The definition of ethical dilemmas

Updated March 23, 2017

One of the most famous philosophical arguments is whether it is just to take someone's life to save another person's life. Ethical dilemmas such as this have no right or wrong answer. Philosophers attempt to find the optimal answer in an ethical dilemma by looking at the real-world consequences of the possible outcomes and the morality of each choice.


Ethical or moral dilemmas occur when a person, called an "agent" in philosophy, has the ability to make two choices, but can only perform one or the other, according to Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Take, for example, owing a weapon to someone who becomes unstable, as occurred in Plato's "Republic." The agent has a legitimate moral imperative for each choice: repaying a debt and keeping a friend from possibly causing harm. Thus, the agent ultimately "fails" in the dilemma because he ought to complete both actions, but the actions are mutually exclusive.


Some thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, believe that a truly just moral code should not permit the presence of ethical dilemmas, according to Stanford University. Modern ethicists, however, sometimes reject this notion. Take the case of "Sophie's Choice" by William Styron. A Nazi concentration camp guard tells Sophie he will kill one of her two children, but she must choose which one shall die. In this scenario, Sophie has the same obligation and desire for each child. Philosophers call this a symmetrical moral dilemma.


Society often declares laws to reduce the incidence of ethical dilemmas. Laws governing ethics are especially common in business, according to the Loyola Marymount University Center for Ethics and Business. Even with laws, ethical dilemmas still exist and the laws are sometimes vague. In business, for example, insider trading (using nonpublic knowledge in stock trading) is illegal. It is not wrong, however, to take good luck and opportunity to advance in business and profit.

Solving Ethical Dilemmas

Philosophers use two main methods to solve ethical dilemmas: the consequentialist and deontological approach, according to University of Colorado at Boulder. The consequentalist belief requires the agent to weigh the possible outcomes, such as who will benefit the most and if anyone will be harmed, and choose the most beneficial outcome regardless of its morality. The deontological approach weighs each decision based on its righteousness.

A good example of the deontological is the famous Scottsboro Boys case. The judge made the decision to set free a black man he knew was innocent, even though prejudice at the time meant he knee he was ending his judicial career.

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About the Author

Russell Huebsch has written freelance articles covering a range of topics from basketball to politics in print and online publications. He graduated from Baylor University in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.