(Im)permissibility is overrated




Delineating the boundary between “permissible” and “impermissible” actions (i.e., providing a criterion of rightness) has traditionally been seen as the central question of ethics. I find this unfortunate, for three main reasons:

(1) It encourages moral laxity. We should not be aiming to act in a minimally permissible way. Calling a good act “supererogatory” (above and beyond the call of duty) has an air of dismissal about it. When asking “Do I have to do this?” the answer may indeed be “No,” but that wasn’t the best question to begin with.

(2) Only deontological theories are naturally construed as centrally concerned with this question. Forcing consequentialists and virtue ethicists to formulate their theories in terms of a “criterion of rightness” is arguably distorting. Most obviously for scalar consequentialists—but even for deontic pluralists—deontic concepts like ‘right’ and ‘impermissible’ don’t really feature in the fundamental theory.

(3) As noted in my response to Huemer, the idea that utilitarianism is “counterintuitive” rests on interpreting it as addressing a primitive, indefinable sense of ‘wrongness’. If we instead ask what act an impartial observer should hope to see done, the utilitarian verdicts strike me as more intuitive than those of competing theories. Moreover, this alternative question (of what we should care about) strikes me as more normatively authoritative than the traditional question (of what’s right or wrong). So to focus on the traditional deontic concepts has a biasing effect.

Permissibility is Not Enough

Imagine that a killer asteroid is heading straight for Earth. With sufficient effort and ingenuity, humanity could work to deflect it. But no-one bothers.  Everybody dies.

Worth avoiding, even if it doesn’t involve wrongdoing

This is clearly not a great outcome, even if no-one has done anything morally wrong (since no-one has done anything at all).

This scenario poses a challenge to the adequacy of traditional morality, with its focus on moral prohibitions, or “thou shalt nots”. While it’s certainly important not to mistreat others, prohibitive morality—or deontology—arguably isn’t sufficient to address today’s global challenges.

Prohibitions aren’t enough. We need a positive moral vision that guides us towards securing a better future. Ideally, our actions should be guided by what’s truly important.

Importance is more theory-neutral

Different moral theories may disagree about what we should most care about. Candidate answers include:

(Consequentialism): Promoting the good, e.g. everyone’s well-being.

(Deontology): Conforming your actions to the requirements of duty.

(Virtue-as-a-goal1 Ethics): Inculcating virtues of character.

I think the best reason for being a consequentialist is just that it offers a better account of what’s ultimately worth caring about than other theories do. (The basic incompatibility of deontology with reasonable patterns of concern is precisely the problem exposed by my new paradox of deontology.) But that’s a substantive judgment. In terms of the formal presentation of the views, there’s conceptual space to formulate any moral view in terms of what it regards as most important (which may diverge from consequentialist accounts of the good). So this seems an improvement over the traditional, narrow characterization of views in terms of what they say about right and wrong.

Importance is more important (authoritative)

Suppose that your intuitions about importance and wrongness initially pull you in different directions. E.g., perhaps when considering the Trolley Footbridge case, it seems wrong to kill the one, but it also seems more important that the five be saved. Which verdict should you care more about? Which could you most reasonably disregard?

Here I’m very struck by two thoughts:

(1) To resolve which concept (wrongness or importance) to prioritize, it makes sense to ask which is more important. It would seem weird to ask which concept is permissible, or virtuous, to use. Those other concepts lack the unquestionable normative authority of importance (or what really matters).

(2) In a conflict between what’s important and anything else (e.g. deontic status), the former clearly wins out. It would seem outright incoherent to deny that what matters most should take priority over other things. (N.B. Non-consequentialists are used to denying that what’s best should necessarily take priority over other things; but that familiar move is more coherent, precisely because they may reasonably deny that promoting value is what matters most.)

So, if you share my intuition that (something close to) utilitarianism best captures what matters most, then you should be (something close to) a utilitarian, no matter what intuitions you may have about the application of deontic concepts. They aren’t what matter.


Virtue-as-a-lens Ethics instead provides a higher-order criterion of correct moral concern: it tells us to care about whatever it is that the virtuous agent would care about. If the virtuous agent would prioritize beneficence, and primarily care about promoting well-being, then this virtue-as-a-lens ethics might end up coinciding with utilitarianism.

Originally appeared on Good Thoughts Read More