Sometimes life brings us a decision for which there is no clear moral choice. In this article, practical philosopher Dr. Andrea Christelle, co-founder of Sedona Philosophy Experience and Dr. Craig Van Slyke discuss moral dilemmas -- what makes them dilemmas, the consequences of dealing with such decisions, and why they’re so hard to resolve. You will face moral dilemmas - they’re a part of life. So, we hope our discussion will help you when you have to make difficult moral choices. This is a pretty complex topic, so it will take a couple of articles to cover it. Also, I want to warn you that we frame some of the discussion around the death of one of our dogs. So, if that’s going to unduly upset you, maybe you should skip this article.
A few weeks ago, Tracy and I faced an excruciating decision. One of our collies, Sophie, had been declining for some time, but had gotten much worse. She was getting pretty old for a collie, and we were certain that there was no reversal for her decline (and the vet clarified that). Sophie was just old and she didn’t seem to enjoy life anymore. This was a big deal -- she was so exuberant that we called her our “dog of enthusiasm.”
We loved Sophie. She was a faithful companion. When Tracy was feeling poorly, Sophie would stay close to her side, doing her best to comfort Tracy. But, when Sophie started this sharp downward slope from which there would be no recovery, we faced a difficult decision -- let Sophie continue to have what life she could, or call the vet out to euthanize her.
To me, this is a classic moral dilemma. All life is precious and should be respected. But it was cruel to let Sophie continue to suffer needlessly when it was within our power to let her suffering end. If we decided to have her euthanized, we violated the moral precept of the sanctity of life, but if we let her continue to suffer, we didn't live up to our duty to care for the life that God had entrusted to us. Regardless of the choice, we would fail to serve an important moral duty. We had a dilemma.
We scheduled our vet to come out, and talked with him about our choice. He’s really wonderful and he said “Better a week too early than a day late.” So, we decided to end Sophie’s suffering and her life. We miss her terribly. Sophie really was one of those special pups.
Our experience led me to think about the moral dilemmas that are inevitable parts of life. But, just what makes something a moral dilemma? What are the consequences of moral dilemmas for those of us who have to make difficult moral choices? How can such dilemmas be resolved, if they even can?
In an email, I posed these questions to my friend and co-host of the original version of the Live Well and Flourish podcast, Andrea Christelle. This prompted a conversation and an invitation for Andrea to join me to discuss moral dilemmas in order for you to be better equipped to recognize and deal with difficult moral choices. Andrea graciously agreed, so we’re fortunate to have her contribute.
So, let’s start with the basic question -- what is a moral dilemma?
A moral dilemma is a choice in which a moral agent must choose between two actions both of which have moral consequences and are incompatible with one another. The agent can do either of these actions, but can’t do both. Regardless of which choice they make, there will be an undesirable outcome. And this is often referred to as the “horns of a dilemma” because if you avoid one horn, you end up on the other. In this case, if you let Sophie live, she ends up suffering, but if you end her suffering, you also end her life. And either way you get stuck on one of the horns.
The moral agent, which is just someone with the ability to take some action with moral consequences, can’t escape being skewered by one of the horns, you're literally damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The agent is going to face an outcome that is morally problematic, and either action is unethical in some respect. Now, that’s something that a lot of people just intuitively don’t like because we often try to find the right thing to do, and if we can’t avoid a negative consequence, usually we somehow try to justify it and say, "Well, it was right because I chose the better alternative". But that’s not necessarily the case. Ending Sophie’s life, for example, may have been, all things considered, the best thing to do, but that doesn’t mean that euthanizing her is unproblematic. Again, even if it is the overall best thing to do.
Perhaps an example will make things a little bit easier for readers to understand. One classic example is, coincidentally Sophie’s Choice. And this comes from William Styron’s novel of the same name.
In this novel Sophie and her two children are in a Nazi concentration camp and a guard tells Sophie that one of her children will be allowed to live but the other will be put to death. And so Sophie has to decide which child lives and which dies. She can save one child, but only at the expense of the other's life. If she chooses neither, both will be killed. Sophie, therefore, has a morally compelling reason to choose one of her children, but for each child she has equally strong reasons to save her/him. So, the same moral precept of saving a life leads to the conflicting moral obligations, so Sophie faces a moral dilemma. And this is a really terrible one.
Our Sophie’s choice was also a moral dilemma. Our choice to euthanize Sophie violated the moral precept of the sanctity of life, but continuing to allow her to suffer violated the moral obligation we had to end her suffering. Of course, Sophie’s choice in the novel was more consequential, but both are moral dilemmas. Or are they?
It seems that there are some assumptions that we’re making if we call the decision that Tracy and I faced a moral dilemma.
Those assumptions are that we have a duty, a moral duty to end suffering. We also assume that we have a moral duty to respect the sanctity of life and maybe also to not interfere with the normal course of life and death. We also put ourselves in the position of being an agent for Sophie … we were making a choice on her behalf, but that’s a different sort of agency that we don’t need to get into now.
It is implied that certain moral obligations are at stake when we call our choice a moral dilemma.
What’s “good” or what the “right” action is depends on the particular set of moral values being applied. Sanctity of life is another moral commitment. But notice, though, that every time we eat a cheeseburger, we’re also violating the sanctity of life rule. And this is not to be glib, but it is helpful to notice how easy it is to be really moved by things like sanctity of life in one scenario, and maybe not even have it cross our minds in another scenario.
Humans are often inconsistent in things like that. But that's part of what makes us human. Whether something is good or bad depends on what we might call the value framing that’s being applied, which gets into ethics and theories of ethics.
Applying different theories or systems of ethics might lead to different choices, but maybe that's a topic for another article. We don’t want to go into too much detail here, but there are at least three major theories or approaches to ethics.
We can go over those just briefly. Utilitarianism is one. And utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which, just like it sounds, focuses on consequences or outcomes of an action or decision. And according to utilitarianism an action is right if it brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
A second major moral theory is deontology, and that's a system that says that there are moral norms, or standards, or rules, and a right action is the one that conforms to these moral norms.
Then finally, virtue ethics would say that the morally correct action is one that a person of virtue or high moral character would do. This seems to leave more space for independent judgment, but it is not quite as freewheeling as it might sound at first.
Of course, there are countless complications and caveats, but that is a brief explanation of the different principles behind three major ethical systems: utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics.
What’s important here is that what might be Good or Right under utilitarianism might not be if we apply deontology or virtue ethics. And even within a system of ethics, you may still face ethical dilemmas, so dealing with a moral dilemma is not just a matter of applying one theory or another. For example, Sophie’s Choice, in the novel is a dilemma under any of these approaches to ethics. While we tend to pit one theory against the other–utilitarianism focuses on outcomes, while deontology focuses on rules–in our day to day lives most people tend to pay attention to aspects of all of them. You know, we often pay attention to consequences that follow from actions, we also want to know if someone is following the rules, and we also consider good judgment to be something that has moral value. So, judging whether something is right or wrong is a lot more complicated than it seems at first blush.
Now that we understand a little bit more about what moral dilemmas are with these difficult choices and how they come up, we can talk about how having to deal with moral dilemmas affects us. And specifically, that we sometimes have to make choices where there just are going to be problematic moral consequences.
There are at least two major ways that facing moral dilemmas can affect your flourishing. Acting morally is often put in terms of what we ought to do because of our obligations to others, or society, or some external factor. But it’s important to remember that acting morally is really critical for maintaining your own self-esteem, of course here I'm assuming that you want to be a good person, but if you didn't you probably wouldn't read articles from Live Well and Flourish. Part of your self-esteem is tied up with acting in ways that align with your values and goals. If one of your goals is to act morally, and you face a dilemma that will cause you to violate a moral precept, then your self-esteem is threatened.
There's a second way, which is pretty intertwined with the first, and that's that moral dilemmas cause distress, which is stress that is detrimental to your well-being. Distress comes about when the demands you face exceed your ability to deal with them; basically your demands are greater than the resources you have available. Because it's impossible to completely resolve moral dilemmas, you feel distressed because your resources (in this case, your capacity for making THE correct moral choice) are insufficient for dealing with the demands brought on by the moral dilemma. There simply is no single, unproblematic choice available, and that distresses you.
There’s even a concept called “moral distress”. And a lot of people are really uncomfortable having to make a choice that they know will have some morally problematic element.
Keep in mind that not taking action in these kinds of situations also will lead to a violation of a moral precept. So, you might think, 'Well then I just won't do anything.' Well, by not doing anything you're making a choice and you're making a decision.
Moral distress is a situation in which you know the right action to take, but you’re constrained from taking it. And this results in an inconsistency between your beliefs and your actions. You believe that it’s important to act in morally correct ways, but you can’t fully meet your moral duties because of the dilemma. So, you know, just the case with Sophie, for example.
Some might ask whether even in a moral dilemma, you can make a choice that’s morally correct, and if that is fulfilling your moral duties?
Well, not fully, because in a moral dilemma, by definition, you have to make a choice, and when you choose one option you are foregoing the other option and there are going to be problematic moral consequences from that. A choice implies a non-selection. So, when you choose one alternative, you’re explicitly NOT choosing the other. Alright, so we're assuming that in a dilemma these two courses of action are mutually exclusive, you can't do both. In a moral dilemma, the alternative that you DON’T choose would have met a moral obligation. So in that dilemma, there’s always some unmet moral obligation that results in some form of moral distress.
Before continuing, I do want to mention that there are two parts to moral distress. There's the initial distress that occurs as the situation brings about choice that's unfolding. And then there's reactive distress that happens after the situation that brought about the moral distress ends and becomes part of what we can call your “moral life.” There's the stress of knowing you have to make the decision and then the post-stress that happens after the decision has been made.
Moral distress can result in something called “moral residue”, and those are feelings that come about from a perception that a morally distressing situation isn’t satisfactorily resolved, which is going to be the case with a moral dilemma.
I know that it all sounds a little depressing but remember that there is absolutely no way to satisfactorily resolve a true moral dilemma. It sounds kind of trite, but it’s critical to remember that all you can do is your best. You don’t set yourself up for feeling bad by having unrealistic expectations and thinking that you can resolve a moral dilemma in a way that is completely morally satisfying is an unrealistic expectation. Sure, you put appropriate effort into making what you think is the better of the choices, but realize that with a moral dilemma, you’re going to leave some moral obligation unmet. And this is just part of what we have to endure by being human.
Just accept the inevitability and just do the best you can. That’s really pretty good advice generally, or at least the Stoics thought so, I think.
Three Things for Dealing with Moral Dilemmas
The most important thing to do is to really start trying to understand the values that you hold. The key to making any decision with moral implications is to know what values are important to you. That sounds simple, but take ten or fifteen minutes to write down a list of important values, especially the ones that are at stake if you're facing a difficult decision.
It’s kind of like brainstorming values, and initially you don’t have to think too deeply. Just make a list. I know it might seem a little shallow, but this is a process. And I think that what's top of mind can tell us a lot about the values we have. Once you have your list you can start to consider the values more deeply.
Maybe next you can rank the values, from most important to least important, or something like that. Keep in mind, though, that “least important” is still important. The third step can be kind of a thought experiment. Try to come up with one or two moral decisions you might face. These don’t have to be deep moral conflicts like Sophie’s Choice. They can be pretty mundane.
Here’s a kind of silly one. If Craig asks Tracy if she likes his beard (which by the way is getting longer and Craig is oddly proud of it) and she hates the long beard she might have to choose between honesty and kindness. I’m not sure that’s really a dilemma. I mean, maybe it would be better to tell him what she really thinks, if it looks silly. Of course, I'm not that I’m saying that it looks silly. I wouldn't say that.
Craig is not trimming it anytime soon. But as long as Tracy doesn't lock him out of the house, he’s good with it.
I want to give the listeners a quick programming note, though: The next article of Live Well and Flourish will provide some insights into the pragmatics of making choices when facing a moral dilemma.
Before we close, we’d like to tell you about the Sedona Philosophy Experience.
Sedona Philosophy is an opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogs and experience nature, culture and history in beautiful Sedona, Arizona. So, if you're headed to Sedona, we'd love to take you out on the land and engage in philosophical dialog.
It's a really unique way to experience the, just beauty doesn't quite describe it, but the awesomeness of Sedona. So, I would encourage y'all to check it out if you're ever going to be out that way. And of course, we’ll put a link to Sedona Philosophy below.
We like to close articles of Live Well and Flourish with a quote. Sometimes they’re related to the topic of the episode and sometimes they’re not. Here is one of Andrea’s favorites, and it kind of brings together the importance of moral decision making that we've been talking about today and Sedona Philosophy and the wonder of the world.
This is by Immanuel Kant, it's actually on his gravestone. And it's that, “Two things inspire ever increasing awe and wonder. The starry skies above and the moral law within.”
We've been talking about moral dilemmas but this is one of the other contrasts, like looking at the starry skies above and the wonder and the scope of the universe, sometimes we can just feel like we're tiny, maybe even insignificant in the scope of all time and all creation. And yet, the moral law within, the way we act, the way we treat other people and conduct ourselves in our daily life is also very important. So, we are not insignificant, we really are very significant. Again, not quite a dilemma, but quite a contrast.
In the infinite, everything is infinitely large and infinitely small, but that might be one to ponder over a couple of good single malt scotches.
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
Sedona Philosophy Experience: https://sedonaphilosophy.com/
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 37, ”Dealing with Moral Dilemmas”
The Cage of Your Assumptions
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”