Ethical dilemma

Here we are going to investigate the notion of the ethical dilemma. In the first instance, we will try to define it correctly. It is important to do so, at the end of the day, there are many kinds of dilemmas. And it happens that the ethical dilemma has its peculiarities, being also of great importance in our societies.


What is an ethical dilemma? This is the first question we must ask before continuing. As might be expected, it is related to the word ethics . Therefore, it is from this perspective that we must understand the matter we are dealing with.

The ethical dilemmas presented ethically conflicting situations between two options, which can not be categorized entirely good or entirely bad. The agent involved will always face – whatever he chooses – both positive and negative consequences.

The conflict between two alternatives takes place in the order of the values ​​and beliefs of the individual or the agent.

It is common to run into moral and ethical dilemmas ; however, the ethical dilemma deals with the dimension of universal beliefs and values, which have a more permanent character.

The moral dilemma , although it has a collective dimension, conflicts with moral rules that vary in contexts, over time and in different cultures.

In practice, ethical dilemmas work to generate awareness and debate, to train in the observation and management of values ​​and emotions in groups and people. They are also used in personnel selection tests.

We have made this clarification for the simple reason that the idea of ​​an ethical dilemma is often confused with a moral dilemma . In any case, we have already realized that they are quite different.

On the other hand, it remains to be said that ethical dilemmas are not uniform . On the latter, we will speculate and give information in the following sections of this text.

Types of ethical dilemmas

Types of ethical dilemmas

The notion of an ethical dilemma is not entirely uniform, it shows a diversity of real, hypothetical, dimensional situations, which allow them to be classified according to several criteria, namely:

  • Hypothetical dilemma. The hypothetical nature of this dilemma does not imply that it is implausible in any circumstance, although it is highly unlikely that a person will go through it. Hypothetical dilemmas are used as pedagogical tools. 
  • Real dilemma. Taken out of everyday life, it is the dilemma that any individual can experience. These are dilemmatic situations at work, at home, in the social group to which it belongs. They are usually less tragic than hypothetical dilemmas, but because of their real nature, they end up being more distressing. They also fulfill a pedagogical function and put ethical convictions to the test. That is, they show situations in which the person who knows him is not necessarily the protagonist.
  • Open dilemma or solution. These dilemmas, as is to be expected, are left open for them to be exposed and solved by a third party. Due to their open nature, they are of great help to weigh the scales of values ​​in the context in which they take place.
  • Closed dilemma or analysis. For obvious reasons, this type of dilemma already implies that the conflict situation has been solved (if the expression fits) and it remains to assess the performance of the protagonist. 
  • Complete dilemmas. The dilemmas thus described are those in which their connoisseurs have full access to the ethical consequences that each of the options entails.
  • Incomplete dilemmas. Starting from the previous explanation about the complete dilemmas, in these dilemmas the connoisseurs of the dilemma do not have access to the consequences of the decisions made by the protagonist. It is up to your interpreters or readers to discern in order to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the solution.

Solving an ethical problem has the disadvantage of the great variety of these dilemmas. In this case, it is necessary to know and take them into account . They are one of the most complex to analyze and deal with. Many important situations in the history of humanity are related to the way in which ethical dilemmas are resolved.

Ethical dilemmas in practice

Ethical dilemmas in practice

Ethical principles create ethical dilemmas. It is very common for ethical principles to conflict in various areas of social life . Problems that have two valid and exclusive solutions, in addition to being legitimately rebuttable, create tensions that are difficult to solve. For example, professions in general have a code of ethics that is based on universal principles.

But to be more specific, the following hypothetical example is observed . We have chosen it, since it demonstrates very well what we want to demonstrate.

  • The non-governmental organization X against sexual abuse in Mexico, undertakes a field study to determine the seriousness of the problem . Before beginning the interviews with the victims , it is advisable to abide by the code of ethics for the investigation, which protects the confidentiality and anonymity of the interviewees.
  • While the interview with a teenage girl (Y) is taking place in her house, a man (Z), unknown to the organization, breaks in. Because Y knows him and shows no signs of annoyance (on the contrary), the interview runs its course.
  • Z, realizing that it was a formal and recorded interview, sits up and affirms that he is a “pimp” (pimp) and has no fear of the police because everyone there knows it. Making use of his freedom, he hints that impunity allows him to move freely.

The aforementioned situation would pose an unexpected dilemma for the non-governmental organization: to report the sexual exploitation committed by the alleged pimp or to safeguard their right to anonymity and confidentiality.

In other words, if the organization denounces the alleged sexual exploitation carried out by the accidental informant, it would put an end to the violation of one of the victims’ rights; however, this would violate the right to anonymity and confidentiality.

On the other hand, if the organization safeguards these latter rights, it would not be able to report the informant and, consequently, it would continue to exploit the young women . This dilemma is perfectly possible and you should consider the context in which it takes place for its possible solution.

This is where a real dilemma arises. It is worth saying that reporting person Z has negative consequences. From now on, no one else would trust the confidentiality secret . Therefore, it would be very difficult to do more research on it in the times to come.

Other interesting examples of these types of dilemmas

In order to study the ethical status of children and adolescents, the American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed Heinz’s ethical dilemma . Based on the response of the boys, it could infer the reason for their answer, the degree of compliance with the rules or the relative relevance that it could imply in some cases.

The dilemma arises from the hypothetical situation. We are going to detail it so that our readers know Heinz’s ethical dilemma:

  • The wife of a certain Heinz is ill with cancer and will die if nothing is done to save her. This is the starting situation.
  • Doctors believe she could be saved by treating the woman with an experimental drug discovered by a pharmacist.
  • Knowing the importance of the substance, the pharmacist is five times the sale price, reaching $ 5,000.
  • Heinz borrows from all his friends and manages to raise just $ 2,500. That is, only half the money needed to buy the drug.
  • The man visits the pharmacist to tell him to sell him the medicine for half the price, because his wife is dying, and then he will pay the difference. 
  • The apothecary, however, does not accept, claiming that he has every right to sell it at once at that price to make money.
  • Mr. Heinz then finds himself at the crossroads of stealing the medicine or letting his wife die.

Is it valid to steal the medicine to steal the wife? It is a strong dilemma, because it puts many things at stake. For example, is human life more important than legality?

It is difficult for you ever to face a dilemma like the one above; However, the truth is that all people go through difficult situations , where they put the ethical principles they have adopted to the test. In any case, the decisions made will have more or less negative, more or less good consequences.

Let’s look at other examples of an ethical dilemma

For example, a family member may be involved in drug trafficking , your child could be the boy who bullies a classmate at school.

In the event of a complaint from the neighbor or another fellow student, what would you do if your child is the abused one? The answer could be easy. But what if your child is the abusing agent?

In case you are part of the problem, you would probably be faced with the dilemma of taking action against the perpetrators . Would you apply double standards in both situations, because the abuser is your child? Or would you always be, by ethical principles, in favor of a victim, whoever the culprit is?

Science and medicine face ethical dilemmas

In the area of ​​research and human health, euthanasia, abortion, genetic biology, organ transplantation , regularly pose ethical dilemmas that tend to be resolved at the legal level.

In short, the ethical dilemmas are there, confronting society, individuals, with their convictions and beliefs. They are not abstractions of human life, they are expressions of behavior and social order.

It must be said that these dilemmas seem to be very present in political decisions. It happens that they are dilemmas that usually affect large numbers of people. And to be honest, many times the requirements of all humans cannot be met.

For the aforementioned, that then the allocation to decide who is favored and who is not. It also happens that people often get a lot of trouble for solving ethical problems . They are the type of dilemmas that usually cause inaction, many times people prefer not to act or not decide when faced with these dilemmas.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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