What the Question Is Not: Not “Morally Right,” but Morally Permissible and/or Morally Obligatory
One might think that the core questions in ethics are whether various actions are morally right or morally wrong. This is not quite correct. Effective moral reasoning requires the clear and precise uses of words. Thus, when a word is ambiguous (i.e., has more than one meaning), we must identify these meanings and make it clear what meaning we are using. That way everyone knows what exact thought we have in mind when we make claims using that word: we’re on the same page and can communicate effectively. And we can think about whether what we are saying is true or false and supported (or supportable) by reasons and evidence or not.
This applies to the use of the word ‘right,’ as in morally right, because the word is ambiguous. Examples show this. Suppose you saved a drowning baby by pulling her out of bathtub. This was easy for you, not risky, and had you not been there the baby surely would have drown. If someone says, “Your saving that baby was morally right,” this person probably means to say that your saving that baby, in these circumstances, was morally obligatory, morally required, or a moral duty: if you had not saved the baby, you would have done something wrong or morally impermissible.
Consider another example. Although you are a person of average income, you send $1000 a month to famine relief organizations to help starving children. Someone says, “Your making these donations is morally right.” Here this person probably does not mean to say your making these donations are morally obligatory, morally required, or a moral duty. Unlike the bathtub case, the common (but perhaps mistaken) view is that your not donating would not be wrong or morally impermissible. So, this person probably means to by saying, at least, that what you do is morally permissible, i.e., not wrong or not morally impermissible. She might also mean that it is not merely permissible, but more positively good beyond that, but definitely not morally obligatory.
With these distinctions in mind, we can stop using an ambiguous word – “morally right” – and instead use these more precise terms categories for morally evaluating actions:
1. morally permissible: morally OK; not morally wrong; not morally impermissible; “OK to do”;
2. morally obligatory: morally required; a moral duty; impermissible to not do it; wrong to not do it; “gotta do it”;
3. morally impermissible: morally wrong; not permissible; obligatory to not do it; a duty to not do it.
We might also add a category “between” the permissible and the obligatory for actions that are positively good, virtuous or admirable, and thereby morally permissible, but not obligatory: e.g., some argue that vegetarianism is in that category, and if this is correct then arguments for the conclusion that vegetarianism is morally obligatory are unsound. This category might be described as the “supererogatory,” meaning beyond the call of duty or what’s morally required.Thus, the core questions in ethics are what moral categories specific actions fall into – morally permissible, morally obligatory, or morally impermissible or wrong – and, most importantly, why. Again, the reasons given for why we should think, e.g., that some action is permissible and another is wrong, or whatever conclusions anyone advocates, are our main interest.