Moral Dilemmas and Moral Ambiguity

Sunday, December 24, 2006
First Aired: 
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

What Is It

It would be nice if we always knew the morally right thing to do, if our choices and commitments were painted in stark black and white.  Unfortunately life is full of gray areas, including situations in which all the choices that confront us seem morally problematic, in which all the people who surround us seem composed of equal parts good and evil.   John and Ken explore the extent to which reality confronts us with moral dilemmas and moral ambiguity with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Dartmouth College.

Listening Notes

What is a dilemma? A situation in which you have to do two things but you can't do both. What is special about moral dilemmas? Do moral dilemmas stem from different sources of value? John introduces the guest, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor at Dartmouth. Sinnott-Armstrong thinks that Judith Miller's case did not involve a moral dilemma. How far do Miller's obligations extend? Would she have to endure torture? Sinnott-Armstrong thinks the most compelling kinds of dilemmas involve symmetric obligations, conflicting, identical obligations to two parties.

Do moral dilemmas always involve a residue of guilt? Does guilt entail that there is a moral dilemma? Are there any real moral dilemmas? Sinnott-Armstrong thinks there are, such as a mother that has to choose which of two children will live. Is it possible to reason out which horn of a moral dilemma is the proper choice? Sinnott-Armstrong thinks that some apparent dilemmas can be solved but not all of them. Sophie's Choice represents a very difficult moral dilemma in which the agent did not do anything to get herself into the problem. Sinnott-Armstrong distinguishes between judgments of particular actions and judgments of particular agents. Can moral theories solve all the problems that could arise? Sinnott-Armstrong thinks they can't but that that does not undermine their worth.

Why do people want moral theories to cover all possible situations? Sinnott-Armstrong thinks that people want this to avoid having to make difficult decisions. He illustrates this with an example from Sartre of a French soldier in World War 2. Utilitarians may claim that all moral dilemmas are epistemological. Are all moral dilemmas the result of us not knowing enough about the future? Ken thinks that this view ignores different kinds of value in life. Sinnott-Armstrong says that the non-symmetric moral dilemmas force us to choose what kind of person to be.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 03:50): Amy Standen interviews a reporter and a law professor about the moral dilemma of the Judith Miller case.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:20): Ian Shoales gives an overview of moral dilemmas, from G.E. Moore to Simone de Beauvoir to Utilitarianism.