Moral dilemmas and the limits of ethical theory

LED (2000)
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Abstract

In this book, I consider whether the hypothesis of moral dilemmas undermines ethics' pretensions to objectivity. I argue against the view that moral dilemmas challenge the very possibility of ethical theory, as a practical and theoretical enterprise. By examining Kantian, Intuitionist and Utilitarian arguments about moral dilemmas, I show that no ethical theory is capable of avoiding them. I further argue that an adequate ethical theory should admit dilemmas. Dilemmas do not reveal a logical or normative flaw in the theory that permits them to arise, nor are they necessarily generated by subjective mistakes. Rather, dilemmas are a sign of the deliberative capacity of an agent who operates in non-ideal conditions of rationality and cooperation. The inevitability of moral dilemmas shows that we should reconsider the bounds of deliberation, and the purposes of ethical theory. My argument for the philosophical significance of moral dilemmas rests on the claim that an adequate ethical theory should make sense of moral phenomenology, and that moral phenomenology should to be understood from the perspective of an agent who conceives of herself as an agent. The view of moral dilemmas I advocate does not invite skepticism about ethical theory, but suggests that we redefine its scope and its many practical aims.

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Carla Bagnoli
University of Modena

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