Permissibility Is the Only Feasible Deontic Primitive

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Moral obligation and permissibility are usually thought to be interdefinable. Following the pattern of the duality definitions of necessity and possibility, we have that something’s being permissible could be defined as its not being obligatory to not do it. And that something’s being obligatory could be defined as its not being permissible to not do it. In this paper, I argue that neither direction of this alleged interdefinability works. Roughly, the problem is that a claim that some act is obligatory or permissible entails that there is a moral law, whereas a negative claim that some act is not obligatory or not permissible does not. Nevertheless, one direction of the interdefinability can potentially be salvaged. I argue that, if we do not require the conceptual possibility of moral dilemmas, then there is a way to plausibly define obligation in terms of permissibility. I conclude that permissibility is the only feasible deontic primitive.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-133
Number of pages17
JournalPhilosophical Perspectives
Issue number1
Early online date23 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 10 Nov 2020

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