Moral Dilemmas, Criticism, & Plumping

First, let me thank Robin Hanson for inviting me to Overcoming Bias. In this first post of mine, let me present a puzzle that has some bearing on both my area of study, moral theory, and overcoming bias:

Rush Rhees claimed that “in matters of morals it is not reasons which decide the issue” (“Deciding What I Ought to Do” in Moral Questions (1999)). I find this statement remarkably puzzling, and Rhees recognizes that this is an uncomfortable way to express his point, since he admits that reasons are relevant to moral decision-making. (He is not a moral relativist or subjectivist in any obvious way.) The question, then, is what does decide the issue? Rhees’ view is that our moral decisions are inherently personal, a point that he emphasizes by declaring, “Only I can decide what I ought to do.

At the very least, Rhees’ claims appear to make sense of moral dilemmas. These are situations in which a person has equally good reasons for choosing either of two courses of action (or where there is an incommensurability between the reasons – these cases are harder and more theoretically contentious). If we were to find ourselves in a difficult moral dilemma, we might begin to understand why Rhees claims that reasons don’t (and can’t) decide the issue, and that only we ourselves can decide what we ought to do.

Some theorists might object that there can be no question about what I ought to do in a dilemma, except that I ought to do something, and that only I can decide what I will do. But since I ought to do something and, presumably, ought not sit on my hands and refuse to make a choice, it makes sense (for me as the chooser) to regard my decision as what I ought to do. (At least, it makes sense to think that I am doing something right.) Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that in making such a decision, I create a moral truth (see “Existentialism is a Humanism”). Supposing that Rhees and Sartre are correct, however, the so-called “truth” I create can only be something that is “true for me” alone, and this violates the classic universalizability principle, which says that if act A is right for person P to do in situation S, then A is the right action for anyone sufficiently like P in a situation sufficiently like S.

Suppose, then, that I know of someone else who chose differently and yet was in a situation much like my own, and who was similar in character and values. If the universalizability principle were correct, then it would seem that I would be justified in criticizing such a person as having chosen (and acted) immorally. But if Rhees (and Sartre) are correct, then it seems my criticism would be unjustified – I would be advancing a criticism of a choice that no one but the person who made the choice was in a position to deem as that which he or she ought to do.

One way to solve this puzzle is to claim that in moral dilemmas, there is no such thing as “the right thing to do” (where this picks out one course of action or the other), and so the universalizability principle simply fails to apply to the specific choices made within moral dilemmas. But this itself is an important result. For if, in making a choice within a dilemma, I do something morally good, then some moral choices are not universalizable. This would further imply that I cannot rationally criticize people in similar situations who chose other than I do, and that full-blown commitment to the universalizability principle – a crux of traditional ethical theorizing – can give rise to bias when applied to our own practical decisions.

This is important because, as Simon Blackburn notes, we may have a tendency to “plump” in the face of dilemmas, such that we make our decision look (or feel) like the only one – read: the only moral choice – we could have made (see "Dilemmas, Dithering, Plumping, and Grief" in Moral Dilemmas and Moral Theory, ed. Mason (1996)). One challenge of choosing in a moral dilemma is to choose without “plumping” so much that we blind ourselves to the fact that others may rationally (and, morally) choose the other course of action, while still plumping enough to motivate ourselves to choose where the reasons themselves can’t make the choice for us.

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