The most commonly used terms and concepts are the permissible, the obligatory, or the prohibited. There's a host of synonyms available for these. You can even describe them through terms like: what's allowed, what's required, and what's not allowed. These are indeed important for moral life, decision-making, and development -- but where, I'd like to argue, a lot of people go wrong in in thinking that these three classifications provide an adequate range for the moral distinctions we need to make.
A Three-Value Moral SchemeIt seems as if some people really do think that Ethics can be reduced to these three categories. That is understandable, since it aligns nicely with two very different things that one can imagine a person being quite attached to, and thus being unwilling to relinquish if moving to a more adequate moral perspective might require it. One of these is the attractiveness simplicity of schema exercises. When we're dealing with matters that seem murky, complicated, even controversial, there's a temptation to think that the difficulty resides less in the subject itself and more in those arguing about it. If we could just get clear about these issues. . . well, then we could make some real progress, couldn't we? And, ethical issues, once resolved, could stay that way. . . .
The other thing to point out here is that there's quite a few moral perspectives that by their very nature tend towards this rather reductive three-part classification. It's worth pointing out as well that some people gravitate to a moral theory or point of view, along with its characteristic vocabulary, not so much because they are convinced that it's actually a correct or even adequate view on things, but because they'd like it to be correct or adequate, because if that were the case, matters would be a lot easier for them.
There are quite a few people out there who think about moral issues and questions almost entirely in terms of these three classifications. If something is right or good, it's so precisely because it is either obligatory in some sense -- you have to make it happen, honor it, respect it, produce it -- or it's at least permissible -- you get to decide whether to do it or not, to make it so or not so, but if you don't, nothing's really lost. If it's bad or wrong, then it should be prohibited (and along with this goes the notion that, if it's not morally ruled out, it's all right). There might, of course, be some things that are indeed bad in some sense, but nevertheless permitted. . . .
What's Missing Here?There are multiple distinct dimensions to what moralities that only know three settings on the dial are missing, and I'm not going to try to address all of them or even bring them up. Instead, I want to focus solely on one of them. If you are the sort of person who likes visual analogies, think of the three part schema as a sort of spectrum, with the morally obligatory on one end, the morally prohibited on the other end, the permissible in between them -- and then imagine some clear dividers between these three classes separating them into distinct categories. Like this:
Now imagine that the entire range of the permissible is no longer one homogenous section. Instead, in the very middle, there's what truly is just morally permissible, precisely because it's all right, but more or less morally neutral. Then, extending towards either of the extremes, you find two additional areas. They could be given a number of different names by which we could classify them -- but for right now, let's use the "praiseworthy" and the "blameworthy":
The Praiseworthy is within the general range of the good -- it's not just what happens to be praised in a given society or by a given person, but rather what does deserve to be praised. It's simply not quite far along enough the continuum to fall within what, for reasons of its goodness or rightness, becomes morally obligatory. Likewise, the Blameworthy is bad, and for that very reason is "blamed" (the old-fashioned word we use in moral theory) or criticized. But it's not forbidden. It's not made illegal. It's not prohibited.
When we recognize these other two intermediate moral categories, on the one hand, we discover that our moral judgements, evaluation, and reasoning now takes on a greater adequacy -- we realize that our vocabulary possesses these additional terms for good reason. They provide us with a certain mental flexibility that gets us past some beginner-level moral mistakes, like thinking that because something is permissible, it's totally neutral, or that because something is not prohibited, it must be all right. On the other hand, we discover some categories that will turn out to be foundational in developing a robust moral perspective, like that Virtue Ethics offers.
Several Interesting Historical ExamplesThere are numerous ways one might flesh this distinction out. I'll do so in terms of virtue and vice in a follow-up post next week. At present, I'd like to look at two other ways that people have worked with this distinction of five categories in the history of moral ideas. One of these is a distinction between different classes or modes of duties, i.e. perfect and imperfect duties. This one can be found within a number of different moral theories. The other is a distinction between goods and evils that is historically peculiar to Stoicism, but of course, needn't necessarily be confined solely to that moral perspective.
When moral theories make a distinction between duties along lines such as "perfect" an "imperfect" or "strict" and "broad" duties -- something you'll find for instance both in Deontological systems like that of Immanuel Kant and in Utilitarian systems like that of John Stuart Mill -- what they're attempting to demarcate are the difference between duties that are indeed binding in all cases, and duties which don't exert quite that sort of moral weight and pressure.
So, for example, there is a strict duty against taking an innocent life -- it is morally forbidden to act in that way. In fact, there might be even be a correlative duty to prevent innocent life from being taken -- so that it would be morally obligatory to do that. But what about benefiting other people, perhaps in ways that will stave off some harm or at least some unpleasantness to them, when there isn't some strict duty telling us that we ought to do so? Some people would consider beneficence -- doing good for or to others -- an imperfect duty. You don't have to do it, strictly speaking. But it's good for you to do it -- good in multiple ways -- and in some sense, if you can, you really ought to do it. It's just not obligatory.
Likewise, we can speak of imperfect or broad duties that bear upon the range that we've designated as the "blameworthy". There are plenty of situations in which one can avoid being a jerk or behaving in jerkish ways -- throwing one's gum away, rather than just sticking it to something or tossing it on the ground is a classis example. (At least in most places) there's no law for this rather trivial matter. And, anyone who wanted to call you a moral monster over anything gum-related likely has some serious issues of their own to work through before we need to pay them any attention. But, there are definitely ways that one can behave with one's gum -- ways that could fall under an imperfect duty -- that, if one can help it, one ought not to do. Are they strictly forbidden? No, but still. . . .
The Stoics quite famously divided things into three moral categories -- those that were actually good, those that were indeed bad, and pretty much everything else, the realm of the "indifferent" (adiaphora). There wasn't all that much, for reasons that have to do with some of their other main moral conceptions that fit into the first two, morally-loaded categories of good and evil (or bad), so one can well imagine that the morally neutral realm of the indifferent covered a lot of ground.
And yet, even that rather uncompromising moral movement found itself compelled to add in some additional distinctions to the indifferent -- the "preferred" and "rejected adiaphora. There were a number of different, quite interesting ways to work out this distinction, a topic that I'm going to just mention but not explore here, since my main interest lies in pointing out that their additional classification falls along the same lines as those we've been discussing and emphasizing.
Some things, while not good in themselves, or entirely good, and even falling into a vast neutral territory, bear some aura or aspect of the good, and thus ought to be preferred by a good person. Likewise some other things, while in a strict reckoning of a morally neutral value, nevertheless convey or are tainted with some tincture of badness, so a good person is going to withdraw from, or reject them.
In many respects -- and this is what I'll explore in the follow-up post -- it's recognizing and appropriately responding to these lesser or less emphatic goods and bads, rights and wrongs, that sets apart a person as morally serious and places them on a right track of moral development.