Types of Ethical Dilemmas

by Will Milner
Moral dilemmas make it hard to weigh the consequences.

Moral dilemmas make it hard to weigh the consequences.

Everyone has found himself confronted with a moral dilemma at some time in his life. In these scenarios, it can seem impossible to know how to act as every course of action will result in some level of harm to someone. The ability to make these decisions and live with the consequences may be the toughest test of character that a person can face.

Making Sacrifices for the Greatest Good

The obligation to make sacrifices for the greater good creates a type of moral dilemma often dealt with in philosophy classes. The question comes down to if and under which conditions an otherwise innocent person should have to suffer for the good of others. One example might be the question of when, if ever, it is permissible to harm civilians during wartime. Imagine that bombing a weapons factory will kill the workers inside or civilians living nearby, whereas by halting the production of weapons the lives of civilians elsewhere will be saved. Does this make it morally permissible or even obligatory to bomb the weapons factory? Does the number of lives saved by halting weapons production morally outweigh the number of civilian lives lost in the bombing raid?

Values and Consequences

Another type of dilemma, one which has many similarities and connections to the previous category, is the tension between moral values or maxims and the consequences of not abiding by them. An example involves whether the suggestion to always tell the truth still holds up when a ravaging axe murderer asks you where your friends are hiding. Of course, for most of us this doesn't present any kind of dilemma at all, but we can modify the example slightly and ask whether it would be ethical to tell the truth about some political issue if we knew it would cause a violent backlash, or perhaps, in a more domestic setting, whether we have a moral obligation to tell someone about unfaithfulness on the part of his partner.

Paternalism, Liberty and Offence Without Harm

One of the most important types of moral dilemmas in terms of politics and law involves the tensions between paternalism and liberty; that is, to what extent, if ever, people should be prevented from doing what they want if they would be the only direct victims or if their actions could only cause offense to others without any actual harm. Examples include whether public nudity should be allowed, if people should be permitted to take part in very dangerous extreme sports or if they should be permitted to sell parts of their body for medical uses even when it will have a detrimental effect on them. In each case, the question is to what extent people in authority should interfere with other people's personal choices to prevent them harming themselves or offending others.

Moral Relativism

A special type of moral, perhaps metamoral, dilemma arises when the question of cultural relativism is confronted. Practices that appear barbaric or immoral to one culture may seem perfectly ordinary to another, and attempts to change them from outside of the culture resisted. An example would be the eating of meat or the meat of certain animals. Many Americans would be repulsed at the thought of eating kittens but are quite happy to eat beef, which is equally as repellent to many Hindus. Another example includes the practice of female genital cutting, which is practiced in some countries in Northeast Africa, the Near East and Southeast Asia.

About the Author

Will Milner started writing in 2005 for the University of Sheffield newspaper "Steel Press" and continues to write for the Sheffield-based magazine "Now Then." He gained a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from the University of Sheffield.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images