What makes an action wrong? The answers to this question seem to fall into two categories. One of which expresses a good intuition about the wrongness of our actions and one of which leaves us with the same problems we ran into answering the previous question. Let’s look at the problematic answer first.
The individual: I’m not sure why this is such a tempting answer but some seem to think that what makes an action wrong is an individual’s belief that it is wrong. As we saw above, this leaves open the problematic possibility that if an individual does not believe their action is wrong, then somehow (as if by magic) the action is not wrong. So, again the rapist’s action is not wrong if they do not believe it is wrong. But, when you think about it why someone should’s belief be relevant to whether an action is right or wrong? Why should a belief make an action wrong?
A better answer: Another answer to the question involves two important aspects of most common ethical theories: motivation and outcome. So, some people say that an action is wrong if it involves intentional harm to another. This is getting at an important intuition about morality. For deontologists the intention is crucial to an action’s moral worth. For utilitarians, the outcome or consequences are the key. By combining them we arrive at a good understanding of what actually makes an action wrong.