An ethical dilemma is a situation where two or more moral principles conflict, forcing the individual to choose between them.
The conflict between these principles often makes people struggle with deciding which one to follow and which one to compromise.
A common social dilemma example is when a physician has to choose between breaking a patient’s confidentiality or preventing harm to another person.
Ethical dilemmas go beyond being just ideas on paper (Barrett, 2018). They have a direct impact on the decisions people make in the real world.
Think about how business leaders have to balance making money and being responsible to society (Reynolds, 2014). Also, consider how journalists have to balance giving the public information and respecting people’s privacy (Plaisance, 2017).
Types of Ethical Dilemmas
Rushworth Kidder, an author and ethicist, introduced a framework outlining four types of ethical dilemmas—truth vs. loyalty, individual vs. community, short-term vs. long-term, and justice vs. mercy (Kidder, 2010).
Understanding these classifications aids in dissecting complex moral quandaries and enables effective decision-making.
Below is each type:
- Truth vs Loyalty: This type of ethical dilemma arises when one is caught between absolute honesty and allegiance to individuals or groups (Kidder, 2015). For instance, consider an employee who discovers fraudulent activities in their company. If they disclose this information, they remain truthful but might violate their loyalty to the company and colleagues (real-world example of whistleblowing).
- Individual vs. Community: Individual vs. community dilemmas involve discrepancies between personal interests and collective benefits (Kidder, 2010). A pandemic situation offers an apt example—individuals might resist wearing masks for personal comfort, but this stands contrary to the community’s need for public safety (this is a contemporary real-world example).
- Short-term vs. Long-term: This type of ethical dilemma compels one to choose between immediate benefits or long-term consequences (Kidder, 2015). For instance, a business might opt to cut corners and make profits now, despite the potential long-term detriment to its reputation and customer trust (real-world example of businesses taking shortcuts).
- Justice vs Mercy: Lastly, justice vs. mercy dilemmas highlight the tension between fair consequences and compassion (Kidder, 2010). In the courtroom, for example, a judge might struggle with issuing a strict sentence (justice) or leniency (mercy), particularly in extenuating circumstances such as the accused being a first-time offender (real-world example from the legal system).
Throughout these categories, Kidder advocated for thoughtful analysis and dialogue to navigate the complexities accompanying ethical dilemmas. His work illuminates the intricacies of moral decision-making, underscoring ethics as a dynamic and challenging field.
Examples of Ethical Dilemmas
Truth vs Loyalty
1. Conflict of Interest
This occurs when your loyalty to one party undermines your ability to be truthful or impartial to another. For instance, an auditor reviewing the accounts of a company where a relative is an executive officer faces a truth versus loyalty dilemma.
This situation evolves when an employee uncovers illegal or unethical practices within an organization. The employee must choose between loyalty to the organization and telling the truth by exposing the wrongdoing.
3. Professional Secrecy
When professionals like doctors or lawyers have information about a client that could harm others––like a patient revealing they intend to harm someone, they face a truth versus loyalty debate about whether to break confidentiality.
4. Journalism Confidentiality
Reporters often deal with the dilemma when protecting a source’s anonymity may protect wrongdoing or cause harm. They must weigh their loyalty to the source against their commitment to truth and public interest.
5. Employee Favoritism
Managers might face dilemmas when choosing between treating all employees fairly (truth) and giving preferential treatment to friends or family in the workplace (loyalty).
6. Client Representation
Lawyers often grapple with representing a client faithfully––even when the client is guilty of a crime and denying it in court. This dilemma pits their loyalty to the client against their commitment to the truth.
7. Academic Cheating
A student who is aware of another student’s academic dishonesty faces the problem of loyalty to a friend versus the truthful reporting of misconduct.
Individual vs Community
Also known as: Social Dilemma
8. Vaccination Debates
Individuals may resist getting vaccinated for personal health beliefs, conflicting with the community’s wellbeing, which benefits from herd immunity.
9. Resource Allocation
Communities may require certain resources for the common good, which may limit an individual’s access to these resources for personal use.
10. Zoning Disputes
A city’s decision to allow commercial developments in residential areas could harm the quality of life for individual residents while promoting the economic growth of the community.
11. Public Health Measures
During a pandemic, individuals may disagree with measures like lockdowns that limit their personal freedoms, even if these measures are beneficial to the community as a whole.
12. Education Policy Changes
Policies like school consolidation can affect individual children who prefer smaller, neighborhood schools over larger institutions preferable for budgetary and educational reasons.
13. Environmental Regulations
Regulations that protect the environment often restrict individual liberties by limiting options for property development or resource use.
14. Freedom of Speech
A person’s right to express potentially harmful or offensive ideas can conflict with a community’s desire for safety and respect.
Short-term vs Long-term
15. Financial Investments
Deciding to spend money now (short-term) for immediate comforts or investing it for future gains (long-term) is a classic short-term vs long-term dilemma.
16. Career Advancement
You may face the dilemma of taking an appealing job now versus pursuing education or training that may open better opportunities in the long run.
17. Environmental Considerations
A company might face a choice between using cheap, environmentally damaging production methods (short-term) or investing in sustainable practices that may bring future reputation boost and savings (long-term).
18. Health Choices
An individual may need to decide between enjoying unhealthy habits, like junk food or smoking, now versus considering the long-term health implications.
19. Business Growth
Entrepreneurs confront this dilemma when deciding whether to reinvest earnings into the company for long-term growth or take more profits in the short term.
20. Public Policy
Politicians often have to choose between pursuing policies with immediate benefits that voters will notice or focusing on the long-term, slower solutions like infrastructure development.
21. Technology Upgrades
A company might have to decide between sticking to older, cheaper technology now or investing in a costly, cutting-edge technology that promises improved efficiency and profitability in the future.
Justice vs Mercy
22. Leniency for First-Time Offenders
A judge might choose to give a strict sentence to a first-time offender to uphold justice. Conversely, mercy would suggest a more lenient sentence or rehabilitation effort, given that it’s the offender’s first mistake.
23. Pardon of a Death Row Inmate
A governor may face an ethical dilemma where they have to decide between granting a pardon to a remorseful death row inmate (mercy), and upholding the court’s decision to execute, based on the gravity of the crime committed (justice).
24. Hate Crime Retribution
A victim of a hate crime could be torn between wanting justice done – seeing the offenders punished to the full extent of the law – and showing mercy, hoping that education and awareness could change the offenders’ prejudices.
25. Academic Misconduct
A professor who catches a student plagiarizing could provide a second chance, valuing mercy to allow for learning and growth, or they could issue immediate punishment (like failing the student) to uphold academic integrity and justice.
26. Role of Advisors in Financial Crisis
Companies may seek to punish advisors implicated in a financial crisis to preserve justice, but showing mercy, reprimanding and educating them instead of outright firing, may be more constructive and prevent recurrence.
27. War Crimes Dilemma
Post-war scenarios often involve a decision between seeking justice by prosecuting war criminals, or demonstrating mercy by forgiving and focusing on national healing and reconciliation.
28. Social Welfare Decisions
Policymakers might struggle between enforcing strict eligibility criteria to ensure that only those truly deserving get social benefits (justice), versus being flexible in applying rules to avoid denying assistance to those in dire need (mercy).
Navigating an ethical or moral dilemma is no easy task, and often there is no clear right or wrong answer. Yet, understanding the principles and theories underlying ethical decision making can guide you in evaluating potential actions and their consequences (Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2018). It should help in choosing the least harmful or most beneficial course of action.
Ferrell, O. C., Fraedrich, J., & Ferrell, L. (2018). Business ethics: Ethical decision making & cases (12th ed.). Boston: Cengage.
Barrett, C. (2018). Everyday ethics for practicing planners. London: Routledge.
Plaisance, P-L. (2017). Media Ethics: Key Principles for Responsible Practice (2nd ed.). Sage Publications.
Reynolds, G. (2014). Ethics in Information Technology (4th ed.). New York: Cengage Learning.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]