The Philosophy of Action: What Makes an Action Right or Wrong?

The Philosophy of Action refers to the study of human behavior and what motivates people to act in the way that they do. The concept of right and wrong actions arises from the idea of moral or ethical philosophy, which is concerned with determining what is right and wrong in human behavior. Ethics and morality are defined by society’s standards, beliefs, and values. But what is it that makes an action right or wrong? Is it subjective, or can it be objectively determined? In this article, we will delve into the various philosophical theories of action and explore the concept of right and wrong in human behavior.

Types of Actions

There are two types of actions: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary actions are those that we consciously decide to perform. For example, if you choose to go for a walk, it is a voluntary action. Involuntary actions, on the other hand, are those we have no control over. For example, our heartbeat, breathing, and digestion are all involuntary actions.

Actions can also be contrasted by their intention. Actions can be characterized as intentional or unintentional. For example, if you accidentally break someone’s glass, that is an unintentional action. If you break it intentionally, then it is an intentional action.

Moral Responsibility

In philosophy, moral responsibility is the idea that individuals are morally accountable for their actions, their behavior, and its consequences. This idea is based on the belief that we have free will, which means we can make choices and act accordingly. We have the ability to choose what to do, to control our behavior, and to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Moral responsibility is often linked to the concept of moral culpability, which means that individuals are to blame for their actions and can be held accountable for them. This idea is often used in legal proceedings, where individuals are charged with crimes and punished accordingly.

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Theories of Action

There are several philosophical theories of action, and each of these theories attempts to explain the nature of action, the reasons why people act in certain ways, and what makes an action right or wrong.

1. Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a moral theory that focuses on the outcomes or consequences of an action. According to this theory, the morality of an action is determined by its consequences. This means that an action is right or wrong solely based on the results it produces. Thus, actions are judged by their consequences.

For example, if a person steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving family, consequentialism would suggest that the action is morally right if it leads to the positive outcome of feeding their family. However, if a person steals a loaf of bread to satisfy their craving for bread, consequentialism would suggest that the action is morally wrong because there are no positive consequences to justify the theft.

2. Deontological Ethics

Deontological ethics focuses on duty and the rules of conduct. According to this theory, there are certain rules that we must follow regardless of the consequences. These rules are based on moral rules or principles that are grounded in reason or natural law. Duty is paramount in deontological ethics. An action is considered morally right or wrong based on how it fits into these predetermined moral rules.

For example, stealing is generally considered wrong in deontological ethics because it violates the moral rule of respecting the property of others. It doesn’t matter whether the stolen item was necessary for survival, as the moral rule prohibits taking something that does not belong to you.

3. Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of the individual’s character rather than the nature of the action itself. The theory suggests that the morality of an action is dependent on the character of the person performing it. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of cultivating good character traits that facilitate virtuous action.

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For example, if a person was a habitual liar and insincere in their dealings with others, their actions would be deemed morally wrong in virtue ethics, regardless of their intentions or the short-term outcomes that might ensue.


1. Is there an objective way to determine what makes an action right or wrong?

Morality is subjective, so no objective way exists that can be used to determine whether an action is right or wrong.

2. What is moral responsibility?

Moral responsibility refers to the notion that individuals are morally responsible for their behavior and the consequences attached to it. Thus, individuals may be held accountable for their actions and their consequences.

3. Why is virtue ethics important?

Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of good character traits, which are fundamental to cultivating virtuous action. This is essential for leading a fulfilling life and forging productive relationships with others.


The Philosophy of Action plays a critical role in the determination of what makes an action right or wrong. The three most important philosophical theories of action – consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics – help provide a deep understanding of the factors and principles involved in this determination. Understanding the various philosophical theories of action and moral responsibility can help individuals make better decisions that align with their values and beliefs. By considering the consequences of their actions, the rules of conduct, and the personal character traits cultivated, we can make more ethical and moral decisions.