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October 03, 2005


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I was under the impression that, typically, philosophers divide the moral status of actions into blameworthy, permissible, and obligatory (think: feeding your aunt poison, coffee, or necessary medicine).

I think the ambiguity in the use of 'right' arises because everyday language divides only between 'right' and 'wrong', rather than the three-way division named above. In turn I think that leads people to think "its not a wrong action, therefore it must be right", even though, as you point out, some actions appear to be strictly indifferent.

Matters are further complicated by the way in which some theories implicitly reject the above formulation: Most utilitarians, it seems, are committed to the view that there is no such thing as a merely permissible action - actions are either the most productive one available, in which case they are obligatory, or they are not the most productive one available, in which case they are blameworthy.

In general, I think people share the same moral concepts, but (unfortunately) use the /word/ 'right' ambigously.

I think Alex may be onto the right thing to say about this, although I share your puzzlement. The ordinary uses of 'right' seem to fall into a plethora of categories. But the standard philosophical definition, I would have thought, was that "right" means "permissible" as you say, but perhaps we're wrong about that. In any case, this is a term of art in ethical theory; you can just stipulate what you want for the purposes you need it.
Ordinary uses, on the other hand, vary widely. "The right thing to do" seems to suggest something close to "obligatory". But, then, we use "right" in ways that imply that there are a wide variety of things we could do in a situation that would be right (and thus in such cases it couldn't mean "obligatory"). It may be that in ordinary parlance, it is "wrong" that wears the pants, and "right" is just "not wrong". So, for instance, as long as an action does not have a wrong-making property, it's right. So perhaps if we have a univocal (or at least fairly regimented) ordinary conception of "wrong", that may be all that matters.

I'm surprised there is disagreement here, but I think rightness is a property of actions. Right actions are at least permissible and no actions are blameworthy or praiseworthy, although sometimes people are blameworthy (deserving of blame), for performing some acts. Right acts can have wrong-making properties, too. But the wrong-making properties cannot outweigh the right-making properties. An act is right if the right-making properties outweigh the wrong-making properties. I too, alongside the referee, think right acts are required. It would be weird, I think, to assert "It is the right thing to do, but you don't have to do it really."

It's an open question which properties are right-making. But, the rest seems to me noncontroversial, or so I thought.


I'd want to second (or third...) the suggestion that "right" is ambiguous between the merely permissible and the obligatory. But in other cases it might be useful to adopt the Rawlsian concept/conception distinction. For example, Swanton's characterization of rightness, where it includes a contestable component such as virtue, sounds more like a conception. So, it would be a "thicker" conceptual tool than a mere concept, which is what all disagreeing parties share in common. That is, the utilitarian and Swanton (and Rawls) can agree on some thin concept of rightness (e.g., the permissible or the obligatory)--otherwise they'd simply be talking past each other when they uttered moral words, which it seems like they're not doing. Instead, it seems like they're disagreeing over more theoretical questions, e.g., whether virtuosity is what makes right acts right. Those controversial theoretical stances give content to their different conceptions, while perhaps they share a thin concept of rightness (again, having to do with something like permissibility or obligatoriness or not-forbiddenness).

What's wrong with saying that there is an ambiguity in the normal use of the term which almost always gets resolved in a given context of utterance. I think competent speakers of English use 'right' in each of the two ways mentioned - either as permissible or required -(though as Robert says, 'wrong' seems to always go with impermissible). I myself use it in both ways. I tend to use it however the person I am talking with seems to be using it. But I usually don't have trouble figuring out which it is. As long as we have a univocal use of 'wrong' we can always disambiguate if we get into trouble.

I guess that means I share everyone else's conception of rightness and am willing to switch which I'm employing depending on who I'm talking to.

I think 'right' is typically ambiguous between something like 'obligatory' and something like 'permissible.' But the reason, probably, is a difference in perspectives. If I am asking what it is right for *me* to do, I am wondering something like, what is the best action for me to do. This is close to "obligatory." If, on the other hand, I am asking whether what *you* did was right, I am usually wondering whether what you did was wrong or not. That's close to "permissible."

It seems there's something of a consensus that there is no single definite concept of 'rightness'. But there is now some disagreement about why this is so. Some of us seem to be saying that there are not one, but several, concepts of rightness. Others seem to be saying that there is a single concept of rightness, but it is not definite, is ambiguous or has a super-fuzzy penumbra that allows both obligatory and permissible. The former alternative allows there to be shared definite concepts, just not one. The latter allows there to be shared ambiguity ("What are we talking about?" "I dunno, but at least we're talking about the same thing.")
The 'concept/conception' distinction that might be usefully deployed here. We may well all not be talking past each other in the sense that we share the concept 'right'. But what we differ over is what the criteria are for something's deserving that title; we differ in conceptions of 'rightness'.
Or, perhaps we also have differing concepts. In any case, these are different levels of variance, and the fact that we have different conceptions of 'right' poses little problem over whether we're, say, talking past each other.

Two comments.

1. I'm broadly in favour of Alex's proposal, which has three basic moral predicates, though I'd prefer to say "forbidden" or "prohibited" rather than "blameworthy". That proposal seems to do a good job of making precise ordinary moral talk, so it serves a useful philosophical purpose. However, it might be worth pointing out that we may take any of the three predicates as primitive, and then define the remaining two in terms of the first. For example, we might take "permissible" as primitive, defining "forbidden" as not permissible, and "obligatory" as uniquely permissible. In a certain sense, then, it might be said that ultimately there's only one basic moral predicate.

2. I'm not convinced by the examples given above that "right" is ambiguous between permissible and obligatory, even in ordinary talk.

Robert says:

"The right thing to do" seems to suggest something close to "obligatory".

Similarly, Christian says:

It would be weird, I think, to assert "It is the right thing to do, but you don't have to do it really."

But it seems that the definite article ("the") is playing an important role in both these cases, since it strongly suggests, not merely that the act in question is right, but also that it is uniquely right. Thus, if we understand "right" as permissible, and "obligatory" as uniquely permissible, then we should expect "the right act" to be understood as saying that the act is obligatory. But that's not to say that "right" by itself, without the definite article, ever means obligatory.

I think you're right about the definite article, Campbell. But I'm having a hard time thinking of many examples in which 'right' is used to mean 'permissible'. We don't use the indefinte article with 'right', it seems, or at least it is very odd. I think Jason's example is odd, for instance. When 'right' is used without the definite article, often it is in the negative, as in, 'It wouldn't be right to x', 'That's not right', etc. Here, in the negative cases, we have the only cases I can think of in which 'right' means 'permissible'.

Robert, I agree with what you say about the indefinite article. But let me suggest a counterexample to the claim that "right" means permissible only in negative cases.

Take the sentence "X is the right act". (I assume this is not a negative case.) I want to say that in this sentence "right" means permissible. I think the sentence is equivalent to "X is the permissible act", and that both of these are equivalent to "X is obligatory".

OK, that sounds right. So add these cases in which, with the definite article, "right" means "obligatory"; then, it means the same as "permissible" when used with the definite article.
But we can use the indefinite article with 'permissible' ("What would be a permissible action in these circumstances?") but not with "right" (without this philosophy by ear?). The indefinite article leaves open alternatives that the definite article does not. 'Right' seems barred from this sort of use, a use in which it is a merely permissible action, permissible tout court.
I don't know what that means, except that there is not a perfect fit here between permissible and right.


There are theories according to which:

'X is obligatory' = 'X is right' = 'X is permissible (where '=' selects an equivalence relation). I am inclined to accept such a theory.

But, I think people are arguing that 'X is right' is ambiguous between 'X is permissible and obligatory' and 'X is permissible and not obligatory'. What I don't hear clearly is the second reading.

I'm not sure 'the' makes much of a difference here. I think the reason that sentences like 'That was the right thing to do' sound fine, and sentences like 'That was a right thing to do' do not sound fine, is the fact that instances of 'x is right' entail a sentence like 'x is the right thing to do'. So, 'the' makes explicit (in a sense) what is implicit in our use of 'right'.

As Robert noted, when someone says "That's not right," it often seems to be used to indicate that the action in question is impermissible (but not merely that it is not obligatory).

Suppose a conversation reaches a point where someone says, "That's not right!" It would be perfectly unremarkable to reply, "It is too right!" And saying that one would be denying what the first person said. I suggest that it would not be odd if the conversation from there on continued to use the word 'right' to indicate permissibility.

So even if it is somewhat unusual for 'right' all on its own to indicate just that an action is permissible, there will be perfectly ordinary contexts in which it does so.


I grant that there could be a context in which 'x is right' indicates 'x is permissible'. But, the context you outlined, where "it would not be odd if the conversation from there on continued to use the word 'right' to indicate permissibility," is one where the participants are plausibly stipulating what they will mean by 'right'. So, that part is not convincing. However, there is still the case:

'That's not right' where 'that' refers to some action two people are discussing.

I agree there is ambiguity here. But, the ambiguity is in the expression 'not right' which is very different from saying 'right' is ambiguous. I say the introduction of 'not' make 'not right' ambiguous. This is for reasons already discussed. Namely, that x can be 'not right' either because x is 'impermissible' or x is 'permissible and not obligatory'.


I was running with Robert's admission/intuition that when coupled with 'not' 'right' generally means permissible -- not that it is ambiguous in such uses. I'm adding to that claim the suggestion that once that move is made in a conversation, 'right' continues to have that meaning in normal contexts. If you don't have the intuition about the original case I have given you no reason to agree with the rest.

But I don't see exactly how the stipulation move is supposed to undermine the view. Suppose that a term is ambiguous, in the sense that it can mean either of two related but different things. In general, I think that the first conversational move which uses the term in a way that clearly indicates one reading over the other as the intended meaning creates a presumption that the word will be used with that meaning until something else in the conversation changes the presumption. If that is stipulation, fine. (Though I would tend to reserve that word for more explicit stipulations.) But note that it would be stipulation of a sort very different from stipulation a meaning in a conversation the word does not in fact have. (I actually think that similar things happen all of the time with all sorts of words, and that we are so good at keeping track that we don't even notice that is what we are doing.) Remember that the issue was whether the word ever had the meaning permissible.

I'm also not sure how to tell the difference between the view that 'right' is ambiguous and the view that 'not' makes 'not right' ambiguous. The suggestion can't be that 'not' is ambiguous. But then I think that if 'not right' is ambiguous, 'right' is ambiguous.

I said 'ambiguous' just to run with the thread. Maybe 'not right' is not ambiguous. Maybe it unambiguously means 'either impermissible or permissible and not obligatory'. Or, perhaps it's ambiguous between 'impermissible' and 'permissible but not obligatory'.

Mark, you write that "Remember that the issue was whether the word ever had the meaning permissible," and I agree. But, I am only suggesting that it doesn't, that it never had the meaning permissible. Again, I am just going from what sounds right to me, to make a pun.

I suggest 'right' is not associated with the concept of mere permissibility in that utterances that contain it express the concept of mere permissiblity. To my ear, there are no natural contexts in which 'X is right' is equivalent to 'X is merely permissible' where X is merely permissible iff X is permissible and not obligatory.

Maybe, 'not right' is associated with the concepts 'impermissible' and 'merely permissible' but I suggest this is because, intuitively, there is more than one way for an act not to be right, but only one way for it to be right.

You write: "But then I think that if 'not right' is ambiguous, 'right' is ambiguous."

Point taken. I thought about this while I was posting and I don't think 'not' is ambiguous and I think that a compositional principle of ambiguity is at least initially appealing, which makes me think 'right' is ambiguous if 'not right' is ambiguous.

But, I don't think 'right' is ambiguous so either 'not right' is ambiguous without 'not' or 'right' being ambiguous (or) neither 'not right' nor 'right' is ambiguous. I choose the second option right now. I think 'not right' refers to a disjunction, or 'not right' is a determinable, with 'impermissible' and 'permissible, but not required' being its determinates.

To end, I still want a clear instance of 'X is right' that is intuitively equivalent to 'X is merely permissible'.

Christian, just to clarify: I think "right" always means permissible. But don't think "right" ever means merely permissible. People have presented putative examples in which "right" means obligatory, rather than permissible -- i.e. "X is the right thing to do". But I say, even though this sentence as a whole means that X is obligatory, the word "right", as it occurs in this sentence, still means permissible. Another example: "X is not right". Here the sentence as a whole means that X is forbidden, but the word "right" still means permissible. By combining "right" with other words, such as "the" and "not", you may make a sentence which attributes some property other than permissibility to an act. But that's not to say that the word "right" itself ever means anything other than permissible.


Let me see if I have this right, alright.

You think 'right' always means permissible, never merely permissible. If a sentence that contains 'right' attributes a property other than permissibility to an act, that is because there is some other word in the sentence, together with 'right' that jointly attribute this other property.

Example: That was the right thing to do.

In this sentence, 'the right thing' picks out a unique permissible act, and it is the 'the' which makes the property picked out by 'the right thing' different from the property picked out by 'right'. That is, 'the' adds uniqueness that would not otherwise be picked out by 'right' alone.

Does that sound right? (Incidentally, 'right' is ambiguous, that was an example)

Christian, yes, that's exactly right.

Campbell, this is interesting. I think I either completely disagree with you or completely agree with you (but for some reason I can't make out which). Here is a go.

I am a Consequentialist. I think every act is either permissible or impermissible. I think there are far more impermissible acts, on a given occasion, than permissible acts. However, I do not think every permissible act is right. I allow for ties, i.e. situations in which at least two acts I can perform are each better than every other act I can perform, but not better than each other. In this case, where A & B are tied, there is a right act, performing act (A or B). But, it does not follow that A is a right/obligatory act and it doesn't follow that B is a right/obligatory act.

I deny: O(A or B) > O(A)
I accept: O(A or B) > P(A) & P(B).

I think in cases of ties, the right act is disjunctive, but each disjunct is permissible. But, it follows that if there are disjunctive right acts (which I think there are), then there are acts that are both permissible and not right.

Hence, it's not the case that X is right iff X is permissible.

You think 'right' always means permissible. I think the above is a counterexample to this equivalence. Disjuncts of acts tied for best are both permissible and not right.

(By the way, I'm also sure we hashed this issue out before, I hope I'm not forgetting something here.)

This is interesting. I would have said that 'right' is ambiguous between 'permissible' and 'required', but now I'm leaning toward the view that it always means 'permissible'. It's odd that it's so hard to find a really natural and clear use that has neither 'the' nor 'not'. Here's a try:

He finally did something right.

Sadly, even when I put this sentence in context I can't make it very clear whether it means that he finally did something permissible or that he finally did something required.

At first I thought that there must be an ethical use of 'right' according to which it means 'required', because there are obviously non-ethical uses like that. In non-ethical uses, 'right' is pretty well synonymous with 'correct'. But maybe that's a bad argument. Maybe the ethically correct acts are all and only the ethically permissible ones. Here Alex's point seems to help: we might presuppose a dichotomy when ascribing rightness. Compare: when trying to decide whether a chess move I'm considering is right, I am presupposing that each move is either permissible or impermissible.

Finally, following up Mark's point, if Mark said about some act "That's not right!" and I replied, "Oh yes it is," I would be contradicting him, and I think I'd be saying that the act was permissible. I might instead put it this way: "Oh yes, it's perfectly all right." And that is clearly saying that it's permissible.

In your example, I can't tell whether 'right' is an adverb or an adjective. What do you think? On the one hand, seems as if it's an adverb, in which case, if it is roughly the same as 'correct' the example should say "He finally did something correctly"(i.e., it modifies 'did'); but then "rightly" sounds odd and this is an aberrant grammar. On the other hand, if it is an adjective, then it means "He did an action and it was a right action" (modifies what he did, then event, rather than the doing). As I say, though, I'm not sure which it is. I hear a similar ambiguity in "That's not right!"


You said: "Finally, following up Mark's point, if Mark said about some act "That's not right!" and I replied, "Oh yes it is," I would be contradicting him, and I think I'd be saying that the act was permissible. I might instead put it this way: "Oh yes, it's perfectly all right." And that is clearly saying that it's permissible."

Anyway, I agree that you would be contradicting him by saying "Oh yes it is!" But, I think you would be saying something equivalent to "That is required!"

I don't think that "Oh yes, it's perfectly all right" is equivalent to "Oh yes it is" or "It's right".

'X is all right' and 'X is right' are different.

We use 'all right' to hedge, not 'right'. Consider: A says "How did you do?" B responds "I did all right." B is saying he did less than best, but okay.

But, if this dialogue can translate over to moral discourse, it only supports the 'mere permissibility' or 'impermissibility' reading for 'all right'.

Consider: A says "How did you do?" B says "I got it right". B is not saying he did less than best, but he would be saying he did less than best if he had said "I did all right".

But then, 'all right' and 'right' are different, and these conversations in a non-moral contexts make that difference evident. So, I'm seketchy about using the dialogue you suggested as evidence for 'right' to be equivalent to permissibility. If anything, I suggest your dialogue shows (assuming the non-moral analogy is apt) that 'right' means required.

My intuitions are that "right" always means obligatory. Here's a couple of responses to considerations raised above in favour of the view that it sometimes merely means permissible.

First, I concede we sometimes talk about "A right X", although this sounds somewhat odd. The most familiar context, to me, in which we'd say such a thing is regarding an answer on an examination: in the humanities, we say, there is often not one right answer but many. On reflection, it strikes me that this has to be obligation rather than permission: in an examination, some acceptable answer or other is required; it's not the case that some such answer is merely allowed. But what is required is a (possibly infinite) disjunction of acceptable answers, so I conclude that what is meant by "a right X", at least in this scenario, is something like "a disjunct of the obligatory answer".

Second, Mark observes that "that's not right" is generally taken to mean "that's prohibited", which means "that's not permitted", which strongly suggests that "right" here means "permitted". But consider that, for example, "I don't believe that God exists" is usually taken in conversation to mean the same as "I believe that God doesn't exist", which (we philosophers insist) it doesn't. Likewise, "he's not very wise" is taken to mean the same as "he's unwise" which it doesn't. So perhaps we can appeal to the same feature of conversation to explain why "it's not right" is taken to mean "it's prohibited/wrong" when it doesn't.

(This is my first ever venture into blogging -- be nice or I won't come back!)

Stephen, I think you're onto something in your reply to Mark. The two mistakes you mention both involve getting muddled about the scope of negation. Thus, in the first case, people often say

(A) I do not believe that P

when really they should say

(A') I do believe that not P.

Similarly, in the second case, people often say

(B) X is not very wise

when they mean to say

(B') X is very not-wise.

(The grammar in B' is a little suspect, but you get the idea.)

Now, if there's a similar muddle in the moral case, people might say

(C) X is not right

when they mean to say

(C') Not-X is right.

If that's the case, and if "right" means obligatory, then people would say C when they mean to say that X is impermissible.

Campbell, I followed you until your last sentence. If 'right' means 'obligatory', then C says

X is not obligatory.

and your friendly development of Steve's thesis is that people muddle this, meaning to say C'

It's not the case that X is obligatory.

But I don't yet see the difference between those two. Both seem to say the same thing, basically

'You don't *have* to X.'

("It's not obligatory to send flowers", "It's not that you HAVE to make amends.")

But C and C' both, to me at least, seem to say that X is impermissible.

Thanks Campbell, you got it exactly right. I could see that my first example involved the scope of the negation, but I didn't see how to accommodate the "very" or "right" cases that way.

In response to Robert: "Not-X is right", on the suggested reading, means that abstention from X is obligatory, NOT that it's not the case that X is obligatory.


I agree that something of the sort you mention *could* be employed to defend the view that 'right' always means required but that people mistakenly sometimes take it to mean permissible. I just don't believe that is what is going on here.

In fact, I'm a bit tempted to switch sides to the view that it always means permissible, which can cover the case where only one thing is permitted and hence where that one thing is required.

But if everyone here is a competent speaker and if everyone here correctly reports their own use of the relevant terms, it looks to me like competent speakers use 'right' in at least two ways, sometimes to mean permitted and at other times to mean required.

Steve, thanks. Like Mark, I think the case of 'right' *might* be like 'wise', etc. But it might not be a scope mistake; it might just be that 'right' means 'permissible' in C.

The discussion here has been really interesting; and at least some areas of consensus have emerged (as noted by Robert in early comment).
Just as a sub-question then: any thoughts on what we are to make of the views of Swanton (treating right actions as best actions), Hursthouse (treating right actions as commendable), etc.?
Josh suggested that these might be best understood as reflecting specific conceptions of 'right'. Offhand, they strike me more as unusual concepts (rather than mere conceptions). E.g., it seems that Swanton's proposal does not emerge out of her embrace of a virtue ethics (I think for her debates concerning right actions would be debates over how well differing conceptions of right action capture morally best actions). And recall that she also suggests (in passing) an additonal concept of "all right" actions, ones that are not wrong. So I do worry that people may be talking past each other in at least some of these cases.

Jason, I think both Swanton and Hursthouse -- as well as other virtue ethicists who claim to be offering an alternative conception of 'right' -- have a problem. On the one hand, they appear to be offering conceptions of 'right' that are to compete with the usual utilitarian and deontological conceptions. On the other hand, it is not clear that virtue ethics likes or accepts 'our' concept of 'right' at all. So it seems that they may be better understood as offering replacements for our concept(s) of right action. This, it seems to me, is why so many virtue ethicists want to use only 'thick' terms such as in "that was the courageous, just, kind, vile, etc., thing to do" -- rather than "that was the right/wrong thing to do". And this also explains why in some of the virtue ethics literature everyone seems to be talking past one another. Because they often are.

I think Robert's right about the virtue ethicists, but I resist the New Consensus. (I am sure that 'right' in the example in question is an adjective. That is, the sentence admits of both interpretations, but the one I mean is one in which 'right' is an adjective.)
Like Mark, I doubt that there is any scope mistake in common use that makes it plausible that 'right' really means 'obligatory' in the relevant examples. It is very unclear to me that people mean they believe that not-p when they say they don't believe that p, for one thing. What is the evidence for this? And I can't think of any example in which "She's not very φ" means "She's very unφ" either. Maybe there are pragmatic implications rather than meanings here?

I'll try to convince Stephen this afternoon.

Robert - I'm inclined to agree with what you say (seconded by Jamie) about virtue ethicists.

Jamie and Stephen - any progress in discussions of the new consensus?

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