Kant and Moral Dilemmas - University of Colorado Boulder

Kant and moral dilemmas
(June 3: 4427 words)
Most every moral theorist concedes that there are at least apparent moral dilemmas. The
more provocative question is whether there are genuine moral dilemmas: An individual is in a
genuine, rather than merely apparent, moral dilemma when, assuming that the individual is fully
informed about the morally salient features of the situation in which she is to act, she
competently judges that she is morally obligated to perform act A, and competently judges that
she is morally obligated to perform act B, but the contingent circumstances of the world make it
impossible to perform both A and B. Such a dilemma is genuine because it is not the
individual’s ignorance of any moral (or factual) consideration that leaves her uncertain about
what to do. It is rather that the moral universe itself is metaphysically constituted such that,
despite an individual’s knowing what she is morally obligated to do, it is impossible for her to do
it. She is seemingly fated to moral failure.
In debates about the existence of genuine moral dilemmas, Kant is typically brought forth
as an example of a historically prominent figure who denies altogether the existence of such
dilemmas. My purposes here are both exegetical and philosophical. First, I will argue that Kant
is not in fact a straightforward ally of those who deny the existence of genuine moral dilemmas.
The passage on which this interpretation is based has been read too hastily, and Kant’s other
remarks about apparent moral dilemmas and the general aspirations of reason suggest a more
nuanced position on moral dilemmas. On my reading, Kant’s apparent denial of moral dilemmas
is a methodological admonition, roughly, that practical reason should operate assuming the nonexistence of such dilemmas as a regulative ideal, akin to the role that the unity of scientific
knowledge plays in Kant’s theory of scientific inquiry. On this methodological view of moral
dilemmas, the denial of moral dilemmas is an a priori principle of practical reason we both use
to guide our moral deliberation and as an ideal toward which such deliberation strives. However,
we can never be certain that this ideal has been fully realized, not only because there are possible
dilemmas we have not yet encountered in our moral experience but because we have no
uncontested basis for determining whether our rational or deliberative capacities, even when
exercised with full competence, have resolved a moral dilemma. Thus, Kant sides neither with
those who defend, nor with those who deny, the existence of moral dilemmas. He is instead
metaphysically agnostic about the existence of genuine moral dilemmas.
Second, I will argue that this methodological denial of moral dilemmas sheds light on
some of the prominent a priori arguments concerning the existence of moral dilemmas. In
connection with Bernard Williams’ moral residue argument for moral dilemmas, I propose that
Kant’s methodological view of moral dilemmas can explain the rationality of the negative selfappraisals that often result when agents act within apparent moral dilemmas without assuming
either that such dilemmas are genuine or merely apparent. Second, Kant’s view allows us to
honor the ‘ought implies can’ principle without concluding that the principle requires the denial
of genuine moral dilemmas. In particular, Kant’s view suggests an epistemic constraint on this
principle than can render a deliberatively competent agent in an apparent moral dilemma
epistemically — and hence morally — blameless for whichever action she performs.
1. Readers of Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue might be surprised to learn that Kant is so commonly
interpreted as denying moral dilemmas. For there Kant offers1 series of casuistical questions in
Starting at 6:423.
conjunction with each main type of moral duty (whether it is morally permissible to end one’s
life to save one’s country, whether merely polite lies are wrong, etc). But strikingly, Kant does
not answer these questions. Now, if Kant truly thought there are no genuine dilemmas, then the
presence of these unanswered casuistical questions is a puzzle. Kant was presumably highly
competent at applying his own moral theory, so if these casuistical dilemmas are resolvable, we
would expect Kant to be able to resolve them and to do so in order to illustrate the power of his
moral theory. That these casuistical questions are merely mentioned without even an attempt at
their resolution is surprising if we assume that Kant believed there are no genuine moral
Still, the most widely cited evidence that Kant denied that there are genuine moral dilemmas
is this passage, here quoted in its entirety:2
A conflict of duties would be a relation between them in which one of them would cancel the other (wholly
or in part). — But since duty and obligation are concepts that express the objective practical necessity of
certain actions and two rules opposed to each other cannot be necessary at the same time, if it is a duty to
act in accordance with one rule, to act in accordance with the opposite rule is not a duty but even contrary
to duty; so a collision of duties and obligations and obligations is inconceivable. However, a subject may
have, in a rule he prescribes to himself, two grounds of obligation, one or the other of which is not
sufficient to put him under obligation, so that one of them is not a duty. — When two such grounds conflict
with each other, practical philosophy says, not that the stronger obligation takes precedence but that the
stronger ground of obligation prevails.
Kant’s words certainly seem to deny the existence of moral dilemmas.3 Agents can
certainly be subject to competing “grounds of obligation,” Kant acknowledges. That is, an agent
I have excised Kant’s Latin renderings of certain phrases.
Of course, it would be uncharitable to a long deceased philosopher to read this passage as making a claim about
“moral dilemmas” in precisely the way this notion is understood in the contemporary philosophical literature. For
insofar as the passage addresses what contemporary philosophers mean by “moral dilemmas,” it is faulty in at least
may, even when subject to a “rule he prescribes to himself” such as the self-legislated
Categorical Imperative, recognize two moral “obligations” or considerations each of which, in
isolation, would be sufficient to impose upon him a duty. Yet in circumstances where both
grounds of obligation are present (and in accordance with the notion of a moral dilemma, the
agent cannot act on both such grounds), it is “inconceivable” in light of the “objective practical
necessity” expressed by the concept of duty that the agent could have a duty stemming from each
such ground of obligation. It must be the case, Kant concludes, that the agent’s duty stems from
the “stronger ground of obligation.” Apparently then, there cannot be a circumstance in which an
agent both has a duty to perform or to abstain from performing one and the same action. In cases
of competing grounds of obligation, one such ground must not be sufficient to constitute the
agent’s duty. It would appear, then, that Kant is deploying modus tollens against the claim that
there are genuine moral dilemmas: If the imperatives of duty were to yield conflicting
obligations, then morality’s imperatives would lack “objective practical necessity.” But since
two ways. First, moral dilemmas occur when, in a given circumstance, an agent is subject to multiple obligations
not all of which the agent can fulfill. A moral dilemma is perhaps better described as a ‘must fail’ situation than as a
‘no win’ situation, for in a genuine dilemma, the agent will fail to fulfill some obligation of hers. But Kant’s remark
that “two rules opposed to each other cannot be necessary at the same time” suggests that dilemmas arise when one
or moral rules are in conflict. Certainly if moral rules did conflict, so that both ‘keep all promises’ and ‘disregard
some promises’ were both binding rules, agents would often find themselves in moral dilemmas. However, moral
rules can form a consistent set and yet agents can, because of the unforeseeable or intricate circumstances in which
they find themselves, face an apparent moral dilemma. See Ruth Barcan Marcus, “Moral dilemmas and
consistency,” Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980): 121-136. The moral rules ‘defend your country against aggressors’
and ‘care for one’s parents in their old age’ are perfectly consistent but quite capable of generating a moral dilemma,
as Sartre’s famous example illustrated. Second, moral dilemmas need not result from the presence of distinct rules at
all. An agent who promises two distinct parties that she will be at different locations at the same hour appears to
face a dilemma rooted in the very same rule to honor one’s promises.
those imperatives are imperatives of duty, they must incorporate “objective practical necessity”
and so cannot yield conflicting obligations.
However, to attribute to Kant the denial of genuine moral dilemmas on the basis of this
passage is both too quick and fails to take into account Kant’s larger views about the nature of
moral obligation and reason generally. Note that Kant does not literally deny the existence of
genuine dilemmas in this passage. Rather, the existence of moral dilemmas is “inconceivable” in
light of the objective practical necessity expressed in the Categorical Imperative, morality’s
supreme principle. The Categorical Imperative states a principle of what human agents must do,
regardless of their contingent inclinations. The existence of moral dilemmas would in effect
deny the a priori authority of the Categorical Imperative, a fact which, Kant argues in the
Groundwork, is evident to common moral understanding. The thesis of this passage is not that
acknowledging the existence of genuine moral dilemmas would be a metaphysical error, a false
belief about the nature of moral reality. Rather, Kant’s language here is epistemic or
methodological, not metaphysical, and his thesis is that acknowledging the existence of genuine
moral dilemmas would be a practical error, in effect denying morality its distinctive normative
authority. This is why Kant says that “practical philosophy” insists that a stronger ground of
obligation must prevail in any apparent moral dilemma.
2. But if Kant is not actually staking a metaphysical position on moral dilemmas, what sort of
position is he articulating? Kant is clearly indicating that we should accept that there are no
dilemmas — that their denial should be treated as true for practical purposes. But why should
this be so?
We see in the aforementioned passage glimmers of Kant’s characteristic transcendental
argumentation: We possess uncontroversial knowledge of a certain kind (of the Categorical
Imperative as morality’s supreme principle, in which case), knowledge of which is explicable
only if some other claim (that there are no genuine dilemmas) is acknowledged as a necessary
condition of the first. But this cannot be quite right, for Kant does not seem to be arguing that the
Categorical Imperative would not be morality’s supreme principle if there were genuine
dilemmas. The problem is instead that we could not coherently treat the Categorical Imperative
as the principle that ought to guide our moral deliberations if we assume there are genuine
dilemmas. Genuine dilemmas undermine the Categorical Imperative as a principle of
deliberation, but not our knowledge of its standing as morality’s supreme principle. Acting as if
there are genuine moral dilemmas would make deliberating as if the Categorical Imperative is
morality’s supreme principle unintelligible.
Perhaps Kant’s denial of moral dilemmas is a practical conclusion akin to his infamous
“postulates of practical reason,” conclusions supported not by theoretical reason but by demands
of “moral faith.” But this too cannot be quite right. For we are to accept the postulates of God’s
existence and the immortality of the soul because these ensure the congruity of happiness and
moral virtue that Kant believed constituted the highest good. The acceptance of such a congruity
provides us hope in the face of the challenges presented by the evident divergence between
happiness and moral virtue in the actual, empirical world. But Kant’s denial of moral dilemmas
does not sustain our commitment to morality in the same way. The denial of moral dilemmas
assures that morality’s own principle can be intelligibly applied. The practical necessity of this
denial is internal to the moral point of view, whereas the practical postulates are necessary to
assure us of the harmony of the moral point of view with something only contingently related to
it, happiness.
Kant’s denial of moral dilemmas is better understood as what Kant termed a “transcendental
idea,” a concept originating in reason, the faculty that seeks to unify our understanding under
principles.4 As such, transcendental ideas cannot be objectively deduced as the basis of the
principles of possible experience, as the transcendental categories can. Nor are there objects in
our experience corresponding to such ideas. Transcendental ideas can only be subjectively
deduced from the nature of reason itself, and in this case, the denial of moral dilemmas is
deduced from the nature of practical reason, and more specifically, from the nature of the
demands imposed by the Categorical Imperative as the supreme principle of practical reason.
However, the denial of moral dilemmas cannot be known as a matter of synthetic a priori
knowledge, nor can it be empirically verified. It is rather an assumption or aspiration that
practically rational creatures must bring to their moral deliberation and inquiry in order for their
understanding of morality as prescribing categorically to be intelligible.
Kant’s denial of moral dilemmas thus reflects reason’s interest in the systematic unity of its
knowledge. Reason guides our empirical inquiry, postulating as an ideal the increasing
subsumption of our scientific knowledge into fewer and fewer principles so that the necessary
connections among the items of our knowledge are apparent.5 In so doing, reason must both
assume and aspire to such a unity. Hence, the unity of science sets the philosophical agenda for
the conduct of science. The denial of moral dilemmas plays a similar role in the conduct of
moral deliberation. It is both an assumption and an aspiration of practical reason that sets the
agenda for moral deliberation. Reason, Kant reminds us, always seeks the unconditioned to
Critique of Pure Reason, A399/B355-56, A303/B358, A311/B368
Critique of Pure Reason (A646-651/B674-80)
unify what is conditioned and thus assumes that the unconditioned can be found. The Categorical
Imperative is, Kant argues, an unconditional practical demand, but it can only unify or
“complete” the various particular moral demands (morality’s innumerable categorical
imperatives) if its prescriptions are free of contradiction, i.e., if the non-existence of moral
dilemmas is assumed.
Kant’s denial of moral dilemmas thus reminds us that Kant believed that the proper use of
reason is always “regulative,” not “constitutive.” The principle that there are no genuine moral
dilemmas would be constitutive if it provided a real object with which it is assumed to
correspond. Yet the point of Kant’s Transcendental Dialectic is that attempts to provide such
objects for certain ideas of reason (God, freedom, etc.) inevitably result in contradiction and
illusion, thus dooming traditional metaphysics. So, too, presumably for the denial of moral
dilemmas in a metaphysical sense: Not only does such a thesis transcend reason’s proper
application, it cannot be empirically verified or disconfirmed either.
Yet reason must retain a regulative use such that the transcendental ideas orient inquiry and
deliberation. Our empirical inquiries would, Kant concludes, be little better than fumbling and
groping absent the aspiration for theoretical unity in the sciences. But we cannot in advance, or at
any given point, determine whether our scientific understanding has achieved this unity, for there
is no standpoint outside our best scientific practices from which we inspect them for this unity.
Similarly, the most we can hope for is that the denial of moral dilemmas may be true. But it
cannot be legitimately treated as a knowledge claim in a metaphysical sense. Furthermore, there
is no standpoint outside the proper deployment of our moral powers from which we could
determine whether an apparent moral dilemma has been fully resolved. The denial of moral
dilemmas thus serves as a regulative, rather than constitutive, principle of reason: not a claim
known to be true but a condition for the rational application of our knowledge of morality as
issuing in categorical rational demands.
One worry here stems from the seemingly ambiguous rational status of the denial of moral
dilemmas. I have argued that the denial of moral dilemmas is a regulative principle of practical
reason whose authority rests on its being a consequence of our acceptance of the Categorical
Imperative as practical reason’s supreme principle. But whether there are genuine dilemmas
appears to be a theoretical question, a question about whether moral considerations supervene on
non-moral ones to generate incompatible imperatives. Thus, it may seem that the position I have
attributed to Kant is orthogonal to recent philosophical debates about moral dilemmas. To a large
extent, this worry is on target, for the position I have outlined is not a position about how the
world is, morally speaking, but a position about the stance we ought to take toward the world in
our moral deliberation and inquiry. Yet for Kant, not all metaphysical beliefs or attitudes are
settled by theoretical considerations. Practical reason has primacy, according to Kant, such that
practical considerations should sometimes guide our beliefs and actions even in the face of
evidence against those beliefs or actions. Moreover, since the Categorical Imperative is the
supreme principle of practical reason, the interests of theoretical reason may be subordinated to
it. In the case of moral dilemmas, then, this primacy mandates that the non-existence of genuine
moral dilemmas be assumed, even absent a theoretical demonstration of that thesis.
In sum then: In terms of Kant’s famous three central questions for reason — what can I
know, what ought I do, and what may I hope— the answers with respect to moral dilemmas are:
1. We can know a priori that reason assumes and aspires to the denial of genuine moral
dilemmas, but we cannot know whether that denial is in fact true. Nor can we come to
know with certainty that an apparent moral dilemma has been correctly resolved, for we
have no standpoint outside our practical reason from which to appraise such resolutions.
2. We ought to deliberate and inquire in moral matters on the assumption that there are no
genuine moral dilemmas – that every apparent dilemma is resolvable.
3. We may reasonably hope that the world is not fundamentally dilemmatic in character.
3. The Kantian position I have outlined has a number of modest, and thereby attractive, features.
It neither asserts nor denies the existence of genuine moral dilemmas, but instead takes the
resolution of moral dilemmas as a methodological ideal. The position is therefore skeptical of
arguments, whether empirical or a priori, intended to establish whether or not genuine moral
dilemmas exist. At the same time, however, this Kantian position helps to shed light on two
popular deductive arguments in this area.
The first argument is Bernard Williams’ well-known argument from ‘moral residue.’
According to this argument, when an agent acts in response to an apparent moral dilemma, she is
rightly subject to various negative self-appraisals (regret, guilt, remorse, etc.), regardless of
which of the two acts she performs. But these self-appraisals are rational or justified only if the
agent would have been equally justified or rational had she acted to fulfill the other apparent
obligation that bound her in the dilemma. Since these self-appraisals are appropriate only when
an agent acts wrongly, it follows that the agent could not have failed to act wrongly and was
therefore in a genuine moral dilemma.
Deniers of moral dilemmas often object to the moral residue argument on the grounds
that these negative self-appraisals do not entail that an agent acted wrongly. It is common, they
retort, for agents to experience negative self-appraisals — such as regret — that are
phenomenologically nearly indistinguishable from those self-appraisals that imply their believing
they acted wrongly but do not themselves imply a belief in having acted wrongly. Furthermore,
there may be value in agents experiencing negative self-appraisals that imply wrongful action
even when agents accept they did not act wrongly.
These objections to the moral residue argument are satisfactory so far as they go.
However, the objections themselves give no evidence that moral dilemmas do not exist, nor do
they shed light on what is rational about these negative self-appraisals on the supposition that
they are not (or not necessarily responses to genuine moral dilemmas. The Kantian position I
have outlined accommodates both of these claims: It takes no stand on the metaphysics of moral
dilemmas, but nevertheless provides an explanation of why such negative self-appraisals may be
warranted even if there are no moral dilemmas. Suppose that an agent finds herself in what
appears to be an especially confounding dilemma, but decides that in fact she is obligated to do
A rather than B. It would not, I contend, be unreasonable for such an agent to experience the
negative self-appraisals allegedly associated with the existence of moral dilemmas. But note that
there is something insufficiently reflexive about explaining these self-appraisals by proposing
that there are moral dilemmas. For these are negative self-appraisals, and there need be no failure
(epistemic, moral, or otherwise) on the part of an agent if these negative attitudes reflect a
disjointed moral world where dilemmas exist. That an agent is, in a sense, trapped by a genuine
moral dilemma is not a rational basis for negatively appraising the agent.
In contrast, my Kantian view, agents aspire to act in the absence of apparent dilemmas and to
have their conduct guided by the categoricity of moral demands, but hard cases can make it
unclear in which acts that categoricity resides. We are, Kant claimed, capable of the distinctly
moral emotion of reverence for the moral law. To worry that we have not identified what the
moral law asks of us thus sparks a rational anxiety that can manifest itself as negative selfappraisals. Moral residue thus induces the sense that we have let morality let down. Yet Kant’s
conception of morality is that it emanates from our own autonomous, practically rational nature.
Thus, to worry that one has acted immorally by choosing the wrong horn of an apparent moral
dilemma is to let oneself down. A negative moral appraisal is thus implicitly a negative selfappraisal. The Kantian view I have proposed thus takes no stance on the existence of moral
dilemmas and thus provides no positive reason to think that such dilemmas do not exist.
Nevertheless, it strengthens the case against the moral residue argument by indicating how,
regardless of whether there are moral dilemmas, agents may be rationally subject to negative
My Kantian position also helps clarify the appeal of another widely discussed argument,
this one against the existence of moral dilemmas: Many argue against the existence of moral
dilemmas by appeal to the principle that ‘ought implies can’ (OIC): If an individual ought to do
A (as is implied by her being morally obligated to do A) only if she can do A, and she is equally
obligated to do B, but cannot perform both A and B, then if ‘ought implies can’, then she is
obligated to do either A or B, but not both. Hence, this principle yields a denial of moral
Though Kant is often identified as a progenitor of the OIC principle, his understanding of
the implications of OIC is subtle and has direct bearing on the soundness of this argument. As
Robert Stern7 has argued, the passages in which Kant endorses OIC8 do not endorse the principle
Dale Jacquette, “Moral dilemmas, disjunctive obligations, and Kant's principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’,”
Synthese 88 (1991):43-55, offers a clear presentation of this argument.
“Does ‘ought’ imply ‘can’? And did Kant think it does?” Utilitas 16 (2004), p52ff.
as a constraint on the moral law, i.e., Kant did not suppose that the content of morality’s
demands are constrained by our human capacities. Whether an act is morally right thus does not
depend on our ability to perform it, on this reading. However, the obligatoriness of an act
requires our accepting that we have the capacity to perform the act. The ‘ought’-ness of this
principle is thus a property not of the moral law as such, but of human agents who recognize
morality’s categorical authority. Kant’s position, then, is not that “nothing can be right that we
are incapable of achieving,” but that “we cannot be obliged to do what is right unless we are
capable of acting in that way.”9 In this respect, Kant seems to implicitly recognize a gap
between what is right and whether we ought to do what is right.
Proponents of this argument suppose that it shows that disjunctive obligations — that an
individual who cannot do both A and B can nevertheless be obligated to do one of A or B — are
incompatible with OIC. But this reading of Kant on OIC, along with my proposal that his denial
of dilemmas be understood as a regulative ideal rather than a metaphysical claim, allows for such
disjunctive obligations. Suppose that, in a given case, an equally powerful case can apparently be
made on Kantian grounds for either of two actions available to an agent, but it is not possible for
the agent to do both actions in the specified circumstances. (I imagine the well-known dilemma
in Sophie’s Choice of choosing which of one’s two children shall be executed comes close to
such an example.)10 An agent may be obligated to do either of the two actions, but this entails
neither that the agent is, nor that the agent is not, in a genuine moral dilemma. For while OIC
constrains what an agent is obligated to do, it does not constrain what it is right to do, so that the
Critique of Pure Reason A548/B576 and A807/B835; Metaphysics of Morals 6:380; Religion within the Limits of
Reason Alone 6:47, 6:50, 6:62, and 6:64; Critique of Practical Reason 5:142 and 5:143f.; and “On the common
saying, That may be correct in theory but is of no use in practice,” 8:276-7 and 8:278-79.
Stern, “Does ‘ought’ imply ‘can’?”, p. 59.
Michael Zimmerman, The Concept of Moral Obligation (New York: Cambridge U. Press, 1996), ch. 7.
fact that two actions are logically or metaphysically incompatible does not, even in conjunction
with OIC, support any positive conclusion about what it is right to do or any such conclusion
about whether a given situation presents a genuine or merely prima facie dilemma. Furthermore,
so long as the agent’s moral deliberation, factual understanding, etc. are sufficient, we have
reason to withhold blame from an agent who cannot perform both actions generated in an
apparent dilemma.
Compare the situation with apparently incommensurable scientific theories: The unity of
science is, for Kant, a regulative ideal to which our theoretical inquiries aspire. However, our
methods of inquiry, etc., may sometimes result in two rival theories of a given phenomena being
equally supportable. (Think here of the ongoing particle-wave dispute concerning the behavior of
light.) Reason’s regulative ideal has not been realized in such contexts of apparent theoretical
incommensurability. After all, contradictory theories by necessity bar the unity of our scientific
understanding. Yet since we lack any standpoint outside those methods of inquiry to decide the
matter, individuals espousing either theory may legitimately accept one theory without incurring
blame or rebuke. Thus, in cases where the regulative ideal of theoretical unity is apparently
thwarted, individuals have a disjunctive epistemic obligation, which nevertheless does not imply
anything about the metaphysical possibility of a unified scientific understanding. The parallel
with moral dilemmas is of course inexact (perhaps there is no corollary of OIC in the realm of
theoretical belief). Yet just as the regulative ideal of theoretical unity in the sciences may appear
unsatisfied when we confront two rival theories, so too may the regulative ideal that denies the
existence of moral dilemmas be unsatisfied when powerful moral considerations can be mustered
in favor of incommensurable moral obligations. Hence, if the denial of moral dilemmas is a
regulative ideal rather than a metaphysical claim, then what a fully informed and deliberatively
competent agent ought to do so as to resolve an apparent moral dilemma is to perform either act.
Her obligation is thus disjunctive in nature and she can be held epistemically and hence morally
blameless for whichever action she performs, and so long as each action is one it is possible for
her to perform, no violation of OIC occurs. Yet this leaves open whether her dilemma was
genuine or merely apparent.
4. Kant’s methodological view of moral dilemmas — that their denial functions as a regulative
ideal of practical reason — thus enables core insights from arguments concerning moral
dilemmas to be honored while neither affirming nor denying the existence of genuine dilemmas.
In this regard, the view I have attributed to Kant and defended reflects the sentiment that our
knowledge of morality as issuing in categorical demands should guide our action, reason
compels us to exercise our moral capacities to the utmost and thereby seek to resolve the
apparent moral dilemmas we confront, regardless of whether the world is ultimately constituted
so as to thwart our rational aspirations.