Exploring moral dilemmas

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman



Lisa Tessman (Photo by Yuval Tessman-Bar-On)

How does someone solve an impossible moral dilemma? What process do people go through when trying to decide between two options, both of which they find morally reprehensible? That’s the basis for Lisa Tessman’s latest book, “Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality” (Oxford University Press). Tessman – an associate professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Binghamton University – explores moral philosophy through the interdisciplinary field known as moral psychology.

“Both philosophers and psychologists work on moral psychology,” Tessman said in an e-mail interview. “I am a philosopher, but I believe that philosophers have a lot to learn from psychologists about morality. Many philosophers working on ethics theorize without regard to what actual people are like – they instead consider what a ‘rational agent’ would or should do. But people are not terribly rational. In fact, it turns out that we make most of our moral judgments through an automatic, intuitive process rather than through a reasoning process.”

Tessman realized that she wanted to focus on the way people actually behave – something psychology does better than philosophy. “I got interested in empirical moral psychology because I think it is necessary to consider the actual psychological or cognitive processes through which people make moral decisions, and I believe that one cannot do philosophical ethics well without familiarity with these sorts of empirical facts,” she said.

Her focus is on unavoidable moral failure. Tessman noted that many ethicists believe that if people think they are morally required to perform an action, then it must be possible for that action to be performed. “I reject this principle because I don’t think it applies to all moral requirements or in all situations,” she said. “I look at the psychology of how and when we tend to judge ourselves to be morally required to do something; some of these judgments are extreme, such as when we take some action – perhaps hurting or endangering someone whom one loves – to be not just wrong, but unthinkable.”

What happens when it’s impossible to avoid violating a moral imperative? “When some action is unthinkable, we take ourselves to be absolutely, non-negotiably required to avoid that action,” she added. “In cases like this, we might continue to take ourselves to be required to avoid that action, even if the action is impossible to avoid. The classic, though fictional, example of this is in ‘Sophie’s Choice.’” In the novel, Sophie must decide which of her two children will be allowed to live – either choice is morally reprehensible. Yet, as Tessman notes, “It was impossible for Sophie to avoid sacrificing at least one of her children, but she still held herself morally responsible for doing the impossible, and she unavoidably failed to protect both her children. So in a case like this, that one ‘ought’ to do something does not imply that one ‘can’ do it.”

One real life example of this phenomenon occurred during Hurricane Katrina. “Because of the flooding, a hospital had to evacuate,” Tessman noted. “Not all of the patients could be evacuated in time, so those closest to death were given last priority, and at a certain point it became clear that there was not going to be time to evacuate all of them. The doctor in charge saw that she had two options: she could either euthanize the remaining patients without consent (because many of them were in a condition that made them unable to give consent) or abandon them to suffer and most likely to die. This was a dilemma – she was morally required not to euthanize without consent, but also morally required to not abandon patients to suffer and die.”

This raises the question about whether a dilemma can be resolved or if the person making the decision will fail morally no matter what choice he or she makes. “I do believe that one can often resolve a dilemma in the sense that one can make a correct decision about what to do, because one option may be clearly better or worse than the other,” she said. “My main point is that even if one does the better of two options, since both options are moral wrongdoings, in a dilemma, moral failure is inevitable. One way to express this is to say that moral dilemmas are resolvable only ‘with remainder’ – and guilt or anguish in the aftermath of a dilemma can be an indicator of a ‘moral remainder.’ Most ethicists will not take this position; instead, they assume that by virtue of doing the best that is possible, one does what is right.”

Tessman notes that her work offers no practical advice on how people can resolve moral dilemmas or what decisions they should make. Instead, she seeks to help “people to reflect on what moral life is like, given that there are situations where failure is unavoidable, and where even the best decision is in some sense not good enough.” Even though her book is written for those with some background in philosophy, she believes the general public can understand her theories. However, she is also currently working on “another book – tentatively titled ‘Requiring the Impossible: A View of Morality’ – that will express many of the same ideas that are developed in ‘Moral Failure,’ but will be shorter and more accessible.”

Although the reviews of “Moral Failure” have been positive – one reviewer said it is “outstanding in its originality, controlled and precise in its continuous argumentation, and extraordinarily provocative in its main thesis” – others have referred to Tessman’s outlook as dark. She does not disagree. “Yes, it is dark, in contrast to a lot of philosophical ethics, which I find to be relentlessly cheery, and sometimes even glib, as if one could approach moral dilemmas as interesting puzzles with solutions that can be justified in clever ways,” she said. “I think moral life is terribly difficult and sometimes tragic. Morality is one of human beings’ ways of facilitating social cooperation so that we can live good enough lives together. But sometimes human needs and vulnerabilities are so great, or there is such conflict amongst the different things that are valued in human lives, or moral practices take place in situations of such serious adversity, oppression or injustice, that no moral system can tell us how to respond adequately – and then we find that moral failure is unavoidable.”

Although her view of morality may be dark, the same is not true of of her teaching schedule at Binghamton University.”I love teaching the most advanced graduate seminars in ethics, and I love teaching ‘Philosophy 101’ to first-year students who have never done any philosophy before,” she noted. “In the graduate seminars, what I love is the intellectual activity, the depth and complexity of the work, and the exchange of ideas with some very smart and thoughtful people. In a course like ‘Introduction to Philosophy,’ I love opening up students’ minds to things they have never thought about before.”

While she may not offer her students the answers to impossible moral dilemmas, Tessman does hope to teach them how to think clearly, at least about philosophy. “The discipline of philosophy has a lot of problems (like the exclusion of women and people of color), and I like getting the students before they have become trained into taking a completely traditional approach,” she said.