Moral dilemmas and nonmonotonic logic

Journal of Philosophical Logic 23 (1):35 - 65 (1994)
Abstract
From a philosophical standpoint, the work presented here is based on van Fraassen [26]. The bulk of that paper is organized around a series of arguments against the assumption, built into standard deontic logic, that moral dilemmas are impossible; and van Fraassen only briefly sketches his alternative approach. His paper ends with the conclusion that “the problem of possibly irresolvable moral conflict reveals serious flaws in the philosophical and semantic foundations of ‘orthodox’ deontic logic, but also suggests a rich set of new problems and methods for such logic.” My goal has been to suggest that some of these methods might be found in current research on nonmonotonic reasoning, and that some of the problems may have been confronted there as well.I have shown that nonmonotonic logics provide a natural framework for reasoning about moral dilemmas, perhaps even more useful than the ordinary modal framework, and that the issues surrounding the treatment of exceptional information within these logics run parallel to some of the problems posed by conditional oughts. However, there is also another way in which deontic logic might benefit from a connection to nonmonotonic reasoning. A familiar criticism among ethicists of work in deontic logic is that it is too abstract, and too far removed from the kind of problems confronted by real agents in moral deliberation. It must be said that similar criticisms of abstraction and irrelevance are often lodged against work in nonmonotonic reasoning by more practically minded researchers in artificial intelligence; but here, at least, the criticisms are taken seriously. Nonmonotonic logic aims at a qualitative account of commonsense reasoning, which can be used to relate planning and action to defeasible goals and beliefs; and at least some of the theories developed in this area have been tested in realistic situations. By linking the subject of deontic logic to this research, it may be possible also to relate the idealized study of moral reasoning typical of the field to a more robust treatment of practical deliberation
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