Ethical dilemmas are, by their nature, uncomfortable or difficult to tackle, but they can also teach us a lot about our own values and principles and prepare us for an ethically complex world.

You’re about to take a major exam that will determine whether you get accepted into a potentially life-changing course. But you hear that there’s a leaked copy of the exam paper doing the rounds, and other students are studying it carefully. There are only a precious few spots available in your desired course, and if you don’t also sneak a peek at the leaked exam paper, you are likely to miss out. Should you cheat by looking at the leaked exam paper, given you know other students are doing the same? 

How about if you found out that the company you work for was partnering with an overseas contractor known for running sweatshops and flouting labour laws, meanwhile your company’s branding is all about how ethical and sustainable it is. Would you speak out to management, or on social media, even if doing so might cost you your job and income? 

If these scenarios give you pause, you’re not alone. Each represents a different kind of ethical dilemma we might come across, and by their nature they can be highly unsettling and difficult – if not impossible – to resolve in a way that satisfies everyone involved.  

But what makes something an ethical dilemma? It’s important to note that an ethical dilemma is not a simple question of doing the right thing or the wrong thing, like whether you should lie to cover up for something bad that you did.

A genuine ethical dilemma arises when there is a clash between two values (i.e., what you think is good) or principles (i.e., the rules you follow). Or it can be a choice between two bad outcomes, like knowing that whatever you do, someone will get hurt.

That’s what makes them so uncomfortable; we feel like whatever choice we make will involve some kind of compromise.

All in the mind

One way to prepare yourself to face real-world ethical dilemmas is to strengthen your moral muscle by practicing on hypothetical scenarios – a staple of philosophy classes. 

Consider this: you’re the captain of a sinking ship, and the lifeboat only has room for five passengers. Yet there are seven people aboard the ship, including yourself. Whom do you choose to board the lifeboat? The pregnant woman? The ageing brain surgeon? The fit young fisherman? The teenage twins? The reformed criminal who is now a priest? Yourself? 

Or how about this: you’ve just started your shift as the only surgeon in a small but high-tech hospital. As you walk into your ward, you’re presented with five dying patients. You know nothing else about their personal details except that each is suffering from a different organ failure. Without assistance, all will die within 24 hours. However, at that moment, a healthy patient is wheeled in for an unrelated minor procedure. You also know nothing about their personal circumstances, but you do know they have five perfectly healthy organs. Were you to allow that patient to die (as they will without treatment) you know you could save the lives of the other five dying patients. Would you allow one to die to save five? 

Each of these scenarios is carefully constructed to put pressure on your ethical intuitions and force you to make difficult decisions.

Tackling a hypothetical dilemma gives you an opportunity to reflect on your own values and principles, and search for good reasons to justify your choices.

Even if the hypothetical situation is absurdly unreal, you can still learn a lot about yourself and your ethical stance by considering how you would act in these cases.  

Your first impulse might be to try and change the circumstances to eliminate or minimise the dilemma. We might speculate that we could squeeze another person on the lifeboat, or that the organ transplants may not succeed, and that might make our decisions easier. This is entirely natural – and sensible – especially because dilemmas in the real world are rarely as clear cut. But dodging the dilemma misses the point of the exercise. 

You might decide that a consequentialist approach is the best one for the lifeboat scenario, causing you to pick the people who might end up leading the richest lives or having the most positive impact on others. But you might decide that a deontological approach is most appropriate for the surgeon’s dilemma, arguing that it’s inherently wrong to withhold treatment from an innocent patient, even if it ends up saving lives.  

It’s important to remember that hypothetical dilemmas like this are designed so that there’s likely no simple answer that will satisfy everybody. Even reasonable people can disagree about what course of action to take. That’s fine. The important bit is not really the answer you come to but the reasons you give to support it. That’s what ethics is all about: finding good reasons to act the way we do. 

Most of us are likely to go through life without ever having to put people in lifeboats or contemplate the death of one to save five, but by testing ourselves with these dilemmas we can build our ethical muscles and be more ready to face other dilemmas that world could throw at us at any time. 


If you’re struggling with a real-life ethical dilemma, it can be tough finding the best path forward. Ethi-call is a free independent helpline offering decision-making support from trained ethics counsellors. Book a call today.