Tragic dilemmas and the priority of the moral

Journal of Ethics 4 (3):191-209 (2000)
My purpose in this paper is to argue that we are not vulnerableto inescapable wrongdoing occasioned by tragic dilemmas. I directmy argument to those who are most inclined to accept tragicdilemmas: those of broadly Nietzschean inclination who reject``modern moral philosophy'''' in favor of the ethical ideas of theclassical Greeks. Two important features of their project are todeny the usefulness of the ``moral/nonmoral distinction,'''' and todeny that what are usually classified as moral reasons always oreven characteristically ``trump'''' nonmoral reasons in anadmirable agent''s deliberations.I show critics of modern moral philosophy such as BernardWilliams that their acceptance of tragic dilemmas underminestheir project of denying the moral/nonmoral distinction and thepriority of moral reasons. The possibility of tragic dilemmasrequires an account of practical deliberation in which moralreasons appear as already in-force obligations, with blame andguilt ready to be invoked, while nonmoral reasons appear as merereasons. This makes moral reasons importantly different fromnonmoral reasons in how they achieve their deliberative weight,and also makes them characteristically weightier. Thus,accommodating tragic dilemmas reinforces the moral/nonmoraldistinction and the priority of moral reasons, the very thingsthese critics want to deny. By accepting the possibility oftragic dilemmas, these critics are undermining their own project.The standard normative theories are dead set against tragicdilemmas, and the critics of modern moral philosophy shouldreject tragic dilemmas for the good of their project. Thus we allshould reject tragic dilemmas.
Keywords inescapable wrongdoing  modern moral philosophy  moral dilemmas  moral luck  moral/nonmoral distinction  priority of the moral  practical deliberation  virtue ethics  Bernard Williams
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DOI 10.1023/A:1009864421398
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