We have a long running series on this blog asking people to tell us what they think about particular moral dilemmas. However, since this is (in part) a philosophy blog, it’s useful to take a step back and ask ourselves what we are talking about. What precisely is a moral dilemma?
Definition of moral dilemma
Well, it’s obviously a conflict of some sort. If you’re stuck in a moral dilemma you have some good moral reasons to do each of two different things (“dilemma” comes from the Greek for “double proposition”). The problem is that you can’t do both. You do either one or the other, and by failing to do one you fail morally. A moral dilemma condemns you to moral failure. You have an unpleasant choice to make between two moral duties and therefore you’re forced to violate one duty.
It’s important to note here that both the moral duties are equally important. When it’s clear that one of the conflicting moral obligations easily overrides the other, we don’t have a moral dilemma. For example, you have the moral duty to repay your debts, but giving back a borrowed weapon to a deranged friend will make you an accomplice in murder. (That’s the classic example in Plato’s Republic). This isn’t really a dilemma since the obligation to prevent murder clearly overrides the obligation to honor your debts.
Because the two (or more) options in a dilemma are (or seem to be, see below) equally important, a dilemma presents you with an impossible choice. Hence the typical characteristic of a dilemma: you can’t get out of it. A dilemma is inescapable and inevitable. You have to make a choice but you can’t. You are thrown from one side to the other: from the obligation to make a choice to the impossibility of making a choice and back again and again.
Moral dilemmas and value pluralism
The equal importance of both (or more) options has to do with value pluralism. There are many important values in life – love, loyalty, honor, freedom, equality etc. – and those are generally – but not specifically – equally important. According to value pluralism – a moral theory I personally accept – there’s no way of establishing a hierarchy between these values so that we know which one to choose in case of conflicts (such as moral dilemmas). Some values are sometimes more important than others, depending on the context (see the example from Plato above). But those others are also sometimes more important.
The same value pluralism is the basis of the theory of balancing human rights. Human rights are basically moral values and they often contradict each other – the privacy of a public figure and free speech of a journalist, for example. It’s not obvious to claim that some human rights are more important than others (although there have been attempts) and therefore you’ll have difficult choices to make between respecting the rights of one person or another.
But let’s get back to the topic of moral dilemmas. Value pluralism is one cause of moral dilemmas, but not the cause. In some cases, moral dilemmas involve only one value. Take the example of Sophie’s Choice: Sophie is instructed by a guard in a Nazi concentration camp to decide which one of her two children will be killed, and if she doesn’t decide, both will be killed. There’s only one value at stake here and no conflict between values. (You could argue that there are a few values at stake: love, life, equality etc. but anyway, there are no conflicts between values, only conflicts between the choice of one child or the choice of another).
Types of moral dilemmas
So this brings us to a typology of moral dilemmas. We can indeed differentiate between types of moral dilemmas. The first distinction is the one described above, between dilemmas involving conflicts between values (usually two) and dilemmas involving a conflict within one value. Some would say that the latter aren’t real dilemmas. Take Sophie’s choice again. The solution is easy: give up one of the two children, no matter which one (assuming that there’s no difference in life expectancy etc.). That’s the best Sophie can do, because the other option – not choosing – will result in the death of both. The choice of which child is morally irrelevant. (Personally, I don’t believe things are as easy as that. We do have a real dilemma here).
Another distinction is the one between so-called epistemic dilemmas and non-epistemic dilemmas. The former are dilemmas created by the absence of knowledge, the latter would exist even with perfect knowledge. Perhaps you’re faced with a choice between participating in a war or staying home and caring for your sick mother (Sartre’s example). This dilemma is caused – in part at least – by the absence of knowledge. If you knew that your participation in the war would have a major effect on the outcome of the war, and if you knew that your mother would be OK without your help, the dilemma would disappear and the choice would be obvious. So in this case it’s the absence of knowledge about the consequences of either choice that creates the dilemma. Some people would say that we don’t have a real dilemma in this case because the provision of knowledge solves the dilemma, and a real dilemma has to be impossible to solve even given perfect knowledge. (Again, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. In real life, knowledge is often missing and it’s useless to say to someone facing a dilemma that knowledge could solve the dilemma).
Another type of epistemic dilemma is the one in which a dilemma appears because of the factual uncertainty about a case. For example, you could be faced with the choice of helping a friend vs informing the police of this friend’s crime. The conflicting values here are friendship/loyalty and your duties as a citizen. However, there’s a dilemma only because you’re unaware of the fact that this “friend” isn’t really a friend and just abuses your trust. Better knowledge would solve the dilemma.
And finally, another type of epistemic dilemma arises when the person faced with the dilemma isn’t sure about the particular moral principles that (should) apply. For example, you may believe that loyalty to a group of criminals is an important moral value but there isn’t any good moral theory available that produces justified moral reasons for such a moral principle. When this “moral principle” conflicts with another, better principle (e.g. snitching), you may find yourself believing that there’s a moral dilemma. Again, better knowledge would solve the dilemma.
Some other distinctions between types of moral dilemmas:
- dilemmas can be self-imposed (making two mutually exclusive promises for example), or imposed by the outside world (Sophie’s choice for example)
- dilemmas can result from your own wrongdoing (again the promises) or by chance (Sartre’s example)
- there can be obligation dilemmas in which more than one feasible action is obligatory (Sartre’s example) or prohibition dilemmas in which all feasible actions are prohibited (Sophie’s choice)
- dilemmas can be within one system of morality or across systems of morality (there can be a conflict between our general moral obligations – e.g. do not be an accomplice to murder – and our role-related obligations – the duty of a priest to protect the secret of confession, even when a murderer comes to confess her crime)
- dilemmas can be single-agent dilemmas (Sartre’s example and Sophie’s choice) or multiple-agent dilemmas (should the US bomb Hiroshima?)
By the way, you can still vote on our moral dilemmas here and we’ll add some new ones soon.