories.