TS002 – What are Ethical Dilemmas?

TS002 - What are Ethical Dilemmas?

In this episode we will have a look at ethical dilemmas. What are they? What are some different opinions in making an ethical choice? There are several schools of thought in finding a solution to an ethical dilemma. The consequentialist school maintains that actions are either moral or immoral depending on the outcome (the consequence) of the action. An action is morally right, if it results in an increase in the overall happiness for the people. The deontological school states that the outcome of an action is irrelevant. It is the action itself that is moral or immoral. Lying, according to this school, is always wrong, regardless of the outcome. There are arguments for and against each one of these schools of thought.

I would like to start off with a little example, a classic. A man has a wife and 3 kids at home, but he is jobless and his family is starving. Is it morally right for the man to steal money to support his family? If he steals money, then he does something wrong, but the outcome is good. If he does not steal, then the family will starve. Whatever his choice, there is a moral problem and a moral rule is transgressed.

Now if you think that this is a rather extreme example and not very realistic, then I would like to inform you that ethical dilemmas are often formulated in a simplified, idealized manner to get the point across and to make them more accessible to systematic study. Some of you may now say that he should go out and find a job or that it is the responsibility of government agencies to support the family. Others may give the recommendation that the father should stay at home and the mother should find a job. Maybe she has a better chance. But for right now, we ignore these possibilities.
Now, how do you go about solving ethical dilemmas? What should the man do, based on the given information? First, it must be made clear that dilemmas can not be “solved” like a mathematical problem. There are of course different ethical approaches and there are rational methods. But a universally acceptable “correct” solution does probably not exist. I would recommend a 4-step guideline in approaching problems like these.

  • Step 1: First you have to know that you will have to break a moral value. It is in the nature of dilemmas that you will, ultimately, break one ethical or moral rule when you do make your choice. If you do not decide and lean back, then you also have chosen not to act, and yes, there will be an unfavorable outcome as well. You have to be prepared to accept criticism for your decision. And you have to understand that ethical dilemmas can not be solved like a puzzle.
  • Step 2: Next, you should analyze the actions that you have to take. In the example of the starving family, the man has two choices: either not to act, or to steal. Not stealing is morally acceptable. Stealing is not. You should not consider the consequences of your actions yet! Just analyze the actions independently of the possible outcomes. This may be difficult to do, but you should try.
  • Step 3: We are not finished yet, and the next step is quite crucial. You should now analyze the outcomes of each action. In one case the family will starve, in the other case the family will survive. Again, consider the outcomes independently of the previous actions that were taken. In this particular example the outcomes seem to be quite clear, but in real life there may be many unexpected side effects.
  • Step 4: Only now one should compare the negative action with the negative outcome. As a last step we weigh the negative outcome of the action (the starvation) against the negative action (the stealing). Which one is a morally worse? Which one is more acceptable? Death of the family or stealing? Form a decision by weighing these two outcomes against each other.

Most of us would probably say that the life of the family has to be valued higher than the financial damage done to another person due to theft. We are choosing the lesser of two evils. But does this mean that stealing is generally acceptable if you use the money to survive? I have to admit that this reminds me a little of Robin Hood. You steal from the rich to give to the poor. Can we really deduce a general law from this particular example? Can we really say that stealing is always an option if we help other people? Of course not. Luckily many real-life situations do offer more options and other ways out of the situation.

Maybe I am simplifying this a bit, but there seem to be two schools of thought here. Some people place a strong importance on the outcome of a decision. They follow a so-called “ends-based” approach. For them the consequence of the family starving weighs more than the consequence of somebody losing his money. This school of thought is therefore called consequentialism. For them the ends may justify the means, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the final outcome.

Utilitarianism is such a consequentialist approach. For a strict consequentialist, only the outcome determines the goodness or badness of an action. The man should steal as more happiness if obtained for the whole family.

Other people place a stronger emphasis on the actions and not on the outcome. This school of thought is called deontology or “duty-based ethics”. Advocates of this school claim that there are certain ethical rules that should not be transgressed. Does this mean that the man should not steal and let his family starve? Yes, for a strict deontologists stealing is never justifiable. For them certain actions are wrong, whether the outcomes are good or bad is irrelevant. The philosopher Immanuel Kant was a notable advocate of this school of thought. You may object that the family has starved! How can this be justified? Is it not the moral duty of the man to steal to support his family? How can we weigh the duty to save the family against the duty not to steal?

They would respond with two counterarguments to this criticism. First, deontologists would state that it is not possible to fully predict the consequences of one’s actions. You can not look into the future. Maybe the man steals, but the money is not sufficient to support the family. In this case the man is guilty of theft and the family will starve just the same.

There is a second argument as well. Immanuel Kant would recommend a simple test. He would recommend the establishment of a general law. An action, according to him, is immoral if you can not establish such a general law. From now on, we generally allow stealing so support one’s family. Can we do this? We can not, because it would result in a break-down of the social order, and will ultimately cause more unhappiness. For this reason stealing is morally unacceptable.

There are also other examples that illustrate this point. Are the so-called emergency lies morally acceptable? Let’s say a potential murderer asks you for the place of the victim. Are you allowed to lie to save the victim’s life? A utilitarianist would say yes. The life of a person is more important than a lie. You make more happiness by lying.

A deontologist, on the other hand, would say, that you still should say the truth. You do not know the consequences of your actions. It could be that the victim has left the hiding place and now your lie directs a potential murderer towards his victim. In this case you have broken the moral rule of not lying, and you are, at least partially, also responsible for the death of a person.

At the end, I have to apologize a bit for the drastic examples that I used: starving family, stealing, lying and even murder. I just want to assure you that these are classical examples that are used in analyzing ethical decision-making – I did not invent these examples.

Regardless of what school of thought you follow, I am certain that you agree with Kant’s words: “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” In other words, don’t take advantage of other people – for your own advantage.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Can you find situations when it is better to follow a consequentialist approach and situations when it is better to follow the deontological school of thought?
  • What criteria can you establish that help you decide whether to follow the deontological or the consequentialist school of thought?
  • What criteria can you establish that evaluate the deontological rules ? In other words, who decides what rules to follow?


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