The Difference Between Moral Dilemmas and Moral Conflicts

Not many moral theorists believe in genuine moral dilemmas, but almost all of them recognize moral conflicts. I will describe two situations and explain why I think one is a genuine moral dilemma, while the other is a mere moral conflict. In the process of my explanation, the differences between the two kinds of moral situation will become salient.

Moral Dilemma: Sophie and her two children get off the train at Auschwitz. A camp doctor informs her that she can pick one child to live and the other will be gassed. If she refuses to decide, both children will be killed. No matter what she does, at least one child will be killed.

Moral Conflict: I promised my fiance that I would be home in time to watch the newest episode of her favorite TV show, but on the way home I pass by an unconscious man sitting in his wrecked car with nobody else in sight. Stopping to help this man who clearly needs it will cause me to be late. In other words, helping him requires me to break my promise to my fiance.

Sophie’s case is a genuine moral dilemma because no matter what decision she makes, she does something morally impermissible. Each potential choice causes the death of one of her children, and making no decision gets them both killed. Even partly causing the death of your child is morally impermissible, and any choice Sophie makes will cause the death of at least one child. Genuine moral dilemmas like this one elicit appropriate feelings of guilt or loss. Even if Sophie somehow calculates which decision will maximize overall value, she will still justifiably feel a sense of guilt and loss because one child was killed. The fact that she may optimize value by virtue of her decision does not make up for the loss. So, this is a genuine moral dilemma because there is a residue of immorality that even the optimizing of value cannot override.

My broken promise is a mere moral conflict rather than a genuine dilemma. The promise I made does carry some moral force, but that force is destroyed when I encounter a person in distress with nobody around to help. I am not sacrificing anything as morally costly as this man’s life when I break my promise to my fiance, so it is implausible to think there is some residue of immorality in my decision to help the man. The weightiness of his life is such that it overrides the moral force of my promise without remainder, unlike in the case of Sophie’s choice. In other words, I ought not to feel any guilt or sense of loss when I break this particular promise, because the moral force of saving a life overrides any good reason to feel guilt or loss.

I think the fundamental difference between the two cases is the moral force of the outcomes. In Sophie’s case, her choice will result in the death of at least one of her children. The life of her other child is not enough to override the residue of immorality that justifies her guilt and sense of irreparable loss. In the case of my broken promise, missing a TV show I promised to watch with my fiance is not an irreparable loss on par with the loss of the life of a stranger. There is no genuine dilemma here because the moral force of both choices is not equally weighty (or even close). So, I think the case of Sophie is a genuine moral dilemma, but the case of my broken promise is a mere moral conflict.