Ethical conflicts arise when individuals are confronted with a collision between general belief systems about morality, ethics or justice and their own personal situations. Right and wrong are not always perfectly clear, and some situations involve choosing between two “evils,” where, perhaps, the ethical decision might result in personal or social injury or where an individual stands to gain from an unethical decision. Such conflicts could take place at the individual, professional, or societal level.

Ends and Means

Ethical conflicts often involve the question whether ends justify their means. In one example, doing what is “morally right” can create a negative outcome, while doing what is “morally wrong” or immoral can create a positive outcome. Individuals, groups or states must evaluate which is the more ethical choice given these considerations. Further, the moral position could be substantiated or not substantiated in fact. For example, parents might choose not to give their child a life-saving blood transfusion because they believe it is morally wrong. Parents who do not feel fully convinced of the morality of their stance would face graver personal ethical complications if their child did not survive the illness as a result.

Classic Examples of Ethical Conflict

It’s possible to study ethical conflict through the lens of classic, textbook examples of hypothetical moral dilemmas. One such example is the “lifeboat example,” in which one person must be tossed overboard so that the others can survive. Another example, “fat man in the cave,” creates a situation where an overweight individual, stuck in the entrance to a cave, prevents others from exiting the cave unless he is killed. Some examples come from real life; for example, whether large-scale government projects such as railroads, dams or tunnels are justifiable if there is a strong chance that laborers will become injured or die during the process.

Character and Intentions

One viewpoint states that a person’s character and intentions must be taken into consideration when evaluating beliefs and actions during ethical conflict. For example, someone who is considered to be an inherently “good person” might be forgiven an ethical lapse if he feels remorseful or conflicted about his actions under duress. However, someone who is considered to be an inherently “bad person” could face less empathy and compassion for taking the same action if he does not feel remorseful afterward.

Tests for Decision-Making

Individuals can apply various tests during ethical conflicts to make the best decision. For example, the “publicity test” asks whether a person would mind if her decisions were broadcast on the evening news. The “role model test” asks whether a person would mind if her role model knew of her actions or decisions. The “golden rule test” asks whether a person would mind being affected by her decision in the same way that others might be.