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Ethical dilemmas: what are they, types and 4 examples that will make you think

Ethical dilemmas: what are they, types and 4 examples that will make you think

September 19, 2022

Ethics and morals are constructs that regulate human behavior and allow their direction to what both individually (ethically) and collectively (morally) is considered acceptable and positive. What is good and what is bad, what we should do and what we should not do, and even what aspects we care about and value are elements derived to a great extent from our ethical system.

But sometimes we encounter situations in which we do not know what to do: choosing A or B has, in both cases, negative and positive repercussions at the same time and the different values ​​that govern us enter into a conflict. We are facing situations that pose ethical dilemmas .


  • Related article: "The 6 differences between ethics and morals"

A part of moral philosophy

It is understood as an ethical dilemma to all that situation in which there is a conflict between the different values ​​of the person and the available options for action . These are situations in which there is going to be a conflict between several values ​​and beliefs, there being no totally good solution and another totally bad option, both having positive and negative repercussions at the same time.

This type of dilemma requires a more or less profound reflection on the alternatives available to us, as well as the value given to the moral values ​​with which we are governed. Often we will have to prioritize one or the other value, both entering into conflict in order to make a decision. They also allow you to see that things are not either white or black, as well as understand people who make decisions other than their own .


The existence of ethical dilemmas existing in real life or possible have generated an interesting branch of study focused on our beliefs and values ​​and how they are managed.

They allow us to see how we reflect and what elements we take into account in order to make a decision. In fact, ethical dilemmas are often used as a mechanism to educate in the use and management of emotions and values , to raise awareness about some aspects or to generate debate and share points of view among people. They are also used in the workplace, specifically in the selection of personnel.

  • Maybe you're interested: "The 10 types of values: principles that govern our lives"

Types of ethical dilemmas

The concept of ethical dilemma may seem clear, but the truth is that there is no single type. Depending on different criteria, we can find different types of dilemmas, which may vary in their level of concretion, in the role of the subject to whom it is presented or in its verisimilitude. In this sense, some of the main types are the following:


1. Hypothetical dilemma

These are dilemmas that place the person who is asked in a position where you are confronting a situation that is very unlikely to happen in real life . These are not impossible phenomena, but they are something that the person must face on a regular basis. It is not necessary that the person to whom the dilemma is raised is the protagonist of this, being able to ask what the character should do.

2. Real dilemma

In this case the dilemma raised is about a topic or situation that is close to the people to whom it is posed, either because it refers to an event that has lived or something that can happen relatively easily in their day to day. Although they tend to be less dramatic than the previous ones, can be as much or more distressing for this reason. It is not necessary that the person to whom the dilemma is posed be the protagonist of this, being able to ask what the character should do.

3. Open or solution dilemma

The dilemmas posed as open or solution are all those dilemmas in which a situation and the circumstances that surround it are presented, without the protagonist of the story (who may or may not be the subject to whom it is raised) has yet made any action to solve it. It is intended that the person to whom this dilemma is suggested choose how to proceed in said situation.

4. Closed or analysis dilemma

This type of dilemma is one in which the situation has already been solved in one way or another, having made a decision and carried out a series of specific behaviors. The person to whom the dilemma is posed it must not decide what is done, but value the performance of the protagonist .

5. Complete dilemmas

It is about all those dilemmas in which the person who is asked about the consequences of each of the options that can be taken is informed.

6. Incomplete dilemmas

In these dilemmas the consequences of the decisions made by the protagonist are not made explicit, depending to a large extent on the capacity of the subject to imagine advantages and disadvantages .

Examples of ethical dilemmas

As we have seen there are very different ways of proposing different types of ethical dilemmas, existing thousands of options and being limited only by the imagination itself. We'll see now some examples of ethical dilemmas (some well-known, others less) in order to see how they work.

1. Heinz's dilemma

One of the best-known ethical dilemmas is Heinz's dilemma, proposed by Kohlberg to analyze the level of moral development of children and adolescents (inferred from the type of response, the reason for the given response, the level of obedience to the rules or the relative importance that monitoring may have in some cases). This dilemma is presented as follows:

"Heinz's wife is ill with cancer, and she is expected to die soon if nothing is done to save her. However, there is an experimental drug that doctors believe can save your life: a form of radio that a pharmacist has just discovered. Although this substance is expensive, the pharmacist in question is charging many times more money than it costs to produce it (it costs $ 1,000 and charges 5,000). Heinz collects all the money he can to buy it, counting on the help and loan of money from all his acquaintances, but he only manages to collect 2,500 dollars of the 5,000 that the product costs. Heinz goes to the pharmacist, who tells him that his wife is dying and who asks him to sell the drug at a lower price or to let him pay half later. The pharmacist nevertheless refuses, arguing that he must make money with him since he has been the one who discovered it. That said, Heinz becomes desperate and plans to steal the medicine. "What should I do?

  • Related article: "The moral development theory of Lawrence Kohlberg"

2. Tram dilemma

The dilemma of the tram or the train is another classic between the ethical / moral dilemmas, created by Philippa Foot. In this dilemma, the following is proposed:

"A tram / train runs out of control and at full speed on a track, shortly before a change of needles. On this road there are tied five people, who will die if the train / tram reaches them. You are in front of the change of needles and you have the possibility of causing the vehicle to be diverted to another way, but in which a person is tied. Bypassing the tram / train will cause a person to die. Do not do it, let five die. What would you do?"

This dilemma also has multiple variants, being able to greatly complicate the election . For example, the choice may be that you can stop the tram, but this will derail it with a 50% chance that all its occupants will die (and 50% will be saved). Or you can look for more emotional involvement of the subject: propose that in one of the ways there are five or more people who will die if nothing is done and in the other one, but that this one is the couple, son / daughter, father / mother, brother or relative of the subject. Or a child.

3. Prisoner's dilemma

The prisoner's dilemma is one of the dilemmas used by John Nash to explain incentives and the importance of decisions not only his own but also others to obtain certain results, and cooperation is necessary to achieve the best possible result. Although it is more economic than ethical, it also has implications in this regard .

The prisoner's dilemma proposes the following situation:

"Two alleged criminals are arrested and locked up, unable to communicate with each other, on suspicion of involvement in a bank robbery (or a murder, depending on the version). The penalty for the crime is ten years in prison, but there is no tangible evidence of the involvement of any in these events. The police propose to each one of them the possibility of leaving free if it reveals the other. If the two confess the crime they will each serve six years in prison. If one denies it and the other provides evidence of his involvement, the informant will be released and the other will be sentenced to ten years in prison. If the two deny the facts, both will remain in prison for a year. "

In this case, more than moral we would be talking about the consequences of each act for oneself and for the other and how the result depends not only on our performance but also on that of others.

4. The noble thief

This dilemma raises the following:

"We are witnesses of how a man steals a bank. However, we note that the thief does not keep the money, but gives it to an orphanage that lacks the resources to support the orphans who live in it. We can report the theft, but if we do, it is likely that the money that the orphanage can now use to feed and care for the children has to return the stolen goods. "

On the one hand, the subject has committed a crime, but on the other he has done it for a good cause. What to do? The dilemma can be complicated if it is added, for example, that during the robbery to the bank a person has died.

Sometimes we also have to face them in real life

Some of the ethical dilemmas proposed above are statements that may seem false or a hypothetical elaboration that we will never have to face in real life. But the truth is that in day to day we can get to have to face difficult decisions , with consequences or negative implications, let us take the decision we make.

For example, we may find that an acquaintance performs some unethical act. We can also observe some case of school bullying, or a fight, in which we can intervene in different ways. We are often homeless, and we can face the dilemma of whether or not to help them. Also at a professional level : a judge for example has to decide whether or not to send someone to prison, a doctor can face the decision to artificially lengthen the life of someone or not or who should or should not be operated.

We can observe professional malpractice. And we can also face them even in personal life: we can, for example, be witnesses of infidelities and betrayals towards loved ones or carried out by them, having the conflict of whether to tell them or not.

In conclusion, ethical dilemmas are an element of great interest that puts our convictions and beliefs to the test and they force us to reflect on what motivates us and how we organize and participate in our world. And it is not something abstract and alien to us, but can be part of our day to day.

Bibliographic references:

  • Benítez, L. (2009). Activities and resources to educate in values. Editorial PCC.

Would You Rather: 6 Hardest Moral Dilemmas Ever (September 2022).


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