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Is anything permitted but not an obligation? I don't think so, because everything is either good or bad, and we must always do the good thing.

Which philosophers or ethicists disagree with me?

Perhaps some things are merely "neutral", and neutral things are definitely permitted at best. But when can you only do something neutral, not good or bad?

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    We can chose to play football or not... Nov 9, 2022 at 15:52
  • I agree @MauroALLEGRANZA we are free
    – user63148
    Nov 9, 2022 at 15:54
  • What if the posthuman is a critical theorist and needs to practice human sacrifice to make sure it isn't... what if it "works" cos it's the posthuman? Think about it @MauroALLEGRANZA
    – user63148
    Nov 9, 2022 at 16:07
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    Perfectionism is psychologically harmful to people, and many moral theories adopt perfectionism as a methodology. Utilitarianism is particularly subject to this. However, the "almost everything is permitted" space that "rights" theory tends to embrace instead, leaves us with too LITTLE in the way of moral obligations. These are identified failings of rights and utility thinking. That one moral theory has flaws, does not mean the other is always better. None of our moral theories are flawless.
    – Dcleve
    Nov 9, 2022 at 17:06
  • I tend to agree, but then what's left @Dcleve intuitionism, I suppose. Meh
    – user63148
    Nov 9, 2022 at 17:30

2 Answers 2

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In deontic logic, we don't tend to collapse everything into "good or bad" but, as you suggest, we have shades of neutrality. The intersection of neutrality and mere-permissibility is not so precise, considering the concepts of supererogation/suberogation: something hyperdeontic is good and permitted but not obligated, and something hypodeontic is bad without being forbidden (impermissible).

Naive utilitarianism, and Kant at his most religious, favor "rigorism," though (everything is good or bad). For utilitarians, the argument is most precisely given in Kai Nielsen's work, I believe, something like:

  1. It is analytic that doing the right thing is the best thing to do.
  2. Therefore, the best thing to do is the right thing.

Nielsen seems to have performed a faulty conflation of A → B and B → A inferences, though. For Kant, see Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, part 1.

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  • thanks for the good answer. no idea why the question was met with hostility when it generated such an on point response
    – user63148
    Nov 10, 2022 at 23:47
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    @crazed, probably just ambient site drama. Though I will say, in our general defense, philosophy is a tough focus for the SE format. I think your question is fine enough, I've upvoted it too now. But I still can tell that, as an SE subcommunity, we all have a ways to go... Nov 11, 2022 at 0:44
  • cool, thanks, i can fairly robustly downvote now :) ha
    – user63148
    Nov 11, 2022 at 1:32
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The category of good and permissible but not obligatory is called superogatory. It is going above and beyond the call of duty. Commonsense morality generally accepts this as a legitimate category, and many philosophers defend this view. Common examples people use for permissible but not obligatory actions include self-sacrifice like jumping on a grenade to save your war buddies or donating nearly all of your income to charity.

Maximizing consequentialists reject this category, as one must always do the morally best thing (at least on a standard notion of supererogatory). Satisficing consequentialists allow for it. Deontologists typically include the supererogatory, as it is something not obligatory and not prohibited, so it should be permissible. Megan Fritts and Calum Miller wrote a paper arguing that there are no supererogatory actions, and part of their case against it includes the fact that it is typically difficult for any moral theories to include the supererogatory (for deontology - they use Kantian deontology specifically).

I would say that it is unlikely than any action has no morally significant results or effects on your character or risking a prohibition, so wouldn't be truly neutral. However, it may be that one action is comparable to others or has comparable good and bad moral impact, so it would balance out.

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