DRMacIver's Notebook

Untangling moral concepts

Untangling moral concepts

The following are not the same thing:

  1. You must do the thing.
  2. You should do the thing.
  3. You have an obligation to do the thing.
  4. It is morally permissible to do the thing.
  5. It is morally virtuous to do the thing.
  6. It is morally required to do the thing.

Figuring this out is a process I call untangling, which is essentially just a skill that you learn doing mathematics: Finding a bunch of examples where the concepts separate.

When untangling it's important that your examples pass the "c'mon, really?" test. They shouldn't be contrived or annoying, but should be points of separation that actually matter in daily life.

"Obey the laws of physics". This is definitely 1 and 4, and definitely not 3, 5, or 6. There's no real moral component to physics, so there's no real moral significance to it. It's certainly permissible, because if you literally have no option but to do the thing it would be bizarre to consider it forbidden.

"Obey the speed limit" is an example where 2 through 6 apply to varying degrees, but 1 does not. People clearly can break the speed limit and do so all the time.

More, it's common to have examples like this where people behave low grade unmorally for convenience. Moral norms are more like guidelines than rules, and almost everyone implicitly understands this and treats them as such. So, when considering moral norms, don't consider them as ironclad rules, consider them as things you're going to mostly follow. Depending on how serious they are, you'll probably want to follow them more often than not (the moral norms against killing people are stronger than the moral norms against spitting. You would probably still kill someone in some circumstances, even ones you didn't consider morally justified, but they'd have to be pretty extreme).

"Brush your teeth" is something you should do which mostly lacks an moral component, so is (2) without any of the others.

Suppose you have made a promise to do something minor. Say, meet a friend for coffee. Suppose also that a major family crisis has occurred and they need you. "Meeting your friend for coffee" is an example of 3 on its own. You have an obligation (3) but you shouldn't do it, it's not permissible, it's not required, and it's not virtuous.

Suppose someone is being a dick to you. You get angry at them. This is morally permitted, but it's not required or virtuous. Whether you should do it is situation dependent (it might be tactically wise to do so), but lets say it's not a good idea. So this is an example of (4) without any of the others.

So none of (1) through (4) imply anything else on the list. Now we get into the tricky bits where I'm not entirely sure how cleanly they separate.

Staying calm in a heated situation where someone is being a dick to you is an example of (5) that is not (6) - it is morally virtuous without being required. Giving all your money to charity is another example.

Are there things which are morally virtuous but not morally permissible? I'm not sure. I can come up with some contrived examples where the answer is "Maybe?" (trolley problem type stuff). I think in practice this is probably not an interesting category and all the details will be too contextual.

Are there examples which are morally required but not morally virtuous? Another maybe. I'd say "not committing murder" is definitely ethically required, but it's not particularly praiseworthy. Unclear that it's virtuous, but it's certainly more virtuous than committing murder.

My inclination is that for practical purposes we have (6) implies (5) implies (4), and the examples above show that these are the only implications possible.