An ethical dilemma or ethical paradox is a decision-making problem between two possible moral imperatives, neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable. The complexity arises out of the situational conflict in which obeying would result in transgressing another. Sometimes called ethical paradoxes in moral philosophy, ethical dilemmas may be invoked to refute an ethical system or moral code, or to improve it so as to resolve the paradox.
- A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward 5 workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. You are on a footbridge over the tracks that is in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to you on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very fat. If you do nothing the trolley will proceed, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to save the lives of these workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below, where his fat body will stop the trolley, causing his death. Should you push the stranger onto the tracks in order to save the five workmen?
- Abortion debate
- Graded absolutism
- Samaritan's dilemma
Responses to the arguments
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Ethical dilemmas can be solved in various ways, for example by showing that the claimed situation is only apparent and does not really exist (thus is not a paradox logically), or that the solution to the ethical dilemma involves choosing the greater good and lesser evil (as discussed in value theory), or that the whole framing of the problem omits creative alternatives (such as peacemaking), or (more recently) that situational ethics or situated ethics must apply because the case cannot be removed from context and still be understood. See also case-based reasoning on this process. An alternative to situational ethics is graded absolutism.
A popular 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 such as a social safety net, charity, etc. The debate is in its starkest form when framed as stealing food. 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 no 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. Resolving ethical dilemmas is rarely simple or clearcut and very often involves revisiting similar dilemmas that recur within societies.
According to some philosophers and sociologists, e.g. Karl Marx and marxist ethics, it is the different life experience of people and the different exposure of them and their families in these roles (the rich constantly robbing the poor, 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.