Moral Obligation vs. Moral Permissibility

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. Oh and also kinda announcing that I’m in the works on a book about ethics, that I’d publish on Amazon. Hopefully by the time I finish it I’ll be able to answer this question better.

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10 thoughts on “Moral Obligation vs. Moral Permissibility

  1. I think that one could decide what to do from the deontologist perspective, however unlike Kant, who as you noted is primarily focused on what a person ought not do, Ross offers duties that are formed from examining morally significant relationships with others. Here, Ross says that no action is inherently right in itself, rather its rightness depends on its whole nature. Kant questioned whether any action had absolute moral worth but that didn’t stop him from believing that absolute moral rules did exist. Your examples are very thought provoking and appropriate to your discussion!

    • Agreed, Dave! I monnieted this issue in a parenthetical tangent in the middle of my post. I realize this is a problem for how well my standard matches up with our moral intuition, but I haven’t come up with a better one. (Suggestions are welcome!)Pigs are indeed pretty smart. I would be willing to accept the implication that we shouldn’t eat pigs, or other livestock that have comparable self-awareness to that of babies. I don’t have enough background in the right sort of sciences to draw those lines, but I could imagine finding evidence that, with this as our moral standard, we ought to be vegetarians.

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    • The post was specifically addressing the general utilitarian view. You can’t use the same criticism on all types of utilitarianism, as they have different ideas.

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