Moral Dilemma

… a core concept in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

Concept description

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Terrence McConnell (2018, reference below) defines a moral dilemma as a conflict between moral requirements.

See also: Deontological Ethics; Consequentialism; and Dirty Hands.

McConnell writes:

“In Book I of Plato’s Republic, Cephalus defines ‘justice’ as speaking the truth and paying one’s debts. Socrates quickly refutes this account by suggesting that it would be wrong to repay certain debts – for example, to return a borrowed weapon to a friend who is not in his right mind. Socrates’ point is not that repaying debts is without moral import; rather, he wants to show that it is not always right to repay one’s debts, at least not exactly when the one to whom the debt is owed demands repayment. What we have here is a conflict between two moral norms: repaying one’s debts and protecting others from harm. And in this case, Socrates maintains that protecting others from harm is the norm that takes priority.

“Nearly twenty-four centuries later, Jean-Paul Sartre described a moral conflict the resolution of which was, to many, less obvious than the resolution to the Platonic conflict. Sartre (1957) tells of a student whose brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940. The student wanted to avenge his brother and to fight forces that he regarded as evil. But the student’s mother was living with him, and he was her one consolation in life. The student believed that he had conflicting obligations. Sartre describes him as being torn between two kinds of morality: one of limited scope but certain efficacy, personal devotion to his mother; the other of much wider scope but uncertain efficacy, attempting to contribute to the defeat of an unjust aggressor.”

McConnell addresses the challenges associated with individuals (such as public servants) with moral requirements that flow from their positions.

“Another issue raised by the topic of moral dilemmas is the relationship among various parts of morality. Consider this distinction. General obligations are moral requirements that individuals have simply because they are moral agents. That agents are required not to kill, not to steal, and not to assault are examples of general obligations. Agency alone makes these precepts applicable to individuals. By contrast, role-related obligations are moral requirements that agents have in virtue of their role, occupation, or position in society. That lifeguards are required to save swimmers in distress is a role-related obligation. Another example, mentioned earlier, is the obligation of a defense attorney to hold in confidence the disclosures made by a client. These categories need not be exclusive. It is likely that anyone who is in a position to do so ought to save a drowning person. And if a person has particularly sensitive information about another, she should probably not reveal it to third parties regardless of how the information was obtained. But lifeguards have obligations to help swimmers in distress when most others do not because of their abilities and contractual commitments. And lawyers have special obligations of confidentiality to their clients because of implicit promises and the need to maintain trust.

“General obligations and role-related obligations can, and sometimes do, conflict. If a defense attorney knows the whereabouts of a deceased body, she may have a general obligation to reveal this information to family members of the deceased. But if she obtained this information from her client, the role-related obligation of confidentiality prohibits her from sharing it with others. Supporters of dilemmas may regard conflicts of this sort as just another confirmation of their thesis. Opponents of dilemmas will have to hold that one of the conflicting obligations takes priority. The latter task could be discharged if it were shown that one these two types of obligations always prevails over the other. But such a claim is implausible; for it seems that in some cases of conflict general obligations are stronger, while in other cases role-related duties take priority. The case seems to be made even better for supporters of dilemmas, and worse for opponents, when we consider that the same agent can occupy multiple roles that create conflicting requirements. …

“In the context of issues raised by the possibility of moral dilemmas, the role most frequently discussed is that of the political actor. Michael Walzer (1973) claims that the political ruler, qua political ruler, ought to do what is best for the state; that is his principal role-related obligation. But he also ought to abide by the general obligations incumbent on all. Sometimes the political actor’s role-related obligations require him to do evil – that is, to violate some general obligations. Among the examples given by Walzer are making a deal with a dishonest ward boss (necessary to get elected so that he can do good) and authorizing the torture of a person in order to uncover a plot to bomb a public building. Since each of these requirements is binding, Walzer believes that the politician faces a genuine moral dilemma, though, strangely, he also thinks that the politician should choose the good of the community rather than abide by the general moral norms. … Such a situation is sometimes called “the dirty hands problem.” The expression, “dirty hands,” is taken from the title of a play by Sartre (1946). The idea is that no one can rule without becoming morally tainted. The role itself is fraught with moral dilemmas. …

“For opponents of moral dilemmas, the problem of dirty hands represents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to show how conflicts between general obligations and role-related obligations, and those among the various role-related obligations, can be resolved in a principled way. The opportunity for theories that purport to have the resources to eliminate dilemmas – such as Kantianism, utilitarianism, and intuitionism – is to show how the many moralities under which people are governed are related.”


Terrence McConnell (2018), Moral Dilemmas, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), at, 12 March 2019.

Atlas topic, subject and course

Ends, Means, and Cost-Benefit Analysis (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 1 June 2016.

Image: Madhya Pradesh PCS Free Notes, moral-dilemma, at, accessed 12 March 2019.