The right act is the act that a person with good desires would have performed.
Good desires, in turn, are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. For an account of how desires can be evaluated, and the sense in which agents can have motivating reasons to promote and inhibit desires, please see A Harmony of Desires
I am writing a series of posts to show how these propositions explain a number of the elements that we find in this institution we know as 'morality'. In this post, I focus on moral dilemmas.
Moral dilemmas are situations where, no matter what option the agent chooses, it is a "wrong action". He must do something that he ought not to do.
A classic example of a moral dilemma involves Sophie's Choice. As the story goes, a Nazi soldier gave Sophie a choice. She could choose which of her children he was going to kill. If she did not choose one, he would kill both of them.
A modified version of this says that Sophie herself must kill one of her two children, or the Nazi guard will kill both of them.
We may have an evolved disposition to care for our children. However, a cursory glance at the news each day tells us that this desire is not naturally so widespread and so strong as we have reason to want it to be. In order to strengthen this set of desires above and beyond what nature provides, we add a layer of moral duty to it. We use praise and condemnation to augment what nature has provided us.
This moral component is what makes Sophie’s Choice a moral dilemma, as opposed to ‘merely’ a painful choice having no moral component.
Act-utilitarian theories have trouble with moral dilemmas. On an act utilitarian theory, Sophie should just kill the child that she thinks will provide the least benefit to society and be done with it. It would be better if Sophie could joyfully kill one of the children because, then, overall utility would be highest. The more Sophie enjoys killing the one child, the more overall utility there will be, and the better the action.
The desire utilitarian account of moral dilemmas rests on the fact that the desires we have reason to promote has a lot to do with the types of situations people encounter every day. The degree to which a desire tends to fulfill other desires is dependent in part on how often that desire has a role to play in real-world decision making.
A moral dilemma exists when desires that we have reason to strongly encourage people to have in virtue of day-to-day living comes into conflict with another desire that we have reason to strongly encourage people to have in some rare circumstance, such as Sophie’s Choice.
It is relevant, when considering a desire’s tendency to fulfill other desires, to note how often it will come into effect. A desire for the welfare of one’s children is a desire that be expected to effect a large number of every day actions. And it is a desire that we have reason to make, through social forces, significantly stronger than nature seems to allow by default,
Furthermore, desires are persistent entities, We have no capacity to turn a desire on and off like a light. If it is active at one time, it will remain active, even as the situation changes and the desire ceases to motivate action that tends to fulfill the desires of others.
On the other hand, the state of being in a position where one has to decide which child to kill (or which child to tell somebody else to kill) is a state that should never occur – or occur quite rarely. It is not an every-day circumstances that we must guard against in deciding which desires to promote and which desires to inhibit.
So, desires that we have many and strong reasons to promote due to every-day concerns become desires that lead to moral dilemmas in extraordinary and unusual circumstances.