How to solve a dilemma? 5 steps to its resolution

Individuals regularly confront situations in which, for various reasons, it is difficult to take the correct action between two, especially when the two options compete or neither is good. Knowing what is right is occasionally a problem. When neither of the two options are clear, what is called an ethical dilemma arises , different from a moral dilemma because it is private and not collective.

To this end, the  ethical dilemma  is a short narrative that describes the options that arise in some real situations, which are morally conflicting . The dilemma may ask the reader for a resolution based on arguments or to explain the solution chosen by the protagonist of the story.

How to solve a dilemma?

In general, there are five (05) steps for the resolution of ethical dilemmas . It is important to note that there is no total consensus about this quintet of steps. However, the steps that are usually recommended are the following:

  1. Conscientious exposition of the dilemmatic situation . This step is often extremely helpful in understanding the true dimension of the dilemma in question.
  2. Identification of the person or protagonist of the dilemma . Who has the dilemma? Then, you must determine what the dilemma consists of and place it in the form of a question mark.
  3. Analysis of the options of the dilemmatic situation . Discern the arguments for and against each option.
  4. Statement of personal opinion in an argued manner and the respective conclusion
  5. Exhibition of a critical reflection , based on the legal and regulatory context or on the possible legal consequences.

This is a first alternative for the solution of these dilemmas. However, there are other variants of these steps, which are described in the subsequent lines.

Other ways to solve dilemmas 

It is worth knowing several ways to solve these issues. Keep in mind that sticking to a unison method avoids exploring any other range of possibilities.

  • List the options: Problems, when drawn as dilemmas, require choosing one of two alternatives. In case it is impossible to appeal to other options that are not so negative, it remains to be governed by the basic principles for the resolution of dilemmas.
  • Argue in favor of each option. It is interesting to do this exercise with the dilemmas because both options can have arguments in favor. Only the arguments that morally justify each possibility are valid. In dilemmas the arguments can be in favor of each alternative, but also each option entails the violation of some important moral principle.

The decision must be made in a justified manner, so it is essential that the different arguments are valued. Not only do we have to take into account the arguments that support option A, which is interesting, but also the arguments that exist in favor of the other option B.

Said arguments are classified into “consequences” and “value principles”. 

The consequences are the effects that decisions, which can be harmful or benevolent. These effects not only redound immediately and directly, but do so indirectly to a group. Positive and negative consequences are at stake, hence the dilemma.

The principles constitute the essential beliefs, norms and assumptions that govern human behavior. Values ​​are related to an exemplary life.

  • Examination of the problem. In dilemmatic situations there is no way to repair the two values ​​or principles in question and one must be chosen. The examination must then focus on the values ​​and moral principles that are at stake and in conflict. It appeals to conscience (judgment) and to the values ​​that contemporary society protects and defends (such as Human Rights). In addition, its importance should be ranked from a personal perspective.
  • Solution. It is a matter of exposing the solution to the dilemma starting from the previous examination of the problem.

As stated, dilemmatic conflicts cannot be resolved with solutions halfway between one option and another, because the very nature of every dilemma (dilemma / two options) is being avoided.

What would you do if you were faced with a similar or the same situation? Any decision (A or B) must be justified. Arguments that run counter to what you believe to be the morally and ethically appropriate decision will have to be refuted.

As can be seen, this way of solving dilemmas involves a peculiar element: dialogue and negotiation . That is, it is not a single position; rather, everyone involved should be involved.

Basic principles for solving dilemmas

On the other hand, in order to clear the way and help in the resolution of ethical dilemmas , three essential principles have been distinguished. These principles come directly from ordinary human experience.

  • Principle based on extremes. The best must be done for the greatest number of individuals.
  • Principle based (worth the redundancy) on principles . The highest principled sense, or rule-governed thinking, must be followed.
  • Principle founded on care . You must do what you want others to do to you.

The principles are different from the steps to solve a dilemma . The principles are the positions and attitudes that must be taken when facing this type of resolution. Not following the principles can lead to a problem: the other party may feel aggrieved, or that something has been imposed on them to solve the dilemma instead of negotiating.

Approach and solution of a dilemma

Based on the steps indicated above, we proceed to show another example of solving a dilemma . How is it different from all of the above? Well, they combine the steps and principles described above; in addition to placing a specific dilemma as a case to be solved.

  • Exposition of the dilemma. In an educational institute for boys between 12 and 18 years old, many robberies are happening among students. The victims belong to the youngest age groups between 12 and 13 years old and have been threatened with greater harm if they do something. 

Although parents and teachers are aware of the secrecy between students is total. For this reason, the director has decided to close the institute and carry out searches of all the students.

One of the third-level students (who will be called the witness) knows who the thief is. In fact, he is your best friend. The girl questions his behavior, but he warns her not to meddle in his affairs if he wants to keep their friendship.

The witness is thinking of reporting it to the director to end the situation that hurts everyone. However, he is aware that if his friend, who has good grades, does so, he will be expelled from the institute, considering the seriousness of the facts. On the other hand, if he stays on the sidelines, as his friend demands, the damage to himself and others could reach greater proportions.

  • Identification / person / dilemma. The witness is the one who has the dilemma. And the dilemma is reduced to say or not the name of the thief; but, if he does, he will lose the friendship of the young man and he will be expelled from the institute. The dilemma is then made explicit in the following question: Should he denounce the friend as a thief or should he keep quiet?
  • Analysis / options / dilemma from the witness’s perspective. It is important to put yourself in the place of the witness. It is the person who is affected, therefore, it is necessary to understand that their motivations are different from those of teachers and other people.

One of the mistakes in solving dilemmas is not considering the people involved. You have to take something into account: dilemmas are human … and human beings doubt, think, make mistakes … it is in their nature and that is necessary to understand.

  • Identification of the arguments in favor of reporting the thief: the boys are being victimized by having their money stolen; the witness is not responsible for her friend’s decision to become a thief; institute staff and parents are frightened by threats to their children; and all friendship is based on respect for what the threat implies an action contrary to it. 
  • Identification of the arguments against reporting the thief: because the young person is his friend, he must cover it up because friendship must prevail in both good and bad situations; Reporting your friend is tantamount to losing your friendship; If she decides to expose him, the girl will put her young friend in big trouble and will surely damage his life.
  • Exposure / personal opinion / argued / conclusion. Starting from the three principles for the resolution of dilemmas, the young student should denounce the young thief, because the common good must be put before the private good. The victims must be protected, which in this case are the first-rate boys. 

With all of the above, some questions can be asserted. For example, it happens that the young person who carried out the robberies must be subjected to the rules that govern the institution and the respective laws.

In reality, the young man (who has committed the robberies) has shown with his threats that he does not respect the friendship he had with the young woman .

The moral norm must prevail over blackmail, if possible, emotional. In addition, standing next to the victims, from their perspective, demonstrates the importance of empathy towards others . Surely, if the witness thought of herself as a victim, she could realize that the complaint is the best way to safeguard her own integrity as a person.

  • Exhibition / reflection / normative context. Seeking support from experts in the field will offer a comprehensive dimension of the problem. The witness should denounce the young thief because his amoral behavior is causing conflict and fear in his companions. 

The student’s actions could be only the beginning of a delinquent life : from stealing money from his classmates, he could go on to the assault on commercial establishments or escalate in his agenda of breaches of morals and laws. From a legal perspective, it is considered robbery with intimidation.

On the other hand, it is necessary to understand the event in context . We are in a school, which should not only impart knowledge. Likewise, it is your obligation to give ethical examples. Therefore, the student’s actions cannot be missed under any circumstances.

Example of a hypothetical dilemma 

Let’s put another case and try to solve the dilemma . In this case, we will also try to come up with a solution. To do this, we are going to show step by step the resolution criteria that have been taken into account.

  • Exposition of the dilemma. A bank has been robbed by five heavily armed men with extensive records as thieves and murderers; But, before managing to escape with the loot, the police are warned and the thieves, being cornered, decide to take the bank staff and the clients who were there as hostages. At the time of the assault there were approximately 33 people plus bank employees.

After an hour, the thieves make the first and only demand to the police: they will only let the hostages out safely if the police guarantee them a safe conduct and a plane to escape through the airport closest to the bank. If the police do not comply with their requests in a peremptory time, they will begin to kill the hostages.

The police try to mediate with the hostages, but the thieves do not accept any other exit and neither do the characteristics of the building allow the police to enter without being detected by the thieves.

Even the windows of the building do not allow a direct view of the kidnappers. So the dilemma for the police seems clear: provide them with safe conducts and a plane or the lives of the hostages will be in danger.

  • Identification / person / dilemma. The protagonist of the dilemma is the security body or the police authorities that are in charge of the case. The police dilemma is to a) supply the kidnappers’ demands or b) let them start killing the hostages. Should the police effectively comply with the demands of the subjects or stand with their hands folded and wait for them to start killing the hostages?
  • Analysis / options / dilemma from the perspective of the police.   Now, we must see the possible solution from the police perspective. In theory, this institution is in charge of solving the problem … but is its criterion the one that should prevail?
  • Identification of the arguments in favor of not accepting the demands of the robber-kidnappers: the police (the authorities) cannot become the involuntary collaborator of a criminal act; if it agrees to the demands described above, crimes of this type would be increased by the impunity it implies; the duty is that those who commit a crime are brought to the disposal of the law.  
  • Identification of the arguments in favor of accepting the demands of the robbers-kidnappers: if the police do not comply with the demands of the criminals, the hostages will lose their lives; the only reason criminals have not started killing hostages is because the waiting period has not expired; the preservation of human life for dozens of people is above the loss of money and the duty of the police to apprehend criminals.
  • Exposure / personal opinion / argued / conclusion. What would you do if you found yourself in a situation like the one described above? That is to say, we now stand in the shoes of whoever is reading this text.
  • Exhibition / reflection / normative context. Solution. According to the regulatory framework that governs contemporary society, the police are obliged to depose criminal action, using various persuasion mechanisms. Consequently, it is prevented from facilitating impunity for a crime. The solution to the conflict is not to accept the demands of the criminals. Any discussion in favor of allowing the subjects to flee with the loot is out of the question. According to the principles outlined, the highest thinking, governed by rules , must be followed.


Theft and kidnapping are very serious crimes that threaten society and must deprive the collective interest. Impunity would lead criminals in general to use this tactic against the community in general. It is the principle based on extremes , previously described.

Although life is a fundamental right, the essential thing is that the hostages are in good health, beyond being held against their will, at the very moment in which the dilemma arises.

It is clear that you always have to see the perspectives of everyone involved . That is the great key to many dilemmas: they are usually resolved unilaterally, only taking into account the criteria or interests of a person or group.

When what is stated in the previous paragraph happens, then there is no solution to a dilemma. In reality, what happens is the imposition of a position.

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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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