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Ethical dilemma

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An ethical dilemma is a situation that often involves an apparent conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.

This is also called an ethical paradox since in moral philosophy, paradox plays a central role in ethics debates. For instance, an ethical admonition to "love thy neighbour" is not always just in contrast with, but sometimes in contradiction to an armed neighbour actively trying to kill you: if he or she succeeds, you will not be able to love him or her. But to preemptively attack them or restrain them is not usually understood as loving. This is one of the classic examples of an ethical decision clashing or conflicting with an organismic decision, one that would be made only from the perspective of animal survival: an animal is thought to act only in its immediate perceived bodily self-interests when faced with bodily harm, and to have limited ability to perceive alternatives - see fight or flight.

However, human beings have complex social relationships that can't be ignored: If one has an ethical relationship with the neighbour trying to kill you, then, usually, their desire to kill you would likely be the result of mental illness on their part, stories told them by others, e.g. their daughter claims you raped her. Such conflicts might be settled by some other path that has strong social support. Societies formed criminal justice systems (some argue also ethical traditions and religions) to defuse just such deep conflicts. Such systems always impose trained judges who are presumed to have an ethical relationship and also a clear obligation to all who come before them.

Ethical dilemmas are often cited in an attempt to refute an ethical system or moral code, as well as the worldview that encompasses or grows from it.


Perhaps the most commonly cited ethical conflict is that between an imperative or injunction not to steal and one to care for a family that you cannot afford to feed without stolen money. Debates on this often revolve around the availability of alternate means of income or support, e.g. a social safety net, charity, etc. The debate is in its starkest form when framed as stealing food. In Les Misérables Jean Valjean does this and is relentlessly pursued. Under an ethical system in which stealing is always wrong and letting one's family die from starvation is always wrong, a person in such a situation would be forced to commit one wrong to avoid committing another, and be in constant conflict with those whose view of the acts varied.

However, there are few legitimate ethical systems in which stealing is more wrong than letting one's family die. Ethical systems do in fact allow for, and sometimes outline, tradeoffs or priorities in decisions. Some ethicists have suggested that international law requires this kind of mechanism to, for instance, resolve whether WTO or Kyoto Protocol takes precedence in deciding whether a WTO notification is valid. That is, whether nations may use trade mechanisms to complain about measures each other takes regarding climate change. As there are few economies that can operate smoothly in a chaotic climate, the dilemma would seem to be easy to resolve, but as at the family scale, it is possible to invent fallacious excuses to steal or put a restriction on trade, and these tend to cloud the actions of all who do so with legitimate desperation. Resolving ethical dilemmas is rarely simple or clearcut and very often involves revisiting similar dilemmas that recur within societies:

Recurring struggles Edit

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According to some philosophers and sociologists, e.g. Karl Marx, it is the different life experience of people and the different exposure of them and their families in these roles (the rich being constantly stolen from, the poor in a position of constant begging and subordination) that creates social class differences. In other words, ethical dilemmas can become political and economic factions that engage in long term recurring struggles. See conflict theory and left-wing politics versus right-wing politics.

Design of a voting system, other electoral reform, a criminal justice system, or other high-stakes adversarial process for dispute resolution will almost always reflect the deep persistent struggles involved. However, no amount of good intent and hard work can undo a bad role structure:

Roles within structures Edit

Where a structural conflict is involved, dilemmas will very often recur. A trivial example is working with a bad operating system whose error messages do not match the problems the user perceives. Each such error presents the user with a dilemma: reboot the machine and continue working at one's employment, or, spend time trying to reproduce the problem for the benefit of the developer of the operating system. Often such dilemmas are resolved by our economic commitments: While other users who will see the same message in future may want our feedback about errors, sad for them, they haven't paid us for it.

So role structure sabotages feedback and results in sub-optimal results since no provision has been made to actually reward people for reporting these errors and problems. See total quality management for more on addressing this kind of failure, and governance on how many ethical and structural conflicts can be resolved with appropriate supervisory mechanisms.


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