Saturday, November 13, 2010

Philosophy: The Insolubility of Moral Dilemmas

In the law department at UCLA, they have a saying that says "hard cases make bad law," or so I'm told.1 The general idea, as I understand it, is that if you try and tailor-make laws to fit the bizarre borderline cases, you'll end up with laws that fit almost no one. This principle notwithstanding, modern moral philosophy seems to go straight to thorny cases2 to test any moral theory. The thinking behind this seems to be based on the idea that a moral theory is higher than mere legal issues, and should be able to handle all problems.

However, while I am definitely a believer in the objectivity of morality, I'm not sure any good moral principle can handle any and all cases. The reason for this, I think, is the fallen nature of the world3. Specifically, the current world, the Old Creation, is broken. Things happen in the world that, if it were as it was meant to me, shouldn't happen. Morality, on the other hand, is in alignment with the New Creation, the world as-it-should-be. Since these two principles are in conflict, the fallen nature of the world simply will result in cases in which no moral decision can be made4.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't test moral theories at all, but it does mean we should not expect them to have definite answers to the tough questions - these aren't what they are built for.
1. A lawyer friend of mine has assured me that no such thing was said at her law school.
2. An example case - you are in control of a train that is out of control. The only option open to you is to switch the train onto another track. On the track you're currently on, twenty people are tied down and will die if you continue. However, there is a single individual on the other track that you will kill if you switch over (who is often made into Gandhi, Einstein or your true love to make things interesting). Which action is right?
3. My reasoning here is intimately tied into a Christian world view, and also likely very influenced by an Aristotelian picture. However, I'm fairly certain this principle could at the very least be expanded to a materialist world view. i.e. since the world is not fundamentally a moral reality, any moral system will inevitably come into conflict with it at times.
4. This is where law becomes important. Societies built with good laws help to build an environment where such cases are less likely to arise (you're less likely to have to kill to protect yourself from a bully, or to get a meal, etc.) and people are then able to act more in accordance with the Good. 


  1. Interesting post--you seem to imply that this "not-all" of ethics (its inability as law to fit every situation) is due to the "fallen" nature of the world--this will all be "fixed" in a restored creation. However it strikes me that the Pauline-Christian message is precisely that it is law itself that is exemplary of our fallenness, it is our inability to be wholly reliant on the spirit that we have to resort to the flesh-iness of the law. Is the Kingdom of God really the place where ethics will make sense? Or will it be the place where ethics is finally abandoned, thrown into the lake of fire so to speak? To put it in Platonic language, is ethics really the good? Or is the good beyond ethics (found in the situations and people themselves that the ethical never quite fits)?

  2. Given my Aristotelian leanings, I don't see how ethics could be thrown out in the Kingdom. To be ethical is merely to be fully human.

    On the other hand, in terms of ethical laws (thou shalt not, thou shall, etc) I agree that these will be no more.