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.


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