Moral Dilemmas and Inescapable Moral Wrongdoing

Moral dilemmas are a central topic in moral philosophy. Much of this attention is due to the fact that they are always connected to some polemic and interesting discussion involving Ethics. Practical examples of moral dilemmas abound. Discussions about abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, are some of these examples. The interesting thing about such discussions is that everybody has a “good opinion” or a “very good explanation” to solve the problem in question. However, it is not the goal of this brief text to expose all the exhaustive argumentations involving practical cases.

                   The intention here is to talk about the common aspect involving such discussions: they are all moral dilemmas, and this very fact makes people feel that they have to be solved, completely. In the case of euthanasia, for example, people often say that let the person (if possible) to choose to die or not, in case of intense suffering, is “the best option” – even though other aspects of the discussion are worth considering. Almost the same thing occurs with abortion and other discussions. Everyone wants to say that due argumentation solves the problem completely without any reminders, and in order to show that moral theories are always invoked. Utilitarianism, for example, states that all moral dilemmas are soluble – in the words of J. S Mill: “If the utility is the ultimate source of moral obligations, utility may be invoked to decide between them when their demands are incompatible. Though the application of the standard may be difficult but it is better than none at all” (MILL, 1871/1998. Utilitarianism, p. 50).

                   However, even though many situations are labeled as “moral dilemmas”, it is worth noting why they exert such fascination on ordinary people and on moral philosophers. Some fascinating examples may help, as Sophie’s Choice. In the Styron’s (1979) novel, Sophie is forced to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would proceed to the labor camp. To avoid having both children killed, she chooses her son, Jan, to be sent to the children’s camp, and her daughter, Eva, to be sent to her death. Many authors say that Sophie exhibits a very utilitarian reasoning, because considering the circumstances, she acted for the best: probably the boy had more chances to survive than the girl. However, one may ask: is there any “best” option in such situation?  What is the sense of “best option” when you are obliged to kill one of your children? For now, let’s take it as an open question.

                   Cases like Sophie’s choice are called “symmetrical” dilemmas by most part of moral philosophers, because they are generated by one single principle. One may say that Sophie’s choice is not properly symmetric; it would only be if the children were twins, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s consider as it was symmetrical: both alternatives represent the same values as a mother-children relation. Because of this, there is a partial agreement among moral philosophers, that only symmetric conflicts could be called “genuine” moral dilemmas. However, even though many moral philosophers think that only symmetric dilemmas deserve the label “genuine”, it is possible to challenge this assumption.

Williams (1965), for example, asserted that moral dilemmas are genuine even though they are not symmetric, and are not soluble without remainder. He assumes that moral dilemmas are like conflicts of desires, and the duty “overridden” in moral dilemmas does not just disappear. For Williams, sometimes, agents will regret their choices even when they truly believe that have acted for the best, bringing in evidence the possibility of an inescapable moral wrongdoing. He uses the example of Agamemnon, who, according to the mythology,  decided to sacrifice his own daughter to the goddess Artemis, in order that she let the wind came back allowing the ships to travel to conquer Troia. According to Williams, we cannot deduce from it that the alternative to keep his daughter alive was completely erased. It can be manifested in the form of feelings of regret and guilty.

                   In addition, Williams is not the only author who defends the view that moral dilemmas may involve the possibility of an inescapable moral wrongdoing. However, is necessary to assume that the very idea of an inescapable moral wrongdoing goes against our intuitions. As Nagel (1972, p. 143) pointed out, “what if the world itself, or someone else’s actions, could face a previously innocent person with a choice between morally abominable courses of action, and leave him no way to escape with his honor? Our intuitions rebel at the idea, for we feel that the constructability of such a case must show a contradiction in our moral views”.

                   It is clear that inescapable moral wrongdoing forces one to review his moral views, forces moral theories to review moral and logical principles – what has no doubt a high cost. That is the reason why most part of moral theories tries to solve all moral dilemmas – their purpose is to be action guiding, not to propose inconsistent courses of action. Anyways, this text does not aim to solve the problem of inescapable moral wrongdoing, but just to draw some attention on it. It is worth noting that every example used as a moral dilemma has the potential to occur in real life. The possibility of an inescapable moral wrongdoing is disconcerting, but no doubt it is a strong element of the fascination exerted by moral dilemmas. Maybe to solve them is only the beginning.



MILL, J. S. 1871/2000: Utilitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press.


NAGEL, T. 1972: Mortal Questions. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2, 123-144.


WILLIAMS, B. 1965: Ethical Consistency. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 39, 103-124


STYRON, W. 1979/1992: Sophie’s Choice. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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