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Plato and Sartre on moral dilemmas


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato and Sartre on moral dilemmas
Date: 24 February 2004 11:45

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your e-mail of 16 February, with your fourth University of London essay, in response to the question, 'What, according to Lemmon, differentiates the Platonic dilemma from the Sartrean one? Is this difference significant for our understanding of moral dilemma?'

Most of your essay is concerned with giving a summary of sections 3-5 Lemmon's paper, reproduced in 'Reading Philosophy'. You do a pretty good job of this, and I have no criticisms to make here. However, this does take you a little bit away from answering the question. Was it really necessary to consider Lemmon's third type of moral dilemma? I think your time would have been better spent concentrating on the first two.

One of the things which you are learning as you work through 'Reading Philosophy' is that there is not just one thing that a philosophy article or essay sets out to do. Lemmon's article, as you seem to recognize, is open-ended, 'aporetic', exploring an new area rather than coming to definitive conclusions about it. The only view definitively expressed is that current moral philosophy (or the moral philosophy which was current in 1962) is ill-equipped to deal with the varieties of moral dilemma. Lemmon wants moral philosophers to look more closely at what happens when we grapple with moral dilemmas - this is where a deeper understanding of the nature of ethics will emerge.

There is another, more general point, although it is not clear how strongly Lemmon wants to press this: that there must me something wrong in principle with any general moral theory - like, e.g. utilitarianism (or Kant's Categorical Imperative, another example that Lemmon could have cited) - which has the consequence that moral dilemmas are merely apparent, not real, merely reflecting our inability to apply the general moral theory to a particular case.

The question of what Lemmon is aiming at is crucial for deciding how significant is the difference between Lemmon's 'Platonic' and 'Sartrean' dilemmas.

The choice of example for the Platonic dilemma (by the way, there were no guns in Ancient Greece; Lemmon's article does not imply that there were but your essay does) gives the impression that this kind of dilemma is relatively easy to resolve. Yes, you 'ought' to give the gun back, but no, clearly in this case it would be the wrong thing to do. One question you could have asked is, Are all Platonic dilemmas like that? I don't think they are (see if you can think of examples of more gripping Platonic dilemmas). If I'm right, then this might make a difference to how we compare Platonic and Sartrean dilemmas.

Lemmon admits that a general rule for sorting duties, principles and obligations is artificial solution which will not work in every case of a Platonic dilemma. So we are not spared the pain of confronting the dilemma and being forced to chose between two competing obligations.

I am tempted to say that the Sartrean case merely muddies the water. Not only do we have a dilemma, but in addition we are faced with a situation which is very common in everyday life, not knowing how to evaluate the *strength* of a moral claim, partly because of lack of understanding of its moral implications, and also partly because of lack of purely factual knowledge. This can happen even when there is no dilemma, no choice between incompatible alternatives, but merely the question whether I am obliged to do A or not obliged to do A.

So my conclusion - following on from this - is that the difference between the Platonic and Sartrean case though interesting is not, ultimately, very significant. The fact that moral dilemmas can occur at all is the really significant point, and Platonic-type examples (although not the example Plato actually gives) show this clearly and elegantly.

You might not agree with me. It is impossible to tell from what you say in your essay, because most of the space is given to expounding Lemmon.

However, you conclude, '...the satisfaction of a dilemma by an adjustment of, or an addition to, morality will always continue, at least until we know everything there is to know about morality. And the non-eventuality of that is as integral to moral thought and experience as the quest for fundamental moral principles and the occurrence of dilemma.'

According to you, there is a perpetual battle between moral standards ('water') and moral dilemmas ('fire'). But wouldn't this suggest that resolving moral dilemmas is, after all, a matter of gradually refining our principles, or our general moral theory, even thought this might be an endless process? I don't think that this is a view which can be distilled from Lemmon's article (mainly because, as I said above, Lemmon's stance is aporetic - he is not proposing a solution but merely describing a problem). Yes, we grow morally as we face moral dilemmas. But growing morally does not necessarily mean refining our moral standards so that we don't get caught be the same dilemma next time around. The alternative possibility is that *will* get caught by the same dilemma, because that's what moral dilemmas - real moral dilemmas - are like.

In summary: You do show good comprehension of Lemmon's article, but you don't do enough to answer the question.

All the best,