Ethical Dilemma

I. Definition and Key Ideas

I will use the terms “ethical dilemma” and “moral dilemma” interchangeably, per popular usage. They overlap to a large degree; that is to say that most dilemmas discussed are both moral and ethical dilemmas at the same time; the difference will be discussed in section VI.

Ethical or moral dilemmas are situations real or imagined where a person must choose between courses of action, all of which are morally unacceptable.


A person must choose one of two innocents to be killed, or both will be; this one is known as Sophie’s Choice, after the William Styron novel in which it appears.  Easier dilemmas may present conflicts between two different ethical principles, such as in the question of whether it is right to steal food in order to feed one’s starving family.

Moral dilemmas are thought-experiments, imaginative scenarios used to argue philosophical points.  They are often presented in order to refute one or another system of ethics; one may argue that if the dilemma is unreasonable, the ethical system is incomplete.

However, the status of moral dilemmas has become a major philosophical issue in its own right.  Some philosophers argue that there are no true moral dilemmas, others that they are unavoidable and do not necessarily indicate a flawed system of ethics.  Thus, moral dilemmas are a way to explore the question of what an ethical system must or must not be expected to accomplish.

For those who are not professional philosophers, ethical dilemmas serve mainly as a tool for exploring one’s own and others’ ethical values.  The question, “what would YOU do?” in regards to a moral dilemma must, in most cases, reveal one’s priorities – or provoke one to determine those priorities.

A lot of moral dilemmas revolve around conflicts between teleological, or result-oriented, ethics and deontological, or precept-oriented, ethics.  This has also been characterized as the conflict between what is “right” (deontological) and what results in “good” (teleological).  However, some of the most difficult moral dilemmas do not revolve around this conflict; moral dilemmas are more difficult if symmetrical – if they require choosing between two morally identical options, such as in the choice to save only one of two innocent lives.


II. Where Does It Come From?

The first moral dilemmas written down appear in the Bible.  For example, the Hebrew patriarch Abraham faced a classic moral dilemma when he was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac—murder his son or disobey God; although this story is supposed to have happened before Moses received the ten commandments, it’s fair to assume that people of his time would have considered both obeying God and not murdering one’s own child to be moral imperatives.  The story seems intended to establish that obedience takes priority, and will be rewarded with mercy. It demonstrates a deontological ethics—one based on a general rule, not results.

However, the first moral dilemma usually cited in western philosophy comes (unsurprisingly) from the ancient Greeks.  It was an argument Socrates made against a claim in Plato’s Republic that justice equals speaking the truth and paying one’s debts.  Socrates created a moral dilemma to demonstrate the unreliability of this proposed ethical principle; he pointed out that it could be wrong to re-pay certain debts, such as if you had borrowed a weapon from a friend who was not in his right mind and might be prone to violence.  You might think Socrates was just being needlessly difficult here, but as usual, he was just using the dilemma to make a point—that ethical rules have relative priorities; in this case, the precept that one must do one’s best to prevent harm to people takes priority over the precept that one must re-pay one’s debts.  This illustrates one of the most popular solutions to ethical dilemmas—that a system of ethics should prioritize its rules.  However, it is unfortunately easy to show that there can be no consistent and complete prioritization of ethics; priorities sometimes depend on circumstances.

The next most often cited dilemma comes from Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid-twentieth-century existentialist philosopher.  Sartre asks us to imagine a young man whose brother has just been killed while defending his country in a war where the enemy is poised to invade his homeland.  At the same time, the young man’s mother lives with him and depends on him, having nobody else.  The dilemma is, should the man go to war to defend his nation and avenge his brother’s murder or stay home to care for his mother? There is no agreed upon solution to this one; it depends on one’s values!

The years since WWII have seen many real ethical dilemmas become constant social or political issues.  Depending on one’s beliefs and values, abortion and the death penalty could both be regarded as ethical dilemmas—conflicts between protecting lives and taking lives.  Philosophically, euthanasia seems like a more difficult dilemma because it could be seen either as required by or forbidden by a doctor’s Hippocratic oath, depending on how you look at it.

In the future, we will have new ethical dilemmas related to advancements in science and medicine.  The debates mentioned in the previous paragraph will take on new urgency in a world where people can live for centuries.  And artificial intelligence will eventually raise dilemmas connected with the rights and responsibilities of artificial beings.


III. Controversies

Every ethical dilemma is a controversy!  But here, we will address a more general controversy—the question of whether it is possible or desirable to have an ethical system without irresolvable dilemmas.

Arguments that a good ethical system should be dilemma-free:

  • Consistency: an ethical dilemma implies a conflict between two rules, both of which should, normally, be obeyed. That means that in the face of a dilemma, some action that would normally be mandatory becomes forbidden.  This is like saying “A equals not-A,” which really bother some philosophers, although it’s often true.
  • Providing singular guidance: Many people believe that an ethical system should provide one answer to the question, “what should I do?” in any situation. If not, doesn’t it fail as an ethical system?

Arguments that ethical dilemmas are unavoidable or desirable:

  • The solution of prioritizing ethical rules, so that one can always choose the higher priority, won’t always work. For example, most people would agree, with Socrates in his argument with Plato, that preventing harm is higher priority than re-paying debts. But, it would be easy to imagine a case where keeping a promise was more important than preventing some small degree of harm.  And most ethical rules are like this; they have different priorities in different situations
  • Symmetrical dilemmas: It is easy to come up with dilemmas that cannot be resolved by choosing between two moral rules, because both choices are governed by the same precept, such as in Sophie’s Choice.
  • Moral Residue: in many, if not most ethical dilemmas, a person is going to feel remorse no matter which choice they make—for example, such as in Sartre’s war dilemma, or Sophie’s choice. This means that a person is going to feel they have done something morally wrong no matter what they choose; this seems enough, perhaps, to prove that they are facing a real moral dilemma.

Some of these points, especially “moral residue” continue to be heavily debated in philosophy, but since nobody has yet demonstrated a dilemma free ethical system, perhaps the dilemmas are winning!


IV. Famous Quotes

Quotation #1:

“The moral dilemma is to make peace with the unacceptable.” – Mary Sarton

Sarton suggests that the true dilemma in all moral dilemmas lies in accepting the unacceptable.  Sarton would probably say, for example, that in Sophie’s Choice, the dilemma is not which innocent to kill, but the need to psychologically accept making such a choice.  In other words, making peace with such choices and not making peace with them are equally immoral, and that’s the dilemma within all moral dilemmas.

Quotation #2:

“There is the devastatingly simple, yet profound, moral dilemma, which underlies the book: is it better for a man to choose to be bad than to be conditioned to be good?”
— Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange)

This unusual moral dilemma echoes many novels about the inherent conflict between freedom and morality.  In Burgess’ novel, a dangerously violent young criminal lives in a fictional future England where he has been arrested for murder and is offered a chance to be “rehabilitated” through conditioning that using drugs that make him physically ill at even the thought of violence.  After conditioning he can’t hurt people, and he also can’t really choose. Which is right, to allow a person to be bad but with a free mind or good by taking away their free will? Other famous stories that address the conflict between morality and freedom include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and all of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels.


V. Types

Epistemic versus Ontological dilemmas: A dilemma is epistemic if the problem is that one does not know which choice will result in the greatest good (or least evil).  A dilemma is ontological if knowledge is not an issue; one simply has a choice.

Obligation versus Prohibition dilemmas: Sartre’s story about the young man going to war is an obligation dilemma; the man is obligated to do two incompatible things.  Sophie’s Choice is a prohibition dilemma; she must choose between two morally prohibited actions—choosing one person to be killed or another.  Prohibition choices seem more problematic in general, since they require one to directly violate morals, whereas obligation dilemmas merely require one to neglect a moral obligation.


VI. Moral versus Ethical dilemmas and “the right” versus “the good”

What is “right” is defined by ethical principles, such as “thou shalt not kill.”  “The good” refers to the results of actions and events, such as people not coming to harm, so it’s a moral issue.  Most dilemmas are both moral and ethical because ethics normally tell us what is moral and immoral.  Some dilemmas might technically be only one or the other.  For example, Sophie’s Choice seems like a purely moral dilemma, because Sophie is not being forced to choose between ethical principles.   Abortion seems more of an ethical issue because one must choose between two ethical principles, one protecting the fetus, and one the mother.  However, abortion can also be seen as a moral issue—to choose the policy which is most moral.


VII.  Moral dilemmas in Pop Culture

Example #1: Blade Runner

Almost every story about future conscious machines revolves around ethical dilemmas.  Harrison Ford plays a retired “blade runner”—a cop who hunts down and kills escaped androids–living conscious robots who can be more intelligent and stronger than humans, and who have no empathy.  Ford’s character is forced to continue working after he tries to quit and he finds himself obligated to kill androids who want only freedom, including an entirely innocent one.  Much of the film is about him trying to escape or cope with this moral dilemma.

Example #2: The Dark Knight

It would be impossible to mention ethical dilemmas without referring to the version of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in The Dark Knight (Batman) film.  In the film’s simplified version of this classic dilemma, the Joker takes control of two ferries crossing Gotham harbor, each packed with people and explosives wired to blow, and each group is given the trigger for the other boat’s explosives.  The Joker tells them that if one boat blows up the other within a time-limit he will spare their lives, and otherwise, he will blow up both boats.  I won’t tell you the spoiler!

This and other Batman films feature many ethical dilemmas; it could be said that Batman is an ethical dilemma, a man who takes justice, and lives into his own hands, illegally, but in order to protect innocent people from criminals.


Which of the following is not a moral or ethical dilemma?





Which of the following best illustrates a conflict between “right” and “good”?





Which of the following is not a reason that moral dilemmas cannot be eliminated?





Which of the following is an epistemic, not an ontological dilemma?





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