Facing Moral Dilemmas

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

What makes things moral or immoral? Do the ideas "moral" and "immoral" even make sense?

People have lots of different views about it. My own view is that what's moral:

  • maximizes human happiness,
  • minimizes needless suffering, and
  • avoids doing things that are almost universally considered wrong.

But even if my view is correct, it's not a complete answer.

The biggest unanswered question is "who counts?" In other words, we want to maximize happiness and minimize suffering -- but of which people?

All of humanity? That's simply impossible. Different groups of people sometimes have conflicts of interest: helping one sometimes means hurting the other.

For example, offshoring American jobs to impoverished Asian countries is good for some people and bad for others. It's good for:

  • Stockholders of large corporations because it increases their profits and dividends.
  • Top managers of large corporations because it increases their salaries and bonuses.
  • Asian workers because they get jobs they wouldn't otherwise have.
  • Affluent American consumers because their iPhones and luxury goods are cheaper.
  • Affluent Americans as a group because it shifts the national income distribution in their favor -- "making the rich richer."

It's bad for:

  • American workers because their jobs are eliminated.
  • American families because they're suddenly impoverished.
  • American small businesses because corporations offshored their supply chains.
  • American communities that turn into ghost towns.
  • Working Americans as a group because it shifts the national income distribution against them -- "making the non-rich poorer."

It's reasonable to assume that everyone's welfare counts, so there's no abstract way to decide what to do in such conflicts of interest.

That said, it's also reasonable to value our families and friends more than people we don't know and with whom we have no relationship. If your spouse and a stranger are drowning but you can only save one, it's simple: you save your spouse.

There was a cute scene in the television series "Back to 1989" that posed a similar dilemma. The hero's girlfriend asked who he would save if she and his mother were both drowning.

"My mother, of course," he said.

His girlfriend seemed disappointed.

He added, "and then I would drown myself."

That cheered her up a bit. But it doesn't solve the moral problem.

P.S. Today (August 27) is Brand Blanshard's birthday. He solved a lot of moral problems and was one of the greatest people of the 20th century. For some of his advice about life, look here.


Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."