To begin with, recall that an action is an event that is immediately caused by an agent’s decision. Actions are often evaluated and prescribed by ethics. To do this, ethics has different ways to talk about the morality of actions.
The most general terms ethics uses to evaluate actions are permissible and impermissible. If an action is permissible, then it is not banned or prohibited by morality. If an action is impermissible, then it is banned or prohibited by morality.
Imagine you are stuck in traffic. You have been waiting behind a driver who is slow to respond to the movement of the lane, and you notice that this is because they are distracting themselves with their phone.
Out of frustration you may honk your horn or even drive into the back of their vehicle to get their attention. The first would be morally permissible. But the second would be morally impermissible because you would be damaging their property.
All actions are either permissible or impermissible, but if an action is permissible there is still more that ethics can say about it. In other words, there are different types of morally permissible actions. These are called obligatory, neutral, and supererogatory.
These terms all indicate actions that aren’t wrong. To see the difference between each more clearly, let’s think about a situation and the possible actions in response to it.
EXAMPLEImagine you witness a thief fleeing a bank they just robbed. You could choose to go on with your day as normal. This is a permissible action; more specifically, it is neutral because, although it’s not wrong for you to do so, it isn’t right either.
Alternatively, you could pursue the bank robber in an attempt to get the money back. This is also a permissible action. But you would actually be doing more than what is morally required. That is, it is supererogatory. In contrast to this, it is obligatory for the police to try to apprehend the robber because that is part of the duty they signed up for. Of course, we know that the action of the robber is impermissible.
There are many situations in life where there are several different actions involved that can be evaluated as either permissible or impermissible, of which the permissible actions can be further evaluated as obligatory, neutral, or supererogatory.
How did you evaluate these actions? It is impermissible for the world leader to lie and to put lives at risk without proper justification. Your actions are permissible, but in different ways.
Contacting the authorities is obligatory since you ought to stop death and injury when you aren’t placed in danger. Contacting the press is neither right nor wrong. And volunteering is supererogatory because you are putting yourself at risk for the benefit of others.