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Name-Danica A.

E Lyngdoh
M.A in Philosophy (1st year)
MORAL and SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY
MID-TERM PAPER
Topic:-SELF SACRIFICE IN MORAL DILEMMAS

Moral dilemmas involve conflicts between moral requirements. It is a moral dilemma because
when we do one thing; the other option is left undone which makes us morally blameworthy
so we are morally in a tight spot. In this paper, I shall discuss moral dilemma- where we have
to decide to sacrifice our self and put the others first or vice versa. These are two values which
are incommensurable because it refers to situations which are at two extremes and it is like
two horns. In the first section I will discuss moral dilemma generally by stating the two most
popular examples. In the second section I will deliberate on moral dilemma when the self and
others are involved. Why altruistic sacrifice is found to be unattractive and before ending the
paper I will take up subject of being praiseworthy and blameworthy. The conclusion for the
paper, I shall leave it undisclosed until the last part of the paper.
Section 1
The two most popular examples which cite the situation of moral dilemma are first, Socrates
example: If someone has borrowed a weapon from a friend. It is his duty to return the weapon
but what if the friend is not in his right state of mind?1 Here, we are in conflict between two
moral norms- 1. Repaying ones debt and 2.Protecting others from harm. Second example is
given by Jean-Paul Satre. He tells of a student whose brother had been killed in the German
offensive of 1940. The student wanted to avenge his brother and to fight forces that he
regarded as evil. But the student's mother was living with him, and he was her one consolation
in life2. He is torn between two kinds of morality, i.e., devotion to his mother and to defeat an
unjust aggressor.
One thing common in the above two conflicts is that the agent is in a state where he wants to
do both but can only perform one of the possible choice of actions. Since both these choice
1 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2 Ibid.,p.2.

have moral reasons therefore Ethicists have called such situations Moral Dilemma. Moral
dilemmas can be difficult because we have to choose between two good and on top of that we
can only choose to act in one of the option. Moral dilemmas are also called Ethical Dilemma;
these are situations where any choice of action doesnt lead to morally acceptable
consequences. Moral dilemma can also constitute situations when we do not know that should
we think about ourselves (i.e. the self) or the others.
Section 2
The question: Is the self relevant for moral domain? This question also leads to a moral
dilemma because there are actions that maybe permissible for the self but not so when others
are considered. It is important to understand this Self in the moral domain for morality is
related with human actions. Morality is popularly identified with the others, where the self is
second to others but is this true? This is a moral dilemma for there is a conflict between
morality and self interest.
Morality is all about self sacrifice and to do something selflessly. Self sacrifice is seen as a
heroic act so as a consequence it is traditionally taught to children either in the form of
fairytales or religious stories. Self sacrifice is a strong indicator of a moral position. A moral
action is said to be moral only when the others are involved or else in situations where we are
acting only on personal level, one cannot say its moral or immoral. It is our social
commitments that make the idea of morality crop up. Thus to say that morality is with self
interest, would appear to be absurd. If memory permits, we would be able recall that when we
were young we were educated how to behave with others, for example: we should share our
Tiffin in school, say sorry when mistaken or hurt someone etc. here we see that most of our
actions affect the others.
Do we always feel the pressure of acting for others or do we mostly think of ourselves
primarily? Altruistic sacrifice has become an important topic in moral theorising, though it is
rare but it shows that some people do believe in such sacrifices. For instance- some soldiers
jump onto a grenade even though their military training doesnt teach them this instead coach
them how do escape a blast with no harm. Does uncommonness of altruistic acts or sacrifices
put pressure or make others obligated to act in the same way? Also Hobbes sees humans as

self interested or egoistic and so due to such thoughts, often people see altruistic sacrifices as
morally unattractive3.
The trolley example- where a person would jump in front of a moving trolley in order to save
5 strangers is said to require a motivation of different order. The moral dilemma concerning
the self and others is a tough choice, for there are instances where we can either act for
oneself or for others and so we cannot perform in such a way that it benefits both (others and
the self). Such is an instance of the moving trolley.
A person finds himself or herself in such pressure because a person becomes accountable for
the choice of action, he/she chooses. A person either becomes blameworthy or praiseworthy,
often it is seen that when a person acts with self interest then he/she is seen to be blameworthy
but when a person acts without self interest then that person is seen to be praiseworthy. But in
case a person fails to do what his own good requires we do not call him morally bad, but only
imprudent, unwise, rash4. This is because one is held morally accountable for what one
doesnt do for others and not for himself/herself.
However, morality is defined, it is important that morality includes the self too since the self
is as important as any other person or other. Every human is intrinsically valuable, if, for
instance, a person suffering from diabetes doesnt have medicine regularly and dies then isnt
the person morally liable? Hence cases of suicides and hurting oneself is said to be morally
bad.
Continuing in the same course, I would like to mention Thomsons5 intensified version of the
trolley example. He supplements the example by saying that consider a case in which a
bystander sees a runaway trolley coming down the tracks, she knows that there are five people
on the main track, there is one person on a side track to the right, and she is on a side track to
the left. In such a situation she has three options that she can choose from- 1. She can let five
people die by doing nothing. 2. She can turn over a switch, this way one anonymous person

3 Huebner, Bryce. Moral Judgements about Altruistic self-sacrifice: when Philosophical and
Folk Intuitions Clash,p.2.
4 W.D,Falk.Morality,Self and others,p.227.
5 Thomson, Judith Jarvis.

dies but saving five people. 3. Lastly, she can turn over the switch to the left, this way she dies
but saving the lives of all of them.
In such a case it would be startling to see her sacrifice herself for people she doesnt know, if
not so, then to kill one person in the right track without the persons consent would be morally
wrong because she didnt want to sacrifice herself. So the best she can do is let the five people
die because she doesnt have any obligation to them to the extent that she kills herself or kill
another person for them. Situations like these put us in a moral dilemma; decisions differ from
person to person.
A person who opts to sacrifice oneself to save the others lives would justify by saying that
she (referring to the trolley example) would rather die being remembered for good than by
doing nothing and being just a passive spectator. While some would say the self is as
important as others, we are in constant battle to survive. We study hard so that we get a
reasonable initial occupation this way we can buy our essential requirements; no doubt we act
for ourselves first and put our family second. So if we start acting for others and put our self
in constant pressure to act for others and less for our self then we will feel obligated to every
person we meet. Such a life seems to lead to a distressing life thus it is reasonable to say that a
person should live a life of prudence, i.e., we should play safe.
Concluding Section
It is often seen that people are not congratulated for being prudent instead they are praised for
having social values6. Everyone feels that a commitment that has only personal grounds is
morally inferior; especially when we compare this with the statement one ought to risk
his/her life for others. The explanation for this is that morality without self interest or without
personal reason seems more binding and more promising for a better society. A person
commits oneself formally and so a person is held accountable if he/she fails to commit. Even
though, it seem like I have reached to a conclusion, we cannot deny that moral dilemma
relating the self and others will always persist. Our action is a matter of how we think and
maybe what a person has gone through.

6 W.D,Falk.Morality,Self and others,p.232.

Bibliography;
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moraldilemmas/#Con . Accessed on 2/11/2015.
2. Huebner, Bryce. Moral Judgements about Altruistic self-sacrifice: when
Philosophical and Folk Intuition Clash,
http://faculty.georgetown.edu/lbh24/MJAASS.pdf. Accessed on
3/11/2015.
3. W.D,Falk. Morality,Self and others. Edited by Paul Bloomfield in Morality and
Self.Oxford University Press, 2008.