What Is an Ethical Dilemma?

by Mike Gonyea

An ethical dilemma is one in which a person has to choose between two options, both of which are morally correct but in conflict. Ethics and morals are inseparable. They both deal with questions of right and wrong. What constitutes ethical behavior is determined by societal or cultural norms. What constitutes moral behavior is up to the individual to decide based on his own sense of right and wrong.

Universal Ethics

Perhaps a nearly universal example -- one that almost everyone has faced in some form -- goes something like this: You saw a friend steal a candy bar from the local store. When asked about it, you had to decide whether to lie to the questioner to protect your friend or to tell the truth and betray him. Societal norms taught you that both telling the truth and being loyal to a friend are correct. But you then had a moral decision to make regarding which choice was more "right."

Professional Ethics

Other ethical dilemmas can be highly complex and lead to extremely difficult choices. For instance, a physician might be faced with the question of whether to continue actively treating a terminally ill patient at the request of family members -- which could cause the patient to suffer or prolong suffering -- or to withhold treatment, make the patient as comfortable as possible and let nature take its course. Respecting the wishes of the family and doing what's best for the patient are both professionally acceptable and ethical. But the choice as to which course of action is best is a personal, moral one.

About the Author

Mike Gonyea served as an account manager and strategic planner at a Detroit advertising agency for 20 years. He has covered automotive finance, state and local government and interfaith issues for publications and websites including “The Detroit News,” American Thinker and A Common Word.

Photo Credits

  • Roel van Eekelen/Demand Media