I've had moral dilemmas on my mind lately, and I'm troubled by a common argument given against the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. I'm hoping people can help diagnose what's troubling me. And I apologize in advance for the disorganized thinking.
Here's the argument: Suppose an individual S is obligated both to perform act A and obligated to perform act B. S is therefore obligated to perform (A&B). Assuming that for S to be obligated to ø entails that S ought to ø, then S ought to A, ought to B, and ought (A&B). Applying 'ought' implies 'can,' then S ought (A&B) entails S can (A&B). But the circumstances of the world are such that S is metaphysically precluded from performing (A&B), so she cannot (A&B). Hence, it is both true that S ought (A&B) and false that S ought (A&B).
Skeptics about the existence of genuine moral dilemmas take this argument to be a reductio of the possibility of such dilemmas: It must, appearances to the contrary, be the case that S is not obligated to A OR S is not obligated to B. And the intuitive insight is simple enough: If I ought to do only what I can do, and I can only perform one of two acts, it can't be true that I ought to perform both. Thus, I can't be obligated to perform both.
But this argument has always struck me as fishy somehow. First, one might have doubts about 'ought' implies 'can' (OIC). Both Charles Pidgen and Geoffrey Sayre-McCord have papers that have convinced me that OIC is probably not a theory-neutral principle of deontic logic but a substantive normative commitment. As Sayre-McCord notes, it seems suspect that a principle of deontic logic can rule out certain conceptions of morality (e.g., Calvinism) on the basis that they reject OIC.
My concerns lie elsewhere though. Contrast the role OIC plays in this dilemmas argument versus its role in arguments about moral blameworthiness . Here's a familiar sort of argument: Suppose I fail to perform some act A, like rushing out into the street to save a toddler who's wandering into the path of an oncoming bus. But as it turns out, I was much too far away to reach the toddler before the bus arrives. There is a sense then in which it was not true that I could have saved the toddler. Perhaps if circumstances had been very different, I could have. But in the actual circumstances, I could not have saved the toddler. To say that I ought to have saved the toddler seems misplaced then. Furthermore, this in turn shapes what reactive attitudes I and others rationally ought to have toward my action. For instance, I ought not to subject myself to self-reproach, and others should not hold me blameworthy.
But suppose the situation instead presents an apparent moral dilemma (You don't need to accept that this really is an intractable dilemma for me to illustrate my claim.): I am near enough to the wandering toddler to be able to save her, but to do so, I would have to leave my elderly grandmother, whom I'm escorting to her doctor's appointment and who suffers from dementia and confusion, at the street corner. If I choose to save the toddler and my grandmother ends up lost somewhere in the city, it would seem reasonable to hold me blameworthy for that outcome. Alternatively, if I remain with my grandmother and I opt not to save the toddler, it would seem reasonable to hold me blameworthy for that outcome.
What does this show? It reminds us that the 'can' in typical discussions of responsibility or blameworthiness is categorical: I ought to be held blameworthy for not having done A only if could have done A (or I ought not be held blameworthy for A unless I could have refrained from A). In contrast, the 'can' of 'OIC' in the dilemmas argument is conditional: I can't do A if I do B (or I can't do B if I do A). This is why we are more inclined to react to the dilemma situation with our characteristic reactive attitudes of praise, etc. than we are to react moral blameworthiness argument in the same way. That is, let us suppose that A violates a moral obligation. If I do A because I cannot, my act does not seem open to rational appraisal in the same way if I do A because I opted for A in order not to violate some obligation I would violate by doing alternative B. In the dilemmas case, I have endorsed A in a more robust sense than in the moral responsibility case. In opting for A over B, I have, in effect, invited the criticism that will come for failing to do B.
But this causes me to wonder if there aren't two OIC principles in play here. Moreover, I wonder if there isn't something question begging about the original argument that uses OIC to deny the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. Help?!