Mehdi asked:

What is the best way to resolve a moral dilemma?

I am facing the greatest moral dilemma of my life; both sides of the dilemma have great material and emotional implications.

At one side there is chasing my lifelong dream of living independently in a free country and having the chance of being financially successful by emigrating and starting my own business there but at the cost of leaving my parents alone in their old age which gives me a massive crisis of conscience.

On the other side of the dilemma is to stay and forget about my dreams but avoiding the bad conscience and having a boring but easy and well paid job in a oppressive and not so civilised middle eastern society. My parents are quite well-off so by leaving them I will not be troubling them financially but emotionally. My only sibling left the country eight years ago and they really only have me.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You certainly face a moral conflict.

Either choice entails an inevitable loss. In the end, you just have to plump for one or the other, live with it, and, whatever happens, never say you should have made the other choice, the reason being that you can’t know whether the outcome would thereby have been any better.

In Kantian terms, you are torn between a duty to others (looking after parents) and a duty to yourself (realizing your potential using your talents). In Aristotelian terms, between two different ways of flourishing. In existential terms, between making yourself one or other sort of person.

Your conflict reminds me a bit of Sartre’s example of the young man torn between joining the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers who had killed his brother, and staying with his old mother whose only consolation he was. Sartre emphasises the radical freedom we have to make choices, the need to make some or other choice, the absence of a clear right or wrong choice, the total responsibility we have for the effects of our choices, the absence of any person, god or principle that can decide for us, the loneliness of the situation. It seems you feel all these things.

You don’t say what your parents think, or thought when your sibling left. Maybe they say or hint that you should stay, and perhaps this adds sadness or anger to your feelings, that they are selfish. Perhaps they say nothing, and this makes you feel guilty. Perhaps they urge you to go, wanting their beloved child to make his/her way in the world according to his/her own lights, and this just makes you feel more guilty.

Good luck whatever you choose.

Finally two general philosophical points, the first ethical, the second technical.

1. Whilst duty to family and freedom to live one’s own life both feature in Western and Eastern moral codes, the ranking of the two differs. In the West, individual self-determination usually comes first, and many Western people wouldn’t see a MORAL conflict in your situation. To be sure, those emigrating would miss their parents, but equally would miss their friends, and this can be a sadness, but without being a moral matter. I know a few old couples whose children are making their lives on the other side of the world, and they speak proudly about their children’s success, are sad never or rarely to see them, but don’t make a moral judgment about it. In Eastern cultures, duty to family ranks more highly than in the West. Also, historically in the West, and still so to some extent nowadays, more expectation is put on women than on men to look after the old or needy, but I don’t know whether that is so in your country.

2. Whilst their are moral conflicts, I don’t think that, strictly, there are moral dilemmas. According to standard formulation, a moral dilemma requires:

(a) each of two actions is morally required
(b) neither requirement overrides the other
(c) I can do either action but not both
(d) there is inevitable moral failure

When you measure actual conflicts against these standards, none is a dilemma. Two examples will illustrate.

In Sophie’s choice, there is a moral requirement that she protect both her children. But this, the only moral action she could take, is denied her by the cruel prison guard. So a choice to save one or other child, though heartbreaking, is not a moral choice, she may as well toss a coin to decide. And if she does save one child, she is not guilty of a moral failure (though she would feel she was all her life).

In your conflict, the choice is a moral one, there is an inevitable moral cost, but, unlike the options put to Sophie, neither of your options is morally required (mandatory), only morally desirable.

More formally,there is a proof that a moral dilemma, as defined above, plus The Principle of Deontic Consistency (the same action can’t be both obligatory and forbidden) and the Principle of Deontic Logic (if, necessarily, doing A yields B, then if A is obligatory, B is obligatory) yields a contradiction. So, to hold on to moral dilemma, you must give up one or both Principles (unpalatable), or change the definition of dilemma, but this then blurs any distinction between dilemma and conflict. I find it simplest and least confusing just to refer to moral conflicts.