Resolving Moral Conflicts

One of the criticisms often raised about individual morality systems is the absence of a satisfactory mechanism for resolving conflicts which arise when two moral principles apply to a given situation but yield different “oughts”, “ought nots”, or simply actions. Dilemmas, such as those posed by the trolley dilemmas, illustrate the problem. Universalist systems, with unwavering commitments to principles, are especially plagued by this problem. Supporters of utilitarian systems are likely to call one’s attention to the “greater good” criteria as a general solution. Individual judgments are likely to vary because of variations in moral commitments to specific principles, both moral and non-moral, that people use to live their lives. Personal needs, desires, and beliefs (reality judgments) further complicate the judging process.

There is also the problem of different morality systems yielding different favoring reasons for what appears to be identical (relevantly similar) situations. Conflicts can arise because the conflicting principles apply to different aspects of the proposed action. Disagreements can also center on the differences in sources of normativity (reasons, norms) from which legitimacy is derived. Capacity to effect the action may affect the possibility of applying the principle, also. Then there is the prediction problem of the probability that the context might change and unforeseen/unintended consequences.

Some Terms

   a. Antinomy - a contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions that are in themselves reasonable; a paradox.

   b. Universalism (generalism, objectivism)
         1) Practice of identifying abstract concepts to judge value of an action -- a principle.
         2) Abstraction - subsumption of particulars into a general principle.
         3) Limits (such as applicable contexts) are provided as a priori contributory reasons stored as meta-data.

   c. Counter-example/counter-factual – description of a situation for which a principle is supposed to apply but fails to yield the expected judgment. Used widely by skeptics to call into question claims of universality.

   d. Eliminitivism – rejecting an entire principle/theory because of one successful counter-example/challenge.

   e. Particularism – principles serve as general guidelines, with final judgment made a posteriori based on the particulars of the context; triage

   f. Consequentialism - whether an act is morally right depends only on consequences (as opposed to the circumstances or the intrinsic nature of the act or anything that happens before the act). End justifies the means? Valuation of the consequences and distribution of that value is an important aspect of this system. Also, addressed under teleology. See <SEP/Consequentialism> for plethora of variations.

   g. Contractualism - morality consists in what would result if we were to make binding agreements from a point of view that respects our equal moral importance as rational autonomous agents. An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any set of principles for the general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject as a basis for informed, unforced, general agreement. (TM Scanlon, What We Owe Each Other, 1998).

   h. Utilitarianism - The main idea is that morality may be viewed as the set of decisions that would be made by an impartial benevolent observer - an observer who is aware of all the conflicting interests in a given situation, and of the consequences that different policies would have for those interests, and who is equally sympathetic towards all of the parties involved. The governing conception of utilitarianism is thus an imaginary construction (as is the governing conception of contractualism).
The moral point of view is a sort of God’s eye view, but independent of any belief in an actual God. It is the point of view that we would take if we could be fully aware of all the consequences of our actions, and could be equally sympathetic towards all those affected.

   i. Deontological ethics – duty-bound; -  Focus is on features of the rules and actions rather than consequences.  Conflicting duties face choices based on other considerations, such as loyalty to whom or what, and utilitarian greater good.

   j. Hedonism - pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that pain is the only intrinsic bad.

More Terms

   a. Culture critique – advertising tells us what we should be and what we are.
    b. Discourse ethics – objectivity/impartiality; Practical reasoning alone or in pairs/groups
    c. Divine command
    d. Egoism – self-interest; difficult to find a moral reason for doing without some other enabling reason; respect from others, self-esteem
    e. Naturalism – science only tells us what is, not what ought to be
    f. Perfectionism – equality issues and each person is valued equally; How to develop outlook? How to achieve balance?
    g. Pragmatism – imminent threat; tolerant and pluralistic
    h. Rationalism – Mostly an exercise in formal logic; and truth determination.

   i. Moral relativism – rejects moral rules and principles are absolutes and universals…all persons, places, times
    j. Subjectivism – emotivism; factual claim and attitude; fictions, conventional wisdom; folk psychology;

   k. Virtue ethics – focus on character of person…acts secondary to the way we do things;

   l. Kant’s Categorical Imperative – Constructing a principle with a neutral (objective) stance so as not to favor one’s self and ignoring consequences. See end of page.


Some Resolution Tools/Principles

    a. Greater good (utilitarian)
    b. Cost-benefit – benefits exceed costs – 1) personal 2) societal
    c. Survival of the species – 1)contemporary 2) unknown future challenge
    d. Instrumentalism – using another person to satisfy own needs/desires
    e. Regret and/or feeling of guilt/shame
    f. Golden rule

          1) Negative valence: Do not do unto others, that which you would not have others do unto you.

         2) Positive valence: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 


    g. Parable of the Good Samaritan.


Limits (of Ethics) – J Baggini & PS Fosi, The Ethics Toolkit, 2007

1. Akrasia – acting against one’s own interest
2. Amoralism – principles outside of morality, such as survival, happiness, et al.
3. Bad faith (deceiving others, misrepresenting ourselves) and self-deception
4. Casuistry (appealing to non-moral principals to justify doing what one wants to do, anyway) and rationalization
5. Falleness – our sinful nature
6. False Consciousness – applying value to something with out justification; Plato’s Cave, conventional wisdom, ideologies, 7. Free will and determinism
8. Moral luck – violating a principle and not getting caught
9. Nihilism – annihilation of existing order
10. Pluralism – conflicting principles that defy valuation
11. Power – moral principles are about exerting power
12. Radical particularity – invoking the Hitler story to win a point; sameness is baseless
13. The separtness of persons – a gain to one is not equivalent to a loss to another; marginal value is used to counter the forgoing claim.
14. Skepticism – moral beliefs have a purely subjective or internal bases, usually in feeling, and that no objective or external dimension can prescribe behavior
15. Standpoint – view from the power elite vs. that from the victim elite
16. Supererogation – praising one for exceptionally moral acts, but questioning the prudence of her excessive generosity; praising someone for a good act, but withholding judgment and not condemning someone who doesn’t perform such acts.
17. Tragedy – Trolley dilemmas


Kant’s Categorical Imperative
In his book/treatise, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant provides a basis for morals:

"I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law."

Kant calls this principle the Categorical Imperative, for one must follow it in all circumstances (i.e., categorically); it is distinct from Hypothetical Imperatives that one needs to follow only if they further some end that one wants to achieve. To act according to the Categorical Imperative, one must formulate a maxim, which is a statement of one's intended action and the reason one would follow that action.

This of course raises the question of what actions are from duty and are therefore constitutive of a good will. Kant states that only actions that occur from the "representation of the law in itself" count. One must rationally determine [a priori] what the moral law is in a particular circumstance, and act just because of the moral law. To do so, one adheres to the following principle:

“It [The Categorical Imperative] is concerned, not with the matter of the action and its presumed results, but with its form and with the principle from which it follows; and what is essentially good in the action consists in the mental disposition, let the consequences be what they may. This imperative may be called the imperative of morality.”

-- Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant, 1785.

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  • Gene R.

    The original material that prompted interest in this topic included the role of guilt and shame in moral decision-making. I couldn't find the original material so I cobbled together what you see. However, last night I discovered this scholarly article that surveyed research on guilt, shame, and embarrassment, as well as positive valence emotional processes of pride, righteous anger, elevation, gratitude, and empathy. < http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3083636/ >

    June 8

  • Craig Y.

    When two soldiers from the opposing sides can follow an universal duty principle and will consequently destroy each other, ok according to Kant?

    June 6

    • Craig Y.

      Love and duty are both categorical imperatives but could be in conflict in an application. I guess it does not matter the result.

      June 6

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