When I brush my teeth, you wouldn’t say that’s a morally relevant action, right?

What if I were to poke you in the eye with my toothbrush, would it be a morally relevant then?

These cases illustrate a problem in moral philosophy that I’ve been contemplating recently — namely, when does an action fall within the moral domain? Why are certain things ethically good and bad, while others are ethically neutral? And is there a sharp cutoff between what is in the domain and what is out of it?

Right away, my intuition draws me to the presence of pain in the stabbing toothbrush scenario. Causing undue pain, for instance, may be a clear example of something that falls within the moral domain. And yet, the presence of pleasure doesn’t strike me as necessarily morally good — so eating ice cream may be enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say that I’m doing something morally good by eating ice cream.

I’d be prepared to argue, however, that giving ice cream to someone else as an act of kindness is morally valuable — it is more clearly in the moral domain.

Perhaps, then, it is the presence of other people that makes an action moral or immoral, and that the interplay between people is inherently ethically charged. As in, an interaction has what we may call the action potential to be either good or bad.

I like this idea because it’s flexible. I could be talking with you about the weather, and we may call that ethically neutral. But at any point, I have the potential to say, “Wow, you have a very pleasant voice, and I enjoy listening to you.” This compliment might make you feel good to some extent, and I’d call that morally good. Similarly, I could turn our conversation from the weather to something stormier and say, “Wow, you have a repulsive voice and I think your words sound like nails on a chalkboard.” In this sense, I’ve clearly made you feel bad, and I’d say that’s mean and immoral. Our conversation about the weather, then, was operating within the moral domain, since it had the potential to be morally good or morally bad at any moment.

But this has some interesting implications. For one, it would seem to preclude the possibility of morally good or morally bad actions if they were isolated. Imagine you were on a desert island: would you be within the moral domain? According to the definition I provided above, you wouldn’t be, since I argued that it is only through our interactions with other people that an action can be ethical or unethical.

And now I’m starting to worry about my definition a bit.

I think that self-harm, for instance, could be considered unethical towards yourself. It’s a reflexive action with no one else involved, and yet it intuitively strikes me as wrong. I imagine you may share that sentiment.

Though in extrapolating that idea to its logical extension, I see that suicide would be considered greatly unethical, and that gives me pause. Personally, I believe that all people should be afforded the right to their own self-determination, and that if they choose to no longer continue living, they should be allowed to do so.

So now I have competing intuitions: on one hand, I intuitively think it’s wrong to cause self-harm. On the other, I believe that people should be allowed ownership of their own bodies and be allowed to end their lives if they so choose.

I wonder if you share these intuitions with me. If you do, you probably also realize that they are very much at odds with one another, and something will have to give way.

Personally, I’m inclined to forfeit my belief that self-harm is immoral. After all, people should be the arbiters of their own fates, and I have no ethical qualms with someone who commits suicide, or does anything else for that matter that may cause personal injury. I suspect that I feel this way because there is something necessarily consensual in a reflexive action.

Consent, then, may be a very powerful determining factor in whether an action is considered morally good or morally bad. In fact, it may be the determining factor. If the moral domain is inherently social (that is to say, it is only through interaction and interplay with others that render an action good or bad), then whether there is consent in that interplay should matter a great deal. If, for instance, you give me your permission and encouragement to poke you in the eye with my toothbrush, then the action ceases to be immoral.

But this is a digression — the purpose of this essay is not to determine what is good or bad within the moral domain; rather, the goal is to determine what constitutes the moral domain in the first place.

Looking back at the example of us talking about the weather, I had said that this is an action that is ethically charged: I used the term action potential since our discussion could at any point become good or bad, depending on what I say to you.

To flesh this out further, I’d tweak my original assessment. I meant to use the conversation about the weather as an illustration of how relationships and interactions with others are necessary conditions for actions to be considered within the moral domain. In other words, morality doesn’t apply if there are no other people who are affected by the action (and we can expand “others” to include other sentient beings). However, when we talk about the weather, that is clearly amoral — the conversation is not clothed in moral terms, even though we’ve seen that it has the potential to be.

What, then, pushes the amoral conversation in the direction of either morally good or morally bad?

Here, again, I’d turn to the presence of pleasure and pain. If I use my words to compliment you and make you smile, I’ve clearly done something valuable. And conversely, if I use my words to insult and make you sad, I’ve clearly done something harmful. Talking about the weather does neither.

So though our very interaction is a necessary condition to be considered as part of the moral domain, it doesn’t seem to be a sufficient condition. Similarly, the presence of pleasure or pain may be a necessary condition, but it too is insufficient to be considered moral or immoral, as it may be taking place on the desert island (as we’ve said before, eating ice cream or causing self-harm is not inherently morally good or morally bad).

So our new qualification for actions that fall within the moral domain is that they must involve the presence of pleasure or pain, and they must involve the presence of others.

I like this definition a lot, and it seems to capture a broad swath of our intuitions. It is wide enough to include the myriad cases of ethical and unethical actions, and yet it is specific enough to tell us when an action is morally charged and when it isn’t.

There are a few other issues that this may raise. For one, we’ve been talking of moral actions, and not moral people. Someone who espouses a flavor of virtue ethics may take issue with this distinction and argue that the moral domain doesn’t apply to actions by themselves, rather that it is in effect all the time — it is as omnipresent and consistent as gravity.

Someone else may take issue with the brief aside we explored regarding consent, and may claim that even if you give me permission to poke you with my toothbrush, it is still immoral to do so.

Lastly, if someone believes that people should not be allowed to take their own lives (perhaps for religious reasons, or by arguing that in doing so the persons committing suicide will cause undue pain to those around them), then perhaps the moral domain operates even when we are alone.

These issues can and should be explored further, yet I can already imagine strong rebuttals to each one. So for now, I’m comfortable operating within the moral domain that we’ve defined together, and I hope you are as well, since I’m about to go brush my teeth.

By the way, lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it?

I’m approachable!