Have you ever faced a situation in which you feel obliged to take two or more actions (at a time), but then realized that it would not be possible? Moral philosophy/ethics refer to such situations as “moral dilemmas”. Moral dilemmas distinguish themselves from other forms of dilemma in that the agent feels obliged to execute each of two or more actions; the agent is capable of executing each of those actions; but he cannot carry out both (or more) of the actions (Rachels & Rachels, 2006). Consequently, the agent risks moral failure no matter what he does. For instance, the Bible, and indeed the society encourage people to love their neighbors. Now, imagine a situation in which an armed person decides to rape his; if he executes the beastly act, that neighbor will most likely not love him. On the other hand, if she restrains him, this then fails the test of love. Ideally, the result of the action the agent may opt to take will be wrong, or not in accordance with his will. For any moral dilemma to be valid, neither of the conflict obligations should override the other. Moral dilemmas occur in almost every sphere of our daily lives, ranging from real life issues (such as relationships, dating, sexuality, friendships, and others), in businesses (such as management decisions, profit motives, class struggles, among others, and in the larger context of society like laws vs. conscience, citizens vs. government, and religion vs. laws. I opt to discuss relationship dilemmas because, in my career as a high school teacher, I get innumerable concerns on relationships from my students.
I have known this student, Mark, since his early schooling years, and he has confided a lot of his personal life issues in me, as his teacher. The other day, I noticed that he was acting rather withdrawn in my afternoon philosophy class. As usual, after the class was over, I asked him if he could follow me to my office, to which he readily agreed. After a short moment of silence, I asked him what was bothering him. He has a girlfriend, he told me, whom she has dearly loved and courted for three years now and several days ago he introduced the girl to his parents. Sadly, the parents did not approve of his fiancée, quoting, among other things, that she was of a lower class, and the fact that she is of color. Mark loves his parents too because they have brought him up in a loving manner and instilled strong Christian religious values in him. That is why he is in a dilemma as to what he ought to do; with whom he is to side. I acknowledge that this is no small dilemma. Mark is caught between giving up his fiancée’s love, his parental love, or his religious morals. He even confided in me that, for his love for his fiancée, he was still contemplating eloping with her to an undisclosed location.
Having assessed the conflict, it is clear that prompt and appropriate approach aimed at reaching sound solutions must be sought. Different people would approach the dilemma from different perspectives, and so would I. However, any forward thinking individual will have the inclination of first differentiating “right” from “wrong” as a firm basis upon which to solve Mark’s dilemma. The most probable guidelines for approaching this dilemma include trying to determine whether there are rules, religious beliefs, or other norms that explain what being good involves (Rachels & Rachels, 2006). To be good, should people act as per the directives of their parents, friends, or society? The main philosophical perspectives that can solve Mark’s case include, first, “duty-oriented” approach (deontological), proposed by Immanuel Kant. Mark has already proposed to his fiancée and promised to marry her, no matter what. It is, therefore, his duty to fulfill the promise, and this ought to be his only reference point in this whole conflict. The failure to act in conformity to his vows condemns him to the shame associated with failure. He should not mind what his parents may think of his decision-he has a duty to fulfill, and that is what determines his virtue. The consequences are absolutely irrelevant.
Another approach that Mark may resort to in order to solve his dilemma is William Paley’s proposition that “right” is anything that conforms to God’s commandments. Mark grew up in under strict Christian religious values, and he ought to utilize them to solve his dilemma. He must understand that God demands that children respect and obey their parents. Therefore, by refusing to leave the girl, he will be disobeying and disrespecting his parents-he will not be right.
On the contrary, Mark may weigh out the consequences of his decision and opt to pursue the greatest good for all the involved parties. By so doing, he will be acting in accordance with John Stuart Mill’s consequence-based (teleological) theory. This is my most preferred way of solving Mark’s dilemma, and indeed many other instances of moral dilemma. If Mark decides to continue with his embattled relationship, he faces huge opposition from his parents, which could build considerable tension in his parent-child relationship. In addition, his decision to keep the relationship poses potential possibilities of having to elope with the girl to a foreign destination. Such an action will effectively disrupt his studies and cut him out of his best friends at school. In effect, although having to compromise his love for the girl is not a simple decision, it would make sense to me if he left her and found another suitable woman. The negative consequences of the relationship, by far, outweigh its benefits in the long- run. Mills contended that people ought to work hard at maximizing human happiness, which he calls utilitarianism (Rachels & Rachels, 2006).
However, there are other groups of people who do not subscribe to any norm or principle. They tend to think that one’s moral behavior is a function of personal choice or brainwashing from parents, and society. This category of people is called existentialist (Rachels & Rachels, 2006). I would tend to view Mark’s case as a brainwashing by his parents and society. His parents boast of having brought him up under Christian values, yet they expressly denounce their love for Mark’s fiancée, thereby breaking God’s greatest commandment of loving others as much as we love ourselves!