The label moral dilemma is commonly applied to any difficult moral problem. Several introductory anthologies in ethics have been titled Moral Dilemmas, suggesting that all of the issues discussed therein are moral dilemmas, regardless of their structure, simply because they raise hard moral questions. Many people even talk about moral dilemmas when it is not clear whether or not morality is relevant at all.
Moral philosophers, in contrast, usually have in mind something more specific. Minimally, they count a situation as a moral dilemma only if one moral reason conflicts with another (moral or nonmoral) reason. Reasons conflict in a situation if the agent is not able in that situation to comply with all of the reasons. For example, if it is in Ann's interest to lie to a potential employer, then Ann's prudential reason to lie conflicts with Ann's moral reason not to lie. Similarly, moral reasons can conflict with religious reasons (as on one interpretation of the biblical story of Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac) or with aesthetic reasons (as on one understanding of Gauguin's decision to leave his family to pursue his art).
Moral philosophers normally restrict the class of moral dilemmas further to include only conflicts between one moral reason and another reason that is also moral in nature. In Plato's example, if Brad holds a weapon for a friend and promises to return it when that friend asks for it, then Brad has a moral reason to return it when the friend asks. But if Brad knows that this friend is going to use the weapon to commit a harmful crime, then Brad has a moral reason not to return the weapon to the friend (at least at that time).
Many philosophers would not classify this conflict as a moral dilemma because it is resolvable—the moral reasons against returning the weapon override the moral reasons in favor of returning the weapon, so overall Brad morally ought not to return the weapon, assuming that the harmful crime is serious enough. In contrast, even if moral dilemmas must be unresolvable, Carol is in a moral dilemma on this account if Carol has a moral reason to help the needy but can help only one of two equally needy people.
Some philosophers limit moral dilemmas even further to include only conflicts among certain kinds of moral reasons. A moral reason is a moral requirement just in case it would be morally wrong not to act on it without an adequate justification or excuse. Carol's moral reason to help a particular needy person, for example, is not a moral requirement if it would not be morally wrong for Carol to refuse to help this needy person (as long as Carol helps enough other needy people at other times). Then, if moral dilemmas are limited to unresolvable conflicts between moral requirements, Carol is not in a moral dilemma when she can help only one of two equally needy people. In contrast, if David can keep only one of two conflicting promises, assuming that David has a moral requirement to keep his promises, then David is in a moral dilemma, even if moral dilemmas are defined as unresolvable conflicts of moral requirements.
Other moral theorists define moral dilemmas in different terms, for instance, as situations where every alternative is morally wrong. The term wrong, however, is unclear in this context. If an act is called morally wrong when, and only when, it violates a non-overridden moral requirement, then this definition reduces to the previous one. In contrast, if an act is called morally wrong only when it violates an overriding moral requirement, then this definition makes moral dilemmas obviously impossible. That obviousness suggests that philosophers who claim that moral dilemmas are possible do not use this strong definition of moral dilemmas. Instead, they seem to identify moral dilemmas with unresolvable moral requirement conflicts.
To show that a situation fits that definition, it is not enough to cite nonmoral facts, such as that the agent cannot do both acts or even that each act is necessary to fulfill a promise. The situation is not a moral dilemma unless there are moral requirements for conflicting alternatives and neither moral requirement overrides the other. In support of the claim that there is a real moral requirement on each side, philosophers who see the situation as a moral dilemma cite the counterfactual that it would be morally wrong not to choose a particular alternative if there were no moral reason to choose the conflicting alternative. They also often argue that moral requirements on each side provide the best explanation of why remorse (or guilt, but not just regret), an apology, compensation, or some other moral residue is appropriate after either choice.
In support of the claim that neither moral requirement overrides the other, philosophers who assert the possibility of moral dilemmas can argue that some situations are so symmetrical that neither moral requirement could override the other. A common symmetrical example is Sophie's choice between her two children when a Nazi guard threatens to kill her and both of her children if she does not pick one child to be killed. In nonsymmetrical cases, some philosophers also argue that conflicting moral requirements can be incomparable, in which case neither moral requirement overrides the other (although they are also not exactly equal).
Opponents who deny the possibility of (even resolvable) conflicts between moral requirements sometimes object that if one conflicting moral requirement overrides the other, then the other is no longer a moral requirement. This objection conflates overriding with cancellation. Like physical forces, moral requirements that are overridden by stronger moral requirements can still retain some moral force, as shown by their ability to justify remorse, apologies, compensation, and other forms of moral residue.
Another common objection to the possibility of moral dilemmas charges that, if neither moral requirement overrides the other, then the agent is morally permitted to choose either alternative and, hence, is not in a moral dilemma. However, if an act is not morally permitted only when it violates an overriding moral requirement, then the claim that both acts are morally permitted is compatible with the situation being a conflict between non-overridden moral requirements and, hence, a moral dilemma on the above definition. In contrast, if an act is not morally permitted when it violates a non-overridden moral requirement, then neither act is morally permitted in an irresolvable moral requirement conflict. Either way, the notion of permission does not rule out moral dilemmas.
Additional arguments against the possibility of moral dilemmas try to derive a contradiction from the definition of moral dilemmas. If the agent in a moral dilemma morally ought to adopt each alternative separately, then the agent morally ought to adopt both alternatives together, according to the agglomeration principle. If the agent morally ought to adopt both alternatives, then the agent must be able to adopt both alternatives, according to the principle that ought implies can. The agent cannot adopt both alternatives in a moral dilemma, by definition. Thus, the definition of moral dilemmas plus agglomeration and ought implies can imply a contradiction. Defenders of moral dilemmas respond by denying either agglomeration or ought implies can, or both.
Another formal argument applies a closure principle: An agent has a moral requirement not to do whatever prevents that agent from fulfilling a moral requirement. This closure principle implies that an agent in a moral dilemma has a moral requirement to adopt and also not to adopt each alternative. This is supposed to be absurd, because an agent cannot be required not to do what that agent is required to do. Defenders of moral dilemmas respond by denying either the closure principle or the claim that required implies not required, or both.
More arguments have been given against the possibility of moral dilemmas. Some philosophers claim that moral theories that yield moral dilemmas must be inconsistent or must fail to fulfill some purpose of moral theories, such as to prescribe particular decisions. Others argue that it would be unfair to blame or hold the agent responsible for failing to adopt one alternative when the agent adopted the other alternative in order to fulfill a non-overridden moral requirement. Defenders of moral dilemmas, of course, have responses to such arguments, but it remains controversial whether their responses are adequate.
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Zimmerman, Michael J. The Concept of Moral Obligation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2005)