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Moral dilemmas

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L3577-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

A moral dilemma is a situation where an agent’s obligations conflict. Debate in this area focuses on the question of whether genuine moral dilemmas exist. This question involves considering not only the nature and significance of dilemmas, but also the connections between dilemmas, the logic of obligation and moral emotions.

Certain cases involving difficult choices suggest that moral dilemmas exist. These cases also suggest that dilemmas are significant because they show that moral theory cannot help with these choices. If this is right, morality may be unimportant because it may be a system of inconsistent rules that cannot be used as a guide that tells us what to do. But this understanding of the cases is disputable. Perhaps the cases show that agents can be ignorant about what they ought to do. Or perhaps dilemmas are not significant because moral theory tells agents to do the most important of their obligations.

On the other hand, principles from the logic of obligation or deontic logic can be used to argue against the existence of moral dilemmas. Principles of deontic logic such as the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ principle and the agglomeration principle, which says that if you ought to do a and ought to do b , then you ought to do a and b , taken together with the assumption that moral dilemmas exist, turn out to entail a contradiction. This means that one of these principles must be given up, or else it must be the case that moral dilemmas do not exist.

Careful consideration of the moral emotions has suggested that dilemmas do exist. It is appropriate for agents to feel guilt only if they ought to have done otherwise. In cases involving difficult choices, it is appropriate to feel guilt no matter what course of action is taken. This suggests that such cases involve genuine dilemmas.

Citing this article:
Nair, Shyam. Moral dilemmas, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L3577-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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