Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Real dilemmas, alas

I’ve been trying to avoid holding there are real moral dilemmas—ones where one is genuinely morally required to do something and to abstain from it. But here is a problem:

  1. One is obligated to do what one believes to be obligatory.

  2. Some people believe that ϕing is obligatory and that refraining from ϕing is obligatory.

  3. So, some people are obligated to ϕ and not to ϕ.

Perhaps the most obvious case of (2) is killing in war. It seems to be not an uncommon view that (a) all killing is wrong, but (b) you should kill to defend the innocent in a just war.


Red said...

I don't understand how the 2nd premise works here. Is this suggesting that some people hold belief that they have contradictory obligations?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes: this is an empirical fact--people do have contradictory obligation beliefs. I've had at least one student say that it's wrong to kill people but that you need to kill in war. And once in an intro to ethics class, I asked on the final exam for students to write down what they learned in the course. One wrote something like this: I learned from the arguments that abortion is wrong. But clearly sometimes you should have an abortion. So, I learned that sometimes you should do the wrong thing.

Dominik Kowalski said...

But doesn't that presuppose that all obligations are equal?

Helen Watt said...

Very tricky! Is there some way of getting round this by saying the only real obligation is negative - not to choose something against your conscience - and that this doesn't equate to an obligation TO choose whatever your conscience says (or partly says) is the right thing to choose? There's a right thing to do but you're psychologically prevented from doing that right thing in (complete) good conscience. A bit like where there's a right way out of a complicated dilemma but it just hasn't occurred to you so you're literally incapable of doing it.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a hard question. One might have the view that obligations come in degrees, and that my student thought that the obligation to protect the innocent is greater than the obligation to refrain from killing. But I take it he didn't think that the obligation to refrain from killing is simply conditional, like "Don't kill unless there is innocent life at stake."

And even if one thinks they come in degrees, surely they could come in equal degrees. There is a rough continuum between saving the life of an innocent, to saving an innocent from extreme disability, to saving an innocent from moderate disability, etc. It seems that if someone thinks that the obligation to save the innocent's life is greater than the obligation never to kill, as one goes down the scale of what one saves the innocent from, one will get to a point where the obligations are as equal as one can tell.


Phenomenologically, doesn't conscience command in addition to forbidding? You see the drowning child and conscience yells "Throw the life preserver!" or "Jump!"

Helen Watt said...

Alex: Yes, conscience does command as the person sees it, and it's also wrong to omit/act in bad conscience.

But that doesn't mean it's right to omit/act in good conscience.

If X is the right thing objectively and Y is the wrong thing there are three ways of acting wrongly (which doesn't mean culpably):

X in bad faith
Y in bad faith
Y in good faith.

The right thing to do - X in good faith - may be psychologically unavailable to you, at least at this second while you still believe X is wrong. (But then, other things, like the right but unthought-of answers to really hard moral questions may also be psychologically unavailable to you at this second or sadly for the foreseeable future!)

Red said...

Don't we have obligation to hold correct beliefs and shun false beliefs? Most obvious incorrect belief would be the one in contradictory obligations it seems.

skip said...

Why is the existence of subjective dilemmas something you want to avoid when you already accept that, by premise 1, some people are obligated to do evil things that they believe to be obligatory? Once you accept that, the emergence of dilemmas is hardly surprising. It is merely a consequence of underlying irrationality. A handy rule of thumb might be, if I find myself confronted by a moral dilemma, my reasoning must be wrong.

Walter Van den Acker said...

The bottom line is, I think, that morality is not always black and white.

nick hadsell said...

I might add a fourth moral realist condition that goes like this: "One might be obligated to ϕ even when they do not believe they are." So, in the case of a pacifist who is drafted in WWII, we might presume that, contrary to his beliefs, Thomas is right to say that persons who are acting within public authority (eg police, judges, soldiers) are permitted to intend to kill an enemy in war. We might even say that this is not merely permissible, but is rather something obligatory for the sake of public justice/protecting vulnerable citizens.

Well, this obligation might be lost on a pacifist. In fact, this is something entirely contrary to what he beliefs about war. But if (1) is true, we have a case in which he is obligated to kill (due to (4)) and to not kill (due to (1)). Can these obligations be made out to be somewhat compatible? I think that in cases where they conflict, we might be able to make an argument for giving priority to one over the other based on some argument from authority. So, even if the pacifist does not personally believe in war-killing, and yet his community (e.g. maybe his church, the state over him, etc.)--which seems to be decently epistemically reliable on other kinds of issues--does, we might be able to give precedence to the epistemic authority of the community to dictate some kind of social obligation upon the pacifist.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This line of thought has been defended by Mark Murphy. But I think I have a way around it. What would be obligatory would be not just to kill, but to kill with the intention of justly furthering a just war. But the pacifist is incapable of killing with the intention of justly furthering a just war. And ought implies can. So, the pacifist lacks the obligation. (We can, I think, maintain this and yet maintain realism. The pacifist mistakenly thinks that it is impossible to justly further a just war by killing. That's why the pacifist is unable to have that intention.)

nick hadsell said...

Why would possessing the intention to to justly further a war be an obligation upon the soldier? At least from the perspective of the state, it seems reasonable to expect that some soldiers might take serious issues with aspects of the war internally, and yet the state only obligates its soldiers to external obedience in the form of obeying physical commands.

Btw, where does Murphy talk about this? I've been meaning to get more familiar with his work.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Mark has an old article on duties of conscience.

It seems to me that if a soldier believes a war to be unjust, then any killing done by that soldier is murder (though the soldier might not be culpable). What about weaker cases, where the soldier thinks the war *might* be unjust? What kind of probability does one need to have? That's a hard question for prudential judgment, and probably not quantifiable. But it seems to me that one needs to have at least enough confidence in the justice of the cause that one intend any killing to be a furtherance of justice.

Apologetics Squared said...

Here's an interesting example of how contradictory beliefs can lead to an ethical dilemma, even if there are no contradictory beliefs about ethical obligations:
Jim is an unintelligent man who thinks that he can draw a round square. He knows that, given the principle of explosion (which he only believes works if the round square actually exists), if he does draw a round square, he can prove that "an infinite number of morally praiseworthy acts are carried out, and no morally blameworthy acts are carried out." But, he also knows that he can prove "an infinite number of morally blameworthy acts are carried out, and no morally praiseworthy acts are carried out." He knows that he is obligated to bring about a state of affairs where an infinite number of morally praiseworthy acts are carried out, and no morally blameworthy acts are carried out. He also knows that he is morally obligated to refrain from bringing about a state of affairs where an infinite number of morally blameworthy acts are carried out, and no morally praiseworthy acts are carried out. So, Jim faces an ethical dilemma -- does he draw a round square? He is both obligated to draw it and obligated to not draw it.