Reasoning with moral conflicts

Noûs 37 (4):557–605 (2003)
Let us say that a normative conflict is a situation in which an agent ought to perform an action A, and also ought to perform an action B, but in which it is impossible for the agent to perform both A and B. Not all normative conflicts are moral conflicts, of course. It may be that the agent ought to perform the action A for reasons of personal generosity, but ought to perform the action B for reasons of prudence: perhaps A involves buying a lavish gift for a friend, while B involves depositing a certain amount of money in the bank. In general, our practical deliberation is shaped by a concern with a variety of morally neutral goods—not just generosity and prudence, but any number of others, such as etiquette, aesthetics, fun—many of which are capable of providing conflicting reasons for action. I mention these ancillary values in the present setting, however, only to put them aside. We will be concerned here, not with normative conflicts more generally, but precisely with moral conflicts—situations in which, even when our attention is restricted entirely to moral reasons for action, it is nevertheless true that an agent ought to do A and ought to do B, where it is impossible to do both.
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DOI 10.1046/j.1468-0068.2003.00452.x
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Thomas Nagel (1979). Mortal Questions. Cambridge University Press.

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