Moral Dilemmas and Consistency in Ethics

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Terrance C. McConnell, Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: Recently it has been argued that there are genuine moral dilemmas and that any theory which does not account for this fact is an unrealistic one. This represents a challenge to an assumption that most moral theorists have held: an adequate ethical theory must not allow for genuine moral quandaries. John Stuart Mill, for example, in the last paragraph of the second chapter of Utilitarianism, seems to be committed to such an assumption. Many others have also assented to this view. The consensus among those who hold this view seems to be that if a theory allows for moral dilemmas then there is some sense in which it is incoherent or inconsistent. Yet, oddly enough, the sense in which such a view would be incoherent is rarely, if ever, spelled out. Put another way, there seem to be no arguments for the belief that genuine moral dilemmas must be ruled out. W. D. Ross does suggest that if the same action were both morally required and forbidden, then "this would be to put an end to all ethical judgment."3 But how this would put an end to all ethical judgment, Ross does not explain. Once one sees that few, if any, arguments have been advanced to support the commonly held assumption, one realizes that the recent challenges must be taken seriously. Thus the main questions to which this paper is addressed are these: Must an adequate ethical theory allow for genuine moral dilemmas? Or must an adequate theory rule out such cases in order to avoid incoherence? I shall approach these questions by first spelling out two different senses in which our ethical reasoning might be thought to be inconsistent if there are genuine moral dilemmas. Discussing these two senses of inconsistency will cast light on the original questions. The conclusion that I shall eventually argue for is that we have good grounds for supposing that an adequate moral theory must rule out genuine dilemmas.

Additional Information

Canadian Journal of Philosophy VIII(2) (June 1978), pp. 269-287
Language: English
Date: 1978
ethics, moral dilemmas, inconsistency

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