I’ve been meaning to post this question for a while, but kept thinking that I ought to do some proper research on the topic. Fortunately, I’ve now given up on that thought.
So here’s the source of the question. I keep finding authors that seem to understand ‘right’ in very different ways; so much so that I wonder if there really is any shared concept here at all.
I think ‘right’ is most commonly treated as meaning something like permissible, so that an action is right iff it is permissible. But there are at least some instances where this leads to statements that seem quite strange in ordinary language. Suppose you choose to have a sesame seed bagel rather than a poppy seed bagel for breakfast. What you’ve done is presumably permissible, but it seems a stretch to say “You did a right thing by having a sesame seed bagel this morning”. Or imagine you’re not a baseball fan, but have been dragged to a game by friends. You catch a homerun ball. There is a boy nearby who obviously loves the game, and is a great fan of the player who hit the homerun. Still, you decide to keep the ball for yourself (though it means nothing to you) rather than giving it to this boy. I think we could say that your actions are permissible, but would we really want to say that it was a right thing that you kept the ball?
Thus we have Linda Zagzebski, in comparing her definition of a right action with that of Roslaind Hursthouse, stating that “the difference is that she is defining right in the sense of commendable, whereas I am defining right in the sense of permissible” (Divine Motivation Theory, 141).
Christine Swanton defines rightness in terms of best actions: “An act is right if and only if it is overall virtuous, and that entails that it is the, or a, best action possible in the circumstances” (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, 240). Swanton also, in passing, suggests that we might add a category of “all right actions” that “exclude actions which are overall vicious” (Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View, 240).
Robert Johnson, in his article “Virtue and Rightness”(Ethics 113 (2003) 310-34), draws attention to a distinction that he attributes to Martha Nussabaum: “[An opponent of Johnson’s view might suggest] there are actually two senses of ‘right’ at work, namely right as ‘fully adequate’ and right as ‘morally excellent’” (825). Fully adequate actions might just be permissible actions, but it is not entirely clear what ‘morally excellent’ amounts to.
Finally, and here I wish I had a better source, some treat ‘right’ as picking out required actions. I can’t point to a specific article or book here. But I did have a referee at a well-respected journal respond with puzzlement when in a paper I considered a series of different arguments, trying to take into account different ways that people might use the term ‘right’. To this referee, at least, it was obvious that right actions are morally required actions.
We might then add into the mix that some prefer not to speak of ‘rightness’ as such, but rather of objective rightness or subjective rightness.
So – is there a shared concept of rightness out there? And if there is not such a shared concept, is there enough confusion created by people using ‘right’ in very different ways, that we might be wise to eliminate the term from our discourse?