When does permission equal moral permissibility?

I definitely feel there is a difference, but am struggling to verbalize it.

In Nazi Germany, I may be legally permitted to execute Jewish people, but not morally so. Likewise, I have would prefer not to eat sardines for dinner again this evening, and I won't allow it of myself, but I am morally permitted to.

Again, I do not give you explicit permission to do many things (I've not read the Terms of Service closely, but I have never explicitly agreed to: e.g., anyone at all following me here from other parts of the internet and real life, though my use of an public access site suggests I may do so anyway), and do not even implicitly give you permission to do others (following me for personal gain); but there may be no deontic prohibition against doing so, and it may be in the greater good.

Indeed, what I permit of someone may be different from what others permit of them (unlike Jake did, I do not permit my wife to sleep with Jake).

There does seem to be a non-moral permission.

The obvious is when it is moral. Is that all that can be said?

  • 1
    I vote to close this question until you clarify your distinction between "permission" and "moral permission". - Moreover I do not see why permission is a relevant point in this example.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Jan 23 at 21:13
  • hmm @JoWehler i will google phrases then, i guess
    – user71190
    Commented Jan 23 at 21:17
  • an ethics based solely on what other people permit of me seems to me to be extremely one sided etc. without a near utopian world @JoWehler
    – user71190
    Commented Jan 23 at 21:40
  • I do not follow how your permitting has much to do with moral permissibility to begin with. Some context seems to be missing here. What is morally permissible is, presumably, dictated by the controlling moral code. You have little say in what it declares permissible or otherwise, except in some consent-based interactions and the like. Even then, the consent is neither always necessary nor sufficient.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 24 at 1:05
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    Some analysts differentiate normative propositions from "norming," e.g. statements that something is permitted vs. acts of granting permission. On a democratic/isonomic morality, people in general are the source of morals (c.f. Rousseau's general will), so moral permission would be a function of the relevant normings, one supposes. Commented Jan 24 at 12:47

1 Answer 1


There are various "logical constructions" available for two elementary flavors of permission, optionality and indifference as called in the linked-to SEP article. And we might relate such a distinction to that between natural (or "default") rights and conventional (or "legal positivist") rights.

But we can also differentiate between something's being actually and something's being possibly permitted, or between permission and permissibility then. Morality with its binding force determines what could be permitted, but perhaps it is up to us to then determine, of the things that could be, which are permitted. For example, we might say that two kinds of actions A and B could be allowed under some circumstances, but which one is actually allowed depends on our actually allowing for A or for B (or both, if they are not incompatible enough).

One is tempted to wonder whether it is possible to permit anything of oneself, though. But then there will be a discrepancy between our sense of what is permissible by our willing that something be permitted as such, and our moral sense of something's being permissible. Our thoughts about the capacity of our will as such, and our thoughts about the capacity of moral reality as such, will come apart. Then, "When does what I permit amount to what morality permits?" will be answered by my accordance with "what morality permits," where "morality" is cashed out as "the point of view of the universe" or "the attitude of God" or "the sympathies of the impartial spectator" or "the interests of the parties to the agreement in the original position" (or whatever along such a line).

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