In defense of our personal moral space

I do not like moralizations. For instance, I believe that we humans must make dramatic changes to our way of life to stop climate change. Among other things, we are morally obliged to release less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet, I consider it wrong to blame a friend or co-worker for flying to Paris for the weekend; we should not moralize. How do I reconcile these seemingly conflicting views?

The answer is that there is no conflict. My views about moral wrongness belong to one category of thought and my views about moral blameworthiness to another. They are separate. Therefore, I think that it may be wrong of my friend or co-worker to fly to Paris for the weekend, but also wrong of me to blame her for doing so. She is entitled to some personal moral space; a sphere of liberty in which she may act as she wishes without moral blame.

This distinction between two different categories of thought is helpful in explaining a lot of things about morality. For instance, it may be wrong of a person to get drunk too many nights in a row, buy cigarettes instead of giving to charity, think mean thoughts, and so on. She should not do those things. Yet, she is not blameworthy. It is her business, not others’.

Likewise, our actions may be right but not praiseworthy. For instance, it may be right of a person to go to work on time, be up-to-date on the latest news, forgive others when they have wronged, and so on. Yet, she is not praiseworthy for doing those things. Others should expect her to do what is right and she should not expect to be praised for it. The idea of a personal moral space has implications in two directions; it comes with thankless responsibility.

However, the distinction between the category of wrongness and rightness on the one hand and the category of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness on the other does not imply that we are never both wrong and blameworthy or right and praiseworthy. For instance, a person who ridicules science and flies round-trips to Paris just to get Facebook likes from climate skeptics is both wrong and blameworthy.

So, what determines the limits of our personal moral space? When are we both wrong and blameworthy or both right and praiseworthy? Among other things, the seriousness of our actions, not least in terms of how they affect others, matters. For instance, I think that a rich person who gives half of her fortune to charity is both right and praiseworthy. Also, the reason why we do things matters; a person who refrains from flying just to be able rub her moral superiority in others’ faces may be right but not praiseworthy.

Thus, the separation of the two categories of moral thought enables an explanation of a common anti-attitude toward moralization and reconciles it with a conviction about our deep moral obligations, such as combating climate change. Furthermore, the distinction illuminates some of the many complexities of morality, such as the relevance of the intention of actions and of the degree of impact they have. Finally, it offers a defense of our personal moral space, which I believe should be fundamental to life as a human being.


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