25+ Moral Dilemma Examples, Questions, and Scenarios

Moral dilemmas occur all too frequently in everyday life. These are situations in which there is a difficult decision to be made between two or more options.

Here are moral dilemma examples, questions, and scenarios to see how you might handle these difficult situations.

Dr. Holly Wilson

Holly Wilson

Chair of the Department of Arts, English and Humanities & Professor of Philosophy, Louisiana State University Alexandria

Drug testing and pregnant women

Since the Supreme Court decision in 1999, it is no longer permissible to drug test pregnant women without their consent. The testing without consent could not be justified by reference to the “special needs” of the community for getting women into treatment for the sake of the pregnancy.

Today, there are still reasons to be concerned about the well-being of pregnant women and their children since substance abuse is on the rise.

The dilemma is that pregnancy clinics would like to test pregnant women but the women are afraid of being prosecuted. Health care providers want to test women to be able to provide intervention in the case of substance abuse.

In some states, there are, however, “fetal assault” laws that make it illegal to use opiates during pregnancy. Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina have such “fetal assault” laws which create a disincentive for pregnant women to seek help for their pregnancies.

Pregnant women do not want to face prison time and losing their children so there is a disincentive to seek help with the pregnancy. Yet, without the intervention of the health care facility, the child is likely to suffer more and have lasting health issues.

Is criminalizing substance abuse for pregnant mothers the best way to treat the problem of substance abuse and fetal protection? Are there other solutions that may be more in the best interest of women and children?

The Supreme Court affirmed women’s right to informed consent and denied the testing because the purpose of the testing at that time was aimed at law enforcement rather than saving lives.

Is criminalizing pregnant women really going to save more lives? Is this an effective way to stop substance abuse and save children’s lives? Children of prosecuted women must grow up without their mothers. Is this in the best interest of children?

Should we rather put the emphasis on treating women who abuse opiates rather than prosecute them? Would this not save both the mother and the child?

Prof. Craig B. Barkacs

Craig Barkacs

Professor of Business Law and Ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs, University of San Diego School of Business

The whistleblower dilemma

You encounter someone doing something wrong.

Do you speak up? Do you report it?

As a professor in the School of Business at the University of San Diego, the “whistleblower dilemma” is taken up in the Business Ethics classes I teach. Pedagogic research supports analyzing issues in a context class members can relate to.

In keeping with this prescribed approach of making the context student-relevant, how the particular issue of “whistleblowing” is rolled out in my business ethics class tends to tease out contradictions and inconsistencies that are the hallmark of cognitive dissonance.

“Class,” I begin, “Who here thinks cheating in school is okay?” Yes, it is a softball question. After all, who is going to raise their hand in an ethics class and make the case for a clear violation of academic integrity?

“Next question,” I continue, “So since we all agree that cheating is wrong, you’re going to tell me when someone cheats?”


“No? Well, how about if I sweeten the pot? Since we all agree that cheating is wrong, if you come forward and report such a violation of academic integrity I will see that you receive maximum exposure and be given full credit in public for conscientiously trying to right this wrong.”


“Why are you laughing? You mean you don’t want people to know that you stepped forward to expose cheating? Why not? We have some unflattering names for people who report wrongdoing, don’t we? Can you think of a few?”

Now the class chimes in with the likes of, “tattletale, rat, Judas, traitor, squealer, stool pigeon, stoolie, canary, nark, fink…etc.”

Yes, it is hard to be a whistleblower. I will then ask them to consider what they might do under the following circumstances:

Scenario 1: Imagine you are doing very poorly in the class, and I state as follows.

“This class is not just about theory, but also about action. Do you have the courage of your convictions? Assume I know cheating has taken place, but I need the support of a witness to make the charge stick. If any of you have the courage to come forward and confirm the cheating by a fellow student you too know has cheated, I will give you an “A” in the class – you will have earned it with your actions.”

Scenario 2: Imagine you are doing very well in the class, and I state as follows.

“This class is not just about theory, but also about action. Assume I know cheating has taken place, and I also know that you know (e.g., I overheard you saying as much) and can be a much-needed corroborating witness. I need the support of a witness to make the charge stick. If you fail to come forward and confirm the cheating by a fellow student you too know has cheated, I will give you an “F” in the class – you will have earned it with your cowardice.”

As one would imagine, both the carrot (scenario #1) and the stick (scenario #2) tend to encourage people to speak up when their own well-being is at stake. Do they still, however, want confidentiality? Absolutely.

Your grade in the class is not a consideration. You are deeply troubled, however, by the cheating of others. You want to report it because your spindle cells are firing and you believe it’s the right thing to do. The teacher promises confidentiality, but you will almost certainly be found out anyway as the one who spoke up. You will be ostracized.

The discussion becomes much more intricate and involved as various scenarios and complexities are introduced, but even at this early juncture the conceptual foundation of the whistleblower dilemma is firmly established.

Dr. Steven Mintz

Steven Mintz

Retired Professor Emeritus, California Polytechnic State University | Business Ethics Speaker | Author, “Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior”

Characteristic behaviors

Mary was told by her husband, Tom, that he would accompany her on a weekend retreat for employees of her company. When the time came to go, Tom said he never agreed to do it. Mary wonders whether she had imagined it or was there more at play.

This isn’t the first time Tom presented a different view of an event and insisted it is the truth. He has repeatedly said: “I never said that.” On other occasions, Tom has accused Mary of making commitments without asking him.

At other times, Mary agreed to meet him on a certain day, but Tom insisted she said a different day. Mary is confused. She is starting to believe Tom and doesn’t know what to do.

Gaslighting occurs when a person presents a different view of an event and insist it is the truth, in order to make you question yourself.

It occurs when someone is consistently doing things to make you doubt yourself, where the objective is to have you seriously question your own sanity.

Other examples of gaslighting

  • They blame you for causing them to be late even though it was their fault.
  • They accuse you of doing something you did not do.
  • They start lying to you about things that become larger and larger over time.
  • They cause you to doubt your perceptions by providing you with misinformation.
  • They deny concrete facts to target your sense of reality.

What should Mary do?

Mary should look for other situations where Tom had said something that didn’t line up with her sense of reality. This will give her a clearer perspective of his motivations.

Has Tom increasingly lied about the most trivial of things when the truth doesn’t hurt or harm her? Has he said something like you are mad or crazy?

A gaslighter’s ultimate motivation is to control another party, Mary in this case.. Tom seeks to purposefully confuse Mary and doubt herself. Before long, Mary is willing to believe anything Tom says.

Mary should keep a journal to be clear on her thoughts during gaslighting. By writing down her thoughts and actions she can always go back to her notes to verify she wasn’t wrong. It also helps to establish a pattern of behavior by Tom.

Mary should speak to a close friend or family member to get an objective view of the situation and help craft her response to the events. She may want to go to a therapist for psychological help. Meditating is a useful tool to remain calm during the ordeal.

The best way to handle Tom is not to play his games. Mary should try to avoid the temptation of reacting to his statements because that will only encourage him more. If she can detach from his statements — show him they aren’t causing her to doubt herself – then he may stop gaslighting over time. She can take back control over her life.

Lying on a resume

Cheryl has been unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic for six months. Her unemployment benefits are about to run out. She’s having difficulty providing for her family since she is the only bread winner.

The whole situation is creating a strain in the family dynamic. Add to that the fact that her two kids are trying to learn their educational lessons on zoom and Cheryl is at her wit’s end.

Cheryl decides to try the job market. She shows her resume to her husband, Bob, who suggests stretching the dates she worked for a prior employer by one year to cover-up a one-year gap in the dates of employment with that employer.

Bob doesn’t think a prospective employer would realize the deception because no one at the prior employer is listed as a reference.

Should Cheryl stretch out the dates of employment with the prior employer?

What is Truth-telling?

There are two aspects of truth-telling, also thought of as honesty. One is to never omit information that another party has a right to know, or a lie by omission. The other is not to say or write something that mislead or deceive others, a lie of commission.

Truth-telling is an essential element of trust. Why would an employer believe anything Cheryl says if it became known that she had lied on her resume?

People who obscure the truth or shade it are intentionally trying to get someone to trust them. The potential benefit for Cheryl is getting the job. But is it worth lying about her previous employment experience?

Cheryl may think distorting the dates of employment is justifiable, especially in the trying times of the pandemic. The fact that Bob suggested it may give Cheryl an added incentive to do the deed.

However, she should ask herself the following:

  • What if a prospective employer finds out about the lie after she has been hired?
  • Will she be demoted, lose pay, or be fired for cause?
  • What if the prospective employer decides to contact the prior employer?
  • What will she do then?

Lying on her resume puts Cheryl in the position of sliding down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope” where one lie leads to another and soon enough she would be in a position of covering her actions through deception.

What Should Cheryl do?

Adding an extra year to Cheryl’s employment record and justifying it as part of the game is tantamount to rationalizing an unethical act. It reflects an end justifies the means approach to ethical decision making because Cheryl is willing to do whatever it takes to get the high-paying job.

She can rationalize that feeding her family must come first and foremost. The trying times during the pandemic justifies adding the extra year. After all, she may have established a good performance record with other employers who she can ask for a recommendation.

If Cheryl stretches the dates of employment she will be lying by omission and it may be followed up by a lie of commission if she is asked about that prior employment experience. A prospective employer has an ethical right to expect potential employees to be honest on their resume.

Cheryl has a moral duty, to be honest with any prospective employer and should not start an employment relationship with a lie.

She should imagine if everyone lied on their resume about dates of employment, adding a job they didn’t have, or embellishing their experience. This would put Cheryl in a weaker position in getting the job.

Cheryl should explain to Bob that the potential harms of lying on her resume outweigh the benefits of getting the job. She still may get the job even with a one-year gap in her employment.

There may be a good reason for it, such as raising her kids. Even so, there will be other job opportunities that come along. It’s best to wait and be honest from the start to develop a trusting employment relationship.

Related: 16 Real-Life Examples of Ethical Dilemmas

Sanket Shah

Sankit Shah

Clinical Assistant Professor for Biomedical and Health Information Sciences, University of Illinois, Chicago | Author, “Healthcare Analytics 101: A Comprehensive Guide”

Healthcare options

I recently experienced an ankle injury that required a visit to an immediate care facility. During the visit, an x-ray was taken and the physician on-call asked me to set up an appointment with their orthopedics unit the following day.

The next day, the orthopedic specialist could not determine the extent of my injury and asked me to set up an appointment for an MRI at their imaging center downstairs. I did so and had my follow-up visit with the physician who said he thought I was okay and it was not a break.

However, to be sure, he wanted me to go to the hospital system and get a CT scan just in case. I did so and received a call at the end of the week saying everything was fine and to just rest up.

That great news was overshadowed when I received my hefty bill which was mostly related to all of the imaging work I had undergone.

Most of us have been accustomed to visiting our physician and following his or her recommendation to ensure the best possible health outcomes. The term in the healthcare industry is referred to as “Medical Adherence”.

Not following orders can include stopping medication as prescribed, engaging in a lifestyle activity that continues to put one at risk, or simply not continuing your treatment plan as directed. The consequences of medical non-adherence can be very detrimental to one’s health.

The healthcare industry is multi-faceted, complex, and often confusing for the common patient.

What we as patients may not realize, is in certain circumstances, we do have choices that can be made that are in our best interest.

These options are rarely discussed between patient and physician as recommended services and treatment options are almost always kept within their employed health system.

This would make sense from a convenience perspective but also from a financial perspective as patients are kept within the same healthcare ecosystem. More visits and services ultimately lead to more revenue.

I shared my experience above because it is a prime example of how healthcare costs continue to balloon for the United States.

In my situation, I could have taken both the MRI and CT at a free-standing imaging center. The function and process would have been identical. I arrive, I get scanned, and the results are sent to my physician. Going there instead of going to my provider’s imaging center would have saved me hundreds of dollars.

Most of us simply just don’t know how to ask the right questions, but by doing so, you may be able to save hundreds or thousands in medical expenses.

Here are a few tips to consider that may be worth researching or asking your physician to better understand your options:

  • If you need imaging done, can it be done at a nearby free-standing clinic?
  • If you have a planned procedure, can it be conducted in a lower cost setting such as an outpatient facility or ambulatory surgical center?
  • If you have lab work that needs to be done, can it be done at a clinical lab facility?
  • If you are being prescribed medication, is there a generic equivalent available?
  • If you think you need to go to the emergency room, is it really an emergency, or can you go to an urgent care center?

These are just some examples of what a patient should be aware of to help control some of their out-of-pocket costs when it comes to medical care.

You should always follow your doctor’s orders, but asking questions and conducting your own research will provide you with information so that you and your physician can make the most informed decisions.

Catherine Neubauer, Ph.D.

Catherine Neubauer

Professor, Online Master of Science in Applied Psychology Program at the University of Southern California | Research Psychologist, Army Research Lab

Moral dilemmas involved with during human-machine interaction

As autonomous technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to advance and become more ubiquitous with every day human use, there are several concerns designers,
researchers and users should be concerned with (or at least aware of).

Initial concerns may center around developing infrastructure to support such technologies as well as accompanying cost-prohibitive components; however, a more complicated concern revolves around the moral dilemmas that may emerge as humans and machines interact, work, or team with one another.

For example, take autonomous cars and a dangerous driving scenario where either the passengers in the car or the pedestrians walking along the side of the road could be hurt or injured. If the autonomous car is in full control, it will execute decisions and behaviors that have been pre-programmed to take place, given a set of environmental constraints.

The dilemma then arises as to how humans will program the actions to be taken and how machines should execute them, especially in uncertain, high stress or risky situations.

Currently, researchers are working on programming basic human decision-making components into these systems; however, morality is a much more complex process that even humans struggle to engage in effectively.

In these cases, it is difficult for humans to make accurate decisions, therefore, it will be even more complicated to build machines that engage in this kind of decision-making as well.

Additionally, further questions and concerns center around 1) the rights of AI or autonomous agents (e.g., as AI abilities increase, will they become more self-aware and hence deserve various civil rights), 2) the level of control they will have or the positions and roles they will be able to hold (e.g., a team leader with ultimate authority or a team member who simply executes commands) and 3) how machines will weigh moral dilemmas and the safety of the humans they are built to assist when the future outcomes are not immediately clear.

In other words, will machines have the ability to ascertain the nuances and subtleties of an uncertain scenario in the same way that humans do?

Although current work is being done on the subject, it is very difficult for machines to predict future outcomes; therefore, how can moral decision-making in machines occur when outcomes are not immediately clear?

We can program scenarios that a machine will follow, but will these programming constraints be too restrictive and give us what we asked for, but not what we actually want?

In the real-world humans need to be flexible and adaptable during uncertain situations and moral dilemmas, it is not always a one-case fit all scenario.

Jack Choros

Jack Choros

CMO, IronMonk Solutions

My boss is wrong. Should I bring it up or question him on it?

If you’ve been working for long enough chances are you might’ve had a bad boss or two in your career. This moral dilemma is a tough one.

On the one hand, your boss signs your checks, so you do what they tell you to do. On the other hand, if they’re wrong and it’s causing you undue stress, you want to be able to speak up.

So what do you do?

I say you try as much as possible to lean on facts and not personalize your issues with your boss. This way you can still show them you care about what’s happening without having them get upset.

Sometimes you may even be so invested in challenging your boss that you might think making them a little bit upset is okay. Still, unless you have an exit strategy for getting a new job, you probably don’t want to rile up too many feathers.

Even if you’re on your way out, you still want to be professional and courteous, and above all else, show you care about the company.

Petra Odak

Petra Odak

Chief Marketing Officer, Better Proposals

When I was in my teenage years, I spent a lot of time in a park close to my house and I saw different kinds of people.


One time, I saw a beggar who walked out of the supermarket – he bought a loaf of bread but actually had lots more food hidden in his clothes which he managed to steal. I saw him walking out and taking out the stolen items in front of me and I had two choices.

I could report him to the supermarket, they would take the items and call the police, or I could let him go unpunished because he couldn’t afford food anyways.

I decided not to report him, but I knew that he would just do it again. I told him that I saw him and that what he’s doing is wrong and gave him some money to buy food the next time around.

I don’t think anyone wins in this situation and that’s frequently the case with moral dilemmas.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are moral dilemmas?

Moral dilemmas are complex situations where a person must choose between two or more conflicting values or ethical principles. These situations often involve difficult decisions where one option may result in a positive outcome, but at the expense of another value or principle.

For example, a moral dilemma could involve deciding between telling the truth and protecting someone’s feelings, or between saving one life and sacrificing another.

Moral dilemmas can be challenging to navigate, as they require individuals to weigh the potential consequences of their actions and determine which course of action aligns most closely with their personal beliefs and values.

The resolution of a moral dilemma may not always be clear or straightforward and may depend on factors such as cultural background, personal experiences, and individual perspective.

How do people typically respond to moral dilemmas?

People’s responses to moral dilemmas can vary widely depending on their personal beliefs, cultural background, and previous experiences.

Some people may prioritize following their moral principles above all else, even if it means going against societal norms or risking negative consequences. Others may prioritize minimizing harm to others, and choose to take actions that they believe will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

There are also individuals who may struggle to make a decision in the face of a moral dilemma, or who may feel torn between conflicting values or principles. In some cases, people may experience moral distress or moral injury, which can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety.

Overall, the way that people respond to moral dilemmas is highly individual and can be influenced by a variety of factors.

What are some common ethical frameworks that people use to make moral decisions?

Some common ethical frameworks that people use to make moral decisions include:

Utilitarianism, which focuses on maximizing overall happiness and minimizing suffering by taking actions that result in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.

Deontology, which prioritizes following moral principles and rules, regardless of the consequences. This approach places a strong emphasis on duties, rights, and obligations.

Virtue ethics, which emphasizes the importance of developing good character traits and moral virtues, such as honesty, integrity, and compassion. This approach encourages individuals to act in accordance with these virtues and to cultivate them in themselves and others.

Care ethics, which centers on the importance of relationships and empathy in ethical decision-making. This approach emphasizes the need to consider the impact of our actions on others and to prioritize caring for those who are vulnerable or in need.

Other ethical frameworks that may be used to make moral decisions include feminist ethics, religious ethics, and environmental ethics. The framework that a person chooses to use will depend on their individual beliefs and values, as well as the specific context of the moral dilemma they are facing.

What are the moral dilemmas that college students usually encounter?

College students may encounter a variety of moral dilemmas during their time in school, including:

Academic integrity: Students may face ethical dilemmas related to cheating, plagiarism, or academic dishonesty. These situations can arise when students feel pressure to perform well academically or when they are struggling to keep up with their coursework.

Relationships: College students may face ethical dilemmas related to their relationships with friends, romantic partners, or roommates. These situations can include deciding whether to speak up about a friend’s problematic behavior, navigating conflicts with others, or making choices that may impact others’ well-being.

Substance use: College students may face ethical dilemmas related to alcohol or drug use, such as deciding whether to intervene when a friend is engaging in risky behavior or choosing whether to partake in activities that may be harmful or illegal.

Social justice: College students may encounter ethical dilemmas related to issues of social justice, such as deciding whether to participate in protests or activism, whether to speak out against injustices they witness or how to engage in dialogue with individuals who hold different viewpoints.

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