MILD DILEMMAS. Keywords: standard moral dilemmas, mild dilemmas, blame

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1 MILD DILEMMAS Gregory Mellema Department of Philosophy Calvin College Grand Rapids, MI Abstract. This paper argues that, while the existence of strong moral dilemmas is notoriously controversial, a case can be made for the existence of mild dilemmas. It is common for people to feel that they are caught in some type of moral dilemma. If mild dilemmas are a genuine feature of the moral terrain, perceptions by ordinary people that they are caught in a moral dilemma are to some extent vindicated. Keywords: standard moral dilemmas, mild dilemmas, blame Much has been written in the philosophical literature about moral dilemmas, situations in which agents violate moral duties or obligations no matter what they do or fail to do. Many have argued that these situations do not or cannot exist, and hence there are no such moral dilemmas, while others have argued that they are a very real feature of the moral life. I do not propose to take sides in this particular debate. Instead, I shall call attention to a weaker type of moral dilemma. It will be my suggestion that this weaker type of moral dilemma is a real part of human experience and that arguments brought to bear against standard moral dilemmas cannot automatically be imagined to have equal force against them. The fact is that people sometimes feel that they are caught in a moral dilemma, and telling them that their feelings are irrational or have no basis in fact seems cavalier. Some might object that there is no real difference between standard moral dilemmas and mild dilemmas, as I will call them, and that the latter ultimately collapse into the former. In the first part of this paper I argue that this objection fails, given the truth of the ought implies can principle. In the second part I argue that when an agent finds himself or herself in the predicament of a mild dilemma, there is no reason to despair and that sound advice can be found in the resources of both deontic ethics and aretaic ethics. The third part considers the objection that a version of the ought implies can principle involving a weaker sense of ought causes trouble for mild dilemmas. 1 A mild dilemma can be characterized as a situation in which agents deserve moral blame no matter what they do or fail to do. Unlike standard moral dilemmas, agents do not inevitably violate moral duty; they are only deserving of moral blame. Naturally, the distinction between the two sorts of moral dilemmas presupposes a distinction between that which is morally blameworthy and that which violates moral duty. That which violates moral duty is always morally blameworthy, but does that which is morally blameworthy always violate moral duty? Some have thought so on the grounds that we have a moral duty never to engage in behavior that is the least bit blameworthy. Elsewhere 51

2 I have argued that this position is mistaken (Mellema, 1991, pp. 181ff.), but for the present let us frame the question in terms of whether mild dilemmas ultimately collapse into standard dilemmas (if mild dilemmas do not collapse into standard dilemmas, it follows that at least sometimes that which is morally blameworthy does not violate moral duty). Is there no real difference between the two kinds of moral dilemma? I shall now argue that there is a real difference. Suppose that a man is in a situation in which he cannot help doing something (by act or omission) that is morally blameworthy at a particular time. Then by the principle that ought implies can, it is not the case that he has a moral duty to refrain from all of the blameworthy alternatives. Hence it is permissible for him to perform one of the blameworthy alternatives at the time in question. From this it follows that at least one of the blameworthy alternatives is permissible to perform, and hence performing it at that time does not violate moral duty. 1 The agent cannot, then, be caught in a standard moral dilemma. It is important to recognize that being blameworthy admits of degrees. Hence a mild dilemma is one in which every alternative is at least slightly blameworthy. Because the violation of duty is morally blameworthy to a significant degree, a standard dilemma is one in which every alternative is blameworthy to a significant degree. From this perspective, one is in a rather serious predicament if one finds oneself in a standard dilemma, as opposed to a mild one. People frequently find themselves in situations in which there seem to be no courses of action that are good or even morally neutral (an example would be making promises to more than one person in such a way that the promises cannot all be carried out; more on this in what follows). Moral theorists have constructed powerful arguments to show that standard moral dilemmas are not possible, 2 and yet people seem to have a reasonably strong intuition that some kind of moral dilemma is possible (one version of this would be a kind of Kierkegaardian intuition that this possibility is one of the tragic conditions of humanity). My suggestion is that acknowledging mild dilemmas gives this intuition a basis in reality. Perhaps no human being is so unfortunate as to be caught in a standard dilemma, but it is plausible to judge that we do sometimes experience dilemmas of a milder sort. Sometimes, no matter what we do or fail to do, we incur at least a minimal degree of blame. 2 In this portion of the paper I suggest that when in the predicament of a mild dilemma one can find positive encouragement in the resources of ethical theory. First, consider the distinction between the performance of an act and the decision to perform the act. While it may be blameworthy to perform a particular act, it does not follow that the decision to perform the act is likewise blameworthy. Suppose a person caught in a mild dilemma is deciding what to do. Then such a person could find encouragement in knowing that the decision is not necessarily blameworthy, even though the performance of what is chosen will ultimately be blameworthy. Of course, the decision which of the alternative actions to perform and the performance of what is chosen might both be blameworthy. Someone of a defeatist mentality might adopt 1 Here I appeal to the version of the ought implies can principle where the ought in question is moral duty or obligation. A few writers have called into question the ought implies can principle on the grounds that standard moral dilemmas are real. But for those who accept this version of the ought implies can principle and believe that moral dilemmas are possible in moral life, the idea that mild dilemmas are possible will likely seem appealing. 2 See for example Earl Conee, 1982, pp

3 the attitude that, since each alternative is blameworthy to perform, one might as well choose the alternative that makes the least demands upon one s time and resources. Suppose that through carelessness one has made promises to two neighbors concerning the same interval of time. One elderly and cantankerous neighbor has been promised that she will be driven to her hair appointment an hour s drive away. Another lonely neighbor with a sunny disposition has been promised that she will receive a visit the same afternoon, with a promise of her own to serve cold beer. On the supposition that it is too late to make alternative arrangements, inevitably one will break a promise, thereby incurring moral blame, no matter what one does. It would be easy to rationalize the choice one makes on the grounds that when faced with a moral dilemma one might as well choose an alternative that is not burdensome. The problem with choosing the least burdensome alternative is that one s choice is susceptible to moral criticism, at least from the perspective of traditional moral theories. A better alternative for one in the predicament of a mild dilemma is to make the best of one s circumstances. Inevitably, what one does will be morally blameworthy, but it is within one s power to make a choice which is not blameworthy and perhaps even praiseworthy. If one s choice rises above the level of comfort and convenience and takes into account the benefits accruing to others affected by it, or if one endeavors to make the choice out of a genuine good will or some other high-minded motive, one can emerge from the situation having made the best of an unfortunate set of circumstances. The resources of virtue ethics provide parallel advice to those caught in a mild dilemma. Gregory Trianosky draws a distinction between two types of negative moral judgments (Trianosky, 1986, pp. 26ff.). Negative deontic judgments are judgments about the wrongness of someone s performing or failing to perform some particular act. Negative aretaic judgments concern the viciousness of some conative or affective state of the agent. He argues that in certain situations where a negative deontic judgment is not in order, as when someone declines to perform an act of supererogation, a negative aretaic judgment may be in order. For example, if a person withholds benefits from another out of spite, it is possible that the omission is worthy of a negative aretaic judgment. Trianosky does not discuss the mirror-image manifestation of this phenomenon: Situations in which a negative deontic judgment is in order, while a negative aretaic judgments is not in order. But I believe such situations are a possibility, and it is plausible to suppose that these situations can arise in circumstances where an agent is caught in a mild dilemma. Since every alternative open to one in a mild dilemma is morally blameworthy, it follows that, whatever one does or fails to do, a negative deontic judgment is in order. But it seems possible that someone in this situation may manifest no vice, or may even manifest virtue. Someone might manifest the virtue of compassion, for example, in approaching the situation. Someone might reason that, even though there is no way to avoid being blameworthy, one can attempt to be as compassionate as possible. The upshot is that someone unfortunate enough to be caught in a mild dilemma can discover that the situation is not as hopeless from a moral standpoint as it may appear. While it is true that a negative deontic judgment will ultimately be in order regarding one s behavior, from the perspective of virtue ethics one is in a position to achieve a measure of virtue. 3 I now consider the objection that appealing to a stronger version of the ought implies can principle calls into question the very possibility of mild dilemmas. The objection is based upon the observation that, while the term ought can refer to moral obligation, it can also refer to something weaker than moral obligation. Several authors have argued persuasively that this is the case, and I am inclined to agree that they are correct. Suppose, then, that we 53

4 consider the version of the ought implies can principle where ought is understood in its weak sense (construing ought as weaker than moral obligation makes the ought implies can principle stronger). If a mild dilemma is possible, then every alternative act is blameworthy to perform. Hence one cannot do anything in this situation that is not blameworthy. But by applying the strong ought implies can principle it follows that for at least one alternative it is not the case that one ought to refrain from it. Hence it is not blameworthy to perform it. But, since the initial supposition is that every alternative is blameworthy to perform, it follows that mild dilemmas are not possible. Unfortunately, this argument contains a problematic inference. From the fact that it is false that one ought to refrain from a particular alternative, it is concluded that the alternative is not blameworthy to perform. But it is not at all clear that the realm of the blameworthy is exhausted by that from which one ought to refrain. It seems perfectly conceivable that acts which are blameworthy to perform to only a minimal degree fall outside the net of what is captured by the phrase ought to refrain. Thus, it is highly questionable that the argument succeeds. Here intuitions may vary, but there is a larger issue at stake. The weak ought implies can principle states that if one cannot do something, it is not the case that one ought to do it even in the weak sense. Applied to dilemmas it states that if one cannot avoid doing something blameworthy, there is at least one blameworthy alternative that is not such that one ought to refrain from it. Although I see no contradiction in this state of affairs, it does suggest that there is perhaps something unfair about mild moral dilemmas. Perhaps no one deserves to be caught in a mild moral dilemma, just as it is inherently unfair for someone to be caught in a standard moral dilemma. Supposing that mild dilemmas are possible suggests that in this respect morality is inherently unfair. Thus, if one supposes that morality is not inherently unfair, there can be no such thing as a mild dilemma. I do not pretend to have a totally adequate response to this line of reasoning, but two remarks seem to be in order. First, it is often an agent s own fault that he or she comes to be caught in a mild dilemma. The person who makes promises to two neighbors regarding the same interval of time is caught in a mild dilemma of his or her own making. It would be ludicrous for this person, unhappy about being caught in a mild dilemma, to complain that morality is unfair. On the other hand, sometimes one can be caught in a mild dilemma not entirely of one s own making. Suppose a married couple has an agreement that under certain prescribed circumstances one can make promises on behalf of the other. The husband promises that his wife will help out at a church function, while his wife independently promises to help out at a civic function taking place at precisely the same time. The husband does not inform his wife of the promise he made on her behalf until it is too late to make alternative arrangements regarding either situation. The wife, then is caught in a dilemma not entirely of her own making. Second, there has in recent years been a great deal of discussion regarding moral luck. If there is such a thing as moral luck, and I am inclined to think that there is, then one can bear more blame for what happens in the closest possible world where the outcome of one s actions are different than for the same state of affairs in the actual world, even if one s motives and actions are precisely the same in both worlds. To use an example of Judith Jarvis Thompson (Thomson 1989, pp ), suppose that on a certain day one is distracted and backs out of the driveway without looking. If a very small child had darted out while one was backing out of the driveway on that day, one would not have seen the child and one would have incurred blame for backing over the child. It was a matter of luck that no child was present. And since the presence of this luck prevents one from being blameworthy for backing over the child, it qualifies as moral luck. 54

5 Consider once again the wife caught in a dilemma not entirely of her own making, and suppose she elects to help out at the civic function rather than the church function. Then she bears at least a minimal degree of blame for not showing up at the church function (and it is possible her husband does as well). It would be reasonable to contend that her husband s volunteering her for the church function led to a situation where she experienced bad luck. If her husband had not volunteered her, she would not be forced to incur blame for not showing up. Moral luck, therefore, plays a role in the circumstances that led to her being caught in a moral dilemma. Not all philosophers are convinced that moral luck is real. In a very famous passage from the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, first section, third paragraph, Kant observes the following: Even if it should happen that, by a particularly unfortunate fate or by the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly nature, this will should be wholly lacking in power to accomplish its purpose, and even if the greatest effort should not avail it to achieve anything of its end, and if there remained only the good will...it would sparkle like a jewel in its own right, as something that had its full worth in itself. Usefulness or fruitless can neither diminish nor augment this worth. This passage is widely interpreted as a repudiation of moral luck. The will of the person backing the car out of the driveway shines through like a jewel, and the same is true in the closest possible world where a small child is struck by this person. There is no difference between the will of the person in the two worlds, and a Kantian would conclude that there is no difference in the blame incurred by the person in each world. One backing out of the driveway without looking, therefore, is as blameworthy as if one had struck and killed a small child. I suspect most non-kantians would find this line of reasoning unpersuasive or counterintuitive. But here it is not my intent to argue against Kant or his followers. My intent is to suggest that if there is unfairness in being caught in a mild dilemma, it is something that is not unique to mild dilemmas. Thus, unless one is prepared to argue that moral luck is impossible, one cannot plausibly argue that mild dilemmas cannot occur simply on the grounds that morality is not inherently unfair. In this paper I have argued that, while the existence of strong moral dilemmas is notoriously controversial, a case can be made for the existence of mild dilemmas. It is common for people to feel that they are caught in some type of moral dilemma. Telling such people that moral dilemmas do not exist and that their feelings are entirely irrational seems cavalier. If I am correct in thinking that mild dilemmas are a genuine feature of the moral terrain, perceptions by ordinary people that they are caught in a moral dilemma are to some extent vindicated. References Conee, Earl. Against Moral Dilemmas, Philosophical Review, 91 (1982), pp Mellema, Gregory 1991:Beyond the Call of Duty. Albany: State University of New York Press. Thomson, Judith Jarvis. Morality and Bad Luck, Metaphilosophy, 20 (1989), pp 204ff. Trianosky, Gregory. Supererogation, Wrongdoing and Vice: On the Autonomy of the Ethics of Virtue, Journal of Philosophy, 83 (1986), pp. 26ff. 55

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