Ethics classes often focus on moral dilemmas and other cases that expose conflicting intuitions about right and wrong. These boundary cases require unpacking foundational moral assumptions using the tools of ethical reasoning, so they provide ample opportunities for introducing the topics to students. Unfortunately, disproportionate focus on boundary cases eclipses the wealth of clear cases and widely shared values that form of the foundation of morality. When pedagogy breaks down certainty, it should do so in order to repair a renewed certainty anchored in more complete understanding. Otherwise, students learn the problem only and not the solution as well.

If morality appears only in the lens of dilemma, one learns to fit any moral judgment into the form of a dilemma. A debate over fundamental human rights naturally frames itself as a set of conflicting moral judgments arising from a clash of intuitions. When forced into the dilemma mold, the issue reduces to the conflict of racist and not racist, sexist and not sexist, etc. On the other hand if an appeal to a fundamental moral value would determine the judgment to be made, the dilemma constitutes little more than a question readily answered.

The concept of moral good rests on the possibility of moral responsibility. Praise and blame flow from agency, the ability to make choices, form intentions, or influence the outcome of events. Without agency moral good cannot exist because a lack of agency voids responsibility. One might hold various commitments about the extent to which determinism binds actions or intentions, but an agent must at minimum feel a perceived agency in order to assess their actions in light of morality.

Given the connection between agency and responsibility, moral good requires agency. A world with no agency would be a world where no individual could be praised for their good deeds or blamed for their evil ones. Agency makes moral good possible, serving as a necessary but not sufficient condition for both good and ill. As such, promoting agency and the conditions that allow individuals to form the capacity for agency would also promote moral good. Denying or discrediting the agency of rational, sentient beings hinders moral good. By definition moral norms promote moral good, so morality must require promoting agency and ensuring that beings capable of agency receive the support they need to develop and exercise agency.

The moral value of agency clarifies the broader issues of social justice in just that way. Creation and marginalization of a group creates a division between the dominant group and the marginalized group. The dominant group defines the marginalized group in ways that diminish their humanity and their status as moral agents in order to justify discrimination and prejudice. The effects of systemic oppression further diminish opportunities to develop and exercise agency through distressed material conditions and acculturation of abusive stereotypes propagated by the dominant group.

Given the moral norm in favor of agency, no dimension of identity discrimination can be morally justified. Creating group divisions to deprive an entire group of agency runs afoul of that norm. The consequences of those divisions multiply those wrongs and cannot be morally justified. Social injustice poses a moral wrong that needs to be addressed, not a dilemma that resists resolution.

Nevertheless, this argument does not become clear unless focus shifts from analysis of complex cases to the logical foundation of morality and ethical reasoning. Dilemmas provide solid opportunities to understand the nuances of ethical reasoning, but most everyday morality remains in the space of broad certainty and widely shared values. Rather than demonstrate the instructor’s intelligence by smashing student intuitions, ethics teaching should focus on ensuring that students have both a firm foundation of moral judgments and some practice in applying ethical reasoning to novel cases as well as familiar ones.