We have to talk about the moral dilemma. It must be borne in mind that it is a subject that combines two very peculiar concepts: the idea of ​​dilemma and the idea of morality . It must be borne in mind that it is not a trivial matter, since the simple notion of morality makes many consider that the idea of ​​dilemma is annulled.

In any case, we wanted to be quite detailed in this text that we present to our readers. First, we are going to ponder the concept of the moral dilemma . Then, we are going to make a brief exposition of the various types of moral dilemmas. Throughout the text, we want to leave enough information to draw conclusions on this topic.

Moral dilemma concept

The moral dilemma derives from a particular circumstance in which any option chosen to avoid an evil produces other damages. It is a dilemma because it implies a dilemma that translates into the violation of one or more moral norms. The two alternatives are bad, undesirable, or wrong.

This is precisely the problem of the moral dilemma. The solution that is taken always seems to be negative and against certain precepts . Hence, at first glance it seems that the solution is to direct the lesser evil. However, this does not always happen. Ultimately, it ends up being a very personal decision and who should solve this dilemma.

Is studying these dilemmas important? To be honest, they have been a topic of interest for centuries. For example, in philosophy they occur repeatedly. And not to mention the discipline where this problem occurs with greater determination: the law.

What happens when a legal decision ends up breaking a law? What happens when a person must make a decision that is against the law? However, this decision-making is not done out of ill will, but out of the need to make a decision in an extreme circumstance.

This is how the ethical dilemma has become a tool to judge certain actions. For example: was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan during WWII justified? The Americans argue that a land invasion of Japanese territory involved the loss of many lives.

However, the level of destruction of the nuclear explosions … does not seem to justify the above. Likewise, many scientific experiments have been led with ethical dilemmas. Such is the case of direct experiments with human beings , which have made it possible to find vaccines against many diseases. But they put the health of certain people at risk.

Types and characteristics of moral dilemmas

According to the American psychologist Joshua Greene, there are, in principle, two types of moral dilemmas, which are the ones indicated below:

● Personal moral dilemmas

It happens in situations in which lethal damage to the physical integrity of a known person or a community must be accepted or not. Typical examples of this kind of dilemma are tragic situations, which involve choosing between the life of a close person or that of several. That is, it implies the need to choose always causing damage to a certain person.

● Impersonal moral dilemmas 

These dilemmas refer to the situations in which it would be necessary to choose between producing the death of an individual, but without intention, or that of a group of people.

There could be the case of a driver who must choose between running over a group of people, who are in his path, or swerving and running over one who is not on the side. That is, in this case the driver must make a decision, but with people he does not know.

It is important to note that this classification of securities is quite brief. For this reason, alternative classifications have been proposed. In fact, the categorizations are many. However, in the next section of this text we have chosen those that we consider to be the most important.

Another classification of moral dilemmas

According to Guillermo Lariguet Dilemmas and tragic conflicts. A conceptual investigation , Bogotá: Palestra-Temis, 2008, p.90], three types of moral dilemmas are distinguished. We describe each of them succinctly in the paragraphs that we elaborate below.

● The dilemmas of incommensurabilities

 This kind of dilemma implies that the two options are not comparable. Put schematically, between two eligible X and Z, neither is better or worse than the other, but they do not have the same value either.

An example of the impossibility that the options can be measured is the one that occurs when a person wishes to dedicate himself to the study of contemporary architecture, but also wants to be a missionary in the Amazon jungle. Both options cannot be evaluated under the same criteria, so they would appear not comparable. Hence the difficulty in deciding.

● The dilemmas of draws

In this type of dilemma the two alternatives are symmetrical. These dilemmas are comparable and evaluable; however, they are parallel. Therefore, faced with two practically equal alternatives, it would only be left to chance.

They are dilemmas where whoever decides has little chance to choose, or cares little about the resulting alternative. For that reason, you have no problem leaving the final decision to chance.

● The dilemmas of sacrifices

The most difficult moral dilemmas are those that involve two fundamental disruptive elements: on the one hand, the abandonment of “something” involves a sacrifice; and on the other, it leads to the so-called tragic selection. In sum, either of the two alternatives is negative; it is a tragedy and a sacrifice at the same time.

For example, the tragic dilemma that would be presented to a doctor who must decide between saving the life of a baby or that of the mother, at the time of a complicated delivery. Neither option is good.

Given the characteristics of moral dilemmas, whose options are difficult to weigh, the criterion that is regularly used to solve them is to choose the least bad alternative.

The real moral dilemmas

As we said at the beginning of this text, it is often considered that these dilemmas do not really exist. To tell the truth, it can become so subjective that for that reason they have been crossed out many times in existing. However, in recent times there is talk that there are authentic moral dilemmas and others that are not.

In the discussion about the existence or not of moral dilemmas , the concept of moral conflict comes up, understood as the situation in which a subject X is morally obliged to execute A and follow the moral obligation to execute B.

If the underlying moral conflict in the moral dilemma is resolved and there is no trace of remorse, guilt or repentance, it is noted that the moral conflict that subject X had to experience was an “apparent” moral dilemma, because the dichotomy between A and B were assumed.

It is true that the legitimate moral dilemma presents itself as an extreme case of moral conflict . The moral dilemmas manifest the difficulty for subject X to solve the conflict because the two moral duties are, half and half, powerful. Any decision by X would imply carrying the moral weight.

Are there real ethical dilemmas?

For example, the Greek philosopher Plato, in his text Republic (Book I), picks up a moral dilemma in the dialogue between Cephalus and Socrates. A man weighs whether or not to return the gun to a friend who had previously borrowed , since his friend went mad and could commit suicide or physically affect others. It has the moral mandate to return the borrowed weapon and, at the same time, to protect the physical integrity of the friend.

Starting from the assumption that there are dilemmatic situations where the two requirements cannot mutually cancel each other out, because both are of the same hierarchy; that is, they are adopted as absolute, it should be noted that they are necessarily “incommensurable” and “symmetrical”, according to the aforementioned typology.

The two demands or alternatives (A and B) are incommensurable when there is no parameter or criterion that allows us to measure which is more or less valuable or just as important. That is, we have no other tool than our own criteria to make the decision. There is no measurable parameter, something objective to help us decide.

Other Considerations About Ethical Dilemmas

In the literature, it is common to find dilemmas of this caliber , such as the one Sartre described . One of his students did not know what to do before the dilemma of going to war (it was the times of World War II) or staying with his mother, who was absolutely dependent on him.

His father had abandoned them (and was acting on the opposite side) and his older brother had fallen on the war front. The young man wanted to avenge his brother’s death; But, his mother depended on him and was emotionally affected by the death of her son and the betrayal of the father.

The young man had two options : go to England and join the free French forces or stay with the mother and support her. The mother was devoted to her son and, if something happened to him, he would fall into final consternation. He was aware that his mother could not get over his absence.

Consequently, the boy was faced with a moral dilemma: stay with the mother and secure her life or go to war and help the cause of liberation of the European peoples from the Nazis, knowing that he could lose his life even sooner. to enlist in the French army.

The student of Sartre doubted between two moral dimensions : personal affiliation, with all that it represents, or the wide affiliation (commitment and duty) of undetermined effectiveness.

More considerations on the subject of ethical dilemmas

The dilemmas of draws or symmetric are manifested in situations in which two options reveal the same size and there is no way to prefer one over the other. Furthermore, the two alternatives involve two irreconcilable demands.

Literature has also left striking examples of these types of dilemmas. For example, in William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Decision (made into a film in 1982), a Jewish mother (Sophie), imprisoned with her two children in a concentration camp, had to decide which of them would be killed on camera. Of gas. A Nazi soldier forced her to decide between her youngest daughter or her son. Looking at the situation from the reverse angle, she had to decide which of her two children would live.

The conflict (tragic by its nature) entails the discussion that there is no criterion that allows to conclude that one child has less or more value than the other ; in moral terms they are of the same quality.

Comparisons between various dilemmas

Both Sartre’s and Sophie’s student dilemmas do not have a “rational” solution because an openly accepted criterion cannot be used to rank the options. It is impossible, for example, to claim that one has a greater moral burden or worth.

Now, this does not mean that it is impossible to decide on one alternative to the detriment of the other. There will always be a decision, even if it is not to act. The omission also entails loss and moral fault.

Rationally, there is no solution to these kinds of dilemmas . However, they have a solution, to dry. The fact that they may have a solution does not imply that these dilemmas are apparent.

As a final consideration

In practice, if every dilemma must be solved, it is because it involves a legitimate conflict. Another issue – of a different nature – is that the solution is little or not at all reasonable or that its moral nature is outside of what a solution ideally means.

The ideal space for the solution of a moral dilemma only happens when it does not leave regrets, breakdowns or moral penalties , which in practice does not seem to exist.

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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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