A Dispositional Account of Conflicts of Obligation

Noûs 47 (2):203-228 (2013)
I address a question in moral metaphysics: How are conflicts between moral obligations possible? I begin by explaining why we cannot give a satisfactory answer to this question simply by positing that such conflicts are conflicts between rules, principles, or reasons. I then develop and defend the “Dispositional Account,” which posits that conflicts between moral obligations are conflicts between the manifestations of obligating dispositions (obligating powers, capacities, etc.), just as conflicts between physical forces are conflicts between the manifestations of (certain) causal dispositions (causal powers, capacities, etc.). This account combines the so-called “moral forces” interpretation of prima facie obligations with a dispositional moral metaphysic according to which the metaphysical grounds of moral obligations are not rules or laws, but rather real, irreducibly dispositional properties (or powers) of moral agents and patients. My principal aims are to offer a theoretically attractive and suitably metaphysical account of conflicts of obligation, and to show that the dispositional moral metaphysic that grounds the Dispositional Account can explain and accommodate plausible normative views that rule- and law-based alternatives cannot, as well as to answer objections that have been pressed against other accounts of moral conflict (especially Ross’s) that appeal to moral dispositions or forces.
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DOI 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2012.00859.x
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