Moral conflict and ordinary emotional experience

Journal of Value Inquiry 26 (2):223-237 (1992)

If we ask ourselves whether ultimate moral conflicts exist, and if we take seriously the goal of capturing ordinary emotional experience in our views about morality, we find the evidence mixed. We might have some reason for concluding that some situations are ultimate moral conflicts, but we also have good reasons of the same kind for concluding that these situations are not ultimate moral conflicts. So this kind of argument does not provide secure enough footing for any sort of powerful criticism of moral theories which deny the existence of ultimate moral conflicts. Those who want to argue for the reality of ultimate moral conflicts can still argue from something other than ordinary emotional experience. Any such alternative strategy, though, will involve a retreat from the idea that ordinary emotional experience provides unambiguous support for the existence of ultimate moral conflicts and a secure point from which to criticize moral theories.I conclude, then, that accepting the reality of ultimate moral conflicts does not allow a truer picture of ordinary emotional experience. I am not sure, though, that this should be good news for those who believe in a moral realm without ultimate moral conflicts. What is most striking about ordinary emotional experience is not its tendency to support one or another picture of the moral realm, with or without ultimate moral conflicts, but its failure to endorse any very determinate picture of a moral realm. This suggests a rather shocking gap in our understanding of the concepts of moral obligation, prohibition, and permission, concepts which, after all, are alleged to play a familiar and vital role in our lives. Perhaps this gap can be filled by arguments beginning somewhere other than ordinary emotional experience. (Although skeptics will point to the failure of deontic logicians to find any decisive reason to choose between accounts that do and do not permit ultimate moral conflicts.) Alternatively, though, the ambiguity of ordinary emotional experience on the question of ultimate moral conflict might provide one kind of support for the suspicion, famously entertained by Elizabeth Anscombe, that the word “ought,” used to refer to a specifically moral realm, is a word “containing no intelligible thought: a word retaining the suggestion of force, and apt to have a strong psychological effect, but which no longer signifies a real concept at all - No content could be found in the notion ‘morally ought’; if it were not that - philosophers try to find an alternative (very fishy) content and to retain the psychological force of the term.” G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modem Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33 (1958): 8
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DOI 10.1007/BF00138970
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