Bioethics Blogs

Guest Post: Are dilemmas really useful for analysing moral judgment?

Pedro Jesús Pérez Zafrilla.

Lecturer in Moral Philosophy.

Department of Moral Philosophy.

(University of Valencia)

The development of neurosciences has had a major impact on the field of philosophy. In this respect, Spanish philosophy is no exception. In particular, the Valencia School led by Adela Cortina has played a leading part in the momentum of neuroethics in Spain. Our research has included the tackling of various areas such as human enhancement, free will or moral psychology. My intention in this post is to briefly present a critique referring to cognitive psychology. Specifically, I want to argue that moral dilemmas are not an appropriate method of analysing moral judgment. In my opinion dilemmas are misrepresentations of the way in which people form their moral judgments.

Dilemmas are tragic situations with only two possible and incompatible responses. The subject has to choose one and reject the other. There is no possibility of seeking alternative responses. In fact, the word “dilemma” comes from the Greek lémma, which means “anything received or taken” and the prefix dis, meaning “two”. Thus, “dilemma” means “to choose between two”.

Dilemmas such as those used in the field of cognitive psychology are arbitrary representations composed by scientists with a few variables. The objective is to create a tragic situation with only two possible solutions. Sometimes psychologists modify variables within a dilemma (such as the trolley problem) in order to provoke different responses in the individuals facing these new but equally tragic versions.

Nevertheless, a more careful examination of the way in which subjects make moral judgments shows that the dilemmatic method of cognitive psychology does not appropriately tackle moral evaluation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.