How to Identify an Ethical Dilemma

by Sheila Tombe
Morals and ethics are each used to make right decisions.

Morals and ethics are each used to make right decisions.

A dilemma (from the Greek for "double proposition") is like a crossroad. Choosing which way to go next, though, depends on weighing moral alternatives rather than following simple directions. Such choices may be presented as either/or decisions, although there are often more than two alternatives. Usually the choices are perplexing because they are both unpleasant options, or because you know that taking the easy way out is wrong. Follow these tips for recognizing moral questions.

Identifying an ethical dilemma

Ask yourself the following questions: Is the issue easily resolved with logic? For example, running out of gas on a long trip is not a dilemma, it is a problem easily solved by buying more gas.

Is the issue easily resolved emotionally? For example, feeling sad or blue--and not knowing what to do about it--is not a dilemma, it is a condition that can often be cured with positive emotional responses from a loved one or friend.

Is the issue an ethical one? For example, deciding what to do if you discover a friend has stolen her shiny new MP3 player and wants you to lie about it. This is an ethical dilemma, as you must decide what is right and what is wrong, choose between loyalty or legality, or what is preferable over what is possible.

Listen carefully when involved in hypothetical debates in school or at home. The so-called "balloon debate" or "lifeboat debate" can help you recognize when an issue becomes ethical in nature, and when a dilemma occurs. Do you save the baby or the wise old man? Weighing valid points on both sides can show you the merits of such ethical considerations.

Finally, remember that recognizing an ethical dilemma is only the first step in debating and resolving it.

Tip

  • Use the guide of logos, pathos and ethos--logic, emotion or ethics--when identifying potential problem issues. Check online for examples similar to yours. Ask others what they think.

Warning

  • Try not to be swayed by friends when you know that they are wrong.

Items you will need

  • Dictionary or handbook of rhetoric

About the Author

Sheila Tombe holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Spanish; and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature. She has published poetry in several print and online venues, such as "Rosebud" and the "Southern Poetry Anthology."

Photo Credits

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