Moral Dilemma

Team English -
Created by: Team English -, Last Updated: June 14, 2024

Moral Dilemma

Imagine standing at a crossroads where every path leads to profound ethical questions. This is the essence of a moral dilemma, a situation where choices clash with core values, leaving individuals wrestling with decisions that have no clear right or wrong answers. This article delves into the intricate world of moral dilemmas, exploring how they challenge our beliefs, shape our decision-making processes, and influence societal norms. As we navigate through historical and contemporary examples, we invite you to reflect on your own principles and the lengths you would go to uphold them. Join us as we uncover the complexities of moral conflicts that push the boundaries of ethics and personal integrity.

What is Moral Dilemma?

A moral dilemma is a situation in which a person faces a choice between two or more actions, each of which has moral implications that conflict with one another. In a moral dilemma, the individual must choose between competing ethical principles or values, making it difficult or impossible to satisfy all moral obligations simultaneously. The essence of a moral dilemma is that whatever choice is made, some ethical aspect is compromised.

Moral Dilemma Examples in Everyday Life

Moral Dilemma Examples
  1. Choosing Work Over Family: Deciding whether to attend a crucial work meeting or a family event.
  2. Reporting a Friend: Debating whether to report a friend who has committed a crime or protect them.
  3. Found Money: Deciding whether to keep money found in a public place or try to find its owner.
  4. Secrets Among Friends: Choosing whether to keep a friend’s secret that could harm another friend if kept.
  5. Accepting a Promotion: Deciding whether to accept a job promotion that would lead to a colleague being laid off.
  6. Returning a Lost Item: Debating whether to return a lost expensive item or keep it for personal gain.
  7. Telling the Truth: Choosing whether to tell a painful truth that might hurt someone or lie to protect their feelings.
  8. Breaking Rules for a Good Cause: Deciding whether to break a rule or law to help someone in need.
  9. Personal Gain vs. Collective Good: Choosing between an option that benefits you personally or benefits a larger group.
  10. Handling Found Valuables: Deciding what to do with valuables found in a second-hand purchase.
  11. Prioritizing Help: Choosing whom to help first in a situation where multiple people need assistance.
  12. Conflicting Commitments: Deciding which commitment to honor when you can’t fulfill both.
  13. Privacy vs. Safety: Deciding whether to invade someone’s privacy for their safety.
  14. Handling Criticism of a Friend: Choosing whether to defend a friend publicly or acknowledge their faults.
  15. Use of Power: Deciding how to use a position of power, especially when personal interests conflict with ethical standards.

Moral Dilemma Examples for Students

  1. Cheating on a Test: Deciding whether to cheat on an exam using notes from a fellow student.
  2. Group Project Workload: Choosing whether to confront a group member who isn’t contributing equally.
  3. Reporting Bullying: Deciding whether to report a bullying incident that you witnessed, involving your friends.
  4. Plagiarism: Choosing whether to report a classmate who plagiarized their assignment.
  5. Peer Pressure: Deciding whether to partake in a prank that could potentially harm someone.
  6. Exclusion in Social Groups: Choosing whether to include or exclude a classmate from a group activity.
  7. Confessing to a Mistake: Deciding whether to admit to a mistake that could have serious consequences.
  8. Helping a Friend Cheat: Choosing whether to help a friend cheat, knowing it could jeopardize your integrity.
  9. Sharing Answers: Deciding whether to share homework answers with a friend who didn’t do the work.
  10. Breaking School Rules: Choosing whether to break school rules to achieve a personal goal.
  11. Handling Lost Property: Deciding what to do with a lost item found in school.
  12. Using Unauthorized Resources: Deciding whether to use unauthorized resources to complete an assignment.
  13. Handling Gossip: Choosing whether to spread a rumor that could benefit you socially.
  14. Skipping Class: Deciding whether to skip class with friends or attend and fulfill academic responsibilities.
  15. Academic Integrity: Choosing to maintain integrity in academic work despite seeing others benefit from dishonesty.

Moral Dilemma Examples in History

  1. The Atomic Bomb: Deciding whether to drop the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II.
  2. The Trojan Horse: The ethical implications of using deceit as a war tactic in the Trojan War.
  3. Emancipation Proclamation: Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.
  4. Trail of Tears: The decision to forcibly relocate Native Americans, leading to severe hardship and death.
  5. Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The moral considerations of using nuclear weapons to end World War II.
  6. Apartheid in South Africa: The ethical implications of enforcing racial segregation.
  7. Colonization: The ethical dilemmas involved in the colonization and treatment of indigenous peoples.
  8. Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam: The decision to use chemical agents in warfare.
  9. The Crusades: The moral implications of the religious wars during the Middle Ages.
  10. The Salem Witch Trials: The decisions to persecute individuals based on accusations of witchcraft.
  11. The Manhattan Project: The ethical considerations of developing the atomic bomb.
  12. Internment of Japanese Americans: The decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.
  13. Slavery in America: The ethical dilemmas surrounding the practice of slavery.
  14. The Holocaust: The moral decisions and responsibilities of individuals during the Holocaust.
  15. Segregation in the USA: The moral challenges faced during the era of racial segregation in the United States.

Moral Dilemma Examples in Movies

  1. Schindler’s List: Oskar Schindler’s decision to save Jews by employing them in his factory.
  2. The Dark Knight: Batman’s dilemma of saving Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes.
  3. Sophie’s Choice: Sophie’s heart-wrenching decision to choose between her children at a Nazi concentration camp.
  4. A Few Good Men: Lieutenant Kaffee’s moral challenge in exposing illegal actions within the military.
  5. The Godfather: Michael Corleone’s decisions regarding family loyalty versus moral righteousness.
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch’s decision to defend a black man accused of rape in the racially charged South.
  7. Avengers: Infinity War: The heroes’ dilemma over sacrificing Vision to save the universe.
  8. The Matrix: Neo’s choice between the red pill and the blue pill.
  9. Gone Baby Gone: Patrick’s decision about the child’s best interest at the end of the movie.
  10. Inception: Cobb’s moral struggle with manipulating people’s minds for his benefit.
  11. The Prestige: The moral implications of the lengths magicians go to outdo each other.
  12. Minority Report: The ethical dilemma of preemptive justice versus free will.
  13. Hotel Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina’s decisions to save refugees during the Rwandan genocide.
  14. Les Misérables: Jean Valjean’s continual moral conflict over his identity and his responsibilities.
  15. Gran Torino: Walt Kowalski’s evolution and decisions about his neighborhood’s future and his own prejudices.

Three Levels of Moral Dilemma

Personal Moral Dilemmas

Personal moral dilemmas involve conflicts that primarily affect the individual making the decision. These dilemmas are typically centered around personal values, beliefs, or ethics. For example, deciding whether to lie to protect a friend’s feelings involves weighing personal honesty against loyalty.

Societal Moral Dilemmas

Societal moral dilemmas are those where the outcomes have broader implications for society or a community. These dilemmas often involve laws, cultural norms, or social ethics. An example is deciding whether to enforce strict laws that protect the environment but could lead to job losses in certain industries.

Global Moral Dilemmas

Global moral dilemmas encompass issues that affect large populations or have worldwide implications. These dilemmas often involve considerations of global justice, international relations, and human rights. A typical example is the debate over how wealthy nations should help poorer countries deal with climate change, balancing economic costs against moral responsibilities.

Types of Moral Dilemmas

Consequentialist vs. Deontological Dilemmas

This type of dilemma pits actions driven by outcomes against actions driven by duty or moral rules. A consequentialist decision focuses on the results of an action, aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number. In contrast, a deontological approach emphasizes the moral duty or rule that should be followed, regardless of the outcome.

Conflicting Loyalties

These dilemmas arise when an individual has competing loyalties to different people, organizations, or sets of values. The difficulty lies in deciding which loyalty to prioritize, often leading to a significant moral or emotional conflict.

Truth vs. Loyalty

In these situations, the dilemma is whether to uphold the truth (honesty) or to remain loyal to a person or group. For example, deciding whether to cover for a friend’s mistake or to report it truthfully can create a moral conflict.

Individual vs. Community

These dilemmas occur when the interests of one individual conflict with the interests or well-being of a larger group. Decisions here involve balancing personal needs or rights against the needs or rights of the community.

Justice vs. Mercy

Here, the dilemma involves deciding between enforcing strict justice and showing mercy. Justice demands fair and impartial application of rules, whereas mercy might call for leniency based on circumstances.

What Makes Something an Moral Dilemma?

Conflicting Moral Values: The choices available in a moral dilemma involve actions that support different moral or ethical values, making it difficult to choose one over the other without compromising on some moral front.

No Clear Right Answer: Unlike typical decision-making scenarios, moral dilemmas often lack a clearly correct or universally accepted answer. Each choice will have significant moral costs or consequences.

Personal and Societal Impacts: The choices made in a moral dilemma can affect not just the decision-maker but also other people and broader societal norms and values.

Irreversible Consequences: Often, the decisions in a moral dilemma result in consequences that cannot be undone, adding to the weight of the decision.

How to Identify Moral Dilemmas

When you’re trying to identify whether you’re facing a moral dilemma, here are some practical steps you can take:

  1. Clarify the Options: List all possible actions you can take in the situation. Understanding each possible course of action helps in identifying the conflicting moral principles involved.
  2. Identify the Conflicting Values: For each option, determine which moral values or principles are at stake. These could include honesty, loyalty, fairness, respect for life, and others. A moral dilemma typically involves a situation where adhering to one value results in compromising another.
  3. Consider the Consequences: Evaluate the outcomes of each option, both positive and negative. Think about the impact on all parties involved, including long-term effects. In a moral dilemma, all options will likely have some undesirable consequences.
  4. Seek Input: Sometimes, discussing the situation with others can help clarify whether it’s a moral dilemma. Others might see aspects of the situation that you’ve overlooked or provide insights into the values at stake.
  5. Reflect on Unsatisfactory Outcomes: If all options seem to lead to an unsatisfactory or regrettable outcome, it’s likely a moral dilemma. The essence of a moral dilemma is that no choice is completely right or free from ethical compromise.

Practical Example

Imagine a business leader who discovers that their company’s most profitable product is causing environmental harm. The leader must decide whether to continue selling the product, modify it, or discontinue it altogether. Here’s how they might identify the moral dilemma:

  • Options: Continue as is, modify the product to reduce harm, or stop selling the product.
  • Conflicting Values: Economic stability for employees and shareholders (by continuing sales) versus environmental responsibility (by modifying or discontinuing the product).
  • Consequences: Continuing as is maximizes profit but harms the environment; modifying the product may reduce profit and not fully eliminate environmental damage; discontinuing the product is environmentally responsible but could lead to job losses and financial instability.
  • Input: The leader might consult with environmental experts, business advisors, and other stakeholders to gauge the full impact of each decision.
  • Reflection: The leader realizes that no option is free from ethical compromise, confirming the presence of a moral dilemma.

How to Solve a Moral Dilemma

Clarify the Moral Principles Involved

Identify the conflicting values

Start by identifying the core ethical principles or values in conflict. Understanding what is at stake and which values are clashing can provide clarity on the nature of the dilemma.

Consider the consequences

Think about the potential outcomes of different decisions. This involves evaluating the consequences for all parties involved and considering who will be affected and how.

Analyze the Situation

Gather all relevant facts

Make sure you have all the necessary information about the situation. This includes understanding the context, the people involved, and any precedents or rules that may apply.

Evaluate responsibilities and roles

Consider your role in the situation and any responsibilities you may hold. This could be crucial in determining your duty in resolving the dilemma.

Seek Guidance

Consult ethical frameworks

Refer to established ethical frameworks, such as utilitarianism (focusing on outcomes), deontological ethics (focusing on duties), or virtue ethics (focusing on moral character). These frameworks can provide different perspectives on what constitutes the right action.

Discuss with others

Talking through the dilemma with trusted individuals can provide new insights and help you see different aspects of the situation. Others might offer valuable perspectives or solutions you hadn’t considered.

Make a Decision

Prioritize fundamental principles

Decide which principles are more important in the context of this particular dilemma. Sometimes, this might mean prioritizing broader ethical obligations over personal or immediate concerns.

Reflect on the decision

Consider how you would feel about your decision in the long term. Reflecting on whether you can ethically stand by your decision can be a crucial test.

Act and Reflect

Implement the decision

Once a decision is made, take action. It’s important to follow through with the chosen course of action consistently and responsibly.

Reflect on the outcomes

Afterward, reflect on the outcomes of your decision. Consider what you learned from the experience and how it could inform your approach to future moral dilemmas.

Fletcher’s Approach to Moral Dilemmas

Joseph Fletcher, known for his work on Situation Ethics, suggests that in a moral dilemma, one should act according to the principle of agape, or selfless love. According to Fletcher, the moral action in any situation is that which brings about the most love in a situation. He emphasizes that ethical decisions should be made based on the circumstances of each situation rather than through rigid laws or rules.

Key Actions in a Moral Dilemma According to Fletcher

  1. Assess the Situation: Evaluate the specific details and unique aspects of the situation without preconceived notions or legalistic morality.
  2. Prioritize Love: Choose the course of action that maximizes love, kindness, and welfare for all involved.
  3. Flexibility and Pragmatism: Be ready to adapt moral decisions flexibly, guided by the principle of love rather than strict adherence to rules.

What are Some Good Moral Dilemmas?

Moral dilemmas are situations in which a person has to choose between two or more actions, each of which upholds a different moral principle, leading to a conflict in decision-making. Here are some well-known examples:

  1. The Trolley Problem: You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track where it will kill one person. Do you pull the lever, actively causing one death but saving five lives?
  2. The Lifeboat Dilemma: You are on a lifeboat with other survivors in a situation where the boat is at capacity and taking on water. One person must be thrown overboard to save the others. Do you choose to sacrifice one life to save the rest?
  3. The Heinz Dilemma: A woman is dying, and the only way to save her is a drug that is unaffordable. Her husband Heinz can only save her by stealing the drug. Should Heinz break the law to save his wife?
  4. Self-defense vs. Pacifism: You are confronted by an aggressor intending to harm you and your family. You have the capability to use lethal force to stop the aggressor. Is it morally permissible to use violence to protect your family, or must you adhere to principles of non-violence?
  5. The Confidentiality Dilemma: A counselor learns that their client is planning to commit a serious crime. The counselor values client confidentiality but also wants to prevent potential harm. Should the counselor break confidentiality to prevent the crime?

Moral Dilemma vs Ethical Dilemma

FeatureMoral DilemmaEthical Dilemma
DefinitionA situation in which a person must choose between conflicting moral principles or values.A situation where a person must decide between conflicting ethical standards or principles.
FocusOften based on personal or cultural values.Typically based on formal codes of conduct, such as professional or legal guidelines.
Decision BasisPersonal conscience and societal norms.Professional standards, legal frameworks, and ethical theories.
Common ContextsPersonal life, relationships, cultural practices.Professional settings, businesses, legal issues.
ExamplesChoosing between telling the truth or protecting someone’s feelings.Deciding whether to follow company policy that conflicts with one’s personal ethics.

Why is the Concept of Moral Dilemma Important?

Understanding Human Values and Decision-making

Moral dilemmas are important because they force individuals to evaluate their values and ethical principles, leading to deeper understanding and insight into human morals. They test our intuitions about right and wrong and challenge us to think critically about the implications of our choices.

Development of Ethical Theory

Exploring moral dilemmas helps philosophers, ethicists, and thinkers develop and refine ethical theories. These dilemmas provide a real-world context for understanding and applying philosophical concepts like utilitarianism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics.

Practical Implications

In real life, understanding and analyzing moral dilemmas can help in making informed decisions in complex situations involving health care, law, business ethics, and personal relationships. These dilemmas often arise in professional practices, such as in medicine and law, where individuals must make tough choices that affect others’ lives.

Educational Tool

Moral dilemmas are also used in educational settings to enhance critical thinking skills and to foster debate and discussion about ethical issues, encouraging students to articulate their reasoning and engage with differing viewpoints.

What are Epistemic Moral Dilemmas?

Epistemic moral dilemmas occur when an individual faces a conflict between moral obligations and epistemic duties. The moral aspect of the dilemma involves what one ought to do based on ethical principles, such as promoting good or avoiding harm. The epistemic side concerns what one ought to believe or how one should acquire and manage knowledge, based on the principles of truth, evidence, and rationality.

Examples of Epistemic Moral Dilemmas

One classic example of an epistemic moral dilemma is the case of a physician who must decide whether to tell a patient a painful truth. Here, the physician’s moral duty to respect the patient’s autonomy (by being truthful) conflicts with a potential duty to prevent harm (by withholding distressing information).

Another example might involve a researcher who has data that could prevent harm if released immediately, but doing so without thorough peer review might lead to spreading misinformation. Thus, the researcher must choose between the immediate potential benefit and the long-term commitment to epistemic rigor and accuracy.

Resolving Epistemic Moral Dilemmas

Resolving these dilemmas often requires careful consideration of both ethical and epistemic values, and sometimes prioritizing one set of duties over another based on the context. Philosophers debate whether true dilemmas exist—situations in which one inevitably fails a duty—but in practical terms, individuals often make decisions that favor one set of principles, acknowledging the trade-offs involved.

Moral Dilemma Questions

  1. Trolley Problem: If you could save five people by diverting a runaway trolley onto a track where it will kill one person, would you do it?
  2. Lifeboat Ethics: If you are on a lifeboat that can only hold ten people and there are eleven of you, how do you decide who has to leave the boat to ensure the survival of the others?
  3. Whistleblowing: Is it morally acceptable to expose your company’s harmful practices, knowing that it may lead to job losses and economic hardship for your colleagues?
  4. Self-defense versus Pacifism: If you are attacked and the only way to save yourself is by potentially harming or killing the attacker, is it morally justifiable to defend yourself?
  5. Confidentiality versus Protection: As a professional (doctor, lawyer, counselor), should you break confidentiality if you know doing so could prevent harm but would also betray your client’s trust?
  6. Resource Allocation in Healthcare: If there are limited medical resources, how should they be allocated? Should younger patients be prioritized over older ones, or should it be based on a first-come, first-served basis?
  7. Lying to Protect Someone’s Feelings: Is it ever morally acceptable to lie if the truth might cause unnecessary harm or distress?

Answers to Moral Dilemma Questions

Trolley Problem

Decision: In the trolley problem, many people might choose to divert the trolley to save five people at the cost of one life. This decision is often justified by utilitarian ethics, which prioritize actions that result in the greatest good for the greatest number. However, others may argue that actively choosing to divert the trolley makes one directly responsible for the death of the one person, which is morally impermissible.

Lifeboat Ethics

Decision: Decisions in lifeboat ethics often revolve around utilitarian principles or fairness (such as drawing lots). Ethically, one might argue for the sacrifice of one to save many, or consider factors like age, health, or social responsibilities (e.g., parents of young children) to make a decision. This scenario tests the balance between fairness and utilitarian outcomes.


Decision: Ethical considerations in whistleblowing include the duty to prevent harm and uphold justice versus loyalty to one’s employer and colleagues. Generally, if the harm being prevented is significant, many ethical frameworks would support whistleblowing, especially if internal channels have been exhausted and ignored.

Self-defense versus Pacifism

Decision: Most ethical systems justify self-defense when it is the only option to prevent immediate and unjust harm to oneself. However, the force used must be proportional to the threat. Pacifists might refuse to respond violently under any circumstances, prioritizing moral consistency over personal safety.

Confidentiality versus Protection

Decision: The duty to maintain confidentiality can be overridden if disclosing information prevents a clear and imminent harm. For instance, if a client poses a threat to themselves or others, professionals are often ethically and legally obliged to report this, prioritizing the protection of life over confidentiality.

Resource Allocation in Healthcare

Decision: This dilemma involves ethical principles such as maximizing benefits, treating people equally, promoting and rewarding social usefulness. Common approaches include prioritizing based on medical urgency, potential for recovery, and sometimes life stage considerations (e.g., prioritizing the young who have not had a ‘fair innings’).

Lying to Protect Someone’s Feelings

Decision: Ethical perspectives vary widely here. Some argue that honesty is always the best policy and that lying undermines trust. Others believe in compassionate deception if the lie protects someone from unnecessary pain, advocating a more situational approach to ethics.

Can you give an example of a moral dilemma?

Yes, choosing between telling the truth that hurts someone’s feelings and lying to keep them happy is a common moral dilemma.

Why do moral dilemmas matter?

Moral dilemmas are crucial as they test our values, ethics, and decision-making processes, influencing personal and societal moral growth.

How do moral dilemmas affect decision-making?

Moral dilemmas complicate decision-making by presenting choices that conflict with one’s ethical principles, requiring careful thought and judgment.

What are the types of moral dilemmas?

There are several types, including real, theoretical, and personal dilemmas, each presenting unique ethical challenges.

How do philosophers approach moral dilemmas?

Philosophers analyze moral dilemmas through ethical theories like utilitarianism and deontology to explore the complexities of moral reasoning.

What role do emotions play in resolving moral dilemmas?

Emotions significantly influence how individuals resolve moral dilemmas, often guiding decisions based on personal feelings and experiences.

Can moral dilemmas be resolved logically?

Yes, logical reasoning can help in resolving moral dilemmas by evaluating consequences and ethical principles systematically.

How do cultural differences impact moral dilemmas?

Cultural differences shape the interpretation and resolution of moral dilemmas by influencing the underlying values and ethical norms.

Are moral dilemmas always resolvable?

Not always. Some moral dilemmas remain unresolved due to their complex nature and the equally compelling moral arguments on all sides.

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