Types of Ethical Dilemmas

Everyone has found himself confronted with a moral dilemma at some time in his life. In these scenarios, no clearcut solution exists because every course of action will result in some level of harm to someone. The ability to make these decisions and live with the consequences may be the toughest test of character that a person can face.

Making Sacrifices for the Greatest Good

The obligation to make sacrifices for the greater good creates a type of moral dilemma often dealt with in philosophy classes. One example might be the question of when, if ever, it is permissible to harm civilians during wartime. An ethical dilemmas arises when bombing a weapons factory will kill non-military workers and nearby civilians; however, failing to halt weapons production could threaten the lives of civilians elsewhere. Does this make it morally permissible or even obligatory to bomb the weapons factory? Does the number of lives saved by halting weapons production morally outweigh the number of civilians lost in the bombing raid? The question comes down to if and under which conditions an otherwise innocent person should have to suffer for the good of others.

Values and Consequences

Tension between moral values or maxims and the consequences of not abiding by them can precipitate tricky ethical dilemmas. One example deals with whether or not a person is always better off telling the truth. Does this still hold up when a ravaging axe murderer asks you where your friends are hiding? Of course, for most, this doesn't present any kind of dilemma at all. However, if the example is modified, would someone be obligated to tell the truth about some political issue if she knew it would cause a backlash? Is there a moral obligation to pass along credible information to friends that their spouse had an affair while they were away on business?

Paternalism, Liberty and Offense Without Harm

One of the most important types of moral dilemmas in terms of politics and law involves the tensions between paternalism and liberty; that is, to what extent, if ever, people should be prevented from doing what they want if they would be the only direct victims or if their actions could only cause offense to others without any actual harm. Examples include whether public nudity should be allowed, if people should be permitted to take part in very dangerous extreme sports or if they should be permitted to sell parts of their body for medical uses even when it will have a detrimental effect on them. In each case, the question is to what extent people in authority should interfere with other people's personal choices to prevent them harming themselves or offending others.

Moral Relativism

A special type of moral, perhaps metamoral, dilemma arises when the question of cultural relativism is confronted. Practices that appear barbaric or immoral to one culture may seem perfectly ordinary to another, and attempts to change them from outside of the culture resisted. For example, some cultures may prohibit eating certain types of meat, or meat may be prohibited altogether. Many Americans would be repulsed at the thought of eating kittens but are quite happy to eat beef, which is equally as repellent to many Hindus. Another example is the continued practice of female genital cutting in a few countries even though it is illegal in most parts of the world.