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Ethical Dilemma

Ethical Dilemma

In philosophy, ethical dilemmas, also known as ethical paradoxes or moral dilemmas, are situations in which an agent is confronted with two (or more) competing moral requirements, none of which takes precedence over the others. A similar definition characterizes ethical quandaries as situations where every available option is incorrect. In everyday language, the term is also used to refer to ethical conflicts that may be resolvable, psychologically difficult choices, or other difficult ethical problems. This article is about ethical quandaries in the strict philosophical sense, also known as genuine ethical quandaries. Several examples have been proposed, but there is disagreement as to whether these are genuine ethical quandaries or merely apparent ones. The central debate surrounding ethical quandaries is whether or not they exist. Defenders frequently cite obvious examples, whereas opponents seek to demonstrate that their existence violates fundamental ethical principles. There are various types of ethical quandaries. An important distinction is made between epistemic dilemmas, which give the agent the potentially false impression of an unresolvable conflict, and actual or ontological dilemmas. There is broad agreement that epistemic dilemmas exist, but the main interest in ethical dilemmas occurs at the ontological level. Philosophers have traditionally held that good moral theories must be free of ethical quandaries. However, this assumption has been challenged in contemporary philosophy.

Ethical dilemmas occur when an agent is confronted with two (or more) competing ethical requirements, none of which takes precedence over the others. Two ethical requirements are incompatible if the agent can fulfill one but not both: the agent must choose one over the other. Two competing ethical requirements do not override each other if they are equally strong or there is no compelling ethical reason to choose one over the other. [1] [2] [3] Only this type of situation, often called a genuine ethical dilemma, constitutes an ethical dilemma in the strict philosophical sense. [4] [5] Other ethical conflicts are resolvable and thus are not strictly speaking ethical quandaries. This is also true in many cases of conflict of interest. [2] For example, a businessman rushing along the shore of a lake to a meeting faces an ethical quandary when he notices a drowning child near the shore. However, this conflict is not a genuine ethical difficulty because it has a clear resolution: jumping into the water to save the child outweighs the importance of arriving on time for the meeting. Cases in which it is simply psychologically difficult for the agent to make a choice, such as because of personal attachments or a lack of knowledge about the consequences of the various alternatives, are also excluded from this definition. [4][1]

Ethical quandaries are sometimes defined as not having the right course of action or all alternatives being wrong rather than conflicting obligations.

For many purposes, the two definitions are equivalent. For example, one could argue that in cases of ethical quandaries, the agent is free to choose either course of action and that either option is correct. According to the first definition, such a situation still constitutes an ethical dilemma because the conflicting requirements are unresolved, but not according to the second definition because there is a correct course of action. [1]

Several examples of ethical quandaries have been proposed, but there is disagreement as to whether these are genuine or merely apparent ethical quandaries. Plato provides one of the earliest examples, in which the agent promises to return a weapon to a friend who is likely to use it to harm someone because he is not in his right mind. [6] In this case, the duty to keep a promise clashes with the duty to protect others from harm. Whether this case represents, a genuine ethical quandary is debatable because the duty to avoid harm appears to outweigh the promise. [4] [1] Another well-known example is Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of one of his students’ situations during the German occupation of France. This student had to choose between fighting for his country’s liberation from the Germans and staying with and caring for his mother, for whom he was the only consolation after the death of her other son. In this case, the conflict is between a personal duty to his mother and a national duty. [7] [4] Another widely discussed example is William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice. [8] In it, a Nazi guard forces Sophie to choose one of her children for execution, threatening to execute both if she refuses. This case differs from the others in that the conflicting duties are different. Because the two duties are of the same type, this case is referred to as symmetrical. [4] [1]

There are various types of ethical quandaries. The distinctions between these types are frequently important in determining whether or not there are ethical quandaries. Certain arguments for or against their existence may apply only to some types but not others. And only a subset of these, if any, may constitute genuine ethical quandaries.

Ontological vs. epistemic
In epistemic, ethical quandaries, the agent cannot determine which moral requirement takes precedence, so it is unclear what should be done.
[10] This uncertainty is present in many everyday decisions, ranging from a minor choice between differently packaged cans of beans in the supermarket to life-altering career decisions. However, unresolvable conflicts on the epistemic level can exist without unresolvable conflicts and vice versa. [11]

On an ontological level, the main interest in ethical dilemmas is whether there are genuine dilemmas in the form of unresolvable conflicts between moral requirements, not just whether the agent believes so.

[11] Because proponents and opponents of ethical dilemmas usually agree that epistemic, ethical dilemmas exist, the ontological level is where most theoretical disagreements occur. [4] This distinction is sometimes used to argue against the existence of ethical quandaries by claiming that all obvious examples are epistemic. This can be demonstrated in some cases by how the conflict is resolved once the necessary information is obtained. However, there may be other cases where the agent cannot obtain information that would resolve the issue, which is referred to as a stable epistemic, ethical dilemma. [9] [4]

Self-imposed vs. externally imposed.
The distinction between self-imposed and world-imposed ethical difficulties is the source of the conflicting requirements. The agent is responsible for the conflict in the self-imposed case. [4] [2] A common example in this category is making two incompatible promises,[12] for example, to attend two events happening at distant places at the same time. In the world-imposed case, on the other hand, the agent is thrown into the dilemma without being responsible for it occurring. [4] The difference between these two types is relevant to moral theories. Traditionally, most philosophers held that ethical theories should be free from ethical dilemmas and that moral theories that allow or entail the existence of ethical dilemmas are flawed. [4] In the weak sense, this prohibition is only directed at world-imposed dilemmas. This means that all dilemmas are avoided by agents who strictly follow the moral theory in question. Only agents who diverge from the theory’s recommendations may find themselves in ethical dilemmas. However, some philosophers contend that this requirement is too weak and that moral theory should be capable of guiding any situation. [12] This line of thought is based on the intuition that it is irrelevant how the situation arose to respond to it. [4] For example, if the agent faces the self-imposed ethical dilemma of deciding which promise to break, there should be some considerations as to why it is right to break one promise rather than the other. [12] Utilitarians, for example, might argue that it depends on which broken promise causes the least harm to all parties involved.

Prohibition vs. Obligation
An obligation is an ethical requirement to do something, whereas a prohibition is an ethical requirement not to do something. Most moral dilemma discussions center on obligation dilemmas involving two conflicting actions the agent is ethically required to perform. In contrast, prohibition dilemmas are situations in which no action is permitted. Many arguments against ethical dilemmas have been argued to be successful only against obligation dilemmas and not against prohibition dilemmas. [4] [13] [14]

Single vs. multi-agent
Ethical dilemmas involve two courses of action that are both required but contradict each other: it is impossible to perform both actions. A single agent has conflicting obligations in regular single-agent cases. [15] In multi-agent cases, the actions are still incompatible, but the obligations are assigned to different individuals. [4] For example, two competitors in a competition may both have an obligation to win if that is what they promised their families. Because there can only be one winner, these two obligations belong to different people.

Other kinds
Ethical quandaries are classified based on the types of obligations that conflict with one another. For example, Rushworth Kidder suggests that four patterns of conflict can be discerned: “truth versus loyalty, individual versus community, short term versus long term, and justice versus virtue.” [2] [16] These conflicts between different types of duties can be contrasted with conflicts in which one type of duty conflicts with itself, for example, if there is a conflict between two long-term obligations. Such cases are often called symmetric cases. [1] The term “problem of dirty hands” refers to another form of ethical dilemma, which specifically concerns political leaders who find themselves violating commonly accepted morality to bring about some greater overall good. [4] [17]

Existence of ethical dilemmas
The problem of the existence of ethical dilemmas concerns whether there are genuine ethical dilemmas, as opposed to, for example, merely apparent epistemic dilemmas or resolvable conflicts.
[5] The traditional position denies their existence, but there are various defenders of their existence in contemporary philosophy. There are various arguments for and against both sides. Defenders of ethical dilemmas often point to obvious examples of dilemmas, while their opponents usually aim to show their existence contradicts very fundamental ethical principles. Both sides face the challenge of reconciling these contradictory intuitions. [4]

Arguments in favor
Citing concrete examples is a common way to argue favor of ethical quandaries. Such examples are common and can include cases from everyday life, stories, or thought experiments, such as Sartre’s student or Sophie’s Choice, which are discussed in the examples section. [10] The strength of examples-based arguments is based on the intuition that these cases are genuine ethical quandaries. Opponents of ethical quandaries frequently dismiss this argument because initial intuitions in such cases are misleading. For example, it may turn out that the proposed situation is impossible, that one option is objectively superior to the other, or that an additional option is not mentioned in the example’s description. However, for the defenders’ argument to be successful, there must be at least one genuine case. [4] This presents a significant challenge for the opponents because they would have to demonstrate that our intuitions are incorrect in some of these cases and in all of them. Some opponents have responded to this difficulty by claiming that all of these cases are epistemic rather than genuine dilemmas, i.e., the conflict appears unresolvable due to the agent’s lack of knowledge. [9] [10] Utilitarians frequently defend this position. [18] It is supported by the fact that the consequences of even simple actions are frequently too large for us to anticipate properly. According to this interpretation, we misinterpret our uncertainty about which course of action is superior to the notion that this conflict cannot be resolved on an ontological level. [4] Defenders of ethical quandaries generally agree that numerous cases of epistemic quandaries are resolvable but appear unresolvable. However, they disagree that this claim can be generalized to all examples. [
Ethical Dilemma
Another argument in favor of ethical quandaries is the argument from moral residue. Moral residue refers to retroactive emotions such as guilt or remorse in this context. [4] [11] These feelings are caused by the perception of having done something wrong, of failing to meet one’s obligations. [5] In some cases of moral residue, the agent bears responsibility because she made a poor decision that she later regrets. However, in the case of an ethical quandary, this is imposed on the agent regardless of her decision. Going through the experience of moral residue does not just happen to the agent; it also appears to be the appropriate emotional response. The argument from moral residue employs this line of thought to argue in favor of ethical quandaries, claiming that the existence of ethical quandaries is the best explanation for why moral residue is the appropriate response in these cases. [5] [19] Opponents can argue that the appropriate response is regret rather than guilt, with the difference being that regret is independent of the agent’s previous choices. The initial argument loses strength by removing the link to the potentially ambiguous choice. [4][11] Another counter-argument accepts guilt as an appropriate emotional response but rejects the existence of an underlying ethical dilemma. This line of reasoning can be strengthened by citing other examples, such as cases in which guilt is appropriate despite the absence of any choice. [4]

Arguments opposed
Some of the most powerful arguments against ethical dilemmas begin with very general ethical principles and attempt to demonstrate that these principles are incompatible with the existence of ethical dilemmas, resulting in a contradiction.

One such argument is based on the principle of agglomeration and the principle that ought implies can.

According to the agglomeration principle, if an agent should do one thing and another thing, then this agent should do both. If an agent ought to do both things, then the agent can do both things, according to the principle of ought implies can. But if the agent can do both, there is no conflict between the two options and thus no dilemma. Defenders may need to deny either the agglomeration principle or the principle that ought implies can. Either option is problematic because these principles are fundamental. [4] [1]

Another school of thought contends that there are no unresolvable ethical conflicts.

Such a viewpoint may accept that we have various responsibilities that may conflict with one another at times. However, this is not a problem as long as one duty always outweighs the others. It has been proposed that the various types of duties be organized into a hierarchy. [4] In such cases, the higher duty would always take precedence over the lower one, implying that telling the truth is always more important than keeping a promise. One issue with this approach is that it does not handle symmetric cases, such as when two duties of the same type are in conflict. [4] Another issue with such a position is that the relative importance of the various types of duties appears to be situation-specific: in some cases of conflict, we should tell the truth rather than keep a promise, but in others, the opposite is true. [4] This is, for example, W. D. Ross’ position, according to which we have a variety of duties and must decide on their relative weight based on the circumstances. [20] This line of thought, however, begs the question against the defender of ethical quandaries, who may simply deny the claim that all conflicts can be resolved in this manner. [5]

The nature of moral theories leads to a different type of argument. According to various authors, good moral theories must be action-guiding in the sense that they can recommend what should be done in any situation. [21] However, when ethical quandaries are involved, this is not possible. As a result, these intuitions about the nature of good moral theories indirectly support the claim that no ethical dilemmas exist.
Describe a situation of ethical dilemma that you have experienced in practice and how it was resolved. (Saunders, 2014)

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