Programming, philosophy, pedaling.

The Zone of Indifference Should be Pretty Small

Nov 21, 2017     Tags: philosophy    


This was originally written about a month ago, then re-written about two weeks ago.


There are many ways to categorize actions when discussing morality: permissible, impermissible, obligatory, supererogatory, possible, and so on.

These categories have been interpreted variously over the last 3000 years by countless philosophers, and trying to fairly summarize each of them (which was the original goal of this post) would take much longer than I’m willing to commit to a blog.

Instead, I’m going to focus in on one categorization of actions: that given by James Fishkin in The Limits of Obligation (1982)1.

In particular, I’m going to poke at Fishkin’s zone of indifference and give some reasons why, on consideration, we ought to be committed to it being much smaller than we might initially hold. I’ll do this from a deontological perspective, meaning that I will try to produce considerations from duty, rather than from utility or virtue.

Fishkin’s Categorization

In The Limits of Obligation, Fishkin provides a tripartite (and unique) categorization of actions:

A given action must be classifiable at no more than one of the following categories: (a) indifference, (b) moral requirement, (c) supererogation. (Obligation, 13)

These categories are straightforward:

Fishkin organizes morally indifferent actions into what he calls the zone of indifference, which is what I’ll be focusing on.

The Zone of Indifference

According to Fishkin, most of our actions fall within the zone of indifference: they are “neither right nor wrong, good nor bad.”

His first form of this claim is weak: that we merely take this to be the case, not that it should or shouldn’t be. This form is not objectionable: it is certainly is true that most of our everyday actions are performed without moral consideration — what I choose for breakfast doesn’t appear to me good or bad, but rather the sole object of my tastes or preferences. I don’t think about a grapefruit as the “right” breakfast compared to oatmeal3.

His second form is stronger, and comprises what he calls the “robust” zone:

A substantial proportion of any individual’s actions falls appropriately within the zone of indifference or permissibly free personal choice. (Obligation, 23)

Where the first form is positive, this form is normative: “appropriately” suggests that we are right to perform most of our actions without moral consideration. Not only is it the case that I don’t think about the rightness of my breakfast, it is perfectly fine for me to not think about it.

Fishkin justifies this second form by observing that denying it results in two undesirable consequences: that we are either largely immoral (or incredibly lucky) in our day-to-day affairs, and that moral consideration of all of our actions would require us to be “saints”:

We would have to begin living in such a way that virtually every action or inaction we considered — at every moment in our lives — would be treated as a problem of moral choice. (Obligation, 22)

Fishkin takes this everyday saintliness to be thoroughly within the zone of supererogation — after all, how could we reasonably expect individuals to constantly consider their actions from a moral perspective? It seems extreme (even heroic) for an individual to act in such a way, and therefore beyond the zone of obligation4. Therefore, according to Fishkin, we must “presuppose a kind of negative freedom that most of us take for granted — the freedom, within outer limits set by morality, to do as we please in broad areas of our lives.”

I think Fishkin’s first observation is correct: if we reject the robust form, then we are committed to believing that the majority (if not all) of our actions are either immoral or fortunately right5. His second observation, on the other hand, rings hollow to me, and I’ll delve into the reasons why below.

Shrinking the Zone

In my attempt to shrink the zone of indifference, I’m going to tackle Fishkin’s examples directly:

  1. Deciding what to serve at a dinner party.
  2. Deciding which courses to teach.
  3. Deciding what (law) school to attend.
  4. Deciding whether or not (or when) to have a child.

Although Fishkin admits that each of these could pose a “moral problem” under certain conditions, he maintains that all of them exist in the zone of indifference otherwise. My intention is to show that this is not the case — that it is possible to produce the need for moral consideration many (if not virtually all) circumstances we can reasonably expect in each example. I will show that it is not only possible to produce this need, but also that such moral consideration is both obligatory and yet not a crushing imposition on our freedom to broadly do as we please.

The Dinner Party

Fishkin suggests that the question of what to serve at a dinner party is not a moral one. This seems reasonable at first glance, but falls apart under inspection.

Consider the end of having a dinner party: pleasing one’s guests6. Part of achieving this end, then, is conducting the party in a way that would not necessarily harm or insult them. If one’s end is to have a good dinner party (and therefore please one’s guests), it would be wrong to prepare a dinner they could not (or would not want to) eat.

Concretely: consider a dinner party where one of the invitees is a vegan. You (the host) are not vegan yourself, but are aware of your guests’ restrictions and plan accordingly with a dinner they can eat. This, to me, seems like both a moral consideration and a good action, whereas failing to plan accordingly would be a bad one.

We can imagine another version of the scenario: perhaps I simply forgot to ask my guests about their restrictions, and my vegan guest has nothing to eat at the party. This is unfortunate, but it’s clear that I haven’t failed them maliciously. Despite not acting out of malice, however, there is still a sense in which I’ve done something bad: I should have made such a consideration as part of my end of pleasing my guests.

Of course, not every dinner party will have a vegan at the table. But the scenario directly above illustrates that overarching moral consideration is still present: that, if my end is truly to have a good dinner party, there are certain considerations I must make.

We must take care not to expand our considerations so far that we end up becoming “perfect” hosts in the supererogatory sense — I have broad discretion in the timing and duration of the party, in which foods I serve compatible with the basic requirements of my guests, and so on.

I am not morally obligated to host a dinner party. However, to the extent that I make it my end to host one, I am obligated to make moral considerations as part of hosting one well.

Choosing Courses to Teach

In choosing which courses I teach, it seems obvious that I first ask myself what courses I should teach.

For example: a professor of Middle English could certainly “teach” a class on Linear Algebra by copying from the textbook and performing the mechanical actions of moderating the class and grading assignments (via an answer key). However, it seems obvious that this shouldn’t happen: the professor will not be able to engender a real appreciation for the material in their students without first appreciating it themselves, and the students (who rightfully expect their professor to be more than an exam-grading machine) will not receive the sort of domain-specific education that comes from a background in the material.

Of course, the case above is a little absurd: it’s unlikely that any university would allow a professor of Middle English to teach Linear Algebra (or vice versa) unless they were qualified to.

So, let’s consider two decision cases that are more probable:

  1. Teaching a class that you are equipped to teach, but that another professor is more equipped to teach.
  2. Teaching the same class year-after-year.

In case 1, I might be a perfectly fine professor of Linear Algebra. However, I am also busy: I have other academic and personal obligations. My equally qualified colleague, on the other hand, has no contravening obligations and is equally willing to teach the class. From my position of priority in the department, I have a decision to make: cement my position by teaching the class, or allow my colleague to take it.

At first glance, there seems to be nothing objectionable about taking the class for myself — I am qualified to teach it, and it’s even in my own best interest to teach it (in terms of my career). However, knowing my other obligations, I know that I will have to make myself less available to my students than I normally would. This is something I should consider: is it okay for me to teach a class knowing that it will not be up to my normal standards, and that my students will potentially suffer under my more divided attention? Is this an appropriate avenue of action for advancing my career?

For case 2: let’s say that I’ve taught the same course for the last 15 years, and am planning on teaching again for a 16th year. From one perspective, this seems to be a good thing: I have extensive experience teaching the class, as well as course materials that I’ve already produced and can reuse to make the course run smoothly.

Just as above, there seems to be nothing initially objectionable in this case. However, consider a biasing effect: the material (and my understanding of it) remain relatively static, while my students change with every semester. Repeated year-after-year, this leads to evaluative problems: Are the students truly worse this year, or am I simply too familiar with the material? Are this year’s exams appropriately challenging? How much material is it appropriate to recycle?

None of the considerations above, in either case, produce crippling obligations — the process of evaluating them is brief, as well as consistent with what we take to be one of the primary considerations of a “good” professor: how to do well by one’s students.

Choosing a School to Attend

The case of deciding which school to attend can be dispensed in a fashion similar to the dinner decision above.

There are many reasons why people go to college, but three overwhelmingly common ones are as follows:

  1. To become a better person.
  2. To learn a particular trade or skill.
  3. To prepare oneself for a job (potentially as a means to a fulfilling life).

These reasons are not exhaustive, but common enough: most students could point to at least one of these as motivation for pursuing a college education.

If college is a means to becoming a better person (as in case 1), then I am certainly required to make moral considerations in my decision process: I should, per my end of being a good person, choose a college that I think will provide the best (or good) environment for my moral development. I might be wrong about which college does in fact provide that environment, but the consideration itself is necessary per my end.

Cases 2 and 3, on the other hand, are covered by the same argument as the dinner party. If my end is developing a trade or skill (case 2), then I would be in a sense wronging myself by not taking classes that I can reasonably consider necessary for my skill. Preparing myself for a job (case 3), then, is an extension of case 2: I would be wronging both myself and my potential employer by not taking courses I reasonably deem necessary.

As above, there are other reasons why people go to college: because they are made to by their families, to avoid a military draft or bad job market, and so on. However, I maintain that these reasons are either less common, not solitary7, or similarly dispensable though appeals to personal ends. Thus, given that we have an “ordinary” reason for pursuing college, we are obligated to make moral considerations part of our decision process.

Having a Child

Last but not least, the case of deciding whether (and when) to have a child. Of all of Fishkin’s examples, this one seems the most straightforward to me.

Although it is not established that we have duties to infants and children qua rational beings (they are, after all, not fully rational), we do seem to have duties that concern them as they reflect upon us8. As such, there is at least one basic consideration that I seem obligated to make before having a child:

This is a hard question for anybody to answer in the affirmative with certainty, especially when having their first child. However, it does seem easier to answer it in the negative: if I am not content with my current state of affairs, or if I know that I cannot afford to raise a child in a way that I deem acceptable, or even if I think that I lack the emotional maturity that I associate with raising children well.

To make things less abstract: it seems wrong of me to bring a child into the world if I know that I reasonably doubt my ability to nurture it into a being like myself.

The same considerations hold for adopting a child: it seems wrong to adopt a child knowing that my current state of affairs is not something resembling their best interests.

Considered Examples

It should be clear that I have not exhaustively eliminated the zone of indifference — I have only shown that each of Fishkin’s four examples involve moral consideration in many (if not all) cases.

Moreover, I do not reject the zone of indifference entirely, and here are some considered examples of morally indifferent actions:

None of the points above constitutes a full argument — they’re just for thought.

Concluding Thoughts

The moral considerations produced for each above example centered around our obligations towards ourselves and others: my academic success, the happiness of my vegan friend, and so on. However, there’s an entire different collection of considerations that I’ve omitted: those toward the environment and global community as a whole10.

Consider each of the following:

Regardless of my answers to the above (no, for both), the point is this: that I should at least be considering these things, and thus place them outside of my practical zone of indifference. I do not have to be morally heroic to make such considerations a constant part of my life, and in fact seem to be obligated to do so, both by virtue of doing well by myself and by virtue of preserving the world I live in.

- William

  1. It’s worth noting that this post isn’t meant to pick at Fishkin in particular — I just happened to like his wording. 

  2. I’m used to calling these actions “morally irrelevant,” but I’m going to use Fishkin’s terminology throughout this post for consistency. 

  3. Barring some kind of breakfast maxim: “in order to lose weight, I will eat grapefruit for breakfast.” This kind of maxim is plausible, but also exceptional — the average, non-dieting person is not thinking about the “rightness” of their breakfast, only what they desire to eat. 

  4. As per the categorization being unique: if something is supererogatory, then it cannot be either morally indifferent or obligatory. 

  5. I used “fortunately right” instead of “fortunately moral” here since such actions aren’t done from duty (or other concept productive of moral worth in the Kantian sense), but merely conform with it. 

  6. This could be tied into the norms of xenia and hospitium in the Greco-Roman world. 

  7. As in, one of the reasons from the original 3 cases also contributes to the decision. 

  8. In the same vein as our duties towards animals: being willing to mistreat animals betrays a capacity and willingness to mistreat beings like ourselves. See Kant, MM 6:443-4

  9. Peter Singer, “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle” (1997) 

  10. Fishkin has a good excuse for not mentioning such considerations in 1982: the ethical consumption movement didn’t appear for another decade.