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Dilemmas, Moral
Carla Bagnoli
Moral dilemmas are cases where agents are bound by conflicting moral claims and
cannot resolve the conflict by further deliberation. Jean-Paul Sartre (1957) relates
the dilemma of a student torn between joining the Resistance and assisting his
mother at home. He is bound by patriotic and filial duties. Either he fails to do his
part in liberating his country, or he fails to support his mother.
While literature abounds with these cases, and our experience of moral choice and
deliberation seems to confirm that such cases occur in real life, philosophers sharply
disagree about what moral dilemmas are and what they show. Most normative ethical
theories devise strategies for resolving moral dilemmas or explaining them away,
assuming that an adequate moral theory should not admit them. Mainly because of
the seminal work of Bernard Williams (1973, 1985; see williams, bernard), this
assumption has been under attack in recent debates. Williams argues that the expectation that normative ethics could resolve all kinds of moral dilemmas is misplaced
because they cannot be definitively eliminated or prevented. He challenges the very
idea that the practical relevance of ethical theory resides in its capacity to give us
determinate and precise instructions about what to do. By discounting our experience
of moral dilemmas, ethical theory misunderstands the complexity of moral life and
becomes a useless simplification. This dispute revolves around several and partly
overlapping foci: the nature of moral dilemmas, the criteria of adequacy of ethical
theory, the nature of value, and the structure of deliberation.
This essay offers first an overview of the most important definitions of moral
dilemmas and their philosophical relevance. The second section examines four main
arguments for and against moral dilemmas: the argument from logical incoherence
and the argument from practical irrationality count against the possibility of moral
dilemmas; the argument from emotional experience and the argument from value
incommensurability count in favor of the possibility of moral dilemmas. The third
section examines how traditional normative ethics deals with moral dilemmas. The
fourth section considers moral dilemmas as a test of adequacy for ethical theory, and
discusses their importance in identifying the desiderata of ethical theory.

The Problem of Definition: What is a Moral Dilemma?
One important aspect of the controversy about moral dilemmas is how best to
interpret and formally define cases such as Sartre’s student. There are alternative
definitions of moral dilemmas, each with distinctive philosophical implications.
Some distinguish between “epistemic” and “ontological” dilemmas (McConnell

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 1348–1357.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee107

” “requirement. some define dilemmas by weaker deontic concepts. The definition of moral dilemmas in terms of prohibitions has the advantage of capturing the sense of inescapable wrongdoing that is associated with the experience of moral dilemmas. such as pro tanto reasons or prima facie duties. even when they exclude the possibility of conflicts of obligations (Vallentyne 1987). One more attractive definition of moral dilemmas is in terms of moral requirements. On this deontic interpretation. Prohibition dilemmas are cases in which all feasible actions are forbidden. r. but there is a fact that settles the matter).” or “reason” (see ought.” where this term may stand for “duty. see ross. they suggest that all-things-considered judgments cancel the normative force of the claim overridden and thus resolve the dilemma. Defined in terms of duty or obligation. Moral dilemmas are cases where some moral requirements conflict and yet neither of the conflicting requirements is overridden or overriding. or some cognitive defects of the agent. These descriptions have the merit of pointing . w. moral dilemmas are particularly problematic. unless it is independently shown that in those cases incompatible obligations really apply. m.). 1).. Some philosophers argue that plausible principles of deontic logic do not preclude the possibility of prohibition dilemmas. To this extent. and does not know whether anything can settle the matter. While these weaker definitions present the advantage of avoiding the charge of incoherence. Ontological moral dilemmas are not due to such subjective shortcomings. This definition is consistent with the experience of wrongdoing. but depend on the nature of the values and obligations. Hare 1981. collisions of duties are the practical analogues of contradictions. unless they are overridden by a stronger moral consideration (Sinnott-Armstrong 1988: Ch.2 2003). To avoid the objection of logical incoherence. duty and obligation. negligence (see negligence). The philosophical debates on moral dilemmas typically focus on ontological moral dilemmas and discount epistemic dilemmas as spurious. Epistemic moral dilemmas arise because of subjective uncertainty. whose violation is a case of wrongdoing. Nussbaum analyses Agamemnon’s predicament and his decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in terms of loyalties and claims (Nussbaum 1986: 34–6). hare. reason and passion). For instance. Some philosophers purposefully avoid deontic concepts in their account of moral dilemmas. and blameworthiness that typically accompany moral dilemmas. and thus raise the issue of incoherence. Most definitions of ontological dilemmas deploy deontic concepts and define moral dilemmas in terms of “ought. This distinction corresponds to that between a “subjective quandary” (in which one does not know what to do. This conflict is a dilemma because it is inescapable and destructive of Agamemnon’s integrity. d. where wrongdoing seems inescapable. and an “objective quandary” (in which one does not know what to do. sense of guilt. and there is no fact that settles the matter). such proposals do not seem to adequately represent the predicament faced by agents in moral dilemmas.” “obligation. which admit of  being overridden by an all-things-considered judgment about what to do (Ross 1930.

but also and perhaps more importantly because of their implications for moral integrity and practical identity. obligations. Inconsistent theories are trivial. On the basis of this deontic axiomatization. and thus arguments based on deontic logic are not as neutral as they are generally thought to be.” which holds that one can logically derive any conclusion from a contradiction. If so.” which makes ethical theory inconsistent. This is because of the “principle of explosion. Some moral dilemmas arise when there is a conflict .” and the principle “ought implies can” (Donagan 1984. This is accomplished by relaxing either the axiom of agglomeration (Marcus 1980) or the principle “ought implies can. That is because it is possible to insulate the contradiction and thus warrant interesting nontrivial inferences in logically contradictory systems (Routley and Plumwood 1989). Paraconsistent logicians argue that even though moral dilemmas are contradictions. This debate shows that the deontic formalizations express controversial moral intuitions about the structure of the moral domain. it is questionable whether all dilemmas are cases of logical contradiction (Marcus 1980). One important variation of this argument defines moral dilemmas in terms of obligations and takes obligations as the practical analogue of alethic modalities. and thus undermine the distinction between what is pious and what impious (see plato). Arguments For and Against Moral Dilemmas The argument from incoherence In Plato’s Euthyphro (8a) Socrates argues that moral dilemmas are akin to logical contradictions. by admitting moral dilemmas ethical theory faces a deontic collapse and becomes incapable of drawing interesting distinctions between prohibitions. There are deontic formalizations of moral dilemmas that avoid deontic collapse. This argument allows for different variations. and permissions. such arguments depend on specific and tacit presumptions about the nature of morality and of the purpose of ethical theory.” A  more radical option is to relinquish the requirement of logical consistency and reject the  principle of explosion. they do not lead to deontic collapse. Accordingly. see ought implies can). it takes as axioms the principle of agglomeration which states that “I ought to do a” and “I ought to do b” together imply “I ought to do a ∧ b. one can define dilemmas as a contradiction of  the form “I ought to do a ∧ ¬ a. and there are consistent ethical systems that admit of dilemmas.3 out that moral dilemmas are of philosophical relevance not only because they tell us something about the logic of moral ought and the consistency of ethical systems. Most replies to the argument of deontic collapse are strategies that contain incoherence by weakening the deontic axiomatization. On the contrary. Many modern and contemporary philosophers share the Socratic view and argue that moral dilemmas are signs of incoherence. Furthermore.

we feel regret (Williams 1973) or guilt (Greenspan . Ambivalence. The canonical objection is that this ethical theory underestimates the contingent complexity of the situation as well as the possibility that no option available to the agents leaves their moral integrity intact (Williams 1981). such as ignorance or culpable negligence. The question is whether all moral dilemmas are due to such subjective failures. which is the claim that there are moral truths which reason is capable of discerning. This gives imperfect and defective agents reassurance that objective obligations never conflict. Greenspan 1995). precipitate. To propose that all moral dilemmas originate in subjective defects is to judge ordinary moral experience as invariably marred by error. These are spurious dilemmas because they always depend on some inadequacy of the agent. This view is typically associated with rationalism. which is the faculty of choice. but it leaves them with the practical problem of fulfilling seemingly contradictory obligations generated through their own fault. This approach raises important issues about the nature of value and the complex and multifaceted demands of morality. However. On this view. the obligations are merely incompatible. It assumes that there is always one answer to the question of what is morally reasonable to do in any given situation. and the contradiction is derived thanks to the addition of an empirical premise “I cannot do a ∧ b” (Nussbaum 1986: 47–8).4 between two different obligations “I ought to do a” and “I ought to do b. When moral claims conflict. Moral dilemmas are cases where the agent’s will is fragmented and cannot choose. the state of health of the self is characterized by the unity of the will. and have limited access to relevant information. moral dilemmas arise because the agent committed a moral crime and are the consequence of his moral wrong (perplexitas secundum quid). The view that moral dilemmas invariably depend on subjective shortcomings has the advantage of avoiding the objection of incoherence. In defending this position. The argument from emotional experience The main argument for the possibility of moral dilemmas starts with the agent’s emotional experience (Williams 1973. and dilemmas all count as signs of practical irrationality. saint thomas). These are genuine cases of moral dilemmas that occur in consistent ethical theories. Nussbaum 1986: Ch. Agents often are negligent. 2. indecision. there cannot be cases where the agent through no fault of his own finds himself bound by two incompatible obligations (perplexitas simpliciter). The impossibility of this latter sort of case shows that the moral realm is perfectly ordered.” rather than two opposite obligations “I ought to do a” and “I ought to do ¬ a.” In this case. see aquinas. Some moral dilemmas are certainly due to the agent’s limitations and defects. contemporary philosophers appeal to Aquinas’ distinction between perplexitas secundum quid and perplexitas simpliciter (Donagan 1984. rushed. The argument from practical irrationality According to a long-standing tradition. which the agent may fail to see.

In the second case. In the first case. which may be appropriate even when the agent did nothing wrong. In such cases. in dilemmatic contexts. It is arguable that both the arguments about consistency and the arguments about emotions ultimately rest on presumptions about the nature of value and the structure of deliberation. The phenomenology of inevitable wrongdoing can be explained without admitting that moral obligations may collide. The force of the argument from emotional experience and of the counterarguments to it depends significantly on further disputes about the nature of emotions and their  epistemological import. their presence is rationally justified when they are overridden in moral deliberation (Hare 1981). If there is no general criterion that solves their conflict. The argument from value incommensurability The arguments about the incommensurability of value occupy a special position in the debate about moral dilemmas. Either side of the dispute over the possibility of moral dilemmas can plausibly account for the appropriateness of negative moral emotions. Invoking these cases. moral dilemmas become pervasive and inevitable (Williams 1981). the agent’s feeling is irrational. To make sense of emotions as practical responses. because she really did the right thing to  do. These negative emotions emerge through moral thinking and are taken to show a deliberative residue. if guilty feelings are associated with the violation of prima facie duties. there is no moral remainder. guilt). Thus. One significant consequence of the argument from incommensurability is that moral dilemmas are far more pervasive than we . Supporters of this argument hold that the phenomenology of dilemmas is not intelligible unless we take into account the sentiments of regret and guilt as genuine practical responses assessable on the basis of some criteria of correctness or appropriateness. and no independent value that may be invoked as the umpire. The canonical objection against this sort of argument is that the negative emotions may be misplaced or they are not residual. The incommensurability of value or the absence of a universal currency makes trade-offs and compromises impossible without moral residue. her regret does not have moral value. Even when emotions are taken to count as practical responses. When values are plural. conflicts of values are inevitable. something valuable goes lost. whether they really show the possibility of moral dilemmas depends on further claims about the nature of value and the structure of deliberation. Others find paradoxical that one is blameworthy and should feel guilty no matter what one does. For instance. and this loss justifies the emotional experience of regret or guilt. Their disagreement concerns the standards of appropriateness of negative emotions such as regret and guilt. no principled way to rank the values at stake. many hold that the argument from emotional experience is question begging. which signals a loss in value.5 1995) no matter which option we choose (see regret. rather than obligations. since she does not have reason to regret what she has done. one has to admit that they have cognitive and evaluative content (Nussbaum 1986). though.

and specification (Chang 1997). In some cases. when there is no failure of commensurability. an ineradicable feature of our moral life. then. rather than showing a failure of value commensurability. pluralists argue that the apparent advantage of monism is achieved at a very high cost: by privileging normative determinacy monism becomes incapable of taking into account the experience of moral agents. An important point of agreement among various pluralist models is that failures of commensurability and/or comparability are not threats to practical rationality. such as partial orderings. Thomas Nagel holds that justification in ethics is not homogenous. it is debatable whether commensurability frees us from moral dilemmas. vague orderings. On the contrary. The commensurability of value is regarded as a necessary condition for ethical theory to perform this task. Against this view. but action is arbitrary. Some further object that value pluralism turns every choice into an insoluble riddle and makes ethical theory impractical. moral dilemmas undermine the agent’s authority over his action. which are equally justified on the basis of the same value. one may argue that in such contexts it is irrational to expect a uniform solution for all kinds of value conflicts. Pluralists also admit of several strategies for ranking values which do not presume full commensurability. but reflects the fragmentation and plurality of values. incompatible actions are fully justified on the basis of different values. While arbitrary actions are not irrational. The thrust of these arguments is that by admitting incommensurable values. choice between symmetrical requirements is indifferent and can be determined by randomization. On the basis of this argument. This is because randomization fails to provide the agent with a genuine moral reason for action. monistic theories. ethical theory abandons the aim of providing a method of practical reasoning that helps the agent determine what to do (Hare 1981). In this respect. These cases are generally discounted as spurious or irrelevant on the assumption that. . but it does not really resolve the moral dilemma. In these cases. Interestingly. which take value to be commensurable and uniform. It is thus useful to distinguish between incommensurability and comparability of value (Williams 1985: 17). While incommensurability of values prevents trade-offs and compensation among kinds of values. and it is absurd to search for a method or a decision procedure that applies across different value domains (Nagel 1979). The appeal to randomization allows the agent to overcome a deliberative impasse. Moreover. Agents cannot rationally refuse to act. The hypothesis of the incommensurability of values is widely shared. the agent faces a choice between two incompatible actions. reason can neither determine nor completely explain our choices or actions. ethical theory should determine what our duty is for any choice we face. Symmetrical moral dilemmas count as cases against this claim.6 may think if we only focus on tragic choices. In symmetrical moral dilemmas. it is debatable whether it also prevents any sort of comparison. To be relevant in practice. they cannot be taken to express full agency and authorship of action. On this view. it is also at work in many arguments against the admissibility of moral dilemmas. moral dilemmas are ubiquitous. If values are incommensurable. like when options are incommensurate. dominant orderings. they argue. seem to be at a significant advantage.

Kantians point to the unfortunate gap between the ideal and nonideal conditions of practical and epistemic rationality. More radical attempts to account for moral dilemmas admit that the maximization of utility allows for moral costs (Slote 1985). At an ideal level. so ethical theory cannot say that one obligation overrides the other. recent scholars defend a pluralist Kantian ethics. through no fault of their own. moral thinking is capable of resolving all sorts of conflicts. these theories discount the agent’s experience of morality and thus face the objection of misunderstanding moral life and moral deliberation (Williams 1981. because of rational and epistemic defects (Hare 1981). find themselves bound by conflicting and nonoverridden moral claims. it is arguable that such Kantian and utilitarian theories do not keep their promise. This is because he understands obligations as  unconditional imperatives. moral knowledge depends . Others make room for more radical cases of moral dilemmas where impersonal and personal sources of obligations clash (Nagel 1979). In some cases. Some Kantian philosophers argue that in such cases one has only a disjunctive obligation.7 Moral Dilemmas and Normative Ethics Normative ethical theories approach moral dilemmas in order to solve them or explain them away. others introduce constraints on the maximization of utility in order to protect the plurality of values. However. Aristotelian ethics seems to provide promising resources to account for the experience of moral dilemmas. but only that the stronger ground prevails (Kant 1983: 224). The resources of ethical theory do not suffice to protect our moral integrity in such cases. However. Moral dilemmas occur at a nonideal level of moral thinking. he admitted that there might be a conflict between grounds of obligations. No such integration could prevent situations where agents. in striving for normative determinacy. In the Doctrine of Virtue. kantian practical ethics). However. The case of Kantian ethics is perhaps more complex. utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are often regarded as promising freedom from dilemmas and thought to be capable of keeping the promise because of their monistic structure (see utilitarianism. neither ground of obligations has sufficient authority to determine the obligation. Moreover. Recent debates in normative ethics show that both utilitarians and Kantians have engaged in this dispute and attempted to accommodate the phenomenology of moral dilemmas. If there are interesting moral dilemmas that are not generated by failures of incommensurability. Utilitarians try to make room for dilemmas by distinguishing between ideal and nonideal levels of moral thinking. Like utilitarians (Hare 1981). akin to practical necessity. On the Aristotelian view. Kant famously held that moral obligations cannot collide (see kant. 1985). immanuel). Scholars disagree about the implications of this claim. it seems unlikely that the problem of moral dilemmas can be approached or solved by integrating ethical theory with principles designed for imperfect agents (Williams 1981). and reject the view that it is meant to offer a complete decision procedure or a system of duties. Some take Kantian ethics to be a form of monistic deontology (see deontology) and hold either that it has the merit of being free from dilemmas (Donagan 1984) or the disadvantage of being false  to facts (Williams 1973).

Other supporters of virtue ethics provide a complex taxonomy of moral dilemmas. His ethics seems hospitable to the idea that moral dilemmas are not only possible. Practical wisdom consists in choosing the right action by moral discernment. 1110a–1113b). ethical theory shows itself to be inadequate to this task and therefore it fails in its basic practical purpose. This disagreement ultimately concerns the notion of practical guidance. By admitting moral dilemmas. the philosophical problem concerns what a wise person would consider worthy of choice. thus. in order to be of any practical relevance. which ethical theory is required to explain away or remedy.8 on judgment and requires sensitivity to the particulars of the situation. Scholars disagree about whether these cases are genuine moral dilemmas. see virtue ethics). moral dilemmas are considered pathologies of practical reasoning. and reveal the richness and complexity of value and moral life. instead imputing any apparent such collision to subjective shortcomings on the part of the agent. In both cases. Some think of it in terms of normative determinacy and expect ethical theory to provide a complete decision procedure for resolving all moral conflict. instead. The question is whether the agent shows good character. which are kinds of moral dilemmas (Nussbaum 1986). Aristotle thinks that the ethical domain is inexact and thus regards the search for normative determinacy as misguided (see aristotle). but to give us the conceptual tools to reflect intelligently on the significance of moral life. rather than which option he has most reason to select. Moral Dilemmas and the Criteria of Adequacy of Ethical Theory These disputes over the possibility of moral dilemmas call into question the criteria of  adequacy of ethical theory. Foes of moral dilemmas hold that ethical theory should be able to determine the right action in any context of choice. However. supporters of moral dilemmas hold that they are not akin to contradictions. it cannot simply ignore the agent’s experience of moral dilemmas (Williams 1981). the possibility of moral dilemmas clashes with Aristotle’s claims about the unity of virtues. Aristotle approaches the issue in discussing cases of mixed actions where a person of good character is required to do something shameful. They argue that the primary task of ethical theory is not to instruct us about what to do. without relying on any decision procedure. and at the price of what. and show how virtue ethics can resolve them (Hursthouse 1999: 43–62. these are to be categorized as cases of dirty hands (see dirty hands). for instance because a tyrant holds his family hostage (Book III. but also pervasive (Nussbaum 1986). Mixed actions are revelatory of character. but disagree about whether ethical theory can accomplish this descriptive task without admitting that moral obligations collide. By contrast. Others regard this expectation as misplaced and the search for determinacy misguided because ethics does not admit of uniform justification. they undermine ethical theory as a  theoretical and practical enterprise. For some. . Both sides agree that an adequate ethical theory should explain how it is that one faces such practical conflicts. and the claim that the good person is without regrets and remorse (Aristotle 2000: Book IX 1166a27–9). Insofar as moral dilemmas are taken to be signs of logical  incoherence or normative indeterminacy. For others.

Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. ought. Gilby at al. MA: Harvard University Press.” Journal of Philosophy. Terrance C.stanford. New York: Oxford University Press. New York: McGraw-Hill. dirty hands. Thomas 1979. Whether realism can accommodate moral dilemmas crucially depends on the alleged implications of its ontological and epistemological claims about the nature of morality (Marcus 1980.” Journal of Philosophy. vol. 1984.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. kantian practical ethics. aristotle. Ruth Barcan 1980. Incomparability and Practical Reason. guilt. 26–35. Moral Thinking: Its Levels. kant. This is an influential argument. Donagan. Hare. Emotions. trans. Summa Theologiae. Rosalind 1999. Cambridge. Nagel. Chang. duty and obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Richard M. Ruth (ed.. Wood (ed. reason and passion. Aristotle 2000. See also: aquinas. he takes moral dilemmas to counter the plausibility of moral realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. regret. “Moral Dilemmas. m. Williams holds that such ethical theories base their normative ambitions on the idea that there is a right answer to any moral problem because there is a truth of the matter. realism adopts an epistemic model of rationality which reduces moral dilemmas to contradictions and describes practical reasoning as  a coherence-driven procedure of revision that aims to expunge false moral beliefs. pp.” in Mortal Questions. Williams (1973) argues that this model is inadequate in ethics because when moral claims conflict we are not at liberty to get rid of one claim for the sake of consistency. Incommensurability. and Social Norms. Practical Philosophy. 77. Doctrine of Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. vol. “Consistency in Rationalist Moral Systems. d. 1981. w. in A. “The Fragmentation of Value. Marcus. Method and Point. This objection is mainly directed against utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. 81. and assimilate them to beliefs. Greenspan. Nicomachean Ethics. but it is also contested. deontology. Hursthouse. hare.). r.9 Bernard Williams (1973) was the first to voice the concern that searching for a technique to eradicate moral conflict amounts to misunderstanding the nature of moral claims and falsifying the logic of moral thought. Practical Guilt: Moral Dilemmas. 2003. pp. negligence. moral. Realist ethical theories treat moral judgments as true or false assertions about a sector of reality.. immanuel. plato. overridingness. ross. bernard REFERENCES Aquinas. ought implies can. utilitarianism. 1995.edu/entries/moral-dilemmas/. williams. That is. Saint Thomas 1964. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 121–36. At http//plato. Immanuel 1983 [1797]. In virtue of this assimilation. virtue ethics. On Virtue Ethics. T. Sinnott-Armstrong 1988).) 1997. McConnell. Patricia S. saint thomas. Kant. A. 291–309. “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency. .

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