We don’t have to be able to define morality to be faced with moral dilemmas, but for the sake of knowledge, I’ll define it. Simply put it’s “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.”
A moral dilemma exists when there’s conflict between at least two good traits. Let’s say someone asks you a question about your friend. If you answer truthfully, you’ll be breaking a promise but if you keep your promise, you’ll resort to lying. In both instances, you’ll have to choose one moral rule over the other, either don’t lie or don’t break promises. In such cases, many people become skeptical about moral rules, while others create rules of their own: “I will always lie to keep a promise.”
When addressing moral dilemmas, we can divide people into two groups:
- Moral Generalists who believe that morality is governed by rules, therefore, they are always true.
- Particularists who believe that morality is not governed by any kind of rules because our actions are context sensitive, thus, moral rules are not always true.
When faced with a moral dilemma, a moral generalist who believes that “don’t lie” is always true, won’t lie, regardless of the promise that’s being broken and vice versa. A moral generalist’s view is flawed because it overlooks the fact that moral rules can conflict with one another. What if one believed that both “don’t lie” and “don’t break a promise” are always true. Won’t they follow the ways of particularists? If “don’t lie” is always true but by telling the truth you are ending someone’s life, doesn’t it become more important to save a life rather than tell the truth?
A particularist, on the other hand, will choose to lie or break a promise based on the context. “Is keeping a promise more important than telling the truth?” In this situation a particularist might question the nature of the promise; e.g. is it harming my friend, or question the reasons behind lying; e.g. am I protecting my friend? In short, in some context, it becomes okay to lie or break a promise. It’s also possible that it becomes a moral duty to break a “moral rule” in some cases.
Particularism is criticized for reasons, including:
- One has to be rational in order to make a decision. This means that if the context was replicated with different people, the decision will always be the same. Not every person will make rational decisions in the same context; for instance, they might have different motivating factors. This is why having “moral rules” as rules of thumb is helpful.
- It overlooks the weight of making moral judgments, comparing it to simple everyday decisions.