Tragic Dilemmas and Virtue
The existence of moral and tragic dilemmas is highly debated within philosophy. Tragic dilemmas are a special kind of moral dilemma that involve great tragedy. Traditionally, philosophy tends to deny dilemmas because obligations cannot truly conflict and an ethical system must always guide agents in deliberation. For the most part, Christian theology dismisses the possibility of moral dilemmas. A highly influential theological rejection comes from Aquinas. Philosopher Bernard Williams famously challenged traditional ideas, worrying that a focus on reason to the exclusion of feelings has prevented ethicists from recognizing important aspects of the moral life, including the existence of moral and tragic dilemmas. This omission renders ethics unable to capture moral experience, and what good is ethics if it doesn’t speak to the moral life as we experience it? This presents a challenge for theology as well. This dissertation takes seriously Williams’s concerns and investigates the possibility of tragic dilemmas within a Christian context. I develop a defense of tragic dilemmas within a Christian virtue framework using feminist insights. I argue that in a tragic dilemma an agent deliberates on, with sufficient knowledge, an issue that involves non-negotiable moral requirements in line with Christian obligations to protect human life and the vulnerable. A tragic dilemma causes great harm and can “mar” the agent’s life. The agent is morally responsible for the harm caused and/or the obligation not acted upon. However, culpability is mitigated due to the constraints of the situation as long as the agent acts with “repugnance of the will.” When involvement in a tragic dilemma produces emotional harm this has the power to undermine character because, as I argue, passions and the moral life are inextricably related. In turn, the agent’s life is “marred.” In light of this, Christian healing is necessary after involvement in a tragic dilemma. In the first half of this dissertation, I investigate moral dilemmas in general. In Chapter 1, I layout the major philosophical debates surrounding moral dilemmas and I highlight touchstones, questions, ambiguities, and problems to bring to theology—issues around logic, autonomy, the nature of moral requirements, blame, restitution, and what constitutes a tragic dilemma. In Chapter 2, I assess the theological response to moral dilemmas vis-à-vis Aquinas. Although Aquinas explicitly denies the possibility for moral dilemmas that are not the agent’s fault, I find new points of contact between Aquinas and moral dilemma theorists. In light of this, there is space for the possibility of moral dilemmas in a Christian virtue context, but this understanding is beyond the boundaries set-up by Aquinas. In the second half of the dissertation, I move to discuss tragic dilemmas, specifically. In Chapter 3, I use Christian thought and feminist insights to develop my definition of tragic dilemmas. As real-life cases of moral injury from war show, tragic dilemmas can cause emotional harm. In Chapter 4, I offer Christian strategies for healing from tragic dilemmas. Because we are social beings and because society often bears some blame for the occurrence of tragic dilemmas, healing must also happen in, with, and among the community member.