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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The role of personal commitments in moral dilemmas

I was explaining my cirriculum to my good friend and supervisor and was suprised by his apparently alarmed reaction. In turns he was wondering out loud whether I was advocating something like relativism, dogmatizing my students, or not teaching only possibilities without subtlty. I was suprised at his reaction which forced me to want to say more clearly what I wanted to say. He must of thought I turned into Richard Rorty. I was at a loss to know why he had such a bad take on my presentation.

Here goes. There are cases where we seem to confront situations where our moral convictions come into conflict forcing us to reflect more deeply on our moral reasoning and beliefs. One direction that often proves helpful when there does not appear to be a false dilemma or a lack of information relevent to the case is to examine and clarify our moral concepts. It is helpful here to have an understanding of various moral theories -- utilitarianism, deontology, justics as fairness, virtue ethics -- in order to understands better the moral terms and their possible exsception cases.

Now suppose that even after doing all that you still have conflicts remaining. This is probably because the competing alternatives represent incommensurable goods that cannot be both satisfied under the conditions of the choice being made. In such a case the choice is going to come down to us or even me and what we or I think is personally important. This presupposes that we or I have a set of personal commitments -- to self, certain others, certain communities, or ideals, or religious commentments -- that guide me in my choices. But then here is an argument, in order to be fully equiped to deal with situation of moral dilemmas, we ought to have some personal commitments, some vision of the good life.

Of course, this argument assumes that such cases are possible in the first place but it seems to me that one might be impressed about how common such cases really are even though most cases can be handled without resorting to personal commitments just by appealing to whatever other moral framework is most appropriate. Consider the following textbook case:

An engineer is invited to work with a company that is developing groundbreaking surface to ground automated tracking. It is a great opportunity for the engineer to be on the ground floor of cutting edge research, not to mention the extra money will make it more easy to meet his financial obligations. However, the technology is being developed for a missle guidance system. What should the engineer do? It is not clear that other moral theories will be of enough help to him once one goes into the details.

If the engineer is a pacifist, he certainly will refuse the option. But if the engineer is a "political realist" who favors developing the best national defence, he may be inclined to accept the offer. But neither decision seems to be right while the other is wrong. The realist cannot complain that the pacifist is morally warped for desiring a world without war and advocating universal disarmament, nor can the pacifist complain that realist is wrong to want the means of self-defense from possible attacks from others. They both express morally approbationary views. But one is going to have to decide based on their own beliefs and values.

Both options respect the libertarian rights and actual liberty duties of society. Both views have a pro-attitude to respect for their obligations to society whether properly moral, legal, or contractual. Both have varios virtues characteristicly related to them. But they both cannot be co-realized.

Such personal commitments are not mere desires but intelligible and sustained choices. They are not mere private sentiment but serve as a basis for the formation of communities or at least parties. And they both express good will and appeal to objective goods. So my view is not saying that all personal commitments are acceptible, only those that exhibit certain good making features: they have to be rational preferences that express a systematicly ordered set of values that are consistent with basic duties, rights, and fairness to others and with respect for keeping promises, etc.

Such a personal commitment is necessary in order for moral people to act as autonomous rational agents in cases of moral indecision where common frameworks prove insufficient. Rather than ceasing to be moral because it goes out of bounds of the legitmate demands of society on us, not only does it motivate action in accord with those moral demands (because ex hypothesi all availble options are consistent with keeping such demands) but it assures that such demands will be met no matter what. Consequently, we have a moral imperitive to stand for something.

This view is not relativistic but admits the possibility of an objective plurality of goods that cannot all be realized. One way to say it is that there is more than one legitmate version of a good life and we have to decide which one is most appropriate for us. Nor then does tis view advocate dogmatic absolutism, the claim that there is one and only one way of living or doing well.

Finally I am not doing anything more than stating the view. Perhaps there is good reason not to expect exception cases for the sake of holding a good theory or perhaps the idea of incomensurable goods is somehow incoherent. But by making such a view available to my students, it seems to me that I am fulfilling a public trust not just by informing my students of all the possibilities but also going the extra step to make sure my students are exposed to all the resources available to them to make sure they have all they need to make good moral decisions in real life.

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