Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

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Steven Cahn

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moral dilemmas, moral residue, incomparability of values, Kant, utilitarianism, virtue ethics


In my dissertation, I argue for the existence of moral dilemmas and draw out the implications of their existence on major moral theories. A moral dilemma arises when: a moral agent holds moral principles entailing inconsistent actions, the moral principles do not override each other, and the moral agent cannot perform all the actions entailed by moral principles at the same time. I defend the arguments for moral dilemmas by considering objections to them and offering replies to those objections. On the other hand, I raise objections to the arguments against moral dilemmas in order to refute them.

Having argued for the existence of moral dilemmas, I draw out the implications of their existence on major moral theories—Kant’s ethical theory, Mill’s utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. The existence of moral dilemmas is inconsistent with Kant’s ethical theory. For Kant, It is inconceivable to suppose that two actions could both be necessary when doing one prevents doing the other. If a moral agent has a duty to perform a certain action, then the moral agent cannot also have a duty to perform another action incompatible with it. The existence of moral dilemmas, however, is consistent with both Mill’s utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Mill’s utilitarianism allows for a situation where the alternative courses of action produce the same amount of utilities. Even a fully virtuous person may face a situation where he or she cannot tell which course of action is the right one. Yet, the existence of moral dilemmas, favors virtue ethics over Mill’s utilitarianism; it provides a better account of moral residue—the feelings of remorse or guilt a moral agent experiences after violating one of the conflicting moral principles. A moral agent that shows no emotional response or feels merely regret about violating a moral principle exhibits a morally callous character. On the other hand, the moral agent with a virtuous character would not only take conflicting moral principles seriously but he or she would also experience strong negative emotions about violating one of them. The kind of emotional response that the moral agent shows reveals the type of character that he or she possesses.

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