What Makes an Issue a Moral Issue?

Obviously, moral issues are about human actions. Non-human actions are usually not appraised from a moral perspective. For instance, it would not make much sense to say of the flood or hurricane that ravage cities, killing multitudes and destroying vast infrastructural facilities that it has done something immoral. Neither do we normally evaluate the behavior of animals from the moral perspective. The dog that bit a child could not be said to have carried out an immoral thing. Even when we say that the dog has done something bad, we definitely are not using the word “bad” in a moral sense.

We need to appreciate the fact that terms such as, good, bad, right and wrong, employed to denote the moral value of human actions, apart from having their usual moral connotations also have non-moral meanings. For instance, when we say that a knife or a car is good, the term ‘good’ is not used in a moral but a nonmoral sense. In the letter sense ‘good’ is used, for instance, to show that the knife or car is effective in achieving the purpose for which it was made.

We must also understand that it is not every human action that is susceptible to moral evaluation. Some are morally neutral and are called amoral human actions. This category of actions is not morally relevant as it would not be meaningful to say that they are morally good or bad, right or wrong. For instance, no one could reasonably say that my decision to wear a pair of black shoes and not a brown one, or perhaps eating bread and sausage for breakfast, rather than pancakes, is a moral decision. Hence, it is important that we are able to distinguish between those human actions that are morally relevant and the ones that are morally irrelevant.

The important question to ask now is: what makes an issue a moral issue? Essentially, moral issues are defined by their relevance to the well being of people in society. For an issue to be moral, it must affect the well being of people in society either by increasing or decreasing the harm or benefit that would accrue to them. However, there is a debate over whether or not an issue is a moral issue when only the wellbeing of the agent is at stake.

Apart from the fact that a moral issue is essentially related to human actions and borders on their wellbeing, it must also be a product of free choice. This suggests that for a human action to be subject to moral evaluation it must have been an action carried out by the individual as a free agent. It must not be an action carried out under any form of compulsion.

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