The Moral Theory Behind Moral Dilemmas

American Philosophical Quarterly 39 (4):373-383 (2002)
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In the last forty years there has been a resurgence of interest in moral dilemmas—situations in which through no fault of a person’s own, he or she is morally required to do one thing, required to do another, but cannot do both. Some prominent figures have argued that such things could be. Opponents have marshaled several anti-dilemma arguments in response. For the most part, this debate has centered on issues in metaethics. Those metaethical questions are interesting, and resolving them could (in principle, at least) settle the debate about moral dilemmas. However, this paper will show that this exclusive focus on metaethics has been a mistake. Both dilemma advocates and dilemma opponents have failed to recognize that the debate could also be settled by answering an important question in normative ethics: is it possible for there to be an absolute prohibition on allowing something to happen? If the answer is yes, then dilemmas are possible, and if the answer is no, then they are not. Furthermore, it will be argued that it is our instincts about this normative issue that truly shape our views on the dilemmas debate. After sorting out these issues, the paper argues that as yet there is no good reason to rule out the theory of dilemma advocates, and thus that the widespread rejection of moral dilemmas is not as well-founded as is often assumed.
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