Intuitively, it’s clear that ‘wrong’ entails ‘ought not’; and the term ‘right’ seems simply to be the contradictory of ‘wrong’ (after all, ‘It’s not right’ seems at first glance to entail ‘It’s wrong’, and obviously nothing can be both right and wrong). But then it follows that ‘right’ cannot entail anything stronger than ‘it is not the case that … ought not…’. I.e., ‘right’ cannot mean anything stronger than ‘permissible‘.
Intuitively, however, ‘right’ seems stronger than ‘permissible’. If I say, "You’re quite right to F", I seem to be expressing a much stronger sort of approval of your F-ing than if I merely said "It is quite permissible for you to F". It’s natural to talk about "the right thing to do", but decidedly odd to talk about "a right thing to do" (whereas it’s perfectly natural to talk about "a permissible thing to do"). So, what does ‘right’ mean — does it just mean ‘permissible’ or does it mean something stronger?
At first glance, it certainly seems that ‘It’s not right’ entails ‘It’s wrong’. But on further reflection, it becomes clear that this entailment only holds if we restrict our attention to items that are capable of being either right or wrong. The number 2 is presumably neither right nor wrong; and so ‘The number 2 is not right’ does not entail ‘The number 2 is wrong’! Thus, any normal use of ‘x is right’ presupposes that x is an item of the sort that is capable of being right or wrong.
There is a lot of debate about what exactly these items are. (Are they acts? or states of affairs? or what?) To fix ideas, let us call these items "options"; and let us suppose that options are states of affairs of a certain kind. Specifically, let us suppose that an option is a state of affairs that consists in a certain agent’s doing an act of a certain type at a certain time — e.g., the state of affairs of Buridan’s ass eating the bale of hay on the Left at time t.
Now, options or states of affairs can be individuated either finely or coarsely. E.g., the state of affairs of Buridan’s ass eating the bale of hay on the Left at time t is individuated more coarsely than the state of affairs of the ass’s eating the bale of hay on the Left at t by first taking a bite from the bottom right-hand corner of the bale, but more finely individuated than the ass’s eating either the hay on the Left or the hay on the Right at t.
In general, there will be many different ways of carving up or partitioning the relevant space of options or states of affairs. But there will be at least one special way of partitioning the space of states of affairs so that every one of the states of affairs in this special partition is either obligatory or impermissible. (If I remember rightly, this point has been made by my colleague Krister Bykvist in his paper "Alternative Actions and the Spirit of Consequentialism", Philosophical Studies (2002).)
E.g., with Buridan’s ass, this special partition will include the obligatory option of eating either the hay on the Left or the hay on the Right at t, and it will also include the impermissible option of eating neither the hay on the Left nor the hay on the Right at t. But this special partition will not include either the option of eating the hay on the Left or the option of eating the hay on the Right — since neither of those options is either obligatory or impermissible.
So my proposal about the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is that it is only the options that belong to a partition of this sort that can ordinarily be called "right" or "wrong". This implies the following three theses:
- any one of these options that is not right is wrong;
- any one of these options that is wrong is impermissible;
- any one of these options that is right is obligatory.
Obviously, this will explain why saying "You were quite right to F" expresses a much stronger approval of your F-ing than "It was permissible for you to F". This then is my solution to the puzzle that we started with.