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Moral Dilemma: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Moral Dilemma in Action
  • 1:14 What Is a Moral Dilemma?
  • 2:29 Examples of Moral Dilemmas
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

A moral dilemma is a conflict in which you have to choose between two or more actions and have moral reasons for choosing each action. Learn more about moral dilemmas from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Moral Dilemma in Action

Imagine you are walking to a store with your friend Gia. She tells you that Kayla, a student at your school, stole money from the cafeteria and blamed Gia for it. As a result, Gia was suspended for two weeks and had to pay the money back.

As you and Gia walk into the store, you see Kayla. Gia pushes Kayla slightly and drops a pair of earrings into Kayla's purse. The alarm sounds once Kayla tries to walk out of the store. She is pulled aside by security for shoplifting, and they call the police. Kayla tells them that she is innocent and that Gia dropped the earrings in her purse. Gia calls Kayla a liar and asks you to back her up.

If you tell the truth, Gia will get in trouble again and will face consequences from the law and her parents. Kayla will go unpunished for originally stealing money from the cafeteria. If you do not tell the truth, Kayla will finally be punished for stealing, and Gia will have her revenge. However, you may be committing a crime by lying to the police officers, and Kayla's punishment will be more severe than it would have been for stealing money in the cafeteria.

The police arrive and ask for your version of the story. What do you say?

What is a Moral Dilemma?

In the situation with Gia and Kayla, you have a moral dilemma. By moral, I am referring to our standards for judging right and wrong. A moral dilemma is a situation where:

  1. You are presented with two or more actions, all of which you have the ability to perform.
  2. There are moral reasons for you to choose each of the actions.
  3. You cannot perform all of the actions and have to choose which action, or actions when there are three or more choices, to perform.

Since there are moral reasons for you to choose each action, and you cannot choose them all, it follows that no matter what choice you make, you will be failing to follow your morals. In other words, someone or something will suffer no matter what choice you make. For example, Gia will suffer if you tell the truth, and you will likely lose your friendship. But if you don't tell the truth, you will be a liar and possibly a lawbreaker, and Kayla will get arrested for a crime she did not commit.

As is often the case, there are both moral reasons for you to perform each action and moral reasons to not choose each action. For example, telling the truth is morally important. At the same time, it is also morally important for Kayla to be punished for stealing and lying about Gia.

Examples of Moral Dilemmas

You are a passenger on a sinking cruise ship with your significant other and your daughter. You have a lifeboat, but there is only room for two of you. The person who does not get on the lifeboat will surely drown. Who do you decide to put on the lifeboat?

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