There is a difference between a
pluralistic system of ultimate
intrinsic right-duty constellations
monistic system of the same
values or intrinsic right-duty constellations which are not claimed to be
Take, for example, a normative system with only well-being or beneficence
and truth as ultimate values, and compare such a system with a
utilitarian one in which individual well-being and truth are
derivative values, that is, are derived from the ultimate value
of utility. What happens if in a particular situation being
beneficent and telling the truth are incompatible? Such a
problem may arise when in a country with a dictatorial regime, for
instance, the authorities ask someone whether there are people living in
'er house or neighborhood who
belong to a particular persecuted minority, and when this is indeed the
case. If the person interrogated says "yes",
'e tells the truth,
but is maleficent or cooperates with people who are; if 'e says
"no", 'e lies, but is beneficent or at least not maleficent. On
the monistic account the person interrogated should simply
calculate what act will yield more utility or happiness on the
whole and in the end, taking into consideration all short- and
long-term consequences. Assuming that such a calculation is
feasible, and assuming that the moral decision maker finds it
plausible that saying "no" will yield a greater utility, 'e
ought to say "no". By saying "no" 'e then does the right thing,
and nothing wrong at all, nor anything 'e should regret. Also on
the pluralistic account the person interrogated has to choose.
But now 'e is forced to do something wrong. If 'er answer is
in the affirmative, 'e contributes to 'er interrogators' maleficence;
and if 'er answer is in the negative, 'e lies. 'E must
then try to choose the lesser of two evils.
In a case like the one above ethical theorists may say that the
conflict between the two moral judgments has a contingent basis.
On the one hand a person ought to tell the truth, because truth
is a value or telling the truth a duty; on the other, a person
ought to be beneficent (and in this case not to tell the truth),
because beneficence is a value or being beneficent a duty. It
has been argued that the decision 'to act on one of the oughts
in a moral conflict does not necessarily involve deciding that
the other had no application'. Thus, if one decides to lie in
order to save another person's life, such does not imply that
the duty not to lie would not actually have applied at all. Even
when deciding to lie, the truth-related ought does not have to
be totally rejected.
This also means that regret —as the ethical argument runs— is
a very appropriate reaction under the circumstances.
When a person faced with a conflict of duties has
acted for the best, 'e will, from a moral point of view, still
have 'er 'regrets about the rejected course of action'. It may
be added that such regret will be weak when the ought of the
action taken did appear much stronger than that of the action
rejected and that the regret will be profound when the decision
was a difficult one to take. In this respect conflicts between
moral judgments resemble conflicts of desires — it has been
pointed out. That is, by taking a decision none of the
conflicting items is necessarily eliminated, at least not on a
pluralistic construction. On an entirely monistic construction a
conflict of (nonultimate) duties is like a conflict of descriptive
beliefs. Just as one of the beliefs is completely abandoned
when solving a conflict of beliefs, so one of the duties is on
such a construction completely abandoned when solving a conflict
In principle, conflicts of ultimate duties or values can never
be adequately solved, for if they could, there would be a
'really ultimate' value comprising both lower-level values
believed to be 'ultimate'. It does not help to call the ultimate
duties of a pluralistic doctrine "prima facie" when not applied
to a particular situation and "actual" when still effective in a
particular situation, because the problem is then that there is
no standard procedure to determine whether a prima facie duty is
also an actual one. If it could be exactly assessed what to do
when the prima facie duty not to lie and the prima facie duty to
be beneficent, for instance, conflict, there would be a superordinate
duty related to this assessment itself.
There just cannot be such a superordinate duty, because the duty to be
beneficent is founded in a
ground-norm and the duty not
to lie in a
norm of correspondence.
Hence, knowing that conflicts of truth-related and
neutral-inclusive duties cannot be
adequately solved, the adherent of the
DNI should do everything possible (and
acceptable) to avoid them. 'E ought not to get into situations in
which conflicts between ultimate moral judgments do, or are
likely to, arise.
Only with such a strategy can 'e continue to pay full respect to the
different ultimate values of 'er
In the event that a conflict of duties is not the result of
recognizing different ultimate values like truth and neutrality,
but of recognizing different derivative values subordinate to
the same ultimate value, such a conflict does not have to be
avoided. It is then solvable in principle.
This is not to say that it could not be a very hard problem in
An example is the potential conflict between overall well-being and
interpersonal equality. Since complete interpersonal equality need
not always serve overall well-being, some interpersonal
inequality may have to be accepted if people's well-being will
benefit from it. In such a case we need not regret the
inequality, provided that the decision taken can be defended on
neutralistic grounds. But how does one weigh equality against
well-being? To be able to weigh them at all, the equality itself must
be one in well-being.
One can also weigh equality against happiness or
nanhappiness, but then the equality
must be one in
In accordance with the
principle of indifference the answer
is that one should assign the same weight to the attempt to attain a
neutral state of well-being or happiness-catenality as to the attempt to
attain the smallest possible average inequality, unless there is in the
situation concerned another neutralistic reason to assign more weight to
the one than to the other.
Not only should we apply a principle of indifference to
conflicts between nonultimate neutralistic duties, we should also
apply this principle to conflicts between different ultimate
duties of the DNI. Thus when a duty of telling the truth
conflicts with a duty of beneficence, we must in the first
instance not consider the one duty more important than the
other. This is the reason why such a conflict is possible. If we
knew beforehand, for example, that the duty to tell the
truth is always overruled by the duty to be beneficent, there
would be no conflict in the first place.
The special problem with a truth-related duty is
tho, that it does
not admit of degrees in the way a
catenical duty does.
One cannot balance truth against well-being in the same way as one can
balance equality (of well-being) against well-being.
But we must always ask ourselves whether the moral conflict between truth
and well-being as it seems to exist on certain occasions is a purely
doctrinal conflict, or
even a (first-order) doctrinal conflict at all.
In the example of information which is used to persecute a certain group
of people it is probably not merely their well-being as such which is at
stake but their
rights of personhood.
When looking at the situation from this
perspective there is no conflict between normative judgments.
One should then simply not infringe other people's right of personhood,
nor assist at such infringements. When this implies that
one must say "no", one should say "no", even when the true
answer is in the affirmative. Such does not create a conflict on
this level, because it is a right of personhood that —so far as
the content is concerned— one may say whatever one likes. No
person can, metadoctrinally speaking, require from another
person that 'e tell the truth only, since truth is a doctrinal
value and the normative principle of truth a doctrinal principle.
Of course, the DNI still forbids us to say anything that is false, but if
the basis of a moral conflict is metadoctrinal, or if it is created by
people with other or no doctrinal convictions, there is a good reason to
argue that in such a context metadoctrinal considerations take precedence
over doctrinal ones.
This means that we should then primarily look at
the matter as a metadoctrinal affair. In that light there is no
moral conflict, and we have only to make sure that everyone's
rights of personhood are protected. Altho it is not well-being
as such which is the value pursued, this protection will
probably be experienced as part of one's well-being. That is why
it looks as if it is a doctrinal scale which is turned in favor
of well-being at the expense of truth.
The reason that this doctrinal scale seems to be turned that way is,
then, not that truth was deemed less important than well-being, but that
doctrinal considerations were deemed less germane than metadoctrinal ones.