Monday, August 22, 2011

General Moral Permissions vs. Specific Moral Obligations

Sometimes I hear people in the Christian tradition say things like, “I have liberty to do this or that.” In the secular world, we often hear this expressed as “it’s my right to do this and this,” or “I should be allowed to do this and that.” These we can call “general moral permissions.” However, there are some occasions where these general moral permissions (GMP) give way to specific moral obligations (SMO).

As an example, consider the GMP “I am permitted to sleep in until ” There is nothing inherently immoral or evil about sleeping to such an hour. Neither is it necessarily commanded to sleep in to that hour. Therefore, it may be reasonably inferred that one has a GMP; that is, one has the freedom of choice to decide whether or not she will sleep to that hour.

However, let us suppose the girl in question has a job, and that she is contractually obliged to report to work at 8:30 a.m. Because she has made a promise and has no mitigating circumstances, it can be said she has a specific moral obligation to report to work. Hence, in this case her GMP gives way to the SMO of keeping her promise to go to work. It would not be moral, all things being equal, for her to promise to come to work and then deliberately choose not to report at the time agreed. Notice nothing about the inherent moral status of the GMP changed.

Now consider the case of the man who drinks alcohol and reasons: “I am allowed to drink alcohol. I am allowed to drive. Therefore, I am allowed to drink and to drive at the same time.” This is fallacious for two reasons. 1. All that follows is that it is the case the man is allowed to drink and the man is allowed to drive; it is a logically unjustified leap to infer he may do both at the same time. 2. It violates our moral intuitions and legal knowledge.

Notice it also does not even matter if the general moral permission really is a general moral permission after all. All that is necessary to be obligated to submit to the specific moral obligation is that “if it were the case that X is a GMP, then X must submit to SMO Y.” Of course, if it turns out that X is not a general moral permission, then in fact X is a specific moral obligation; that is, one must not do it. The point? Even if something is not necessarily bad or even good, if one is obligated to a standard or course of behavior prohibiting or limiting the GMP, then it is a moral failing to ignore the SMO in favor of the GMP.
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