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The challenge of moral dilemmas


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The challenge of moral dilemmas
Date: 23 January 2008 14:04

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'In what way, if any, are moral dilemmas a problem for moral desires?'

Correct me if I'm wrong -- as I don't have time to get out all the past examination papers to check -- but I'm pretty sure that the question is, 'In what way, if any, are moral dilemmas a problem for moral THEORIES?'

Your version of the question doesn't make much sense to me. Is a 'moral desire' the desire to be moral? or is it a desire for the good of another person? or is it the desire to do X, where X is consistent with the demands of morality?

It is a not a philosophical problem if you have conflicting desires, as you have indicated. If you want two incompatible things, then you just have to decide which you want the most. If morality is simply having moral desires, then you simply decide which moral desire is strongest and go with that.

The problem arises, as you indicate, with the fact that moral demands are expressed in terms of 'ought', or obligation. On the face of it, if you are 'obliged' to do two incompatible things then such an obligation is unfulfillable. And that is a problem.

Distinguishing 'must' from 'ought' -- as Lemmon does -- arguably does not get us very far. If an 'ought' is not a 'must' then what is it? A motivation? a consideration? a desire? It doesn't matter what you call it, the real question is how there can be conflicting moral *demands*.

The key term in this question (whichever way you take it) is the qualification, 'if any'. You are being given two choices: You can either argue that moral dilemmas ultimately are not a problem, or that they ultimately are a problem.

In your essay, you do recognize that there is an issue about whether there 'really are' moral dilemmas, given as soon as a method of resolving the dilemma is proposed (taking advice, thinking more about the problem, applying the greatest happiness principle) the dilemma, in a sense, no longer exists.

It was a little bit unclear to me where your essay was going. You spend rather a lot of time discussing Mill's utilitarianism, while it seems clear that for a utilitarian there are no moral dilemmas. In other words, on the utilitarian view moral dilemmas are not a problem.

One question which is central can be put in this way: Is it desirable that a moral theory show itself as capable of resolving (apparent) moral dilemmas? or, on the contrary, given our strong pre-theoretical conviction that some moral dilemmas are 'real', should we expect a moral theory to explain how real dilemmas are possible, to offer a way of interpreting the situation in which one is faced with a dilemma?

In the latter case, the 'theory' would be one which does not fulfil one of the requirements of a moral theory, namely to yield a decision procedure which enables us to cope with any situation in which we have to make a moral choice. -- So much the worse, a defender of this kind of moral theory would say, for the stated requirement.

To do well on this question (I am assuming that I am correct that the word is 'theories' not 'desires') you need to show an awareness of the consequences of taking either position.

In the first case, where we have moral theory which we believe is capable of pronouncing on every situation of moral choice, the challenge is to explain why it is that we seem to find ourselves faced with a moral dilemma. A possible response to this is to put forward an 'error theory', claiming that when we think we are faced with a dilemma, we are in fact under an illusion, based on our own ignorance.

In the second case, where we are defending a moral theory which allows moral dilemmas, the problem is not realism (correspondence with our pre-theoretical intuitions) but rather coherence. Is it, in fact coherent to claim that there can be real moral dilemmas? What exactly would this mean?

For example, suppose you hold that moral judgements are capable of truth or falsity. In that case, a moral dilemma would, in effect, be recognition that two inconsistent judgements can be 'true' which is a logical contradiction.

If moral judgements are not 'true' then what are they? Are they justified? Then is it true that they are justified? And in that case, can it be true that two inconsistent statements are equally justified?

You may be interested in a piece I wrote recently on the topic of moral dilemmas in a business context. The article is entitled, 'Varieties of Ethical Dilemma' and can be found in 'Philosophy for Business' e-journal,

All the best,