I was thinking about my previous boycotting marriage post some more, and I figured out that this is a great chance to give a little ethics lesson on deontic verdicts.
“Deontic” just means something like “related to duties.” In this case, we’re interested in moral duties, as opposed to legal duties, or some other kind. Different moral theories can be distinguished by what deontic verdicts they issue – that is, moral theory A might say that abortion is wrong, while moral theory B says abortion is sometimes ok.
There are four basic classes of deontic verdict that a moral theory can issue on any given action.
- Impermissible: If an action is morally impermissible, that means that you cannot do it, from the moral point of view. Synonyms for the impermissible category include “wrong” and “forbidden.”
- Permissible: If an action is morally permissible, that means that you can do it, from the moral point of view. Synonyms include “right” and “optional.”
- Obligatory: If an action is morally obligatory, that means that you must do it, from the moral point of view. Synonyms include “required” and “duty” (as in, “feeding your children is your duty”). Notice that “right” can be a synonym for both “permissible” and “obligatory.” When people say that something is “right,” their statements are ambiguous, and we have to figure out from the context whether they mean “permissible” or “obligatory.” For instance, if someone says “gay marriage is right,” they probably mean that, for any given couple, gay marriage is morally permissible, not that it is morally obligatory.
- Supererogatory: This word describes actions that go above and beyond what is morally required in a praiseworthy way. For instance, you probably think the acts of charity performed by Mother Theresa were supererogatory. But not all morally permissible actions are also supererogatory. For instance, eating Lucky Charms instead of Golden Grahams for breakfast is permissible, but there’s nothing supererogatory about it.
Got all that? Great! So here’s the point I really wanted to make:
I propose (tentatively!!) the moral principle that symbolic gestures of solidarity with disadvantaged, unlucky or oppressed groups of people are supererogatory. That means it’s great if you do them, but you’re not morally blameworthy if you don’t. I suggested before that heterosexual people postponing or even renouncing marriage in support of their homosexual friends and neighbors is indeed a symbolic gesture (since their act in itself is unlikely to actually change things). Heterosexual people who don’t choose to engage in the symbolic gesture and who do marry (like me) are not violating a moral duty, but are merely opting not to do the supererogatory thing.
Other possible examples of symbolic gestures of solidarity include those rubber Livestrong wristbands, wearing black to mourn the dead, and changing your Twitter avatar green in support of Iranian demonstrators. These things are probably supererogatory, but not morally obligatory.
Can anyone think of a counterexample to my principle that symbolic gestures of solidarity are supererogatory? You’d need to come up with a situation in which a symbolic gesture does NOT seem supererogatory – either a symbolic gesture that seems to be morally impermissible or, on the other hand, a gesture that seems morally obligatory.