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From an agent-based approach, a core concern of the moral person is his or her identity as a moral agent. From this approach a moral problem can be defined as a situation that poses a threat to this identity. When facing a moral problem, the agent must show his or her moral colours. In applied ethics, many only recognize one type of moral problem: the dilemma. Inspired by Kantian thinking, we argue that in practical matters it is better to re-conceptualize the dilemma as a morally hard case. Furthermore, we develop a normative typology of three common types of moral problems that a person may face: the 'morally hard case', the 'morally sad situation' and the 'moral motivation' problem. Our main goals are to determine the fundamental characteristics of each type of problem and to examine the interrelations between them. Our subsequent goal is to point at some consequences of using this typology in applied ethics. Less emphasis ought to be given to morality as a practice that involves decision-making per se. Next, the moral dilemma cannot be considered over or 'solved' after a decision has been made. It transforms into a morally sad situation. The framework may also be instructive in the struggle against rationalization and in teaching applied ethics
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ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES 25, no. 4(2018): 683-714.
© 2018 by Centre for Ethics, KU Leuven. All rights reserved. doi: 10.2143/EP.25.4.3285711
Wim Dubbink
Tilburg University, The Netherlands
AbstrAct. From an agent-based approach, a core concern of the moral person
is his or her identity as a moral agent. From this approach a moral problem can
be defined as a situation that poses a threat to this identity. When facing a moral
problem, the agent must show his or her moral colours. In applied ethics, many
only recognize one type of moral problem: the dilemma. Inspired by Kantian
thinking, we argue that in practical matters it is better to re-conceptualize the
dilemma as a morally hard case. Furthermore, we develop a normative typology
of three common types of moral problems that a person may face: the ‘morally
hard case’, the ‘morally sad situation’ and the ‘moral motivation’ problem. Our
main goals are to determine the fundamental characteristics of each type of
problem and to examine the interrelations between them. Our subsequent goal
is to point at some consequences of using this typology in applied ethics. Less
emphasis ought to be given to morality as a practice that involves decision-making
per se. Next, the moral dilemma cannot be considered over or ‘solved’ after a
decision has been made. It transforms into a morally sad situation. The frame-
work may also be instructive in the struggle against rationalization and in teach-
ing applied ethics
Keywords. Morally hard case, morally sad situation, moral motivation prob-
lem, applied ethics, Kantian moral thinking
I. IntroductIon
If you ask a person to give an example of a moral problem, chances are
that he or she will give an example of a moral dilemma or a morally
hard case (MHC) as we will later define it. A dramatic situation that can
be analysed as a moral dilemma happened a few years ago in France when
a mother had to decide whether to kill her son. He became completely
paralyzed years earlier in a car accident. Mother and son learned to
A Typology of Ethical Problems
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communicate by means of his eye-lid movements. The son repeatedly
indicated to his mother that he wanted her to end his plight. Obviously,
killing is wrong. But we can also understand why some people experience
having to live a paralyzed life as lifelong torture. Not rescuing a person
from such a horrible plight is morally wrong too. The case thus comes
down to a situation in which the agent struggles with two principles, both
claiming priority: ‘do not kill’ and ‘help those in need’.
In this article we take an approach on morality that is sometimes
called ‘agent-based’ (Kleingeld 2011, 72). In this approach, the determi-
nation of the agent’s will is a crucial matter (Kant 1788, 19). Moral iden-
tity is also paramount, as concrete moral choices express a person’s iden-
tity as a moral agent (Korsgaard 2009). Following this idea, we can define
‘a moral problem’ as a practical situation in which the agent’s moral iden-
tity is threatened. While facing a problem, the agent’s response to the
situation determines whether he or she is a qualified moral agent. A prob-
lem forces the moral agent to show his or her moral colours. The right
response qualifies the agent, while dealing with it the wrong way implies
self-condemnation (Hill 2002, 368).
In applied ethics, many take the dilemma to be the exemplary moral
problem. Sometimes it is presented as the only kind, in the sense that
other kinds of moral problems are not recognized explicitly. Textbooks
can be seen as sources that embody the (implicit) thinking of a field. This
is why we turned to textbooks to substantiate the claim that many only
recognize one type of moral problem. We investigated business ethics
textbooks somewhat more extensively (see Table 1). A brief analysis of
handbooks in other fields of applied ethics provides further evidence
(Bolt, Verweij and Van Delden 2003; Frey 2003).
In this article, we develop a (Kantian inspired) normative-analytic
typology of common kinds of moral problems that a mature moral agent
ought to acknowledge. We identify several characteristics of each type.
We justify the typology by systematic argument and by demonstrating its
intuitive functionality for practice.
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wim dubbink a typology of ethical problems
First, we explore the dilemma (i.e. MHC). Then, we expose the
assumptions upon which this type of problem is based. These assump-
tions make it possible to carve out two other types of problem: the mor-
ally sad situation (MSS) and the moral motivation problem (MM). In
Table 1: Kinds of Problems Mentioned in Business Ethics Textbooks
Author(s) Year
Dilemma/MHC Mentioned
as Moral Problem
Other Type of Problem
Explicitly Mentioned
Beauchamp &
2014 e.g. 385 No
Boatright e.g. 68
term often used ‘decision
Collins 2012 e.g. ix, xi, 5-6 No
Crane & Matten 2004 e.g. 10, 58, 82 No
De George 1999 126-130 No
Ferrell, Fraedrich
& Ferrell
2017 e.g. 2, 29, 60, 65 ‘Matters of choice’ are
distinguished from
dilemmas (no choice
without some negative
Desjardins &
Term used all the time is ‘decision-point’; motivational
problem named as special: 12
Jeurissen 2000 89-91 No
Shaw 2017
Trevino &
2007 96, 103 No
Velasquez Term used all the time is ‘case’
Wicks, Freeman,
Werhane &
2010 14-15 No
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sections IV and V we elaborate on these types. In the subsequent section,
we hint at the ways in which the framework could impact applied ethics.
One might think that these consequences are limited as the awareness for
other types of moral problems is growing in applied ethics. Our analysis
of recent textbooks provides some evidence for this claim (see Table 2).
In fact, other types of problems are hardly ever explicitly recognized in the
applied ethics textbooks (again see Table 2). And this matters because, as
we hope to show, our typology offers a way to understand the connec-
tions between the various ethical problems that are not obvious outside
the conceptual frame. It demonstrates for instance that a dilemma does
not end (i.e. should not end) with the making of the decision. Our typol-
ogy also offers the possibility of providing agents with more fine-grained
and nuanced strategies for addressing moral problems, as each kind of
problem has its own proper way of dealing with it.
A methodological comment on the use of examples is in order here.
We aim to expound a typology of moral problems. Examples clarify each
type. Yet, there is no strict relation between a specific example and a type.
Given extra information or the emergence of a new perspective, it is
always possible to conclude that the case is better interpreted in terms of
another type. For example, managers sometimes argue that they face ‘a
dilemma’ when confronted with a situation in which a plant must be
relocated because of a fragile eco-system while the plant is also one of
the few job providers in the region. The principles of nature conservation
and employee care seem to be in conflict. It is completely possible that
in a case like this, leadership is indeed determined to make the right
choice and thus faces a dilemma.1 But sometimes managers are all too
eager to argue that they face a dilemma, while they are actually using the
‘care for employees’ argument as a red herring to postpone overdue
investments in nature protection. In cases like this, a manager better real-
izes that he or she is not facing a dilemma at all. The manager is busy
hiding a problem of MM. In this article we make no claims whatsoever
on any concrete case. We merely expose a typology.
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Table 2: Kinds of Problems Mentioned in Textbooks, Implicitly or Explicitly
Author(s) Year PMM MSS
Explicit Implicit Explicit Implicit *
Beauchamp &
2014 – e.g. 337-383
PMM referred to
as ‘issues’ and
‘conflict of
– 150-154
due process,
mutual respect
Boatright 2003 – e.g. 138-141
‘conflict of
– –
Collins 2012 – almost entire
book about PMM
discussion on
Crane & Matten 2004 – 111-142 – 95; 242-243
De George 1999 – 34-36 –
Fraedrich &
2017 ‘issues’ almost entire
book about PMM
65, choice having
consequences; 330,
discussion power
Desjardins &
2017 12 e.g. 12
60-61 e.g. 228, 230, use
arbitrary power;
236 due process,
Jeurissen 2000 – e.g. 196-203 e.g. 150-161
Shaw 2017 – e.g. 240-242
320-321 300-303, due
process and
prevent pain
Trevino &
Nelson 2007 – 121-146
– 159-160
Velasquez 2002 – – – –
Wicks, Freeman,
Werhane &
2010 – 33-59 – 5-15; 297
* We take an emphasis on the importance of ‘relationships’, and on how to do things
(with respect, compassion and so forth) as signs that suggest awareness of MSS. An
emphasis on character is also seen as a sign, but only if character is important beyond its
importance for decision-making as such.
** Werhane and Radin (2014, 147-154).
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II. the exemplAry problem: the dIlemmA or mhc
“Conscientious people at times find themselves in situations I shall call
practical moral dilemmas. That is, they confront situations in which
important, and apparently decisive, moral considerations seem to demand
incompatible courses of action, condemning all their options, and they
see no reasonable way to resolve the conflict” (Hill 2002, 363). A dilemma
(as Hill defines it) comes about when a moral agent, who is determined
to do the morally right thing, must decide upon a (specific) action while
at the same time groping in the dark as to what that amounts to. There
are morally good reasons to do action A, while at the same time there are
morally good reasons not to do action A. In the event of a dilemma,
routine interpretations of how to relate practice to moral principles fail.2
The dilemma calls for moral reflection (e.g. McNaughton 1988, 194).
Right or wrong must be determined, while being unclear (at first sight).
Interpreting a case as a dilemma highlights the cognitive aspects of the
case, even if emotions and intuitions clearly have a role to play. The cog-
nitive aspect explains why most textbooks refer to and explain ethical
theories (e.g. utilitarianism, rights-based theories and Kantian ethics) in
order to assist agents who are confronted with a dilemma (e.g. Arnold,
Beauchamp and Bowie 2014; DeGeorge 1999).
Dilemmas may start out as hunches or ‘the feeling’ that something is
wrong. Yet, when they become part of a process of reflection, they can
always be reconstructed in terms of a struggle between opposing morally
good reasons. These reasons are moral principles, like ‘do not kill’ or ‘do
not harm’ that seem to be irreconcilable in relation to the case at hand.
Both seem to be relevant to the case, but in the outer action only one
principle can be expressed; the other has to yield.
Most people will admit that the process of reflection will – at least in
some cases – lead to a (reasonable) resolution of the dilemma (see Dworkin
2011). Dilemmas are sometimes caused by novelties (e.g. a technical inno-
vation) that uproot the standard interpretation of how two principles
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wim dubbink a typology of ethical problems
(‘donot kill’ versus ‘help those in need’) ought to be related. Yet, in these
cases the novelty does not create an irresolvable issue. It is simply that
human beings need to accommodate their moral judgement to the new
situation. The process may be tough, but with the help of some kind of
method deemed reasonable (e.g. Rawls’s reflective equilibrium, discussed
in Beauchamp 2005, 10-12) order can be re-established among the moral
principles. (Note: we are not saying that only reason is relevant in this
process we are merely saying that the method must be deemed reasona-
ble). We refer to all dilemmas that can be resolved in a non-arbitrary way
as ‘morally hard cases’ (MHC).
Some people hold that not all moral dilemmas are MHCs. They insist
that some dilemmas cannot be resolved by reasonable argument. If so,
the structure of these moral dilemmas is that they have no non-arbitrary
solution. “Some dilemmas remain unresolved, even after careful reflec-
tion” (Beauchamp and Childress 2001, 11; Marcus 1980). Oftentimes it
is suggested that the consequence of this is that the moral agent somehow
always does wrong in solving the moral dilemma, even if his or her action
is also somehow right. “Some obligation must be set aside or compro-
mised” (Beauchamp and Childress 2001, 10). “There is no right and
wrong in a dilemma – only less ethical choices” (Ferrell, Fraedrich and
Ferrell 2017, 65). Moral dilemmas thus imply the impossibility of evading
wrongdoing. If it is indeed true that at least in some cases, any solution
to a moral dilemma implies wrongdoing, then it must be admitted that
some dilemmas are not MHCs. Conceptual space must be carved out for
cases that remain unresolved. We refer to these as ‘dilemmas in a strict
sense’. Philippa Foot (2002) and Terrance McConnell (1996) are among
those who have argued against the need for this space.
In this paper, we remain agnostic about this need. We merely claim
that even if strict dilemmas are possible it still is worthwhile to analyse
the category of MHCs as we define it. At the same time, and as this arti-
cle is inspired by Kantian thinking, we expound a Kantian argument to
deny the need for this conceptual space, without suggesting that even all
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Kantians are in the same boat on this issue. The Kantian Donagan (1977),
for example, argues that there are (rare) situations in which the moral
agent is confronted with a strict dilemma.
On our reading of Kant, moral problems are practical problems. Thus,
by definition, there is a necessity to act. From a moral point of view, a
resolution must be found. Morality (practical reason) differs in that perspec-
tive from theoretical reason, where we can take the ‘spectator perspective’
(O’Neil 2002, 329). McConnell (1996) hints at this when stating that moral
dilemmas are ontological problems rather than (merely) epistemological
problems. In relation to practical reason, the agent knows that time will
‘solve’ the issue, if the agent does not choose. As the agent’s moral colours
are at stake that is something he or she cannot allow to happen; i.e. that
‘solution’ too reflects on her moral colours. Hence, in Kantian thinking, the
idea of an inconclusive or unresolvable dilemma uproots the idea of moral-
ity. It makes it impossible for the moral agent to be a moral agent. Moral-
ity loses its authority and meaning if it allows for these kinds of unresolv-
able situations. It follows that as a matter of principle, it must be a
categorical truth that each dilemma has a solution that does not involve
wrong-doing. When Kant stated that “a collision of duties […] is incon-
ceivable” (1797, 226), we think that this is what he was after.
On our reading, Kant does not only merely provide a moral argument
to deny the possibility of moral dilemmas in the strict sense. He also
demonstrates that it does not make sense to speak of the possibility of the
existence of this space. Kant suggests that when moral agents have come
to a material conclusion, they ought to take a strictly formal approach to
the concepts ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ in a judgement on a concrete case.
Action is unavoidable. Hence, what is right in a given case, must be defined
as ‘that which is ultimately the right thing to do, given conflicting principles
that all apply to the case’. The fact that one of the conflicting principles has
to yield is not problematic in practical reasoning. The object of a moral
reflection is precisely to determine which principle has to yield on moral
grounds; i.e. it is a given that one has to yield or reinterpreted in relation to
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the case at hand. If, upon reflection, people decide that it is right to help a
person to kill themselves when they experiences life as torture, then that is
the right thing to do. Naturally this does not imply that the material deci-
sion can be taken randomly. Moral agents must use the best means (i.e.
method) available and will often be required to step back from traditional
methods. But the impossibility to find a perfect method to make a non-ar-
bitrary material choice should not lead us away from the insight that action
is inescapable and that hence, rightness and wrongness must ultimately be
defined in a formal manner. At some point a decision must be made using
the best available means. Suggesting that there is some sense in which a
dilemma can ‘remain unresolved’ confuses the material decision on the case
at hand (which is always historical and thus dependent on context), with
the formal requirements of what it means to act right. We return to this
issue in section VI, when discussing the relations between the three kinds
of problems we distinguish.
Another aspect to be clarified relates to the motivation of the agent
experiencing a MHC. Kantian thinking is (in)famous for its emphasis on
the importance of acting ‘out of good will’ as crucial to a judgement as
regards the moral worthiness of an action (Kant 1785; Hill 2002). Yet,
when merely the rightness or wrongness of an action is at stake, Kantians
are indifferent about good will (Kant 1796, 219). All that matters then is
the external action (i.e. the action in the phenomenal world). This raises
the issue as to whether the experience of an MHC, presupposes that the
agent acts ‘out of good will’. This depends on how exactly one interprets
‘acting out of good will’. One interpretation of Kant has it that a ‘morally
good will’ is a will truly committed to doing the right thing (Bowie 1999).
Defined this way, a good will is committed to doing the right thing
because of strong dispositions within the agent’s character. A will like that
is committed to doing right as a father is naturally committed to caring
for his child. In this sense, ‘a good will’ is indeed presupposed by the idea
of an MHC. On another interpretation, a good will is a will determined
by an autonomous act of self-constitution. The ‘good will’ – in this stricter
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sense – demonstrates its freedom by overcoming the strongest possible
obstacles. From the agent-based perspective, these strongest possible
obstacles are the agent’s own desires. Hence, a good will in the strict
sense is a will that overcomes itself. This kind of good will constitutes
itself morally, by overcoming itself naturally. A fitting analogy is perhaps
when a soldier overcomes her paralyzing fear of death and holds her
ground for no other reason than her duty. Kant (1785, 397) links his
famous idea of ‘out of duty’ conduct to this kind of self-overcoming
will-constitution. Leaving Kantian exegesis aside, it is clear that the agent
in an MHC does not need to act on a good will in this strict sense. The
problem facing the agent is the possibility of making a bad judgement and
ending up doing wrong, materially speaking while striving to do right,
formally speaking. The MHC is not the struggle to overcome oneself.
There is a related issue to be discussed in clarifying the nature of the
MHC. It is sometimes believed that if the agent’s intentions are proper,
then any choice made while experiencing an MHC, is correct. Only
motive counts on this reasoning. We hold this belief to be false. It con-
fuses the worthiness of an action with its rightness. If we allow it, having
a proper motive would be sufficient to make killing and stealing morally
right. The concept of an MHC itself shows that that cannot be true. An
MHC presumes a determination to do the right thing. If that determination
by itself would solve the MHC by making whatever outcome morally
right, then the concept MHC would become obsolete. Hence, intentions,
however true, do not make the decision made in the MHC morally right.
The moral rightness of the action must be judged in view of criteria that
pertain to the outer aspects of an action. Insofar as the MHC concerns a
public issue; these criteria are established by – and within – a (historically
given) moral community. This implies that when a moral agent in an
MHC that concerns a public issue decides in a way that makes him or her
perform conduct that is non-acceptable to public morality, he or she must
face the consequences, regardless of his or her intention(s). If a mother
kills her own son and killing one’s son is deemed wrong, then other
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people obtain a moral right to punish this person, no matter how sincere
the agent’s intentions.3
This verdict seems uncompromising and there is indeed something
more to say about it. MHC’s arise in situations where something is out
of the ordinary. Exactly because of that reason, the lack of moral clarity
emerges. The agent involved judges that the case gives human beings
reason to change something about the conventional way in which moral
principles are ordered. The mother killing her son, for example, may
sense that modern medical technologies have called into question whether
the principle ‘do not kill’ always and without exception, trumps ‘rescue
from torture’. Sensing this and confronting society with this problem are
two different things. Many people may have sensed it before the mother
did, but other people were perhaps too afraid to challenge the conven-
tional ordering of moral principles. Some people, however, will consider
morality so important that they will challenge society by acting against
convention. When that happens, a true (out of duty) commitment to
morality is motivating the agent. In these situations, moral agents do take
a risk – they risk being considered immoral by their peers. This happens
when the others (i.e. society) rejects the agent’s idea that a re-ordering of
moral principles is called for.4 Yet, when the others realize that the action
was based on a true motive, they (may) have reason to excuse the agent
fully or at least in part. In this indirect way, (true) motive can become
relevant for the MHC. It is relevant for the way people ought to respond
to an agent whom they consider having done wrong. When they sense
that the agent saw herself forced to take a woeful risk for morality’s sake,
they ought to take that into account in their decision on how to respond
to the morally wrong deed.5
III. AssumptIons of the typology
In applied ethics, the MHC (i.e. the dilemma) is commonly discussed.
Many distinctions are drawn within the category of the MHC (i.e.
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dilemma).6 Few textbooks explicitly acknowledge other types of moral
problems as things that moral agents can wrestle with. Hardly any book
we investigated explicitly mentions other types of moral problems (see
Table 1). The suggestion that there is just one category is reinforced by
the common way in which ‘moral problems’ are related to ‘moral theory’.
Theories are presented as tools that may help moral agents make good
decisions (e.g. Bolt, Verweij and Van Delden 2003, 3; Jeurissen 2000,
57-59; Wicks et al. 2010, 14-21). Yet, the other types of moral problems
do not stand in need of theory – at least not in that way.
We argue that it makes sense, both theoretically and practically, to
explicitly acknowledge more types of moral problems. We do not claim
that in this way we make a radical break with recent textbooks. Many
(implicitly) suggest that the moral universe is reduced too much by sug-
gesting that dilemmas are the only problems (see Table 2). But a typology
in which other, common categories of problems figure, has not often
been provided, and we never found a textbook where the systematic
relations between the various types of moral problems are analysed.
In this section, we present the assumptions upon which our norma-
tive-analytical typology is based. These assumptions create a perspective
from which it makes sense to identity more types of problems besides
the MHC. We think that the perspective itself is justified because its
assumptions are also presupposed in the idea of a MHC. Hence, if the
idea of a MHC makes sense, the two extra types of problems must also
be acknowledged.
First, our framework is normative-analytical. This means that the
moral point of view is presupposed. Of course, in real life many people
do not experience a moral problem, when in fact they should. Business
people sometimes act fraudulently without realizing (anymore) that what
they do is morally wrong. Some doctors think of patients merely as num-
bers. These empirical facts cannot be used to criticize the framework. It
identifies types of moral problems that a mature (i.e. fully grown) moral
agent will be able to recognize. This assumption is implicit in the idea of
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MHC. The MHC can only be addressed by an agent who knows what it
means to take the moral point of view (e.g. Bolt, Verweij and Van Delden
2003, 10).
Second, our normative-analytical typology is developed from what we
call the ‘agent-based’ approach to morality. This approach takes the view-
point of a singular moral agent (i.e. a first-person) who is confronted with
a moral situation that confronts the agent inescapably. He or she must
perform an action that determines his or her status as a moral agent. The
agent’s unity of soul is at stake (Hill 2002, 363). We admit that the agent-
based approach is particularly important in Kantian moral theory and
metaphysics, with its emphasis on autonomy as the core meaning of
morality (1788). Still, it is also important to other meaning giving accounts
of morality, such as Levinasian metaphysics (1961). In applied ethics, the
agent-based approach is quite often explicitly recognized as point of
departure (e.g. Solomon 1992, 111). We believe that the agent-based
approach captures a crucial part of the idea of an MHC. The issue to be
dealt with is: ‘what do I have to do here and now, given these circum-
stances that I have not chosen and that may be unjust (also in relation to
me as they may seem to burden me unduly)’. Sometimes this is expressed
as the ‘what if I was this person’ perspective (e.g. Trevino and Nelson
2007, 96; Velasquez 2002, 383).7
Some clarifications on the agent-based approach may be called for.
The approach does not imply that the agent must assume responsibility
for a whole problem, no matter how big it is. It can be acknowledged that
multiple actions at multiple levels are necessary, including governmental
action. For the agent-based approach the primary thing facing each spe-
cific agent is: ‘what does the problem mean for me?’ How does my reac-
tion reflect on my moral colours?
Also, the agent-based approach on morality must not be confused
with the idea that morality is purely a private matter; a matter in which
only the agent decides what is in fact right and wrong. This is clear in the
case of MHCs. These problems usually relate to public morality (Bolt,
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Verweij and Van Delden 2003, 3; Darwall 2003, 18; O’Neill 2002, 331).
They concern issues like abortion, discrimination, and privacy. The agent
must decide, but the criteria upon which the decision must be taken are
not at the agent’s disposal.
We do not think our agent-based approach becomes inconsistent at
this point. It is only formally speaking ‘agent-based’: it is the agent who
must decide. It is his or her call. In material terms, the agent may have to
take into account that the issue at hand belongs to public morality and
hence, the final material authority is the public. Going back to our initial
example, if the mother experienced an MHC, we can agree with the claim
that she felt her identity was at stake by the choice between not to kill
her son and the option to kill him, because of the duty to help those in
need. We can agree that if she experienced an MHC, she must decide in
this matter. Yet, on our account we may still deny that she is the final
authority in the matter. The decision about life and death is a public issue.
Hence, the issue is a matter of public morality. It follows that it matters
a great deal to the agent whether the situation is recognized by (the greater
part of) the public as a MHC. If not, the agent faces a situation in which
he or she will act wrongly by challenging established morality. If so, the
agent can look upon himself or herself as a point where a possible trans-
formation of the collective identity is initiated.
A third assumption is that a moral reason is identifiable as a separate,
special kind of reason. Again, the idea of morality as a special kind of
practice is Kantian through and through. The opposition between a moral
reason and any other kind of reason permeates the Critique of Practical
Reason (1788). It is sometimes said that Aristotelean thinking downplays
the stand-alone position of moral reasons. Still, the idea is not idiosyn-
cratically Kantian. For example, Habermas (1981) argues that the modern
process of differentiation implies the constitution of the moral as a dis-
tinct sphere of action.
This assumption is also contained within the idea of a MHC. This
idea only makes sense if it is presupposed that it is possible to separate
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the moral aspects of a case from the non-moral aspects (Shaw 2017, 5-6).
Hence, it presupposes that morality is a practice that is distinct and sep-
arate from all others.
On the basis of these assumptions more types of problems must be
acknowledged. We introduce the morally sad situation (MSS) and the
problem of moral motivation (MM). The MSS is a situation where the
agent knows what to do and is willing to do so, yet hesitant to perform
the action because he or she knows that it will cause moral bad (i.e. neg-
atively affect a person). The ending of a love affair often gives rise to an
MSS. In love (as romantic love), actually experiencing it as a feeling is
crucial. Hence, a love affair is over and can (or even must) be ended when
‘the feeling’ is gone (Wagoner 1997). Given the modern romantic concept
of love, it is morally legitimate to end the affair, even though this may
bring pain upon the former lover. Experiencing an MSS in this process
means acknowledging this situation and taking it into account in one’s
The MM problem comes about in a situation in which the agent
experiences unwillingness to comply with morality. There are non-moral
reasons pushing the agent in another direction. An example is when a
person has a hard time motivating himself or herself to be true to a part-
ner, while in the presence of a person to whom he or she feels very
attracted. In the subsequent sections each type is explained in greater
IV. morAlly sAd sItuAtIons
Theo Janssen was a professional soccer player who made his career at the
Dutch soccer club Vitesse in the 2000s. The supporters loved him and he
loved the club. After many years, he transferred to another club. One day
he played against his old club and as penalty specialist he had to take a
penalty. He scored. Normally, soccer players celebrate a goal exuberantly.
Theo Janssen scored and his team mates did indeed start a celebration.
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But Janssen waved away all contact with his teammates. With his head
bowed, his arms close to his body, he ran back to his side of the field.
The penalty specialist knew that he had just done what he was supposed
to do as player for the new club. But he also realized that something
painful and bad had happened. He – the soccer player who the Vitesse
supporters still admired – had been decisive in Vitesse losing the game.
He found a way to express his acknowledgement of the situation by the
way he behaved after the score. The supporters picked up on his symbolic
action. The usual name-calling that befalls ‘traitors’ did not occur. They
understood and acknowledged the painful problem soccer players face in
times in which soccer has become a professional activity.
The structure of an MSS differs crucially from an MHC. When con-
fronted with an MSS, the agent knows what to do. Also, the action the
agent performs (i.e. aims to perform) is morally required or – at least –
morally permitted. Yet, the agent is reluctant and cautious about the
action as he or she knows that he or she is involved in a process in which
the agent’s actions have consequences that will be the cause of some
moral badness. Typically, this badness will involve causing pain to another
person. Because of the badness, the agent is regretful. He or she knows
that causing bad (i.e. inflicting pain) goes against morality, in the sense
that morality always ought to stimulate good and fight bad. Some moral
traditions (i.e. utilitarianism) have or will require a much stronger formu-
lation of this principle, but the way we formulate the principle as a min-
imum requirement, should fit most moral traditions.
The idea of an MSS tries to do justice to the relational dimension of
human existence. Being related and the quality of those relations matters
a lot to human beings. Core duties express the relational aspect of human
life, e.g. the duty of respect, and the duty to care for others. Many phi-
losophers have drawn attention to the relatedness of human existence
(Buber 1923; Held 2006; Levinas 1961; Tronto 1993). The awareness of
the relatedness of human nature has also been acknowledged in (recent)
textbooks on applied ethics. More and more, problems are discussed that
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concern the relatedness of human beings. Still, in applied ethics, the iden-
tification of problems pertaining to the relatedness of human beings has
not found explicit recognition in a typology of moral problems.
Insofar as attention is given, it often differs from our concept MSS.
Sometimes the word ‘tragic’ is invoked to understand a problem (e.g. Hill,
2002). We shrink away from using this concept; not because it is inherently
problematic, but because there are ways of interpreting the concept that
are incompatible with an agent-based approach. In a classical interpreta-
tion, for example, referring to a situation as ‘tragic’ means that the agent
has had no choice in the matter whatsoever. The tragic ‘agent’ is a mere
plaything of cruel gods. This is never the case in an agent-based approach.
Other possible and common interpretations of the concept ‘tragic’ move
away from the concept MSS, by suggesting that in a ‘tragic choice’ the
agent will always end up doing wrong, whatever choice he or she makes.
Our concept of a MSS points at situations in which the agent knows what
to do, does right but still regrets having to perform the action. This is the
problem that Theo Janssen faced, and we hold that in practice many
moral problems have this same structure. An MSS also differs consider-
ably from the idea of a ‘dirty hands’ problem (DH). In case of a DH
problem the agent knowingly does wrong and the agent knows that he
or she will be morally doomed because of it. Still, at the same time, he or
she believes that the action – somehow – is in the interest of morality.
(Bellamy 2007; Walzer 1973). A case that is often described as DH prob-
lem is torturing a terrorist in order to obtain vital information. Again, our
concept MSS has a different structure and thus points at different prob-
lems concerning the relatedness of human beings. In an MSS, the agent
does the right thing and he or she knows that, while also regretting the
The fact that in moral life, moral regret and ‘residue feelings’ (see
McConnell 1996) may come about in the aftermath of doing the right thing
is sometimes considered a puzzle (Hill 2002, 391).9 How can doing the
right thing lead to regret, and what seems even more absurd: not just
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ethical perspectives december 2018
psychological feelings of regret (see Foot 2002) but regret that must be
considered a legitimate? We think the idea of an MSS may solve the puz-
zle, but to this end it needs to be further clarified.
First, in order to make sense of the MSS we must distinguish ‘doing
harm’ and ‘doing bad’. We must resist the daily temptation to use the
concept ‘harm’ in a broad sense that includes both wrong-doing in a strict
sense, and all instances in which ‘moral bad’ comes about. That is to say
we must resist the temptation to refer to all situations in which an agent
‘negatively affects another’ as ‘harming the other’. Hill is an example of
an author who sometimes conflates the two (e.g. 2002, 390).
Extending upon Fried (1978), we make a threefold distinction. The
concept ‘morally bad generally speaking’ applies to all situations in which
something happens that must be evaluated negatively, morally speaking.
This general category holds two specific categories, relevant from the
agent-based approach. The concept ‘morally wrong’ applies when the
agent causes these effects while violating a moral principle he or she owes
others. The agent does something he or she ought not to have done.
Reproach befits the agent. The concept ‘morally bad state of affairs’
applies when an agent does something that is morally permissible (or even
required) while the action nonetheless inflicts pain or negatively affects a
morally relevant creature. (Also see the literature on ‘double effect’: Frey
2005; Woodward 2001). Using the distinction, we can pinpoint the MSS.
The MSS comes about in the exact space in which a moral agent per-
forms an action that causes pain without the action being wrong. Theo
Janssen inflicted pain but he did nothing wrong. Given his obligations as
an employee of another soccer club, he was even required to do his best
in trying to score a goal.
For a proper understanding of the conceptual space in which the
MSS occurs, one qualification must be made. The MSS arises in the space
between doing wrong and performing actions that cause mere bad states
of affairs. This is the space of the morally relevant bad states of affairs.10
Hence, not all actions that have consequences that cause a morally bad
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state of affairs give rise to MSS. Moral agents must not be concerned
about (mere) bad states of affairs; only about morally relevant bad states
of affairs. Pain as such is not the issue; morally relevant pain is. Some kinds
of frustration, pain and agony find their origin in bad inclinations, bad
desires and bad character traits of the agent that was hurt. From an agent-
based approach, moral agents have a right to ignore these. For example:
if my jealous neighbour loses sleep because he cannot stand the fact that
my car is newer than his car then his pain does not lead to a MSS for me.
The bad thing in this case is my neighbour’s frustration itself. Conversely,
as morally relevant bad states of affairs are the issue, it can be argued that
a MSS may arise without any person actually experiencing bad (i.e. pain).
If agent A does not give money to a good cause while it is permissible
for him or her to do so, and he or she thinks that there are very good
reasons to donate money, he or she should acknowledge that he or she
faces an MSS. He or she should feel regret about his or her – permissible
– failure to live up to the requirements of his or her own morality.
Second, in his attempt to explain the ‘residue feelings’ or ‘feeling of
regret’ Hill points at a general duty to ‘do good and prevent bad’. He
argues that this duty always (must) guide us. In his view this explains why
human beings ought to have regret while not doing harm, each time they
are confronted with moral badness. “To do so, I suggest, is to let the idea
of human dignity guide not only our actions and policies but also our
judgements about what is good and bad among the things not under our
control” (2002, 397). We agree that the MSS is related to the general duty
to promote good and prevent evil. Morality forbids us ever to be indif-
ferent about moral badness. Yet we disagree with the claim that these
residue feelings can be explained by merely pointing at the (general) duty.
Closely related is our rejection of the claim that in the MSS we are dealing
with ‘things not under our control’. What makes the MSS really into a
moral problem is that there is a close and intimate relation between the
moral bad (i.e. inflicted pain) and the action of the agent. Vitesse lost a
game because Theo Janssen scored and that action, though right, brought
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ethical perspectives december 2018
bad upon the soccer club. The doctor experiences a MSS because she has
to tell the patient that he is going to die soon. In a MSS the moral agent
has regret (i.e., has residue feelings) because of bad that was the (direct)
consequence of an action he or she performed.
That is why we argue that a MSS must be viewed as a situation in
which a relationship is morally challenged. The moral balance is disturbed.
One specific agent is performing an action that hurts a specific other.
That is morally relevant to the relationship even though the action is
morally acceptable or sometimes even morally required. We introduce the
concept of ‘guiltless redemption’ to understand what is going on in an
MSS. We think it is proper to speak of ‘redemption’ because a balance
needs to be restored. We also think it must be a ‘guiltless’ redemption as
otherwise the action cannot be considered required or at least permissible.
As we see it, guiltless redemption requires a process of (symbolic) actions
by which the balance is restored. By faithfully performing these symbolic
actions, the agent demonstrates his or her acknowledgment of the situa-
tion and that restores the balance. In most cases, these actions do not
have to be specifically and exclusively symbolic. Oftentimes the MSS
demands that ‘normal’ actions are done in a specific way. The lover, for
example, does not break up through sending a text message, but by a long
talk that gives the other opportunity to express their feelings. While deter-
mined to kill an animal, the butcher tries to ensure that the animal suffers
as little as possible etc.
The idea of guiltless redemption requires one more clarification.
Although the MMS as such presupposes the idea of guiltless redemption,
failing to perform the required symbolic actions may cause the agent to
be blameworthy. This is especially so if the failure is due to a careless or
even wilful negligence. Theo Janssen’s action was an act of guiltless
redemption; if he wilfully would have celebrated as soccer players nor-
mally do, he would have been blameworthy; not for scoring but for will-
ingly neglecting the moral problem he was facing. A situation in which
this played out in practice were the circumstances that led to the so-called
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‘Renault Law’ in Belgium. In 1997, the French company Renault simply
called a press conference to announce that it would close its Belgian
branch. Not only the 3000 employees were stunned about this way of
announcing the closure; the whole of Belgium was outraged. The issue
did not remain a moral one. There was a political reaction and it was
harsh: the so-called Renault Law was introduced. This law stipulates
exactly how collective dismissals have to be handled in the future.
V. problems of morAl motIVAtIon
Moral agents often have a hard time motivating themselves to do the
morally right thing. The many morally wrong actions of people bear wit-
ness to these motivational problems (and subsequent wrong decisions).
Ethics textbooks increasingly call attention to psychological aspects of
immoral action, in particular in relation to the issue of organizational
design. Business ethics examples are Goodpaster (2007) and Trevino and
Nelson (2007). Yet, there is no explicit acknowledgment that struggling
with the determination to be moral actually is a moral problem in its own
right. We call this the problem of moral motivation (MM). An MM prob-
lem can be described as a situation in which the agent experiences a
conflict between a good moral reason and a non-moral reason for action,
that the agent considers good, subjectively perceived. When experiencing
a problem of MM, the requirements of morality appear to the agent as
sacrifices that are hard to swallow. He or she has a motivational problem.
Beauchamp and Childress (2001, 11) very briefly touch upon some-
thing they refer to as a ‘practical dilemma’. This concept comes close to
what we conceptualize as MM. A crucial difference is that they do not
consider their practical dilemma a moral problem. Yet, MM is a moral
problem, given that we have defined moral problems as situations in
which the agent’s moral identity is threatened. Of all moral problems, the
MM is most dramatic in that sense: the decision determines whether the
agent deserves the title moral agent at all.11
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In itself, experiencing a problem of MM cannot be considered mor-
ally wrong. Upon occasion, many people consider being fraudulent, adul-
terous, and so forth, but decide against it. Considerations of this kind
come with being a creature that is not naturally drawn to compliance with
morality. There are forces in human nature that lead human beings away
from morality (Kant 1793). Hence, being tempted cannot be wrong; only
making the wrong choice is.12
In our conception of a problem of MM, compliance with morality is
not necessarily preceded by a moment in time when the agent experi-
enced an MM problem. Human beings take thousands of decisions a day,
followed by subsequent actions. Each of these decisions and actions can
be assessed in terms of compliance or non-compliance with the require-
ments of morality. Most of them are taken at a sub-conscious level or as
automatism. When a moral agent is socialized properly and his or her
moral development has also gone (relatively) well, then the vast majority
of these decisions are in accord with morality. In all these cases there is
no prior experience of a problem of MM. Even conscious decisions in
accord with morality are mostly not preceded by the experience of an
MM problem. Most are (subjectively perceived as) purely prudent or non-
moral decisions.
Following this line of reasoning it becomes an analytical truth to state
that the experience of a problem of MM comes about in a situation where
the overall prudent (i.e. non-moral) assessment of the situation suggests
to the agent that breaking the requirements of morality is called for. This
overall assessment may include many reasons that suggest to the agent to
comply with morality. However, in the case at hand, these non-moral
reasons suggesting compliance with morality are outweighed by (the sum
of) non-moral reasons suggesting the violation of a moral requirement.
In that kind of situation, the only (possible) force left, disciplining the
agent to compliance with the requirements of morality, is the moral
motive itself. Hence, a MM problem is a direct confrontation between
the moral reason for action and the net sum of all non-moral reasons for
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wim dubbink a typology of ethical problems
action. In Kantian terms, it comes with the experience of having to act
‘out of duty’ (Kant 1788) or as a good will, in the stricter definition of
that word. This is exactly why the MM problem confronts the moral
agent with the sacrifice morality sometimes requires. When confronted
with a problem of MM the agent must overcome his or her own natural
VI. ImplIcAtIons And AdVAntAges of the typology
In this section we discuss some implications of our typology in terms of
better understanding (relations between) moral problems, both in general
and in the context of teaching applied philosophy. The typology makes
it possible to understand and deal better with some types of situations.
Agood example is employee dismissal in business ethics. When Solomon
addresses the subject, he insists that employee dismissal is always a moral
problem, even if pressing financial considerations force the company to
cut down in size. He is scornful towards people who deny this: “[…]evi-
dently [they] never had to ‘downsize’ a staff of good, dedicated employees
because of a cost-cutting policy established by those above [them]” (1992,
5; see also Jones, Parker and Ten Bos 2005, 46). Boatright disagrees: “In
the United States, employers are generally regarded as having the right to
make decisions about hiring […] discharge […] and other conditions of
work” (2003, 249; see also Bowie 1999, 8). Boatright is right to suggest
that in a free market system employee dismissal cannot (always) constitute
an MHC. There are at least some cases in which it is clear that manage-
ment must have a right to dismiss personnel. “Terminating workers […]
is not necessarily an unethical decision” (Hartman et al. 2017, 236). But
this is not to say that the process of doing it, is not always a moral prob-
lem. Dismissal always causes great pain to the employees involved. Thus,
employers and managers must proceed cautiously, respectfully and with
a keen eye to the trouble they bring about (Hartman, Desjardins and
MacDonald 2017, 236; Trevino and Nelson 2007, 241; Wicks et al. 2010,
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ethical perspectives december 2018
297). Each and every dismissal confronts them with an MSS. This was
probably what Solomon was hinting at by suggesting that each dismissal
is a moral problem. By explicitly recognizing the MSS as a special kind of
moral problem, a situation like this, can be better understood. A second
implication concerns the relation between the MHC and the MSS. Often-
times it is suggested that an MHC is concluded (i.e. ‘solved’) if and when
a decision has been taken. Textbooks are particularly noteworthy in that
respect. Based on our typology this view needs to be amended. The MHC
and the MSS maintain a relation. An MHC upon which a decision is
taken, transforms into a MSS. We hold that this relation is immanent. All
MHCs transform into MSSs (although not all MSSs originate in MHCs!).
In order to explain this, we need to go back to the MHC. By definition,
an MHC involves a conflict between principles that both claim priority
in a particular case. It is important to realize that the conflict is not about
priority in general but only about priority in relation to the case at hand,
in which only one principle can be expressed in outer action. After all, as
the agent experiences an MHC he or she necessarily thinks both principles
must be acknowledged (Herman 1993). Therefore, it also makes no sense
to think that one of the principles must be rejected as such. The agent’s
only problem is: which principle must take priority in the sense that it is
expressed in the outer action.
Looking at the MHC in this way, the immanent relation with the MSS
can be explained by saying that in an MHC the agent fails in expressing an
outer action with regard to a moral principle he or she acknowledges as
relevant to the case. The MSS is just the consequence of the moral demand
that justice must be done to the principle that could not be expressed in
the outer action. The agent must demonstrate that he or she still acknowl-
edges the importance of that principle. Thus, as soon as the decision is
taken that prioritizes principle A in the outer action, principle B becomes
relevant in the process of executing the prioritized principle A. In this pro-
cess the sadness of not being able to materialize the yielded principle B
must be expressed (symbolically) in the way principle A is expressed.
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For instance, soldiers must be allowed to kill in a (just) war, but the
principle ‘do not kill’ remains unimpaired and instructs the soldier’s killing
actions. It disciplines and frames the way in which he or she can express
the prioritized principle: only kill if strictly necessary, avoid killing
non-combatants, do not kill enemies who surrender, and so forth. By the
same token: even if in the capitalist system management cannot be denied
the right to dismiss employees, other principles, such as the principle that
one ought to take care of one’s employees remain relevant. They con-
strain and canalize the way that management can act on the principle that
dismissing personnel is not forbidden.
This exposition also further clarifies our rejection of the possibility
that irresolvable moral problems (i.e. dilemmas) can exist. An opponent
may argue that insisting on the necessity to act may disregard an impor-
tant moral concern. The necessity to act may lead to situations in which
the decision must be somehow forced. “Even the morally best action
under circumstances of a dilemma can leave a trace of a moral violation”
(Beauchamp and Childress 2001, 12). This is indeed a serious concern as
‘moral violence’ discredits the idea of (reasonable) morality. Our sugges-
tion that an MHC transforms into an MSS upon taking the decision,
resolves the concern. The reason why this transformation takes place, is
exactly because of the ‘violence’ done to the yielded principle. Its rightful
claim to acknowledgement must be recognized by means of the MSS.
Thirdly, the typology clearly distinguishes issues dealing with an MHC
from those concerning an MM. The typology forces people to ask them-
selves whether the problem they face presupposes having taken the moral
point of view (as the MHC requires) or pertains to the struggle of having
to take the moral point of view (as in the MM). Being forced to face this
distinction is vital for morality, especially in relation to insights of moral
psychology. Kant (1793) suggests that people do not only find it hard to
be moral, they find it hard to be immoral as well, in the sense that they
have great difficulty acknowledging that they are immoral. This acknowl-
edgement is avoided through a process of ‘rationalization’ ( Bandura,
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ethical perspectives december 2018
Caprara and Zsolnai 2000; Goodpaster 2007; Sticker 2017). Through
‘rationalization’ an individual finds an argument that serves as justification
for the immoral action, thus transforming the immoral act to something
right or at least excusable. An example of such a rationalization is ‘every-
body is doing it’. Kant (1785, 13-16) mocks the process by using the term
vernünfteln. This word expresses that an individual who is rationalizing is
not really using reason to the full extent and that – at some level – he or
she knows this. According to Kant, this is what makes human beings not
merely bad but malicious (Kant 1793).
Interpreting an MM problem as if it were an MHC is a common way
to rationalize behaviour. While the agent actually experiences trouble
accepting the sacrifices morality commands, he can present himself (to
himself as well as others) as someone who sincerely contemplates on
what is the morally right thing to do. The adulterous person, for example,
can hide his or her immorality behind the facade that a moral choice must
be made between truth telling and knowingly making the spouse unhappy.
The business person only concerned about profit making can present the
façade (to herself as well as to others) that a moral choice must be made
between nature conservation and care for employees. The clear-cut dis-
tinction between the MHC and the problem of MM places a hurdle on
the road to rationalization.
We think that the typology may also prove its value in teaching
applied ethics. Because of their specific nature, each problem has its own
way of dealing with it properly. Being aware of the kind of problem that
one is facing is therefore crucial. The MHC, for example, has a large
knowledge component. Ethical theories and their decision-making for-
mats may be important to solving them. But the MM stands in need of
ways to strengthen character. Story-telling and examples can be important
here, among other things. The MSS calls for enhancing moral sensitivity
and an intimate knowledge of cultural ways to overcome relational chal-
lenges. These differences in dealing with it only become visible on the
basis of a typology in which more types of problems figure.
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VII. conclusIon
From an agent-based approach, a moral problem is a situation in which
the identity of a moral agent is threatened. The agent must show his or
her moral colours. In applied ethics the MHC is considered the exemplary
moral problem. But there are at least two other kinds of moral problems
that need explicit recognition: the MSS and the problem of MM.
Awareness of these other types of problems is rising in applied ethics,
however, explicit recognition of them within the context of a normative
analytic framework is hard to find. Our typology aims to fill this gap. An
analysis of the structure of each problem also makes it possible to under-
stand the interrelations between them. For example, it allows us to under-
stand that the MHC is immanently related to an MSS. It also allows us to
define a clear line between a MHC and a problem of MM, which is instruc-
tive in the struggle against ‘rationalization’. The typology is also helpful from
a pedagogic point of view and clarifies discussions about the moral colours
of hard decisions in business, like dismissing a person. Nevertheless, our
contribution does not pretend to be more than a typology, concrete moral
cases can never be simply classified as belonging to one or another category
and always deserve their own analysis. We do not claim either that the three
types of moral problems exhaust the typology; on the contrary, we invite
other researchers to extend upon it. Many issues need resolve, for example,
how exactly must we position the DH problem in relation to this typology?
How does MM problem relate to the problem of ‘weakness of will’? We
hope that our typology may be instructive, not just in clarifying these rela-
tions but also in clarifying these difficult issues themselves.13
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1. Lumber industry advocates argued that a conflict like this occurred in the Northern
spotted owl case (
2. On the concept of a dilemma: Day 1991; Davis 2005; MacIntyre 1990. Also see: https://
3. In a – fairly – just society, moral problems are often also legal problems. This is also
the case in this situation. Killing one’s son is a moral problem but as it is illegal, also a legal issue.
In this contribution we consider the case as merely a moral one.
4. As morality is always about voluntary action, the verdict of immorality does not have any
direct consequences, in terms of punishment. But morality can give people a status that allows them,
or even makes it a requirement for them to punish someone by a non-moral means. Hence, indirectly
the moral verdict can lead to social punishment (e.g. being frowned upon) or even legal punishment.
5. Please note that the agent involved really takes a risk. There is a fair chance that others
evaluate the case differently and refuse to recognize the idea that there is a MHC involved. For
example, they may insist that new technologies do not in any way challenge the priority of the
duty ‘not to kill’. If so, they will consider the mother’s action simply as morally wrong and respond
accordingly. All the mother can hope for in such a situation is that the others recognize her true
motive and take that into account in their dealing with the situation.
6. For an overview see:
7. As a collective that identifies as a ‘we’ is also first person, the MHC can also be a prob-
lem from a first person plural perspective.
8. Should we not include the DH problem in our typology? We do not think so. Our
typology only has room for problems that presuppose the moral point of view (see section 3).
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Ethical Perspectives 25 (2018) 4
wim dubbink a typology of ethical problems
Itis doubtful whether the DH problem passes that criterion. Part of the idea of a DH problem
is that morality is rejected. That is exactly why the agent is doomed. As the DH problem suggests
that somehow the rejection of morality is done in order to serve morality, it is even doubted by
some that the concept makes sense, conceptually (Van Erp 2013).
9. Hill only speaks of regret in the aftermath of a decision on a dilemma but this feeling can
also come about during the process of, or in the aftermath of other types of cases.
10. What about a situation in which the pain caused to another agent actually has a thera-
peutic effect, morally speaking? For example, person A gives a big donation to a good cause which
painfully makes it clear to agent B that he or she is failing in that respect. Should we consider this
to be an MSS? Before evaluating this case, we like to point out that the main goal of this article
is to clarify a typology. How concrete cases fit into the types is not our main concern. Second,
whether a concrete case fits a category is dependent upon a historical praxis that may change over
time. Still, we hold that at least in some instances of a case like this, agent B can rightfully claim
that the pain caused to him or her is morally relevant bad. This may for example be the case when
the sheer magnitude of agent A’s contribution makes agent B feel belittled, as he or she will never
be able to donate something similar. In order to become an MSS, agent A must not intend to
belittle agent B.
11. Beauchamp and Childress (2001, 10) also give expression to the intuitive thought that
being tempted to make a morally wrong choice, must originate in (economic) self-interest. We
challenge them on this issue: not all interests can properly be reduced to economic self-interest, (at
least not without paying the price of turning the concept into a meaningless tautology). What is
more, it seems incorrect to think that wrong must originate in self-interest proper. Butler (1726;
see also Seneca 2010) argues that we must distinguish between the ‘rational self’ and the ‘brute
self’. A ‘rational self’ uses reason to determine his or her goals and means in life. Such a person
is self-interested. A ‘brute self’ defines goals and means without the use of reason. Typically, the
‘brute self’ acts self-destructively or harms himself or herself. Therefore, such a person is not
self-interested, properly speaking. Examples of not self-interested action in this specific sense is
action grounded in anger, jealousy, hatred, mere power hunger, mere ambition, and obsession
(even obsession with a morally good end). Following Butler, we thus oppose Beauchamp and
Childress (2010) in their suggestion that all wrong originates in self-interest. An agent acting
immoral out of anger does not misunderstand his or her self-interest; he or she does not act out of
self-interest at all. By contrast, a disciplined focus on self-regarding (economic) desires may lead
the agent to compliance with morality (Hirschman 1977). A cynical business person may still act
in conformity with morality out of fear for the working of the reputation mechanism or out of
fear for punishment by the law. For example, when an agent rejects a bribing scheme out of fear
of legal punishment, he or she has tamed a temptation to choose against morality because of a
non-moral reason.
12. While experiencing an MM problem must be considered morally unproblematic in itself
(as it is grounded in human nature), the frequency with which human beings experience them may
be morally problematic. Many moral traditions, including the Kantian, insist that human beings
have a duty to improve their moral character. An integral aspect of improving one’s moral char-
acter always is to reduce the tension between (the lure of) nature and (the requirements of)
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Ethical Perspectives 25 (2018) 4
ethical perspectives december 2018
morality. Hence a person with a good character will experience fewer problems of MM than a
person with a bad moral character.
13. For their thoughtful comments on draft versions of the paper, I would like to thank:
Alfred Archer (Tilburg University), Amanda Cawston (Tilburg University) and Ruud Welten
( Tilburg University). A special thanks goes out to Luc van Liedekerke (University of Antwerp).
... This is in line with empirical research on the responsibility perception of business students in the whether students are well-equipped to really combine the societal-moral view with that of the strict company interest. It is on this point that this research contributes to a theoretical ethical discussion on moral motivation in business (Dubbink, 2008). It is unclear how any ethos would deal with dilemma situations, in which something is legal, very profitable yet morally doubtful. ...
... This brings us to a rather philosophical question regarding business dilemmas on "the morally good versus the profits" and whether such dilemmas are actually moral dilemmas. Dubbink (2008) doubted this to be the case and stated that "there is no explicit acknowledgment that struggling with the determination to be moral actually is a moral problem in its own right." Dubbink (2008, p. 703) rather called this the "moral motivation problem," that is also a central problem for the different types of business student ethos that revealed in this research. ...
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Business schools are the “nurseries” of the corporate world. This article offers an empirical analysis of the business student ethos on the basis of research conducted at three Dutch universities. A theoretical framework in the tradition of virtue ethics and dubbed “moral ethology” is used to identify the values business schools convey to their students. The central research question is: What types of ethos do Dutch business students have? Forty‐three undergraduate students participated in Q‐methodological research, a mixed qualitative–quantitative small‐sample method. Five different types of ethos were generated: Do‐Good Managers, Market Managers, Searching Managers, Balancing Managers, and Radical Market Managers. Some general characteristics that apply to all the types of ethos were identified, such as the search for efficiency. It is argued that business schools should pay much more attention to the values that are endorsed in both life and business and should help students to address situations in which values are neglected.
... A second issue we need to discuss here is how we classify a moral problem. In academics, there has always been an intense debate regarding the existence [26] and nature of a moral problem [27]. As a result of this discourse, a variety of terms is used to address the situation in which a person is unsure which moral action to pursue, such as a moral dilemma, a tough case, or a moral conflict. ...
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Smart technology is increasingly integrated in our ethical decision making. This raises questions as to how we should morally program technology. Deciding on moral programming depends on the moral intensity of the ethical issue. A moral intensity dashboard for engineers can help allocate the most suitable moral authority for a particular moral programming. Technology is not capable of ‘doing’ ethics the way humans do. This leaves forms of consequentialism and deontology as the most reasonable programming alternatives, using deontic logic as a starting point. Furthermore, it is very likely that in the more complicated settings, technology should have elements of meta ethics in its moral programming to adequately deal with scenarios that lead to conflicts in moral programming. We propose to use the calculation methods that stem from a comparative approach or the Expected Moral Value approach. All this has considerable consequences in how we should see moral programming in technology-driven ethical decision-making processes. We will therefore propose a roadmap for the moral programming of smart technology.
Applied or practical ethics is perhaps the largest growth area in philosophy today, and many issues in moral, social, and political life have come under philosophical scrutiny in recent years. Taken together, the essays in this volume - including two overview essays on theories of ethics and the nature of applied ethics - provide a state-of-the-art account of the most pressing moral questions facing us today. • Provides a comprehensive guide to many of the most significant problems of practical ethics • Offers state-of-the-art accounts of issues in medical, environmental, legal, social, and business ethics • Written by major philosophers presently engaged with these complex and profound ethical issues.
What are Genuine Moral Dilemmas?Applications
In the last few decades, the ethics of care as a feminist ethic has given rise to extensive literature, and has affected moral inquiries in many areas. It offers a distinctive challenge to the dominant moral theories: Kantian moral theory, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. This chapter outlines the distinctive features and promising possibilities of the ethics of care, and the criticisms that have been made against it. It then examines the ethics of care's recognition of human dependency and of the importance of responding to needs; its interpretation of the roles of emotion and reason in moral understanding; and its critique of liberal individualism and development of a conception of the person as relational. The ethics of care contrasts care with justice, tries to integrate them, and reconceptualizes public and private life and morality.
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The example of a political leader who has to decide whether he would allow the torture of a suspect in order to get information about a ticking bomb has become notorious in ethical discussions concerning the tension between moral principles and political necessity. The relation between these notions must be made as clear as possible before a sincere moral evaluation of ticking bomb situations can be given. The first section of this article considers whether the concept of political obligation is different from moral and legal obligations or whether it is a special kind of moral obligation. In the second section, the idea that the dirty hands problem confronts us with the ambiguities of moral life is rejected because it would imply an untenable moral paradox. The thesis that is developed is, namely, if there is such a thing as political necessity, it must be some form of moral obligation. The third section analyses the concept of political necessity and concludes that it cannot overrule basic moral principles and that the international legal prohibition of torture must be considered to be a categorical imperative. In the last section, these ideas concerning political and moral necessity are brought in against the defence of torture, which should be tolerated in the ‘War on Terror’. There it will be argued that the use of the ticking bomb argument not only supports a highly hypocrite political practice but is also deceptive as a moral and political argument.