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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Moral Dilemmas and Guilt

Patricia S. Greenspan
Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition
Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan., 1983), pp. 117-125

In 'Moral dilemmas and ethical consistency', Ruth Marcus argues that moral dilemmas are 'real': there are cases where an agent ought to perform each of two incompatible actions.  Thus, a doctor with two patients equally in need of his attention ought to save each, even though he cannot save both. By
claiming that his dilemma is real, I take Marcus to be denying (rightly) that it is merely epistemic - a matter of uncertainty as to which patient to save.  Rather, she wants to say, the moral code yields two opposing recommendations, both telling him what he ought to do. The code is not inconsistent,
however, as long as its rules are all obeyable in some possible world; and it is not deficient as a guide to action, as long as it contains a second order principle, directing an agent to avoid situations of conflict. Where a dilemma does arise, though, the agent is guilty no matter what he does.

This last point seems implausible for the doctor's case; but here I shall consider a case which does fit Marcus's comments on guilt - if not all her views on the nature of moral dilemma.  I think that she errs, first of all, in counting as a dilemma any case where there are some considerations favoring each of two incompatible actions, even if it is clear that one of them is right. For instance, in the case of withholding weapons from someone who has gone mad, it would be unreasonable for the agent to feel guilty about breaking his promise, since he has done exactly as he should. But secondly, even in
Marcus's 'strong' cases, I do not think that dilemmas must be taken as yielding opposing all-things-considered ought-judgments, viewed as recommendations for action, rather than stopping with judgments of obligation, or reports of commitments. The latter do not imply 'can' (in the sense of physical possibility); and where they are jointly unsatisfiable, and supported by reasons of equal weight, I think we should say that the moral code yields no particular recommendations, rather than two which conflict.

The article is here.