Moral dilemmas and moral theory

Alex asked:

What exactly is a moral dilemma? Is it just a difficult moral decision? What is it about dilemmas that prevents them from being resolved by appeal to a moral theory like utilitarianism?

Answer by Craig Skinner

In the strict sense, there is no such things as a moral dilemma. Only moral conflicts.

Loosely, moral conflicts are sometimes called dilemmas, but I find this confusing and prefer simply to refer to conflicts.

Conflicts cant always be resolved on utilitarian grounds because the utilities (value, welfare) attaching to the different options sometimes have no common metric.

Let me explain.

1. No moral dilemmas, just conflicts

This is a bit technical, but it cant be helped.

According to standard formulation, a moral dilemma requires:

(a) each of two actions is morally required
(b) neither requirement overrides the other
(c) I can do either action but not both
(d) there is inevitable moral failure

When you measure actual conflicts against these standards, none is a dilemma. Two standard examples will illustrate.

In Sophie’s choice there is a moral requirement that she protect both her children. But this is denied her by the cruel prison guard. Her choice to save one child (rather than, say, spit in the guard’s face and tell him he can do his worst) is a moral one. But the choice of which child to save, though heartbreaking, is not a moral choice, she may as well toss a coin to decide. And if she does save one child, she is not guilty of a moral failure (though she would feel she was all her life).

In Sartre’s example of the young man torn between joining the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers who had killed his brother, and staying with his old mother whose only consolation he was, neither option is morally required (obligatory), only morally desirable.

Formally, there is a proof that a moral dilemma, as defined above, plus The Principle of Deontic Consistency (the same action cant be both obligatory and forbidden) and the Principle of Deontic Logic (if, necessarily, doing A yields B, then if A is obligatory, B is obligatory), yields a contradiction. So, to hold on to moral dilemma, you must give up one of these Principles (unpalatable), or change the definition of a dilemma. But doing the latter blurs any distinction between dilemma and conflict, which is why I find it simplest and least confusing just to refer to moral conflicts.

2, Conflicts not always resolvable

Typically, the moral principle is a different one for each option, and you cant compare them, only plump for one or other as right for you. So, in the Sartre case, the relative utility or value of contributing to the happiness of a mother who has already lost one son, and showing solidarity with friends risking their lives as Resistance fighters, cant be measured, it’s comparing chalk and cheese, and the young man must just choose. Indeed Sartre emphasizes the now-familiar existentialist points that we have radical freedom to make choices, the need to make some or other choice, the absence of any person, god or principle that can decide for us, the total responsibility we have for the effects of our choices, the loneliness of the situation, and the fact that our choices make us the persons we are and will become.


Leibniz’s theory of monads for the perplexed

Elaine asked:

So… I’m a regular high school student who has run across the problem of not knowing what a monad is i try so hard to understand what Leibniz what trying to explain but it seems like monads are just a substance of everything. They’re described as if they are alive yet they don’t exist and at the same time they already know what they’re suppose to do yet still nonexistent… *sigh* I’m trying to understand it all but in a way i can’t please help!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I sympathise with your predicament. Unfortunately it is difficult to overcome if, like most students, you read only the Monadology, which is not the work where Leibniz explains everything. The complete theory of the monads is spread across several writings and has to be pieced together from them. You might wonder why this is the case; and the answer is that Leibniz wrote not just for professional philosophers, but also tried to explain the monads to interested amateurs who were mainly interested in how it might solve their religious problems. These papers usually give a predigested account with the readers’ understanding of Christian doctrines in mind and skate over some of the deeper issues. The Monadology is one of these papers, written for perusal by a French Minister of State. A companion piece (‘Principles of Nature and Grace’) was written for Prince Eugene, a soldier.

Now if you are really serious about it, there is an excellent book by Nicholas Rescher: ‘Monadology, A Student Edition’, which does exactly what I’ve just said by collecting all the papers concerning the monadology in one volume. It explains every one of the numbered paragraphs and adds relevant texts from others of Leibniz’ writings, including some of his philosophical letters.

On the other hand, if you just wish to have a simple explanation to remove your confusion, I’ll give you the gist of it.

Leibniz was attempting to give a philosophical account of the smallest possible particle; and how all the matter, dead and alive, could be derived from this particle as the final building block. To this extent it is clearly a ‘substance metaphysics’. But the underlying idea is more familiar to us today as a scientific proposition. Leibniz would have wondered why we make this distinction!

He finally arrived at the notion that force is this final building block. But he gave it the name ‘monad’. Obviously this is not alive! He never claims it is alive; this is just a misunderstanding of his occasional remark (to religious people) that they should think of the monad like ‘a little soul’.

Now everything in the universe exhibits force, but you never see force ‘by itself’. We see it when it plays a role in the motions and collisions of objects. So he conceived of force as an infinity of points of energy that are spread throughout the universe. Evidently so small that we cannot perceive them as points, but only as an all-pervasive field.

The point is now, that both matter and life draw their energy from this force. There are several kinds of force corresponding to the four basic kinds of matter. The totally dead stuff, like rock or iron, which is inert. The absolutely alive stuff, like minds and souls. And all the gradations in between, such as our animal bodies that integrate matter and force.

Evidently this entails that force is itself transformed when it creates a condition of existence. Leibniz explains it this way: That innumerable monads congregate to make an existent. If it is alive, then animation results from a predominance of active force. If it is dead, then inert force is responsible. So there is a stepladder upward from mere matter to almost pure mind. But every existent has some passive force in it (matter), and every piece of matter has some little quantity of live force in it.

I hope this clears up a little of the picture. You will of course have observed that Leibniz brings God into the picture almost obsessively. It was evidently important to him to be perceived as a pious thinker, and it can make matters difficult for us. But as I hinted earlier, Leibniz was both a philosopher and a scientist. His first published paper was a New Theory of Physics! Bear this in mind, and try not to read his works in an exclusively philosophical mode.


Puzzle about absent time travellers

Nicholas asked:

Is one of the reasons there are no time travellers visiting us (the general public) in the past because time travel is never seriously researched, given the stigma attached to the subject, and thus is never invented ? Could there be other reasons, such as future government regulation/monitoring or limited use as another reason for no time travelling tourists in the past or present so to speak ? Thank you for your time.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Why indeed no time tourists from the future. No record of hordes of oddly-dressed strangers in the crowd in contemporary accounts of Christ’s crucifixion or Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, although both events would be enduring favourites on the must-see list of future time tourists.

Possible reasons are:

1. Time travel (TT) to the past is logically impossible.

2. TT to the past is metaphysically impossible.

3. TT to the past is nomologically impossible.

4. TT to the past is physically impossible.

5. TT to the past is possible, but no further back than the date of invention of the time machine.

6. TT to the past is possible but prevented/limited by future government or by lack of research (your suggestions).

Of these, I favour 4. and 5.

I will deal briefly with each.

1. Logically impossible: TT to the future presents no in-principle problem. First, we all do it, albeit at the same rate of one hour per hour. Secondly, time dilatation predictions of Special Relativity are well-confirmed: thus, were I to go on a space flight reaching near-light speeds, returning 10 years older, I would find the Earth thousands of years older. But I could never return to the earlier time. This effect has been confirmed for particles in accelerators, and the expected very tiny effect for big objects in ordinary flight.

But TT to the past allegedly yields logical impossibilities (grandfather paradox; free-knowledge paradox). I don’t think this is so. Remember that the actions of future time tourists are already built-in to the past, there is only one past, not different versions, the past can’t be changed, although TTs might have had a hand in bringing it about in the first place. Thus, you didn’t kill your grandfather when he was a boy, so no matter how often you go back in time intending to kill him, you always fail to pull it off.

So, in my view, TT is logically possible.

2. Metaphysically impossible: if the past doesn’t exist, there is no destination, so TT impossible. So argue ‘presentists’. But I favour the ‘block’ view of past/present/future all existing, and will assume this. In fact, even on a presentist view, a coherent story about TT can be told, but it is more complicated and I will leave it out.

So, TT is metaphysically possible.

3. Nomologically impossible: this means contrary to the laws of nature (as they happen to be in our universe). Most scientists believe that this is not the case. And I will go along with that.

So, TT is nomologically possible.

4. Physically impossible: although allowed by natural law, there may be insufficient resources in the universe to actually do it. Thus current suggestions as to how TT could be engineered (spacetime wormhole; colossal rotating cylinder) need incredible amounts of energy or large amounts of exotic matter, maybe more than a whole galaxy (or more) could provide.

So TT might remain forever a practical impossibility.

5. TT but no further back than time-machine invention: current schemes entail this, and of course it explains why no time tourists so far.

6. Government controls/ lack of research: I doubt the former would stop determined groups with the technical knowhow and resources. But it would be a lot of resources for little gain. After all, nothing would change, the actions of any visitors from the future have already been built in to all past events. I don’t think any stigma attaches to TT, or that research is or will be limited by apathy. It’s perennially popular with scientists, philosophers, writers and the public, and will remain so unless it’s shown to be impossible, and I doubt this will happen.

It’s amusing to speculate that in the distant future we, or our successors, whether biological or machines, might discover how to create universes with desired laws of nature, travel back to the singularity 14 billion years ago and destabilize it resulting in the Big Bang which starts off our universe.


Knowledge of truth and the nature of illusion

Jovain asked:

The knowledge of the truth, does it necessarily entails the dispersion of illusion?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You cannot speak of truth as something unrelated to human beings. Truth is a concept; it does not exist all by itself. So it is meaningful only in a human context. Accordingly the same applies to illusion. Knowing the difference between them relies on common human experience.

Illusions are generally speaking false interpretations of certain states of affairs. They can also result from defects in perception. Both we know about both only because, on the whole, we make correct interpretations and inferences of the states of affairs that rule of our life. To say, for example, that our senses are fallible, is saying precisely nothing. They are fallible in a limited degree. Instead of drawing the conclusion that ‘therefore’ we can’t trust our senses, we should be astonished how reliable they are. Most illusions are indeed not mistakes by our senses, but of our judgement on the report of the senses. Knowing this throws a different complexion on the matter!

I suspect, however, that your word ‘illusion’ should really be ‘delusion’. Illusion has very little to do with truth–rather with mistakes. Whereas delusion is a more direct counterpart to truth. We humans have been beset by delusions of many kinds throughout human history. Sometimes, after a long period of believing them to be the truth, we decide that they did not conform to the truth, since we found a better truth in the interim.

That’s typical. Our deepest desire is for a meaning of life; and since we cannot find it in the empirical world, we hope to find it in the spiritual world. And so we become vulnerable to what our authority figures claim to be truths that confer meaning on our existence. Most religions fall into this class, which is why there is a constant stream of different faiths and why many end when they are replaced by new ones which offer a more needful or convincing truth. But this does not solve the problem of delusion, because ultimately there is no objective yardstick to either the truth or to delusion.

Accordingly there is no single truth to remove every trace of delusion. We can be cured of many illusions by knowledge of truthful facts; but we cannot be cured of delusions unless we actually wish to abandon them.


Reason and imagination

Arvind asked:

Are reason and imagination two separate, antithetical entities?

Are there some situations or contexts in which they get interrelated?

Answer by Helier Robinson

They are separate but not antithetical. First we need to distinguish the concrete from the abstract. The concrete is any quality known through the senses, such as colours, sounds, smells, tastes, hard and soft, hot and cold, heavy and light, rough and smooth, etc. The abstract is anything that has no concrete qualities. Imagination deals with the concrete, in the form of concrete memories and concrete images. Reason, or thought, deals with abstract ideas. Nominalists are people who deny that there is anything abstract, so for them all thought is ‘silent speech’. Conceptualists declare that there are abstract ideas, which, when bonded to words, form concepts; thought is then manipulation of concepts. Most conscious activity is a mixture of imagination and thought, so they are not antithetical.

The question as to who are correct, nominalists or conceptualists, can be decided by considering relations. Consider the example of a cup of coffee. You can see the cup and the coffee, and you can also see that the coffee is in the cup. The in is a relation, having the coffee and the cup as its terms, or relata. So you can see the in, but if you ask what it looks like you find that it does not have any concrete properties at all. So, if it is real then it must be abstract. And it must be real because if it wasn’t you would not be able to drink the coffee. Relations have in fact given philosophers a great deal of difficulty throughout history, to the extent of some of them declaring all relations to be entia rationis, or things of the mind, hence unreal. The widely accepted view these days is that modern logic and set theory have solved the problems with relations, by defining them within set theory in such a way as to make them concrete. In my opinion this fails because it assumes the existence of far too many relations before defining a relation. My own view is that most relations are real, abstract entities, and that relations in thought are abstract ideas.


J.S. Mill on higher and lower pleasures

Amanda asked:

One objection to utilitarianism is that it places too much emphasis on pleasure. After all, if we lived for pleasure we would just spend all of our time eating and getting massages. Such a life, according to those objectors is fit only for swine. John Stuart Mill says that it is not utilitarianism but those objectors who represent human nature in a degraded light.

Explain Mill’s point here.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Mill was unable to completely break free of his father’s and Bentham’s tradition of framing all consequences in terms of quantity of pleasure and pain.

This produced several problems:

(1) if total quantity of pleasure is what matters, then an oyster with a tiny bit of pleasure but living a very, very, long time, would be a better life than, say, Haydn’s full and successful 77 years (the ‘Haydn and the Oyster’ objection).

(2) a life of swinish pleasures would seem satisfactory, provided the pleasures are pleasurable enough.

(3) a brain-in-a vat life with intense pleasure supplied by the mad scientists in charge would also seem satisfactory.

(4) the pleasure felt by, say, sadistic child torturers would count on the plus side.

Your question refers to (2).

You ask what is Mill’s point when he says that it is not utilitarianism but rather the objectors who represent human nature in a degraded light.

As far as I can make out from the text (Utilitarianism, Chapter 2), both Mill and the objectors agree that humans are capable of more than swinish pleasures. The objectors say that utilitarianism ‘supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable’. Not so, says Mill, he recognizes the distinctly human pleasures, so that it is not he, but rather the objectors, who take this degraded view of humanity.

But then Mill has to depart from the simple ‘quantity of pleasure’ view. which, earlier in the text, he endorsed. In order to elevate the distinctly human pleasures above the swinish, he distinguishes ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, but of course this introduces a moral good other than straightforward quantity of pleasure. Mill also explains that a small quantity of a higher pleasure is worth more than any vast quantity of a lower pleasure, that a higher pleasure is preferred even if it entails some discomfort, and that these distinctions between the two kinds of pleasure have been made by people who have experienced both. It all seems ad hoc, he gives no survey data to support his position, and one feels that the so-called ‘higher’ pleasures are unnecessarily intellectual, and just the pursuits that Mill and his friends enjoyed.

Mill would have done better to abandon the Benthamite narrow, hedonistic view of happiness as quantity of pleasure, given up talk of higher and lower pleasures altogether, and framed consequences in terms of welfare, interests, satisfaction, preferences (as later consequentialist views do), or a broader view of happiness akin to Aristotle’s eudaimonia (flourishing, fulfilment).