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Common Ethical Dilemmas In Our Experiences

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Common Ethical Dilemmas In Our Experiences


Although moral dilemmas like the trolley problem are useful for scholarly and heuristic purposes, the scenarios may seem far from our everyday experience. A far more common yet still challenging ethical dilemma involves choosing between two “rights.” Rushworth Kidder has identified four ethical dilemmas that are so common to our experience that they serve as models or paradigms:30

  • Truth versus loyalty, such as honestly answering a question when doing so could compromise a real or implied promise of confidentiality to others.
  • Individual versus community, such as whether you should protect the confidentiality of someone’s medical condition when the condition itself may pose a threat to the larger community.
  • Short term versus long term, such as how a parent chooses to balance spending time with children now as compared with investments in a career that may provide greater benefits for the family in the long run.
  • Justice versus mercy, such as deciding whether to excuse a person’s misbehavior because of extenuating circumstances or a conviction that he or she has “learned a lesson.”

Kidder offers three principles for resolving ethical dilemmas such as these: ends-based thinking, rule-based thinking, and care-based thinking.

Ends-based thinking is often characterized as “do what’s best for the greatest number of people.” Also known as utilitarianism in philosophy, it is premised on the idea that right and wrong are best determined by considering the consequences or results of an action. Critics of this view argue that it’s almost impossible to foresee all the consequences of one’s personal behavior, let alone the consequences of collective action like policy decisions affecting society more broadly. Even if outcomes could be known, however, there are other problems with this approach. For example, would this view ethically justify the deaths of dozens of infants in medical research if the result might save thousands of others?

Rule-based thinking is consistent with Kantian philosophy and can be characterized colloquially as “following the highest principle or duty.” This is determined not by any projection of what the results of an act may be but rather by determining the kinds of standards everyone should uphold all the time, whatever the situation. In Kant’s words, “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Lofty as the principle may sound, though, it could paradoxically minimize the role that human judgment plays in ethical decision making by consigning all acts to a rigid and mindless commitment to rules absent consideration of the specific context of a decision (“If I let you do this, then I’d have to let everyone do it”).

Care-based thinking describes what many people think of as the Golden Rule of conduct common in some form to many of the world’s religions: “Do what you want others to do to you.” In essence, this approach applies the criterion of reversibility in determining the rightness of actions. We are asked to contemplate proposed behavior as if we were the object rather than the agent, and to consult our feelings as a guide to determining the best course.



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