A moral dilemma is a situation in which an individual must choose between two moral options. Each option has advantages and disadvantages that contain significant consequences.
Choosing one option means violating the ethical considerations of the other option. So, no matter which option is selected, it both upholds and violates at least one moral principle.
When moral dilemmas are discussed formally, the individual that must make the decision is referred to as the agent.
Moral Dilemma Features
McConnell (2022) identifies the crucial features of a moral or ethical dilemma:
- The agent (person) is required to do one of two moral options
- The agent (person) is capable of doing each one
- The agent (person) cannot do both
McConnell explains that the agent should choose option A, but at the same time, the agent should choose option B. All things considered, both options are equivalently positive and negative, but in different aspects.
Thus, no matter which option is chosen, it will result in a moral failure.
Types of Moral Dilemmas
- Epistemic: This type of moral dilemma is when the person has no idea which option is the most morally acceptable. Although in many moral dilemmas it can be somewhat clear which option should take precedence, in the epistemic moral dilemma, the matter is ambiguous.
- Ontological: This is a moral dilemma in which the options available are equal in every respect. The person knows and has a clear understanding that both options are equivalent. Most experts on morality agree that ontological moral dilemmas are genuine dilemmas.
- Self-imposed: This is the type of moral dilemma that the person has created themselves. They have engaged in a wrongdoing of some kind and are then faced with resolving the matter.
- World-imposed: When the moral dilemma is brought about by others and the person must resolve the matter, it is referred to as a world-imposed moral dilemma, and is also often an example of a social dilemma. The person is in the situation, but not due to any wrongdoing or mistake they are responsible for.
- Obligation: Some moral dilemmas involve options in which the person feels they must enact each one. It is a sense of responsibility to engage both options that creates the moral dilemma. The tension arises because they can only choose one, but they are obligated to do both.
- Prohibition: A moral dilemma in which each option is reprehensible is called a prohibition dilemma. Each option would normally not be considered due to its unethical nature. However, the person must choose.
Moral Dilemma Examples
1. Exposing Your Best Friend: The person (aka the ‘agent’) is in a supervisory position but recently discovered that his best friend has been faking the numbers on several sales reports to boost his commissions.
Type: This is a self-imposed moral dilemma. The person has not done any wrongdoing, but they are in the position to decide whether to expose their friend’s unethical behavior.
2. Tricking a Loved One with Alzheimer’s: In this scenario, a loved one has been placed in a special residential center, which is expensive. Their children don’t have the funds to pay, but the loved one does. Unfortunately, the only way to access those funds is to trick the loved one into revealing their bank account information.
Type: This seems to be an obligation moral dilemma. The person feels they must take care of their loved one’s expenses, but they also feel a duty to respect their loved one’s autonomy and not deceive them.
3. Cheating on a Boyfriend: The person/agent cheated on their boyfriend while at a conference, which occurred right after a huge fight where they both said they wanted to break up. However, now that they’re back together, the question becomes: should the boyfriend be told?
Type: This is a self-imposed moral dilemma, as the person’s actions led to the situation where they must decide whether to confess their infidelity.
4. Selling a Used Car: The person has two close friends. One is considering buying a car from the other. They know the car has a serious problem with the engine, but their friend is not disclosing it.
Type: This can be seen as an ontological moral dilemma, as the person must choose between two equivalent actions: betraying the trust of one friend by revealing the car’s problems or betraying the trust of the other friend by staying silent.
5. Recalling a Faulty Product: The CEO of a large corporation has been informed that one of their products causes cancer in lab rats. The mortality rate is low and the company has spent millions on R&D and marketing. Recalling the product could mean bankruptcy and thousands of lost jobs.
Type: This could be a world-imposed moral dilemma as the person/agent didn’t personally contribute to the faulty product but must decide whether to recall the product or risk public health.
6. Global Supply Chains: The BOD knows that the rare Earth minerals they need for their electronics products are being mined by children. Not using that source means the company would be required to raise the price of its products considerably. And that means competitors will win huge market share.
Type: This is an obligation dilemma. The person feels obligated to both keep their products affordable (and their company competitive) and to avoid supporting unethical labor practices.
7. Admitting a Mistake: The person only analyzes part of the data involved in a pharmaceutical study so that the medication looks effective. A year later, the BOD is charged with a crime because the government learned that the medication causes a severe health issue in users.
Type: This is a self-imposed dilemma because the agent’s decision to only analyze part of the data led to the current situation.
8. In Child Protection Services: The ‘agent’ in this dilemma is a case worker. They know that charges against a parent were fabricated by a vengeful ex, but yet the rules state that charges must be filed and the children removed from the household, most likely for several months until a full investigation has been completed.
Type: This could be an epistemic dilemma because the person doesn’t know which action – following the protocol or not filing charges knowing they were fabricated – is the most morally correct.
9. Playground Accident at School: The agent’s co-teacher was looking at their phone on the playground when one of the students under their supervision fell off the equipment and broke their arm. If the person tells the truth, the co-teacher, who is supporting three children as a single parent, will be fired.
Type: This could be seen as an ontological dilemma, as the person must choose between two equally significant outcomes: telling the truth and potentially causing their co-teacher to lose their job, or staying silent and potentially putting the school and other students at risk.
10. In Geo-Politics: The president of a company knows that they are dependent on doing business with another country that has severe human rights violations. If they move out of that market it will mean huge losses. If they stay, it means putting money in the pockets of people that commit crimes against humanity.
Type: This might be classified as a prohibition dilemma, as both options – supporting a regime that violates human rights or causing significant financial loss to the company and its stakeholders – are morally objectionable.
11. Conflict of Professional Ethics: Imagine a journalist finds sensitive but vital information about a potential major scandal involving a beloved public figure who happens also to be the journalist’s dear friend.
Type: This represents a self-imposed dilemma, as the journalist must reconcile their professional obligation with their personal relationship.
12. Prioritizing Elder Care: Imagine a working individual struggling to balance work responsibilities with eldercare. On one hand, they want to provide proper care for their elderly parent but on the other hand, they fear losing their job.
Type: This could be classified as an obligation dilemma, as the individual is torn between two significant responsibilities.
13. Intellectual Property Misuse: A computer engineer discovers their colleague is misusing intellectual property from a previous employer to boost productivity at the current firm.
Type: This scenario represents an ontological moral dilemma, where the engineer must choose between reporting their colleague and protecting the workplace.
14. Revealing Confidential Information: An employee learns that their company’s financial health is more severe than communicated publicly. They fear that if they don’t warn their co-workers, they all risk losing their jobs without prior notice.
Type: This could be seen as a world-imposed moral dilemma, as the employee had no hand in creating the financial instability but must decide how to handle the information.
15. Exploitative Marketing: A marketing manager at a fast-food company is asked to develop campaigns targeting low-income neighborhoods, where obesity rates are already high.
Type: This represents an obligation dilemma, as the manager is expected to fulfill their job duty while battling against contributing to societies’ health problem.
16. Academic Dishonesty: A student discovers their friend plagiarizing an entire assignment. On one hand, they feel they should report the violation, but they also fear losing their friend.
Type: This is a self-imposed dilemma as the student’s action led to the situation where they must decide whether to uphold academic integrity or maintain their friendship.
17. Unethical Labor Practices: A manufacturing company explicitly doesn’t use sweatshop labor. It’s discovered that their major supplier uses such practices.
Type: This is an obligation dilemma, as the company feels a responsibility to its reputation and ethical standards, but severing ties with the major supplier could risk business operations.
18. Business Versus Environment: A construction company discovers an endangered species habitat in an area planned for building a lucrative housing project.
Type: This is an epistemic dilemma, as the company has to choose between its economic interests and environmental responsibilities not knowing which is the morally correct decision.
Applications of Moral Dilemmas
1. In Nursing
According to Arries (2005), among all of the professionals in healthcare, nurses have the most frequent interactions with patients.
As a result, they confront moral dilemmas on a regular basis, and often experience severe emotional distress.
They often must balance obligations regarding professional duties and personal convictions involving their values and beliefs.
In fact, nurses face a wide range of moral dilemmas. Rainer et al. (2018) conducted an integrative review of published research from 2000 – 2017 which dealt with ethical dilemmas faced by nurses.
The review identified several main categories or moral dilemmas: end-of-life issues, conflicts with physicians, conflicts with patient family members, patient privacy matters, and organizational constraints.
In a meta-analysis of nine studies in four countries, de Casterlé et al. (2008) examined the moral reasoning of nurses based on Kohlberg’s (1971) theory of moral development.
The study used an adapted version of the Ethical Behaviour Test (EBT) to measure nurses’ moral reasoning as it applies to practical nursing scenarios (de Casterle´ et al. 1997).
The results suggested that nurses tended to function at a conventional level of moral reasoning, rather than at a higher, postconventional level in Kohlberg’s stages.
2. In Journalism
Many people that enter the field of journalism do so out of noble goals to promote truth, help the public stay informed, and reveal unethical practices in society.
The very nature of those goals leads to journalists being immersed in moral dilemmas stemming from a variety of issues.
Journalists must gather information from sources that can be reluctant to reveal their identity. This presents the moral dilemma of somehow establishing credibility for one’s information, but at the same time protecting the rights and wishes of an anonymous source.
Protecting victims’ rights to privacy can be in direct conflict with the public’s right to know. This produces an ethical quandary that nearly every journalist will face in their career. This can be particularly tricky when dealing with public figures, elected officials, or children.
Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest come into play in journalism in several situations. Journalists are supposed to be impartial and cover stories fairly and objectively. However, conflicts of interest can emerge when the story might impact an advertiser negatively or reflect poorly on the company’s ownership.
Particularly troublesome in the era of new media news is the moral dilemma regarding the accuracy of information presented in coverage. On the one hand, journalists are obligated to provide the audience with information that is valid. That takes time. On the other hand, being first has always been a priority in the journalism profession. Accuracy is tied directly to credibility, but at the same time, being second to go public with news tarnishes the agency’s reputation.
Deuze and Yeshua (2001) point out that one core moral dilemma in journalism centers on how to establish credibility in the age of social media and the lightning speed of the Internet. New media journalists struggle to establish credibility in an environment crowded with gossip, amateur journalists, and fake news (Singer, 1996).
3. In Business
There are no shortage of moral dilemmas in the business world, no matter how large or small the company (Shaw & Barry, 2015).
A small sample of ethical issues are described below.
Product Quality vs. Profit
Nearly every item made can be produced to a higher standard. That is not the problem. The problem is that those higher standards usually entail higher costs. So, the tradeoff becomes an issue of competing priorities: product quality or product profitability.
This seems to be a decision that a lot of US corporations have already completed. Offshoring labor is usually cheaper. But, it comes at a cost to the homeland. Fewer jobs means a weaker economy and possibly an array of psychosocial dysfunctions. If you ask the various BODs however, they will tell you that they have to honor their fiduciary obligation to make the most profit for the company they run. Often, that means offshoring jobs.
Employee Social Media Behavior
On the one hand, what people do in their personal time is supposed to be just that, personal. On the other hand, each employee represents the company and if they engage in behavior online that reflects poorly on the company, then that can justify terminating their contract.
It can be easy to stretch the truth a little bit to make a product or service look its best. How far to stretch that line is where the moral dilemma forms. In cases that are basically inconsequential, like foods and such, a little gloss is relatively harmless. However, when it comes to products that are consequential such as pharmaceuticals and insurance policies, the moral dilemma is so serious that the government has legislated marketing rules and regulations that must be strictly followed.
Many countries have strict laws about labor practices that involve child labor and working conditions. But, many countries do not. Some of the labor practices in those countries are absolutely shocking. Companies in industrialized countries such as in the EU are supposed to monitor their supply chains carefully. They can be held accountable if found in violation of their home country’s regulations. The moral dilemma occurs when the company feels it must turn a blind-eye to circumstances if it wants to stay in business.
So many companies today are aware of their environmental footprint. They must make a calculated decision as to how much environmental damage they can accept in balance with expectations of their customers and damage to the environment. That balance is getting harder to ignore as societies become more environmentally conscious and social media increasingly powerful.
A moral dilemma is when an individual, referred to as an agent, is confronted with a situation in which they must choose between two or more moral options.
Unfortunately, each option has its own ramifications that make the choice between one or the other difficult.
Moral dilemmas are prevalent in our personal and professional lives. Several professions are especially rife with moral dilemmas. For instance, those in the healthcare industry must make decisions that can have life-and-death consequences.
Journalists must grapple with a range of moral dilemmas that involve establishing credibility of their content, verifying the accuracy of their information, plus issues of impartiality.
Business leaders today also cannot escape moral dilemmas. They must make decisions that impact employees, customers, and unseen individuals that work throughout fast supply chains.
As the world has become so interconnected, it seems that the number and severity of moral dilemmas continues to grow.
Arries, E. (2005). Virtue ethics: An approach to moral dilemmas in nursing. Curationis, 28(3), 64-72.
de Casterlé, B. D., Grypdonck, M., & Vuylsteke-Wauters, M. (1997). Development, reliability, and validity testing of the Ethical Behavior Test: a measure for nurses’ ethical behavior. Journal of Nursing Measurement, 5(1), 87-112.
de Casterlé, B., Roelens, A., & Gastmans, C. (1998). An adjusted version of Kohlberg’s moral theory: Discussion of its validity for research in nursing ethics. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 27(4), 829-835.
de Casterlé, B. D., Izumi, S., Godfrey, N. S., & Denhaerynck, K. (2008). Nurses’ responses to ethical dilemmas in nursing practice: meta‐analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 63(6), 540-549.
Deuze, M., & Yeshua, D. (2001). Online journalists face new ethical dilemmas: Lessons from the Netherlands. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(4), 273-292.
Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development. Moral Education, 1(51), 23-92.
McConnell, T. (2022 Fall edition). Moral Dilemmas. In Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (Eds.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Archived at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/moral-dilemmas/
Rainer, J., Schneider, J. K., & Lorenz, R. A. (2018). Ethical dilemmas in nursing: An integrative review. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 27(19-20), 3446–3461. https://doi.org/10.1111/jocn.14542
Sainsbury, M. (2009). Moral dilemmas. Think, 8, 57 – 63. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1477175609000086
Shaw, W. H., & Barry, V. (2015). Moral issues in business. Cengage Learning.
Singer, J. B. (1996). Virtual anonymity: Online accountability and the virtuous virtual journalist. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 11, 95–106
Strauß, N. (2022). Covering sustainable finance: Role perceptions, journalistic practices and moral dilemmas. Journalism, 23(6), 1194-1212.