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Moral dilemmas and utilitarianism


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Moral dilemmas and utilitarianism
Date: 18 January 2006j 11:00

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'What is a moral dilemma and is utilitarianism an adequate solution?'

This is a model answer to the question. In an examination, you would get a good mark for this, possibly a very good mark.

However, as you may have begun to suspect, as your philosophy mentor I am never satisfied. So I am going to explore ways in which your essay could have been better still.

What will an examiner be thinking when he reads your essay? 'This candidate has studied the set texts and shows that she understands what she has read sufficiently well to be able to give a clear and persuasive answer to the question. The essay is well structured, and there is no material extraneous to the argument.'

I am assuming that you have chosen philosophy because it is a subject that you love, one that grips you, and that you want to become a good philosopher as well as a good student of philosophy. This is possible, if you want it.

Here are my own thoughts.

The issue of moral dilemmas divides ethical theories into those which, in effect, make moral dilemmas impossible (as you comment at the end of your essay with regard to utilitarianism) and those which allow for their possibility. Now, one way in which you could 'question the question' is to ask whether we really want a theory which makes moral dilemmas impossible. Is searching for an 'adequate solution' to every possible moral dilemma something that we want anyway? or would such a result be purchased at too high a price? What argument could be put forward for saying that we would prefer a theory which did not yield a solution to every moral dilemma?

Note here how I have pointed out one thing which is good to do: to 'question the question'. Instead of simply giving the examiner what he or she seems to be asking for, you can say, 'No, I don't agree with the implication of the question. I don't agree because...'. I have never yet encountered an examiner who penalised a student for criticizing the question. Of course, you have to exercise your judgement here. There are ways of criticizing an answer which would be regarded as 'missing the point'. But not here.

Your explanation of a 'moral dilemma' follows Lemmon closely. Is there anything else to say? For example, it might occur to you that a certain type of moral dilemma typically involves a clash of 'roles' (think of an example). Not every moral dilemma involves a decision between what is 'right' and what is 'good' (not that I fully accept this distinction, more on this below). For example, the young woman torn between her desire to pursue her vocation as a physician, and her duty as a daughter to look after her sick mother. (More examples of moral dilemmas can be found in the Pathways Moral Philosophy unit attached.)

You will earn more marks by giving an examples which you have thought out for yourself, especially if this helps to cast more light on the nature of the concept you are trying to define.

I don't accept Lemmon's assertion that the world good 'is not properly a word of moral appraisal at all'. Actually, I would not put the point that way. I don't accept that the word 'right' has a determinate meaning which includes some 'goods' but excludes others. For example, there are those who would say that if I have food and you take the food from me without asking, then what you have done is wrong, because the food is mine, I have the 'right' of ownership. Whereas, if you are hungry, you do not have the 'right' to be given food by me. It is my free choice whether to do an action which brings about a 'good' (the relief of your hunger) or not. Yet others would disagree with this and say that starving people do have a 'right' to be given necessary aid.

My objection to utilitarianism is that it attempts to reduce all moral considerations to a common coin. Consequences in terms of human happiness and misery are an important consideration but they are not the only consideration. However, pursuing this point takes us away from the essay question. We are not debating the rights and wrongs of utilitarianism as such, but only the question whether it is an adequate solution to 'a moral dilemma'.

Regarding your two examples of Hiroshima and kamikaze pilots, utilitarianism seems to have been behind with the first decision. But was it behind the second? The kamikaze pilots would have flown on their missions even if they had known (and many did know) that their action was futile, because the Allies could not be stopped. It was the sense of 'honour' which required fighting even when there was no hope of victory, rather than accepting ignominious surrender. This assessment, ironically, was the reason cited by the Americans which persuaded them to drop the A-bombs.

All the best,