Accounting for Moral Conflicts

Research paper by Thomas Schmidt

Indexed on: 01 Dec '15Published on: 01 Dec '15Published in: Ethical theory and moral practice : an international forum


In his recent book The Dimensions of Consequentialism (2013), Martin Peterson defends, amongst other things, the claim that moral rightness and wrongness come in degrees and that, therefore, the standard view that an act’s being morally right or wrong is a one-off matter ought to be rejected. An ethical theory not built around a gradualist conception of moral rightness and wrongness is, according to Peterson, unable to account adequately for the phenomenon of moral conflicts. I argue in this paper that Peterson’s defence of this claim is not convincing. Over and above this negative result, a careful assessment of Peterson’s case for degrees of rightness reveals that the theoretical corridor for accounting for moral conflicts without a gradualist conception of rightness and wrongness is relatively narrow. As I show, the only way of avoiding the conclusion of Peterson’s argument is to reject his conception of the ‘final analysis’ that an ethical theory provides, i.e. of what the theory ultimately has to say about individual acts and their normative properties. According to Peterson, such a final analysis should be seen as comprising the all-things-considered judgements yielded by the theory, and nothing else. As it turns out, the only alternative to this account that is compatible with the standard view about moral rightness and wrongness is to conceive of the final analysis as also containing judgements about morally relevant factors, or aspects, and the way in which they are normatively relevant.