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Ethical dilemmas: definition, types and 5 examples

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Ethics and morals are constructs that regulate human behavior and they allow their direction to what both individually (ethically) and collectively (moral) is considered acceptable and positive. What is good and what is bad, what we should and should not do and even what aspects we care about and value are elements derived to a large extent from our ethical system.

But sometimes we find ourselves in situations in which we do not know what to do: choosing A or B has, in both cases, negative and positive repercussions at the same time and the different values ​​that govern us enter into a conflict. We are before situations that pose ethical dilemmas.

  • Related article: "The 6 differences between ethics and morals"

A part of moral philosophy

An ethical dilemma is understood to be all those situation in which there is a conflict between the different values ​​of the person and the options for action available. These are situations in which there is going to be a conflict between various values ​​and beliefs, there being no totally good solution and another totally bad option, having both positive and negative repercussions on the time.

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These types of dilemmas require a more or less deep reflection on the alternatives that we have, as well as the value given to the moral values ​​with which we are governed. Often we will have to prioritize one or the other value, both entering into conflict in order to make a decision. They also allow us to see that things are not either black or white, as well as understand people who make decisions other than your own.

The existence of existing or possible ethical dilemmas in real life have generated an interesting branch of study focused on our beliefs and values ​​and how they are managed.

They allow us to see how we reflect and what elements we take into account to make a decision. In fact, ethical dilemmas are often used as a mechanism for educate in the use and management of emotions and values, to raise awareness about some aspects or to generate debate and share points of view between people. They are also used in the workplace, specifically in personnel selection.

  • You may be interested: "The 10 types of values: principles that govern our lives"

Types of ethical dilemmas

The concept of an ethical dilemma may seem clear, but the truth is that there is no single type. Depending on various criteria, we may find ourselves with different types of dilemmas, which may vary in their level of concreteness, in the role of the subject to whom they are presented or in their verisimilitude. In this sense, some of the main types are the following:

1. Hypothetical dilemma

These are dilemmas that place the person being asked in a position where finds himself confronting a situation that is highly unlikely to happen in real life. These are not impossible phenomena, but they are something that the person must face in their day to day on a regular basis. It is not necessary that the person to whom the dilemma is posed be the protagonist of it, and may be asked what the character should do.

2. Real dilemma

In this case, the dilemma raised is about an issue or situation that is close to the person to whom it is raises, either because it refers to an event that you have experienced or to something that can happen with relative ease in your day to day. Although they tend to be less dramatic than the previous ones, can be just as or more distressing for this reason. It is not necessary that the person who is confronted with the dilemma is the protagonist of it, and may be asked what the character should do.

3. Open or solution dilemma

The dilemmas presented as open or solution are all those dilemmas in which a situation arises and the circumstances that affect it. surround, without the protagonist of the story (who may or may not be the subject to whom it is posed) has yet taken any action to fix it. The person to whom this dilemma is suggested is intended to choose how to proceed in that situation.

4. Closed dilemma or analysis

This type of dilemma is one in which the situation has already been solved in one way or another, having made a decision and carried out a series of specific behaviors. The person who is faced with the dilemma should not decide what to do, but assess the performance of the protagonist.

5. Complete dilemmas

It is about all those dilemmas in which the person to whom they are raised is informed of the consequences of each of the options that can be taken.

6. Incomplete dilemmas

In these dilemmas, the consequences of the decisions made by the protagonist are not made explicit, depending largely on the subject's ability to imagine advantages and disadvantages.

Examples of ethical dilemmas

As we have seen, there are very different ways of proposing different types of ethical dilemmas, there are thousands of options and they are limited only by one's own imagination. We'll see now some examples of ethical dilemmas (some well known, others less) in order to see how they work.

1. Heinz's dilemma

One of the best known ethical dilemmas is Heinz's dilemma, proposed by Kohlberg to analyze the level of moral development of children and adolescents (inferred from the type of response, the reason for the response given, the level of obedience to the rules or the relative importance that their follow-up may have in some cases). This dilemma is presented as follows:

“Heinz's wife is ill with cancer, and she is expected to die soon if nothing is done to save her. However, there is an experimental drug that doctors believe may save his life: a form of radium that a pharmacist has just discovered. Although this substance is expensive, the pharmacist in question is charging many times more money than it costs to produce it (he costs $ 1,000 and charges $ 5,000). Heinz gathers all the money he can to buy it, counting on the help and the loan of money from everyone he knows, but he only manages to raise 2,500 dollars of the 5,000 that the product costs. Heinz goes to the pharmacist, to whom he tells him that his wife is dying and to whom he asks to sell him the medicine at a lower price or to let him pay for half later. The pharmacist, however, refuses, arguing that he must earn money with it since he has been the one who discovered it. That said, Heinz despairs and considers stealing the medicine. " What should he do?

  • Related article: "Lawrence Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development"

2. Tram dilemma

The tram or train dilemma is another classic among ethical / moral dilemmas, created by Philippa Foot. In this dilemma the following is proposed:

“A tram / train runs out of control and at full speed on a track, shortly before a point change. Five people are tied on this road, and they will die if the train / tram reaches them. You are in front of the change of points and you have the possibility of making the vehicle deviate to another road, but in which a person is tied. Diverting the tram / train will kill one person. Not doing it, let five die. What would you do?"

This dilemma also has multiple variants, can greatly complicate the choice. For example, the choice may be that you can stop the tram, but it will derail it with a 50% chance that all occupants will die (and 50% that all will be saved). Or you can seek more emotional involvement of the subject: propose that in one of the ways there are five or more people who they will die if nothing is done and in the other one, but that this one is the partner, child, father / mother, brother or relative of the subject. Or a child.

3. Prisoner's dilemma

The Prisoner's Dilemma is one of the dilemmas used by John Nash to explain incentives and the importance of non-decisions. only own but also others to obtain certain results, cooperation being necessary to achieve the best result possible. Although it is more economical than ethical, it also has implications in this regard.

The Prisoner's Dilemma proposes the following situation:

“Two alleged criminals are arrested and locked up, without being able to communicate with each other, on suspicion of their involvement in a bank robbery (or a murder, depending on the version). The penalty for the crime is ten years in prison, but there is no tangible evidence of the involvement of any in these events. The police propose to each of them the possibility of going free if they expose the other. If the two confess to the crime, they will each serve six years in prison. If one denies it and the other provides evidence of his involvement, the informant will be released and the other will be sentenced to ten years in prison. If both deny the facts, both will remain in prison for a year. "

In this case, more than moral we would be talking about the consequences of each act for oneself and for the other and how the result depends not only on our performance but also on that of others.

4. The noble thief

This dilemma raises the following:

“We witness how a man robs a bank. However, we observe that the thief does not keep the money, but gives it to an orphanage that lacks the resources to support the orphans who live there. We can report the theft, but if we do, it is likely that the money that the orphanage can now use to feed and care for the children will have to return what was stolen. "

On the one hand, the subject has committed a crime, but on the other he has done it for a good cause. To do? The dilemma can be complicated by adding, for example, that a person died during the bank robbery.

5. The exam

Sometimes the correct decision is made in a very ambiguous situation where we do not know if we have committed an offense or not. This ethical dilemma is based on these types of situations. It presents us with this scenario:

"You are in a university classroom taking an exam: all the students are sitting in aligned desks, answering questions that must be answered in writing. At a certain point, you have spent several minutes trying to solve a question that resists you, and seeing that you do bad weather, you decide to rest for a couple of minutes, to see if by disconnecting you can regards. However, after spending a while with a blank mind and without thinking about anything in particular and with a blank look, you realize you just saw the correct answer on the person's answer sheet in front of. Considering that you most likely will not be able to remember the correct answer, do you answer the question, or do you leave it blank? "

It's a simple test question, but... Should you take responsibility for having "copied", even if it is not entirely voluntary? Or, on the other hand, is it not your fault that your gaze has been directed to the other person's exam sheet?

Sometimes we also have to face them in real life

Some of the ethical dilemmas proposed above are statements that may seem false or a hypothetical elaboration that we will never have to face in real life. But the truth is that on a day-to-day basis we can reach having to face difficult decisions, with negative consequences or implications, we make the decision we make.

For example, we may find that an acquaintance performs an unethical act. We can also observe a case of bullying, or a fight, in which we can intervene in different ways. We often come across homeless people, and we may be faced with the dilemma of whether to help them or not. Also on a professional level: a judge, for example, has to decide whether or not to send someone to prison, a doctor may face the decision to artificially extend someone's life or not, or who should or should not be operated on.

We can observe professional malpractice. And we can also face them even in personal life: we can, for example, be witnesses of infidelities and betrayals towards loved ones or carried out by them, having the conflict of whether tell him or not.

In conclusion, ethical dilemmas are an element of great interest that tests our convictions and beliefs and they force us to reflect on what motivates us and how we organize and participate in our world. And it is not something abstract and alien to us, but they can be part of our day to day.

Bibliographic references:

  • Anscombe, G.E.M. (1958). Modern Moral Philosophy. Philosophy. 33 (124): pp. 1 - 19.
  • Benítez, L. (2009). Activities and resources to educate in values. Editorial PCC.
  • Fagothey, A. (2000). Right and Reason. Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books & Publishers.
  • MacIntyre, A. (1998). A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the 20th Century. Routledge.
  • Paul, R.; Elder, L. (2006). The Miniature Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning. United States: Foundation for Critical Thinking Free Press.
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