An ethical issue is a situation, either personal or social, that requires the application of a moral or ethical framework to form a judgment or choose a course of action (Ferrell et al., 2018; Barrett, 2018).
Ethical issues are often presented as dilemmas (Ferrell et al., 2018). In such situations, the issue is not clear-cut. This may be because there is a balance of positives and negatives, trade-off between your options (such as in opportunity costs), or contrasting moral frameworks that each have their own internal validity.
Some contemporary issues that may be considered to have an ethical component are presented below.
Ethical Issues Examples
1. Animal Rights: Humans have greatly benefited from eating animals. However, through factory farming of animals, a conundrum has emerged about how much responsibility we have to animals that are used for human food. Dilemmas we may face may include deciding on whether to buy free-range eggs, how to ethically source our meat, or whether to become vegetarian – more on that below!
2. Vegetarianism/Veganism: Building on the above, some people choose not to consume animal products due to moral, health, or environmental concerns. Some philosophers, such as Peter Singer, argue that animals should have rights similar to humans and shouldn’t be harmed for food, clothing, or experimentation.
3. Fast Fashion: Buying inexpensive clothes can save us money, but it can have social ramifications. Often, fast fashion clothing is produced by people under poor working conditions (i.e. they’re underpaid) and can cause environmental costs because the clothing ends up in landfill very quickly.
4. Climate Change: While the evidence that humans are contributing to climate change is almost irrefutable, we still face a dilemma about what steps should be taken to combat it – solutions like carbon taxes, for example, may end up harming people short-term.
5. Genetic Engineering: Altering the genes of organisms raises concerns about unforeseen consequences and playing “God”. But it could also help us to eradicate evil diseases such as cancers and dramatically reduce child mortality.
6. Privacy in the Digital Age: Personal data, such as our location and search history, is used by companies to create targeted advertisements. Some think this is fine (we get relevant ads, for example), while others think it’s a violation of privacy that could be exploited.
7. Artificial Intelligence & Ethics: The potential misuse of AI, potential widespread job loss, and its power to cause harm in the hands of the wrong people, is a hot issue since the rise of GPT large language models.
8. Organ Transplants: Deciding who gets priority for organ donations is a tricky issue that could, if we’re not careful, make us prioritize some people over others – which in itself could be a violation of human rights.
9. Food Waste: One third of all food produced is thrown away each year. The ethics surrounding throwing away edible food in light of global hunger is a hot topic worthy of greater discussion.
10. Child Labor: The use of children for labor, often in harsh conditions, primarily in poorer countries, continues to this day. Sometimes, things we own have been produced by children far down the supply lune.
11. Euthanasia: This refers to allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives. Some people rely on religious frameworks to argue against this (such as my mother – a staunch Catholic), while others consider it a compassionate option so long as the person chooses that option with sound mind.
12. Deforestation: The removal of trees to build infrastructure is necessary, but it can also harm the climate and biodiversity. Finding an appropriate balance is a key ethical issue.
13. Water Usage: Some areas of the world are water rich, while others are water poor. Finding ways to ethically allocate freshwater is a matter of ethics. This is especially true when people upstream take the good water at the expense of people downstream (such as in the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia.
14. Single-Use Plastics: The environmental impact of items used briefly and discarded is enormous. Finding a way to address this is of importance to help reduce all our ecological footprints.
15. Cultural Appropriation: The borrowing or imitation of elements from another culture without respect or understanding can be harmful. The issue lies in whether it’s a form of appreciation or disrespectful theft, potentially perpetuating damaging stereotypes.
15. Overfishing: Fishing is a means of livelihood for many, yet, unsustainable practices are depleting fish populations at an alarming rate. The ethical challenge lies in finding a balance between livelihoods, consumer demand, and ecological sustainability.
16. Internet Censorship: Censorship can protect individuals from harmful content, but it also risks infringing upon freedom of speech and information. The question becomes who should control this and how far it should go.
17. Surveillance: While surveillance can enhance security and crime prevention, it raises concerns about privacy and misuse of data. Establishing limits and safeguards is vital, but the decision of who should set these rules is a major ethical contemplation.
18. Fair Trade: This movement advocates for better trading conditions and rights for producers in developing countries. However, the ethics of fair trade are complex, such as deciding fair prices and whether the system actually benefits the intended communities.
19. Stem Cell Research: This field holds the potential for major medical advancements but raises ethical issues due to the source of some stem cells—human embryos, posing questions about the value and sanctity of human life.
20. Child Privacy Online: Protecting personal data of children online is paramount but raises questions about who is responsible – parents, software companies, or government entities.
21. GMO Foods: Genetically Modified Organisms may solve food security issues, but they raise ethical concerns about biodiversity, as well as the ‘naturalness’ of food, and unforeseen public health issues.
22. Sports Doping: The use of performance-enhancing substances in sports poses ethical dilemmas about fairness, health effects, and the nature of competition itself. The tension lies where ambition counters fair play.
23. Advertising to Children: Children are impressionable, and advertising can manipulate their desires and behaviours. The ethical issue is whether and how businesses should be regulated in their marketing towards children.
24. Cyberbullying: This form of bullying can have severe psychological impacts. The ethical challenge lies in developing effective regulations to prevent it, whilst upholding freedoms of speech and expression.
25. Consumer Data Mining: The mining of consumer data can result in more personalized experiences but raises concerns about privacy, consent, and security. It sparks debates on who should control data and how it can be used.
26. Factory Farming: This method, emphasizing high-volume, low-cost meat production, generates ethical concerns about animal welfare, environmental impacts, and workers’ conditions.
27. Endangered Species: Protecting endangered species sometimes clashes with human development and livelihoods. The ethical concern lies in balancing conservation with societal advancement.
28. Land Rights: Disputes over land embody a range of ethical issues, including indigenous rights, historical injustices, and sustainable use; deciding who has a rightful claim can be a complex decision.
29. Digital Piracy: The unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material infringes intellectual property rights but is regularly justified as a rebellion against perceived corporate greed. The ethical discussion revolves around fairness, respect, and how entertainment should be valued.
30. Responsible Tourism: Traveling can stimulate economies and foster understanding, but it can also be harmful, both to the environment and local cultures. The ethical challenge is to promote responsible tourism that respects local customs and values ecological preservation.
31. Biased Algorithms: As AI becomes more integral in our lives, the issue of algorithms inadvertently perpetuating human biases arises. Addressing this requires broad collaborations to eliminate discriminatory results.
32. Renewable vs. Non-Renewable Energy: While renewable energy is better for the environment, transitioning from non-renewable sources could disrupt economies and livelihoods. Striking a balance is an ethical priority.
33. Planned Obsolescence: This business strategy involves deliberately designing products to become obsolete after a certain period. Ethics come into play when considering long term environmental impact and consumer rights.
34. Sweatshops: The operation of sweatshops involves human rights abuses but can provide jobs where few exist. The ethical concerns involve workers’ rights, consumer responsibility, and the role of global trade practice.
35. Censorship in Media: While done to protect people from harmful or sensitive content, it can lead to public misinformation and ignorance. The ethical debate revolves around security, free speech, and the power dynamics between governments and citizens.
36. Gene Editing for Enhancement: Altering human genes to get rid of harmful health conditions is one thing, but using it to enhance our physical or cognitive abilities is another. It raises questions about the line between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, the potential widening of social inequalities and even what it means to be human.
37. Fair Taxation: The issue of taxation forms a key ethical dilemma: we need money to pay for public services, but excessive taxation can disincentivize work, business, and investment.
38. Body Image in Media: The ideal body image portrayed by the media can lead to unhealthy comparisons & behaviors, including eating disorders and body dysmorphia. This issue questions the responsibility media has in promoting a diverse and realistic range of body types versus its right to market aspirational content.
39. Child Soldiers: In some conflict zones, children are forced into fighting as soldiers. This practice not only robs them of their childhood but also exposes them to extreme physical and psychological harm.
40. Human Trafficking: Regrettably, human trafficking, a form of modern slavery, continues to occur on a global scale. The act of trading humans for forced labor or sexual exploitation poses serious ethical issues, not to mention gross human rights violations.
41. Digital Divide: The gap between those who have access to the internet and digital devices and those who do not is known as the digital divide. With growing reliance on digital technologies, addressing this gap is crucial to ensure equal opportunities for education, work, and communication (Reynolds, 2014).
42. Autonomous Vehicles: The use of AI in driving raises several ethical questions, from the algorithms used in decision-making during accidents to the security of these vehicles against hacking. Furthermore, job displacement due to automation is a significant concern.
43. Invasive Species: There’s a dilemma between controlling invasive species, which often involves methods that can harm them and the impact they have on native species and ecosystems. These decisions often weigh the preservation of biodiversity against animal welfare.
44. Girls’ Education: The education of girls in developing nations continues to be an issue of great important, with girls often afforded dramatically fewer rights than boys. This doesn’t only cause gender inequality – it also stifles nations’ economies.
45. Vaccination: While vaccines can protect society from deadly diseases, many also argue that they may infringe on an individual’s freedom of choice. Many people who choose not to be vaccinated are often convinced by nefarious actors and fake news perpetrators – such as, sadly, prominent politicians – who falsely claim links between vaccines and conditions such as autism.
46. Littering: Littering has a significant impact on the environment, wildlife, and our living spaces. The ethical considerations revolve around our individual and collective responsibilities to keep our planet clean.
47. Whistleblowing: Those who expose institutional malpractices or corruption often face risks, including job loss and physical danger. The ethical dilemmas involve finding a balance between ensuring the truth is heard and protecting the individual whistleblower’s rights.
48. Public vs. Private Education: Balancing the offered pros of private education—such as smaller classes and specialized programs—with the commitment to ensure high-quality public education for all students is a key ethical issue.
49. Preservation of Historical Sites: The clash between preserving architectural heritage and the demand for new, modern infrastructure poses an ethical problem. It brings into question the value we place on culture and history versus development and progress.
50. Child Marriage: Prevalent in certain cultures and societies, child marriage raises concerns about the violation of children’s rights, their physiological and psychological well-being, and the perpetuation of poverty and gender inequality.
51. Economic Inequality: The gap between the wealthy and the poor, both within countries and worldwide, poses ethical questions about fairness, social justice, and the roles and responsibilities of individuals, corporations, and governments.
52. Freedom of Speech vs. Hate Speech: While freedom of speech is a fundamental democratic right, it can sometimes intersect with promoting hate speech. Striking a balance between protecting individuals’ rights to express their views and preventing harm towards marginalized groups presents an ongoing ethical dilemma.
53. Animal Testing: Used in medical research and cosmetics testing, this practice raises ethical considerations of animal welfare, rights, and the justification of causing harm for potential human benefit.
54. Right to Internet Access: As the internet becomes more integral to daily life, the idea it should be a basic human right is suggested. But this opens up ethical discussions about access, affordability, and who should ensure these conditions are met.
55. Artificially Increasing Food Prices: This practice can make food inaccessible to poorer populations, leading to ethical questions about fairness, exploitation, and basic human rights to food and nourishment.
56. Zoos and Aquariums: While providing an educational opportunity for the public, and often acting as conservation centers, the business of keeping animals in captivity for entertainment faces moral questions. Balancing the welfare and quality of life for these animals against their conservation and our learning needs can be controversial.
57. Cultural Relativism: The premise that no culture’s ethics are superior to another means that potentially harmful practices such as female genital mutilation or child labor may be condoned in some societies. Deciding where to draw the line between respecting cultural differences and global human rights efforts can be challenging.
58. Right to be Forgotten: In our digital age, past mistakes can follow us forever. The ethical issue here is finding a balance between someone’s right to wipe their online slate clean, and the public’s right to information, particularly information which protects them.
59. Human Cloning: While the science is still premature, human cloning could potentially offer benefits such as organ transplants. However, concerns over the potential misuse of technology, the rights of clones, and unforeseen consequences present major ethical dilemmas.
60. Space Exploration vs. Earth Issues: It’s inspiring to reach for the stars, but allocating extensive resources to space exploration whilst Earth faces urgent crises such as poverty and climate change creates a significant moral debate.
61. Landfills: They keep our homes clean, but the environmental impact of dumping waste into land, including risks to local water supplies and wildlife, is of ethical concern. It forces us to evaluate our consumer habits and waste-management systems.
62. Colonialism’s Legacy: Divergent perspectives on whether to address past harms through restitution or reparation, or to focus on development on an individual country basis, and understandings of history, present significant ethical dilemmas.
63. Microtransactions in Gaming: Consumers, particularly young people, can spend substantial money on digital goods in games. Fairness and the potential exploitation of vulnerable consumers are pressing ethical concerns here.
64. Unpaid Internships: They may provide experience and a foot-in-the-door, but they can also favor those who can afford to work without pay, reinforcing socio-economic inequalities. Ethical dilemmas include combating this potential elitism and the exploitation of young workers.
65. Influencer Transparency: As influencers become major product pushers, issues such as undisclosed sponsorships and the manipulation of trust become critical ethical considerations.
66. Population Control: With increasing global population comes strain on resources and environmental systems. However, discussion of any form of population control often strikes chords of draconian tactics and human rights violations.
67. Redistribution of Wealth: Balancing economic inequality through wealth redistribution speaks to principles of fairness and social justice, but it also raises concerns about individual rights, especially those of the wealthy.
68. Monopolies: They can innovate and bring efficiencies, but they can also abuse their power, causing harm to consumers and potential competitors. Policies to regulate or dismantle them raise ethical considerations around business and consumer rights.
69. Preservation of Indigenous Languages: When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it. Principles of cultural respect, diversity, and prevention of linguistic discrimination are central to this ethical issue.
70. Public Health vs. Personal Freedom: Measures such as mandatory vaccination infringe on individual liberties but protect public health. Striking a balance between community well-being and personal rights sparks complex ethical debates.
71. Habitat Destruction: Building for human needs often destroys local ecosystems. Ethical considerations include species rights, human wants, and ecological and climate impacts.
72. Media Bias: Media outlets have significant influence over public opinion, yet they are often accused of bias. Ethics here include a commitment to reporting truthfully and equitably, protecting democratic processes (Plaisance, 2017).
73. Ethical Consumption: It’s often difficult to make fully informed, ethical consumption choices. From product origin transparency issues to the potential costs of ethical goods, this issue raises questions about personal responsibilities, global inequalities, and market transparency.
74. Parental Rights vs. Child’s Best Interest: Balancing a parent’s rights to raise their children as they see fit creates challenging ethical questions, especially if the parents choose to hide important information from their children or raise them in an unsafe environment.
75. Work-Life Balance: Ensuring fair pay, humane working hours, and sufficient vacation while maintaining business’ profitability and productivity is at play here.
76. Right to Repair: The ethical dilemma is between a consumer’s right to repair their own purchased goods and a company’s right to control intellectual property, affecting affordability, sustainability, and consumer rights.
77. Religious Freedom: Freedom of religion is guaranteed in most democratic countries. However, ethical issues continue to arise around religion, such as whether religious institutions should pay taxes and separation of church and state.
78. Fake News: Dissemination of false information can mislead the public and shake trust in democratic institutions. Balancing free speech with informational integrity and societal repercussions ensues as a major ethical dilemma.
79. Captive Breeding: While captive breeding programs can help save endangered species from extinction, they raise ethical questions. Are we justified in limiting an animal’s freedom for the sake of their survival? How can we ensure adequate living conditions for captive-bred animals?
80. Public Surveillance: Public security aims to protect us, but what about our right to privacy? Striking a balance between guaranteeing public safety and upholding individual privacy, especially with technological advances in surveillance, paves the way to ongoing debates.
81. Circus Animals: While traditional circuses may provide entertainment, they confine animals to unnatural living conditions and often subject them to harsh training methods. Is our entertainment worth the potential suffering of animals?
82. Duty to Report: There can be moral dilemmas surrounding our duty to report illegal activities. Should we breach friendships, family ties or professional confidence to uphold the rule of law?
83. Economic Sanctions: Designed as a non-violent method to enforce international norms, economic sanctions can inadvertently harm innocent citizens, raising questions about their ethical value.
84. Native Advertising: Native ads, which blend with editorial content, can be deceptive and blur the line between entertainment and salesmanship. This raises ethical questions surrounding transparency and the consumer’s right to know.
85. Digital Detox: As technology permeates every aspect of our lives, the idea of consciously disconnecting feels increasingly rebellious. This raises ethical questions about the extent of our reliance on digital media and the length these companies go to retain our attention.
86. Preservation vs. Progress: Balancing the preservation of historical sites or natural environments against infrastructural and technological progress can provoke ethical and moral debates about respecting our past and catering to our future.
87. Ethical Banking: As some financial institutions are implicated in questionable practices such as supporting fossil fuels or oppressive regimes, the rise of ethical banking poses questions about financial responsibility and the role of money in supporting societal wellbeing or harm.
88. Welfare Programs: The allocation of welfare raises ethical questions. Who should be eligible, and how much support should they receive? Is it okay to let some people struggle if that means more money goes to the most vulnerable?
89. Healthcare: Some places in the world consider healthcare to be a right for all citizens, implementing universal access to all through progressive taxation. But many nations in the world do not guarantee this, causing it to become an area of ethical contention.
90. Access to Education: Disparities in the quality of, and access to, education fuels social inequality, raising ethical questions about fair and equitable opportunities for all children.
91. Captive Marine Life: The capture and captivity of marine life for entertainment, research or conservation purposes face ethical scrutiny, most particularly concerning animal welfare, ethics of captivity and conservation issues.
92. Child Stardom: Forcing or allowing children into the limelight at a young age can potentially rob them of a normal childhood and expose them prematurely to high-pressure situations. Balancing parental ambitions, child protections and artistic potential is a challenging ethical questions.
93. Cognitive Enhancements: The use of drugs or procedures to augment cognitive abilities presents ethical dilemmas. Do these advantages deepen societal inequalities? Is it ethical to pathologize normal cognitive variations?
94. Food Labeling: Ethical issues arise when companies use misleading, false, or confusing language on food labels, which may compromise the consumer’s right to know what they’re consuming, especially in regard to health and environmental implications.
95. Charity Efficiency: While donating to charity is a noble cause, not all charities use donations efficiently. The ethical issue here is how much transparency there should be about how donations are used, and how efficiency should be measured.
96. Right to Clean Water: Despite being a basic human necessity, access to clean water isn’t universally granted. Ensuring equal access poses an ethical challenge, particularly when determining responsibility between citizens, corporations, and governments.
97. End-of-Life Care: Decisions around end-of-life care, such as palliative care and withholding treatment, raise profound ethical concerns about the value and quality of life, autonomy and dignity, and the role of medical professionals in these decisions.
98. Use of Drones: The use of drones raises ethical concerns, particularly around privacy – are we okay with potentially being watched without our consent? There are also issues of public safety and questions about the legality of their proliferation.
99. Upcycling vs. Recycling: Both are better for the environment than simply throwing things away, but which is better? Upcycling can create new, usable items, but it can use more resources than simply recycling the material.
100. Digital Accessibility: As our world becomes more digitized, it’s crucial to ensure everyone, including those with disabilities, can equitably access information and services. Failing to design for all users raises ethical implications about inclusivity and diversity in the digital era.
101. Isolationism: There is extensive debate over whether nations should participate in global institutions like the UN and attempt to support victimized nations like Ukraine and Taiwan, or whether to retreat from global politics.
Ethical issues are all around us, presenting conflicting courses of action that often diverge based upon differing worldviews and conflicting ideologies. Sometimes, our ethical issues are also simply based upon a trade-off between two good but different options, or two bad options (in which case you need to consider the lesser evil).
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]