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Moral Dilemmas and Consistency in Ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Terrance C. McConnell*
University of North Carolina at Greensboro


Recently it has been argued that there are genuine moral dilemmas and that any theory which does not account for this fact is an unrealistic one. This represents a challenge to an assumption that most moral theorists have held: an adequate ethical theory must not allow for genuine moral quandaries. John Stuart Mill, for example, in the last paragraph of the second chapter of Utilitarianism, seems to be committed to such an assumption. Many others have also assented to this view. The consensus among those who hold this view seems to be that if a theory allows for moral dilemmas then there is some sense in which it is incoherent or inconsistent. Yet, oddly enough, the sense in which such a view would be incoherent is rarely, if ever, spelled out. Put another way, there seem to be no arguments for the belief that genuine moral dilemmas must be ruled out.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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I am indebted to a number of people for many helpful suggestions. Among those to whom a special thanks is owed are Norman Dahl, Barry Hoffmaster, Gary Iseminger, Husain Sarkar, Chris Swoyer, and a referee of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy


1 Those who have argued for or asserted this position include the following: Lemmon, E.J.Moral Dilemmas,” Philosophical Review 71 (1962), pp.139-58;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Williams, BernardEthical Consistency,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 39 (1965), pp. 103-24,CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Morality; An Introduction to Ethics (Harper & Row, 1972); Trigg, RogerMoral Conflict,” Mind 80 (1971), pp. 41–55;Google Scholar Fraassen, Bas C. vanValues and the Heart's Command.” Journal of Philosophy 70(1973), pp. 5–19;CrossRefGoogle Scholarand Nowell-Smith, P. H.Some Reflections on Utilitarianism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2 (1972 -3), pp. 417-31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 To mention just a few who hold this view, see Lyons, David Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 21;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Rawls, John A Theory of justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 133-34;Google Scholar and Castailñeda, HectorNeri The Structure of Morality (Charles C. Thomas, 1974).Google Scholar

3 Ross, W. D. Foundations of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 60.Google Scholar Ross also claims (p. 86) that simply drawing the distinction between prima facie obligations and actual ones shows that the problem of moral dilemmas is non-existent. It will be clear, however, that merely drawing this distinction does not solve the problem of moral dilemmas as I shall set it out; it rather presupposes what the solution is.

4 See Chellas, Brian F.Conditional Obligation,” in Stenlund, S. ed, Logical Theory and Semantic Analysis (D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1974), p. 23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 See FØllesdal, Dagfinn and Hilpinen, RistoDeontic logic: An Introduction,” in Hilpinen, ed., Deontic Logic: Introductory and Systematic Readings (D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1971), p. 13.Google Scholar

6 An informal account of this argument is presented by Bernard Williams in “Ethical Consistency,” p. 118. Throughout this work ‘OA’ is to be read 'X (the agent to whom the ought-claim is addressed) ought, all things considered, to do A'. The qualification ‘all things considered’ indicates that the ought-claim is not merely a prima facie one. ‘PA’ is to be read ‘X’ is permitted to do A'. The logical connectives are to be understood in the usual way. However, the model operators should not be taken to stand for logical possibility and necessity (unless otherwise noted). The ‘can’ in the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ usually involves a notion stronger than mere logical possibility; the same is true of the ‘cannot’ in the assertion that there are moral dilemmas. As a result the modal operators should be taken to stand for something like physicalpossibility and necessity.

7 See Føllesdal and Hilpinen, “Deontic Logic: An Introduction,” p. 13.

8 Even those who argue that there are moral dilemmas accept (PO). See, for example, Lemmon, E. J.Deontic Logic and the Logic of Imperatives,” Logique et Analyse 8 (1965), p. 40,Google Scholar and van Fraassen, “Values and the Heart's Command,” p. 15. The argument which shows that the advocate of (T1) is committed to giving up (PC) is a simple one and is set out in my “Moral Dilemmas and Requiring the Impossible,” Philosophical Studies 29 (1976), pp. 410–11.

9 See Hanson, William H.Semantics for Deontic Logic,” Logique et Analyse 8 (1965), p. 178.Google Scholar

10 This point is made by Beardsmore, R. W. in his Moral Reasoning (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 111.Google Scholar

11 Several authors have suggested that this argument shows that there are genuine moral dilemmas. See, for example, Bernard Williams, “Ethical Consistency,” pp. 109–13, and Roger Trigg, “Moral Conflict,” pp. 47–52. Williams uses this argument to try to establish what I call solution (3); Trigg, to establish solution (2).

12 Nagel, ThomasWar and Massacre,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (1972), p. 143.Google Scholar

13 This problem is set out by Chisholm, Roderick in his “Contrary-to-duty Imperatives and Deontic Logic,” Analysis 24 (1963), pp. 3336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 John Rawls, A Theory of justice, p. 422 and pp. 442–44.

15 See Nowell-Smith, P. H. Ethics (Penguin Books, 1954), p. 26.Google Scholar

16 This needs to be qualified. It must also be the case that the agent still regards the alternative that he acted on as morally required. An agent might, in retrospect, believe that there was a morally preferable alternative in the situation that he faced. If the agent acted on the alternative that he now believes was morally wrong, then remorse would be appropriate even though the situation was not genuinely dilemmatic. Remorse might also be appropriate if the agent put himself in the dilemmatic situation by doing something forbidden, such as knowingly making conflicting promises.

17 It would be helpful to have an account of what is involved when one ought-claim overrides or has more moral weight than another ought-claim. No such account is presented here. One very provocative attempt to elucidate this concept is presented by Nozick, Robert in his “Moral Complications and Moral Structures,” Natural Law Forum 13 (1968), pp. 150.Google Scholar

18 The advocate of solution (2) will advise him that he ought to do both; the defender of solution (3), that he ought to do each.

19 If in moral matters we held a view something like “let bygones be bygones,” then moral doubt would not be appropriate here. But we do not hold such a view. We have such notions as duties of reparation or duties to make amends, and if a person did the wrong thing in a situation that was only apparently dilemmatic he may well incur some such duty.

20 There may, of course, be a way of spelling out the second line of reasoning which does not commit the advocate of (T1) to these undesirable consequences. But until a different alternative is suggested, the criticism stands. I do not see any obvious way to alter this second line of reasoning to make the view more plausible.

21 E. J. Lemmon, “Deontic logic and the logic of Imperatives,” p. 45.

22 Some may think that because an agent must sometimes act without knowing what he really ought to do, this shows that ‘ought’ does not imply ‘can’. But in such situations the agent surely can do what he ought to do in many senses of the term, including both the physical and logical senses.

23 This objection is presented by Bas C. van Fraassen, “Values and the Heart's Command,” p. 12, and Walzer, MichaelPolitical Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 2 (1972-73), p. 161.Google Scholar

24 One may wonder just how basic (PC) is. E.J. Lemmon, in “Deontic Logic and the Logic of Imperatives,” p. 51, claims that if (PC) does not hold in a system of deontic logic, then all that remains are truisms and paradoxes. If this claim is correct, then there are obvious theoretical advantages in retaining (PC).