Normative Ethics: Moral Dilemmas and Imperfect World

Let us say that ‘X’ does something which ‘Y’ considers corrupt. To keep it simple, let us say that ‘Y’ expresses the aforementioned judgment. In order to express it, or persuade others about the validity of this moral judgment, ‘Y’ will have to do something like this:

  1. Y defines ‘corruption’: “All actions which exhibit _______ properties are corrupt”
  2. Y’s ‘ethical principle’ (itself justified): “All actions which satisfy ______ (the principle) are moral”.
  3. Y infers: “Because all corrupt actions violate principle (2), all corrupt actions are immoral”.
  4. Y describes: “________ action of X shows _______ properties”.
  5. Y infers: “By definition, therefore, X’s action is corrupt”.
  6. Y argues: “All corrupt actions are immoral”. (Reiteration 3)
    “X’s action is corrupt”. (Reiteration 5)
  7. Y infers: “Therefore, X’s action is immoral”

The goal of Western ethical philosophers is to construct a theory, which allows us to justify moral judgments or moral actions and choices in the above, albeit simplified, manner.

One can say that the context helps you decide which principle has to be modified, which to discard. Within the western normative ethics, the context is irrelevant to the process of deliberation. Maximally, what ‘contexts’ do is create the so-called ethical dilemmas, i.e. situations where the moral principles conflict. ‘So-called’, because most ethical philosophers do not believe that ethical principles could, in principle, be in conflict. They ascribe the empirical conflict either to the insufficient information the agent has, or to the moral imperfection of the actual world, or to the absence of a good theory of ethics which creates a hierarchy of norms, or whatever else. That is because, within the western normative ethics, it is not possible for an ethical principle to impose an immoral obligation. If it does so, such a principle has to be immoral. (In a situation involving a moral dilemma, following any one ethical principle entails violating the other moral principle. In this sense, the first imposes an immoral obligation to violate the second.)

One of the most popular ways to account for a moral dilemma has been to speak of two kinds of obligations: a prima facie obligation and an actual obligation. Prima facie obligations refer to situations involving moral conflict (i.e. a moral dilemma). They say that this is merely an apparent conflict (i.e. a prima facie conflict) and not ‘real’ at all. In a morally perfect world, they say, there could be no conflict of moral principles. So, all you have to do is ‘accept’ that ours is a morally imperfect world, where it appears as though we have conflicting obligations when there could be no such conflicts between moral obligations. In simple terms: they say moral dilemmas tell us that we live in a morally imperfect world but nothing about the nature of moral principles. Moral principles could never in conflict. In other words, moral dilemmas are a curse on humankind; they show us that we are imperfect creatures.

If these ideas do not resonate with your understanding of morality, it shows that you do not know what ‘ought’ means (philosophically speaking).