In an effort to avoid skepticism, Fred Dretske advocates the rejection of closure; the epistemic principle that asserts that knowledge is closed under known entailment.  Thus, if S knows P and S knows that P entails Q, and S comes to believe Q on the basis of this entailment, then S knows Q.  Dretske asserts that we have only two choices in regards to knowledge: one is that we retain closure and accept skepticism concerning ordinary knowledge that we take for granted (I have hands, etc.), the other is that we deny closure and keep ordinary knowledge (Dretske, 23).  According to Dretske, the denial of closure is the most reasonable choice.  John Hawthorne disagrees with Dretske and argues in favor of closure because he believes the denial of closure leads to more serious implications than any of the other options available.

            Why does Dretske think that closure demands skepticism?  Consider the following example: 

  1. Sarah knows that there is a farmer standing in the distant field (P) because she sees one. 
  2. Sarah also knows that that the fact that there is a farmer in the field entails that it is not the case that there is not a farmer in the field but an incredibly lifelike, animatronic scarecrow instead (Q). 
  3. Thus, according to closure, Sarah can know Q on the basis of her knowledge that P entails Q.

Yet can Sarah actually know that what she sees is not a scarecrow?  Has she taken the time to walk to the field and observe what she takes to be a farmer to make sure that she has not been deceived?  And if Sarah does not know if she is looking at a scarecrow, then she cannot know that there is a farmer in the field: P à Q, ~ Q, therefore ~ P.  Indeed, it seems that possession of ordinary knowledge seems to presuppose the knowledge one is not being deceived, which Dretske refers to as protoknowledge (14).  However it seems highly unintuitive for Sarah to claim knowledge of Q without any evidence.  Thus skepticism prevails.

            One may ask why Sarah does not have evidence of Q if she has evidence of P.  Consider the evidence that constitutes knowledge of P: Sarah sees the farmer standing in the field (maybe he is waving his arm, or is bent over engaging in a hoeing motion), and due to her past experience with such perceptions, she formulates the belief that she is indeed seeing a farmer in the field.  Yet Sarah’s evidence for P is not transmissible to Q.  She cannot know that she is being deceived by a robotic scarecrow by simply looking at the distant field; such knowledge would require different evidence.  This problem is further magnified with the introduction of Dretske’ “heavyweight implications” (Cartesian demons, brains in vats, etc.) that are impossible to determine through appeal to perception.  Thus, Dretske argues that the principle of closure decimates any hope for ordinary knowledge, for as long as I cannot know that I am not a brain in a vat being systematically deceived through the machinations of a mad scientist, I cannot even know that I am sitting at a computer writing this paper.

            Dretske considers the aforesaid “heavyweight implications” to be damning to ordinary knowledge if closure holds and leaves us with a choice between (1) skepticism with closure or (2) ordinary knowledge without it.  Dretske chooses the latter.  Thus Sarah can know that she sees a farmer in the field and know that this entails that she is not seeing a scarecrow, yet still not know that she is not seeing a scarecrow.

            Hawthorne argues against Dretske, not so much by offering a solution to the problem of closure, but by pointing out that the denial of closure leads to greater problems than it proposes to solve.  One such problem is that the denial of the intuitive principle of closure leads to the denial of the even more intuitive principle of distribution as well (Hawthorne, 31-32).  Whereas closure is bases upon logical entailment, distribution is based upon logical equivalence.  Thus the proposition “there is a farmer in the field” is equivalent to the conjunction “there is a farmer in the field and it is not the case that there is not a farmer in the field but an animatronic scarecrow instead”.  Thus, according to distribution, Sarah is in a position to know “that it is not the case that there is not a farmer in the field but an animatronic scarecrow instead”.  However, it is incredibly difficult to see how one can know the conjunction of P and Q but not know Q.  Indeed, Hawthorne demonstrates that the rejection of closure is not nearly as appealing as Dretske claims.

            Yet, as previously mentioned, Hawthorne does not resolve the problems inherent in retaining closure.  He even goes so far as to present his own closure implied quandary in his “Misprint” example (39).  To restate the puzzle:  I know from reading the newspaper that the Panthers defeated the Packers last Sunday.  This, in turn, entails that it is not the case that the story was a misprint and it was the Packers who actually defeated the Panthers instead.  However, it seems incredibly odd to say that I know that there was not a misprint because I know that Panthers won because I read the paper.  This is like telling a skeptical friend “If you don’t believe me just ask me!”

            Hawthorne gives Contextualism as a possible resolution to the problem of closure but readily admits the problems inherent in this view (one of which is that philosophers should rank among the most ignorant people in the world due to their understanding of skepticism!).  Hawthorne – as well as Dretske’s response – leaves us with the following type of concept:  “All the options are bad, but we have to pick the one that seems the most intuitively plausible.”  Dretske thinks the denial of closure is the most plausible while Hawthorne argues that doing so leads to more implausibility than not.

            I agree that both horns of Dretske’s dilemma (23) are unpalatable, and I think that neither philosopher presents a compelling solution to the problem of closure; however I am more willing to accept skepticism than to deny the principle of closure; especially since denying closure appears tantamount to denying logical equivalence as well.  Indeed, it is my regard for logic that compels me to side with Hawthorne.  It seems as though the denial of closure comes very close to a denial of logic and I cannot comprehend how it is possible that I can know P à ~ P yet not know ~ P.  Like Dretske and Hawthorne I have no compelling solution to the problems that closure presents (although I sincerely hope to discover one or discover someone who has), but I certainly think that the grass is greener on Hawthorne’s side of the fence.

            By “moral dilemma” I mean a situation in which an agent ought to do A, ought to do B and cannot do both A and B.  Experience seems to validate the existence of such dilemmas, and a plethora of illustrations have been offered as far back as Plato’s question of whether or not to return a promised cache of arms to a man intent on violence[1], to the heart-wrenching decision face by Sophie in Sophie’s Choice[2].  Such apparent dilemmas carry strong intuitive and emotional weight, and it does appear that, in certain circumstances, one is irrevocably caught in the horns of a dilemma which will lead to a failure of duty.  However, I shall argue here that those who support the view that an adequate moral theory must allow for moral dilemmas do so at the cost of rejecting other important principles of adequacy for moral theories.

  There are a number of principles by which a moral theory may be evaluated.  Some of these principles may be regarded as necessary conditions for a moral theory, while others are meta-prescriptive in nature: detailing what a moral theory ought to require of agents[3].  Still others may be regarded as “good-making features” for a moral theory.  In this paper I shall employ the following five principles:

  • P1: A moral theory must be consistent.
  • P2: A moral theory must be action guiding (decision-making procedure).
  • P3: Requirements of a moral theory must be within the power of the agent to perform (“ought” implies “can”).
  • P4: A moral theory must imply that it is morally desirable that agents should seek to avoid moral conflicts.
  • P5: A moral theory must make sense of moral emotions.

      I have listed the principles in order of their respective importance.  (P1) and (P2) may be regarded as necessary conditions of any moral theory.  Indeed, it seems impossible to even conceive of a moral theory which is inconsistent or fails to be action guiding.  While there are a few who deny the truth of (P3), I shall argue below that (P3) can be understood as an extension of (P2).  (P4) is meta-prescriptive in nature, while (P5) may be regarded as a good-making feature of moral theories.


(P1). Consistency

The most common charge leveled against those who support moral dilemmas is that of inconsistency.  It is argued that the existence of genuine moral dilemmas leads to an incoherence that, in the words of W. D. Ross, “would be to put an end to all ethical judgment.”[4]  This inconsistency, however, is not as apparent as it initially seems.  Indeed, in order to demonstrate the inconsistency of moral dilemmas, one must first adopt certain principles of deontic logic.

In her essay, “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”, Ruth Barcan Marcus demonstrates that the existence of moral dilemmas, in themselves, does not lead to a logical contradiction.  Marcus points out that consistency is “a property that such a set has if it is possible for all of the members of the set to be true, in the sense that contradiction would not be a logical consequence of supposing that each member of the set is true.”[5]  Thus moral dilemmas do not necessarily imply inconsistency because it is possible for moral dilemmas to arise contingently yet each principle of the underlying moral theory to be true.

Marcus uses a “silly two-person card game”[6] to illustrate this point.  In this game, black cards trump red cards and high cards trump cards of lower value.  A potential dilemma is cited as occurring when a red ace is turned up against a black deuce.  Initially, this does seem to lead one to conclude that the rules of the game are inconsistent.  However, Marcus points out that such a conclusion is mistaken since it is possible for all the rules to be obeyed in some worlds and for a conflict to never arise.  The rules are contingently inconsistent but not necessarily so. According to Marcus, opponents of moral dilemmas are making the same mistake as the opponents of the card game: they do not recognize that it is possible for moral dilemmas to arise within a moral theory whose underlying principles are all true.

Thus, while opponents of moral dilemmas seek to deny the very possibility of dilemmas, the charge of inconsistency cannot be used insofar as it applies to the truth of ethical principles in themselves.  In order to make the charge of inconsistency stick, one must tie the ethical principles to logical principles so that a moral dilemma can be stated as a logical contradiction (an agent is required to do A and ~ A). 

There are two axioms of deontic logic which are commonly appealed to by opponents of moral dilemmas.  These two principles, when employed together, yield a logical contradiction in moral dilemmas:

  • D1. OA → ~O ~A
    • – If it ought to be that A then it ought to be that not A (it is permissible that A).
  • D2. * (A → B) → (OA & OB)
    • – If it ought to be that A implies B, and if A is obligatory, then B is obligatory.

            Using these two principles, the argument demonstrating the inconsistency of moral dilemmas can be stated thus:

(1) OA
(2) OB
(3) ~¯(A & B)
  (Premises 1, 2, and 3 constitute the standard definition of a moral dilemma.)
(4) OA → ~O ~A                                       (principle D1)
(5) * (AB) → (OAOB)                   (principle D2)
(6) O ~(B & A)                                           (from 3)
(7) O (B → ~A)                                          (from 6)
(8) O (B → ~A) → (OBO ~A)             (from 5)
(9) OBO ~A                                          (from 7 and 8)
(10) O ~A                                                     (from 2 and 9)
(11) OA and O ~A                                        (from 1 and 10)
(12) ~O ~A                                                   (from 1 and 4)

            Thus, using the two axioms of deontic logic above leads to a logical contradiction of (10) and (12).

            Any attempt to reject the above argument requires one to deny either (D1) or (D2), or both (D1) and (D2).  While (D1) is so basic that there is little controversy regarding its validity, there have been a few concerns with (D2) (such as Ross’s paradox and forms of the Good Samaritan paradox).  Nonetheless, (D2) still seems to be quite basic and the burden of disqualifying these principles rests firmly upon the shoulders of the supporters of moral dilemmas.


(P2). Action Guiding

Another condition of adequacy for any moral theory is that it provides an agent with moral guidance (even if indirectly).  Indeed, one can hardly conceive of a moral theory that does not provide instruction for what one ought to do.  However, many consider (P2) to be too weak, thus leading to the following revision:

P2I: A moral theory must be uniquely action guiding.

            That is, a theory should not fail to offer guidance in a moral situation nor should it recommend incompatible actions to an agent.  Since one of the primary purposes of a moral theory is to give direction to agents, it seems only fitting that a moral theory be uniquely action guiding.  Theories that allow for dilemmas, however, do suggest incompatible actions to agents and thus are not uniquely action guiding. 

            Supporters of moral dilemmas will often point to symmetric cases in which the agent is required to choose between two perfectly equal options.  Take, for example, a mother who has twin daughters suffering from leukemia.  The mother can undergo a bone marrow transplant for only one of the girls, thus the daughter who receives the transplant will live and the other daughter will die.  Supporters of dilemmas argue that in such cases there can be no unique guidance for actions since the choices are equal.

            Given the above example, however, opponents of dilemmas can point out that moral theories can still be uniquely action guiding since symmetrical situations like the one cited above present a disjunctive obligation.  Since the best act that the mother can do in such a situation is to save one of her daughters, then that is her duty.  Indeed, such a concept seems quite natural in other situations.  If a dying wealthy uncle can only choose one of his noble nephews to bequeath his wealth, it hardly seems a moral failure if he does so.  Thus the option of a disjunctive obligation to maintain a uniquely action guiding moral theory is available to those who reject moral dilemmas, while supporters of dilemmas are forced to accept theories that fail to be uniquely action guiding.


(P3). ‘Ought’ Implies ‘Can’

The principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ is one of the most intuitive of moral theories.  Many consider it to be a condition of adequacy for moral theories. Essentially, the theory asserts that the requirements of a moral theory must be within the power of the agent to perform; that is, if an agent ought to do an act he should be capable of doing so.  However, those who support the view that an adequate moral theory must allow for moral dilemmas can find the principle to be quite problematic, since opponents of dilemmas have used the principle to argue for the inconsistency of such theories.

            Opponents of dilemmas employ the principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ as well as the agglomeration principle to construct an argument which demonstrates the inconsistency of moral dilemmas.  These two principles are represented thus:

  • D3. A OA → ¯A
    • – For every A, if it ought to be that A, then it is possible that A.
  • D4. (OA & OB) → O (A & B)
    • – If it ought to be that A and it ought to be that B, then it ought to be that A and B.

            With these two principles, the argument can be represented thus:

(1) OA
(2) OB
(3) ~¯(A & B)
  (As above, premises 1, 2, and 3 constitute the standard definition of a moral dilemma.)
(4) A OA → ¯A                                      (principle D3)
(5) (OA & OB) → O (A & B)                     (principle D4)
(6) (OA & OB) → ¯(A & B)                     (an instantiation of 4)
(7) OA & OB                                              (from 1 and 2)
(8) O (A & B)                                             (from 5 and 7)
(9) ~O (A & B)                                           (from 3 and 6)

            And so, by employing (D3) and (D4), opponents of dilemmas can demonstrate a contradiction in (8) and (9).

            Supporters of dilemmas have three options available to them in order to avoid the conclusion of the above argument: they can reject (D3), they can reject (D4), or they can reject both (D3) and (D4).  An example of the third option can be found in the fourth chapter of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Moral Dilemmas[7], and since (D4) is widely regarded to be a basic axiom of deontic logic, I will examine Sinnott-Armstrong’s rejection of (D3).

            In rejection of (D3), Sinnott-Armstrong offers what he considers to be an example which demonstrates that there are some cases when a moral agent ought to perform an act but cannot.[8]  In this example Sinnott-Armstrong asks the reader to suppose that Adams promises at noon to meet Brown at 6:00 p. m.  However, Adams chooses to go to a film which starts at 5:00 p. m.  Due to the distance which separates the move theater from the meeting place, Adams will be unable to meet Brown when he promised.  Thus, if the principle (D2) holds, at 5:00 it cannot be true that Adams ought to meet Brown at 6:00, since Adams cannot do so.

            Something does, indeed, seem strange about this account.  Sinnott-Armstrong points to the fact that most people would agree that Adams still ought to meet Brown since he made the promise to do so earlier in the day. Since he cannot however, principle (D2) must be false.

            However, there is something even more troubling about this example which Sinnott-Armstrong fails to point out.  It would appear that principle (D2) grants any agent the option of being relieved from his obligations by simply taking actions to ensure that he cannot fulfill his duty.  Yet this certainly does not seem right.  The problem with the above example is that it fails to take into account the fact that when an Adams willfully placed himself in a situation in which he would be unable to fulfill his obligation he failed to perform his duty at that time.  Therefore it is no longer the case at 5:00 that Adams ought to meet Brown, since Adams has already failed to keep his promise by choosing to go to the film.

            One may still wonder what it is that makes principle (D3) map onto our intuitions so strongly.  I believe that this is because (D3) extends from (D2).  Remember that (D2) states a moral theory must be action guiding; that is, it must be able to give moral direction to agents.  With that in mind, suppose that Jane gives her teenaged son, Ralph, a list of things that need to be done around the house.  The list reads thus:

  • 1. Wash the car and shampoo the carpet at the same time.
  • 2. Mow the lawn and clean the shower at the same time.
  • 3. Clean the oven and fold the laundry at the same.

One can only imagine poor Ralph’s consternation at reading such a list!  Not only will it be impossible for Ralph to follow such directions, this list seems to lack any real direction at all (at least direction that is intended to be followed).  Likewise, moral theories that deny principle (D3), fail – on at least some occasions – to be action guiding.


(P4). Avoiding Moral Conflicts

It seems intuitive that a moral theory should direct agents to avoid moral conflicts whenever possible.  Yet some supporters of dilemmas, such as Ruth Marcus, argue that moral dilemmas must exist because there is a moral duty to act in such a way as to prevent moral conflicts:

The point to be made is that, although dilemmas are not settled without residue, the recognition of their reality has a dynamic force.  It motivates us to arrange our lives and institutions with a view to avoiding such conflicts.  It is the underpinning for a second-order regulative principle: that as rational agents with some control of our lives and institutions, we ought to conduct our lives and arrange our institutions so as to minimize moral conflicts.[9]

Marcus’ argument, which is a form of what has been referred to as the “moral residue argument”, can be stated in the following modus ponens form:

  1. If one ought to desire to not knowingly act in such a way as to bring about a moral conflict then moral conflicts are dilemmatic.
  2. One ought to desire to not knowingly act in such a way as to bring about a moral conflict.
  3. Therefore moral conflicts are dilemmatic.

The above argument is valid, so opponents of dilemmas must focus on the truth of the premises, and the second premise (a restatement of (P3)) seems plainly true.  Indeed, Terrance McConnell, a noted opponent of moral dilemmas, acknowledges the truth of the second premise when he states, “One cannot plausibly deny that it is morally desirable for agents to minimize the conflicts they face.”[10]  McConnell, as well as other foes of dilemmas, does take issue with the first premise and argues that there is an alternate explanation that accounts for the moral force of the second premise. 

McConnell gives the example of making a promise to two individuals – Juan and Helga – that you will meet them at a given time.  However, the time at which you promised to meet Juan and Helga is the same so that you cannot fulfill both promises.  McConnell agrees with Marcus that making such a promise is wrong in that leads to inevitable moral conflict: either Juan or Helga are going to be frustrated because of your decision.  The point at which McConnell disagrees with Marcus is whether or not you must engage in yet another wrongdoing because of the moral conflict in which you find yourself.  Marcus, who would argue that the moral conflict in question is a moral dilemma, would say that another wrong is inevitable.  McConnell, on the other hand, denies that another wrong must take place.  Indeed, McConnell argues that the moral conflict in which one wrongly placed oneself is an entirely new situation which requires a new decision that is based upon which choice is morally superior.  The moral ledger has been reset, as it were.

Initially, the position may seem to be incorrect.  Indeed, the alarm bells of intuition begin to ring when one considers the inevitable frustration and disappointment that will be brought about by failing to keep your promise to one of your friends.  McConnell acknowledges this intuition, but points out the friend’s disappointment and frustration are not the result of an additional wrongdoing, which stems from the neglected horn of a moral dilemma, but that her frustrations are the result of the original wrongdoing of placing oneself in a moral conflict.  Furthermore, McConnell correctly points out that the friend’s future frustration cannot be what made the original decision of placing oneself in a moral conflict wrong, since your friend could very well die before the time of the promised rendezvous, but your earlier conflicting promises would still be wrong, since making such conflicting promises shows disrespect for the individuals to whom they are made.  Thus the wrongness of placing oneself in a moral conflict, contrary to the second premise of Marcus’ argument, is not based upon a moral conflict presupposing a moral dilemma.  Therefore Marcus’ argument is unsound.

Furthermore, McConnell points out that the duty to be careful to not place oneself in a moral conflict still holds even if the conflict in question is easily resolved.  He uses the example of breaking a trivial promise to save an accident victim’s life: while nearly everyone would agree the aforementioned action is morally correct, if the agent in question had made the trivial promise with knowledge of the future conflict she would have been wrong in doing so due to the disrespect shown to the individual to whom the false promise was made.  Since one commonly held aspect of moral dilemmas is that they are irresolvable, it is clear that the duty to be careful to avoid moral conflicts cannot be based upon the existence of moral dilemmas since it is wrong to knowingly place oneself in a moral conflict, even when the said conflict can be easily resolved.[11]


(P5). Making Sense of Moral Emotions

It is naturally desirable that a good moral theory be able to make sense of moral emotions, and many supporters of moral dilemmas actually consider (P5) to strengthen their case.  This “phenomenological argument” in favor of moral dilemmas argues that since one feels guilt after making a difficult choice in a situation of moral conflict, then one must indeed be guilty.  There have been various illustrations of the above argument, but the one thing that they all have in common is the insistence that perceived guilt (or remorse) indicates actual guilt.[12]

            Opponents of dilemmas agree that remorse is only appropriate when an agent has actually done wrong.  However, they are apt to point out that just because one experiences remorse does not mean that one has done something worthy of remorse.  There are many cases in which an individual may experience incredible feelings of guilt, yet, according to outside observers, has done nothing wrong.

            Consider the example of Matthew, an amateur golfer who is enjoying a game on a weekday afternoon.  After a particularly wild swing, Matthew’s shot slices in the direction of a nearby street and strikes the windshield of a school bus filled with children.  The distraction from the impact causes the driver to lose control and the bus runs off the road eventually rolling into a ditch.  Many of the children are seriously injured, and a few are killed.

            Of course, no one should legally or morally fault Matthew for the accident and the consequent deaths and injuries of the children, however few would find it unsurprising that Matthew, after discovering that it was his ball that caused the accident, should be filled with grief and experience feelings of guilt over what had taken place.  Indeed, it would seem strange if Matthew did not experience such emotional pain, since we know how we would, ourselves, would feel in such a situation.  Nevertheless, while Matthew’s grief and regret over the tragic accident may – and should – be considered appropriate, the same cannot be said for his feelings of remorse.  Indeed, one could even say that Matthew’s experience of guilt is, although understandable, irrational.

            Supporters of dilemma are not the only ones who appeal to (P5) in favor of their position.  Opponents of dilemmas have their own phenomenological arguments against the existence of moral dilemmas.  One of these arguments appeals to the practice of seeking moral advice in an apparent dilemma, another points out the phenomenon of moral doubt that often occurs after a decision has been made in an apparent dilemma.[13]

            In situations of moral conflict, and especially when the alternatives appear to be symmetric, it is a common practice for an agent to seek moral counsel concerning which decision to make.  However, if a moral conflict is genuinely dilemmatic, it would be irrational or dishonest to advise an individual to choose one alternative over the other.  Indeed, the only sound advice in such cases would be to simply instruct the individual that they will fail in their duty no matter which choice they make.  But this is not how we perceive the nature of seeking and giving advice to be.  Thus, the opponent of dilemmas argues, if an agent feels the need to seek advice for a solution to her problem, and the advisor feels the need to give advice because there is a solution to the problem, this must be because moral conflicts are not genuinely dilemmatic.

            The second phenomenological argument against dilemmas focuses on the doubt that an agent is apt to experience after making a difficult decision involving moral conflict.  According to this argument, if one is in a genuine dilemma, there is no reason for doubting one’s decision after the fact since doubt implies that the agent is concerned over whether or not she made the right choice.  In a genuine dilemma, there can be no right choice.  Thus the existence of moral doubt disproves the reality of moral dilemmas.

            Objections offered by supporters of dilemmas against the above two arguments are very similar in character to the objections given by the opponents of dilemmas.  One may say that it is irrational for an agent to seek advice or have moral doubts in certain situations; however, the burden of proof rests upon the supporters of dilemmas as to how one may determine these situations.  Furthermore, the arguments given above clearly demonstrate that the position of supporters of dilemmas is not significantly strengthened by (P5), and that opponents of dilemmas can construct similar arguments.



The debate concerning moral dilemmas will probably continue for a long time to come, and there are many other arguments and considerations to be examined about the matter.  However, it seems apparent that those who argue that an adequate moral theory must allow for moral dilemmas find themselves in a troublesome situation in regards to other conditions of adequacy for moral theories.  Until the supporters of moral dilemmas can account for these apparent weaknesses, it seems that only moral theories that exclude dilemmas should be considered adequate.    




[1] Plato, The Republic, Book I, trans, G. M. A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (eds.), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

[2] Styron, William, 1980, Sophie’s Choice, New York: Bantam Books

[3] See Terrance McConnell, “Metaethical Principles,  Meta-Prescriptions, and Moral Theories”. American Philosophical Quarterly. Volume 22, Number 4, 1985.

[4] Ross, W. D., Foundations of Ethics, Oxford University Press, 1939, p. 60.

[5] Marcus, Ruth. “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”.  The Journal of Philosophy.  87.3 (1980): p. 129.

[6] Ibid., pp. 128-129.

[7] Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, 1988, Moral Dilemmas, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[8] Ibid., pp. 116-121.

[9] Marcus, Ruth. “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency”.  The Journal of Philosophy.  87.3 (1980): p. 121.

[10] See Terrance McConnell, “Moral Residue and Dilemmas”, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Theory. ed. H. E. Mason.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.  p. 44

[11] Marcus, incidentally, avoids this criticism by holding the position that all moral conflicts constitute moral dilemmas.  One must question, however, if the benefits that Marcus’ theory gains from exempting itself from this objection outweigh the very unpalatable position that all moral conflicts lead to inevitable wrongdoing.


[13] See Terrance McConnell, “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency in Ethics”. Moral Dilemmas. ed. Christopher Gowans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. pp. 163-169.

Many Christians are unsure of what to think of philosophy.  Some believe that it is a volatile mixture of mysticism, humanist psychology, and pagan religion, while yet others believe it to be a discipline that is exclusively practiced by the intellectually elite.  None of these ideas are true, however, and the people who hold them would be surprised to know that they practice philosophy, in some sense, every day.     
       For example, when two men are talking about the moral implications of our nation going to war they are, in fact, philosophizing.  When woman dialogues with another concerning the issue of abortion, and seeks to demonstrate that an unborn child has the same right to life as any other individual, then philosophy is being utilized.  In fact, many of the topics that we ponder and discuss every day fall into the realm of philosophy.

 What is Philosophy?
      Giving a clear, concise definition of philosophy is difficult.  This is not because that there have been no attempts to define it, but because there have been so many different definitions.  So where do we go to find a definition?  The meaning of the word itself may give us a clue. 
      The word “philosophy” is derived from the combination of two Greek words.  The word philos means “love” and the word sophia means “wisdom”; when you combine the two, you have the phrase “the love of wisdom”, which is the meaning of the word “philosophy”.  So philosophy, at least in the ancient sense, is the love and pursuit of wisdom.
      Based upon the etymology of the word and the practice of philosophy – at least from a classical or Christian perspective – we can come to this formal definition: Philosophy is the pursuit of truth and understanding through sound reason.  This is, admittedly, a somewhat biased definition; but all definitions of philosophy are ultimately biased in some form or another.

The Value of Philosophy
      You may still be wondering what value the study of philosophy holds for the CHristian.  Allow me to point out a few benefits that the study of philosophy grants:

(1) It Cultivates Good Judgment
      Individuals who are familiar with philosophical argument are less likely to be deceived by rhetoric or propaganda.  They will look beyond ad hominem attacks and empty emotional appeals and be able to see to the crux of the argument.    This is crucial for the modern day Christian in that it allows us to reason with individuals instead of falling for every rhetorical smokescreen that is set before us.

(2) It Aids in Our Understanding of Culture and Society
      Philosophical principles help us to understand the intellectual forces that are driving our culture.  Rather than seeing the ‘fruit’ of fads and trends, we will see the ‘root’ of a worldview that is giving credence to the culture.  The study of philosophy will teach us that ideas do, indeed, have far reaching consequences.

(3) It Aids in the Systemization of Knowledge
      Another benefit of philosophy is that it allows us to organize and systematize our beliefs.  Philosophical analysis gives us the tools necessary to formulate rational arguments for what we believe.  Also, it is impossible to do a Systematic Theology without employing philosophy.
      Without any doubt, philosophy can be an extremely useful tool for the Christian, and is necessary for apologetics.  It is important to remember that all truth is God’s truth.  He is the Author of truth, and truth is an essential property of His Being.  Since philosophy is the pursuit of truth, the Christian philosopher is in the best position to philosophize, for he knows the one who claimed himself as “the way, the truth, and the life”.

The Three Levels of Philosophy

      Philosophy can be practiced and communicated on three levels:

  • (1) Theoretical Level
  • (2) Existential Level
  • (3) Prescriptive Level

 Level One- Analytic Level
      This level of philosophy deals with rigorous logical analysis, and is concerned with constructing analytic arguments that follow from strict logical inference.  The classical proofs of God’s existence are set forth in this level of philosophy, as well as such issues as the nature of truth and morality. 
      The key word to remember in in regards to this level is “logic”; that is, beliefs and opinions are examined in light of the rules of reason.  If an idea breaks down on this fundamental level and proves itself to be illogical or incoherent, then there is no more need for discussion on the matter: the idea is erroneous.
      The benefits of philosophy on this level come from the fact in that it deals with solid and objective rules of thinking.  It appeals to fact and not emotion or opinion.  Every theory, belief, or idea should be able to stand on this first level of philosophy. 
      However, there are negative aspects to this level when it is employed exclusively.  A debate on the theoretical level often becomes a contest of intellect, pitting one mind against another.  Sometimes the facts are blurred because of the ability of some brilliant intellect or charismatic communicator to manipulate the debate in his own favor.  To put it frankly, there have been intellectual giants who were and are Christians, and there have been intellectual giants who were and are non-Christians.  If an idea or belief is only treated on level one, then everything boils down to a battle of the brains and a satisfactory conclusion may never be reached.

 Level Two- Existential Level
      The second level of philosophy is not communicated by theorems and proofs, but is carried out in the avenue of the Arts.  Novels, poetry, painting, music, and many other methods of artistic expression can communicate ideas in an incredibly powerful manner.  This level is concerned with illustrating philosophical ideas in the artistic expression of the existential struggles and questions that all men must deal with.
      The Scottish politician, Andrew Fletcher, once said, “Let me write the songs of a nation; I do not care who writes its laws.”  This statement by Fletcher shows enormous insight!  The most influential philosophers of our day are not just the distinguished professors of great universities, but the individuals who maintain the print, television, and music industry.  Although these individuals may not be giving lectures on hard philosophical facts, they are carrying their philosophies through the medium of the arts.  The worldview of an individual will always be communicated in the art which they produce, whether it is fiction, drama, music, or any other creative work.  C. S. Lewis realized the implications of this fact when he said: 

We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite is taken for granted…We must attack the enemy’s line of communication.  What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.[i]

      An evaluation of the existential level demonstrates that is a highly effective means of communicating ideas.  Whereas many individuals will never pick up a work by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Alvin Plantinga, nearly everyone reads novels, goes to the movies, or listens to some type of music. 
      On the other hand, if one uses the existential level alone, he is bound to fall into error.  The danger of isolating the existential level from the other levels of philosophy is that it leads to subjectivism (the idea that truth is whatever you believe it to be).  The existential level must be grounded upon the analytical level to prevent this slide into subjectivism. 

Level Three- Prescriptive Level
      The third and final level of philosophy that we will deal with is the Prescriptive Level of philosophy.  This level deals with the applicative nature of a certain philosophical system.  This is the level that says, “How does this affect my life?”
      This level deals with how we should live.  It takes the information of the previous two levels and translates into reality.  It is demonstrated in the parent instructing the child on what he should or should not do, or in the minister who sets forth moral standards for his congregation.  We are constantly engaged in the prescriptive level day in conversations on the sidewalk or in our own living rooms concerning the far-reaching moral and ethical issues that we encounter each and every day.
      This level of philosophy is important because any idea is meaningless if it can’t be applied to reality.   It is on this level that the seemingly abstract arguments of the first level and the personal expression of the second level touch reality.
      Again, there are dangers in using this level alone as well.  If the child comes to her father and says, “Dad, we were taught in school today that there are no moral absolutes.  What do you think about that?”  If the father is not careful he will simply jump straight to the prescriptive level and began spouting Scriptural proof texts against the error.  The problem, however, is that the teacher does not believe the Bible and the classroom milieu does not regard it as authoritative.  In essence, the child is not asking her father what he believes about the issue, but why he believes what he does about the issue.  If you forego the first two levels, then you are only left with application, which is very subjective and weak without a foundation.
      It is important that we learn to operate on every level if we really want to communicate our worldview. Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, has wonderfully set forth the meaning and function of these levels of philosophy in this portion of his article, “Living an Apologetic Life”.

 Level one concerns logic, level two is based on feeling, and level three is where all is applied to reality. To put it another way, level one states why we believe what we believe, level two indicates why we live the way we live, and level three states why we legislate for others the way we do. For every life that is lived at a reasonable level, these three questions must be answered. First, can I defend what I believe in keeping with the laws of logic? That is, is it tenable? Second, if everyone gave himself or herself the prerogatives of my philosophy, could there be harmony in existence? That is, is it livable? Third, do I have a right to make moral judgments in the matters of daily living? That is, is it transferable?[ii]

 An important principle to keep in mind concerning these three levels is that we argue on level one (Analytical), we illustrate on level two (Existential), and we apply on level three (Prescriptive).  

 [i] Lewis, C. S., God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), taken from chapter 10, “Christian Apologetics”, pg. 93

[ii] Zacharias, Ravi. “Living an Apologetic Life”, (Just Thinking, Fall 2003), p. 8




Are they listening?Do you ever wonder if kids “get it“?

Recently I have been examining my life and what kind of parent I have been so far. The results have been less than inspiring. My GPA in Parenting would be only slightly higher than the average GPA of those boy’s from Delta house… before the Toga Party.

Sometimes you wonder, “Am I doing the right thing?” “Do they understand?” “Am I getting through?” Especially now that they are teen-agers, I wonder, “Am I doing everything the best I can?” “Will they be scarred for life?!” or “Will they be okay in spite of my failings and poor parenting?” The angst of parenting…

Then from out nowhere comes a Bolt of lightning  that illuminates your self-imposed Apocalyptic scenario and fills your heart with hope. Hope that they “get it” and you are not a complete dismal failure as a parent (just a partial dismal failure). I had one of those moments today as I listened in on the raving and ranting of my teenage daughter. A bad day at school was compounded by her having a sore throat and not feeling too well. She was in rare form and far from being dismayed about her tirade I was completely ecstatic!

Why, you may ask, was I overjoyed to hear my teen-age daughter on the warpath? It was the subject matter that had me completely enthralled. I would like to quote her and let you hear what had me cheering her on. She was on a roll about what had taken place in one of her classes today (and probably more than just one of them). I have to preface these remarks by stating my children attend a Private Christian School. Here’s what she was going on about…

I’m sick of people not listening in class. All they do is go to school to socialize. Yeah, you have friends there, but class time is not socialize time unless you’re NOT doing anything as a class! They don’t care about their grades, which will be sad when they try and get into college because they won’t be able to. Then, they will blame it on other people, when really the only ones to blame will be them selves. They can’t even shut-up long enough to hear anything that is going on in class. I just want to tell them, ‘Why waste your parents money if you’re not going to do anything? Also, the teachers need more respect than that because the are spending their time to help us… when they could be doing another job for less hassle. If you want to socialize then go to a public school where at least you are not wasting your parents hard earned money.’”

Wow! You go girl! This is from my little girl? My little ‘freshman’?

Cha-ching! She gets it, she really gets it! Boo-yaa! Game, Set, Match!

This is not coming from a wall flower either, this little firebrand is outgoing and very social. Yet, she knows her goals and she realizes that the game began on the first day of class, this her freshman year. The clock is ticking and we are keeping score. From this point forward she is racing toward college and she can see that what she is doing now, does count. That is why she got so upset with her classmates today, their selfishness is not just hurting them but it hurts her and all the rest who are counting on good grades to help them get to college.

That’s the kind of argument that makes a parent proud!


I believe that this movie has the potential to be the most talked about event in 2008, even eclipsing the political conventions, the Olympics and the Election.   I am equally sure that if it does well in the box office that there will be MUCH negative publicity against it.    At any rate, this is a very thought provoking trailer.  Enjoy

If nothing else I hope that this movie will engage Christians in and with the culture once again.  Forcing us to think! and get off our pat answers and shallow arguments.  This could be a great opportunity to participate in conversations with the culture at large.  It will also be an opportunity to show our ignorance if we are not careful. There is a risk of the anti-intellectuals, who shun academia, science and the institutes of higher learning, to solidify the sterotypical image of the “Christian” as the ignorant, blind faith bumpkins that many in the culture say we are.
At any rate, it is time to get out of the bunkers we call church and engage our culture again, not in some antagonistic conflict, but in truth and love.  It is possible to win the argument and lose the person with whom you are conversing. (I have to give props to my Pastor, Josh, for that line, it was too good not to borrow.)  It is also possible to lose an argument due to lack of preparation and basic knowledge and end up looking like a backwoods banjo picker.


Defining the nature of identity can be a perplexing task.  For every definition or principle of identity that is put forward, a host of problematic thought experiments will inevitably arise to challenge it.  In this post we will be applying Leibniz’s Law to the problem of the statue, the vase, and the hunk of metal.

One of the most well-known principles of identity that has ever been offered was given to us by the seventeenth century philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.  His principle, which has come to be known as Leibniz’s Law, asserts that necessarily, for any X and Y, if for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P.  This principle actually contains two separate principles which can be listed as follows:

1. The Indiscernibility of Identicals: Necessarily, for any X and Y, if X is identical with Y, then for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P.

2. The Identity of Indiscernibles:  Necessarily, for any X and Y, if for any property, P, X has P iff Y has P, then X and Y are identical.

The second of these two principles is considered by some philosophers to be controversial.  This paper, however, will only be considering the first principle.  The Indiscernibility of Identicals is generally not thought to be a controversial principle, and it can be an immensely helpful tool in solving puzzles about identity, as we shall see below.

            Imagine the following scenario that involves a hunk of metal:

            1. The hunk of metal was a statue on Monday.

            2. The hunk of metal was a vase on Tuesday.

            3. On Wednesday, the hunk of metal was neither a statue nor a vase.

It appears therefore that:

            1. The hunk of metal = a statue on Monday.

            2. The hunk of metal = a vase on Tuesday

            3. The hunk of metal = neither a statue nor a vase on Wednesday.

This line of reasoning becomes very problematic, however, when we introduce the principle of the Transitivity of Identity.  This principle states that if a=b and b=c then a=c; or to apply it to the previous scenario.

            1. If the hunk of metal = the statue

            2. And the hunk of metal = the vase

This leads to the absurd conclusion that

            3. The statue = the vase.

Some would argue that the conclusion can be avoided by restating Leibniz’s Law so that it is time contextual.  Thus, necessarily, for any X and Y, and any time, t, if X is identical to Y then at any given time, t, X and Y must have the same properties.  Yet this does not avert the conclusion at all.  Indeed, it leads to the same inconsistency.  Using the above restatement of Leibniz’s Law we come to the following conclusion:  if the hunk of metal is identical to the statue on Monday, then on Tuesday, the hunk of metal must still be identical to the statue.  This is obviously not the case, however, since the hunk of metal is identical to the vase on Tuesday and is identical with neither the statue nor the vase on Wednesday.

Another proposed solution to this problem is to assert that the only thing that actually exists over the three days is the hunk of metal itself.  Thus, we would say that on Monday the hunk of metal is statue-shaped, while on Tuesday the hunk of metal is vase-shaped.  This theory – a form of Mereological Nihilism – would deny the existence of things like statues and vases and would propose that the only things that truly exist are basic substances (like hunks of metal, or rather, the mereological atoms that compose the hunks of metal) that are arranged in various ways.  While this is a possible solution to the problem, it is hard to reconcile this theory with our basic intuitions that clearly acknowledge the existence of things like statues and vases.

There is yet a third solution to this problem, however, that is much more in agreement with our intuition.  This solution asserts that the hunk of metal is not identical to either the statue or the vase.  According to the principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals, two entities are identical iff they share the same properties.  Therefore, to demonstrate that the hunk of metal is not identical to either the statue or the vase, we must point out some property that they do not share in common.  Yet, this may be more difficult than it sounds.

Since the hunk of metal and the objects that it constitutes occupy the same place and have the same mass and extension, it appears that the hunk of metal is indeed identical with the statue and the vase.  In other words, if on Monday, the statue has the property of being two feet tall, then so does the hunk of metal; and if on Tuesday, the vase has the property of being cylindrical, then the hunk of metal possesses the same property.

However, when we begin to look at things from a temporal perspective, the indiscernability of these objects begins to break down.  Take, for example, the hunk of metal and the statue which it constitutes.  If these two substances are not identical, then on Monday they each occupy the same place at the same time.  Yet at the end of the day, when the metal is melted down, the statue is destroyed while the hunk of metal continues to exist.  Thus we discover that the hunk of metal possesses the property of existing past Monday while the statue lacks this property.  Now, we can inverse the principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals to read as such:

Necessarily, for any X and Y, and for any property, P, if X possesses P and Y does not posses P, then X and Y are not identical.

Therefore, according to the principle listed above, the hunk of metal and the statue cannot be identical due to the fact that the hunk of metal possesses a temporal property which the statue lacks.

We are left, then, with two possible solutions to the problem of the hunk of metal, the statue, and the vase.  We can either espouse a form of Mereological Nihilism or – by introducing Leibniz’s Law and properly defining the properties of each object- we can assert that the hunk of metal, the statue, and the vase are all separate entities.  Considering the highly unintuitive conclusions of the first solution, the latter solution seems to be the most favorable to answer this problem.

Golden Key

I just found out that I have been accepted into the Golden Key International Honours Society.  Among other things, this means that I’m in the top 15% of my class (resume booster!).  I only wish I got a REAL golden key (bank account booster!).  Oh well…