16 Real-Life Examples of Ethical Dilemmas

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What are some relevant examples of ethical dilemmas that may arise in our day-to-day lives?

How do we decide what to do in such cases?

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

Should parents monitor teens’ social media activities?

An ethical dilemma for parents is whether to monitor their teens’ social media activities. Teens spend a large part of their day online engaging in behaviors that have implications for their health and well-being.

It’s important to set the ground rules when you as a parent first give a smartphone, tablet, computer, or other electronic devices to a teen, including that they will be monitored until they are old enough to understand their obligations online.

Teens may unknowingly become involved in potentially dangerous behaviors online through chat rooms, instant messaging, and emails. Predatory behavior can have damaging effects on a teen’s self-image and feelings of self-worth.

It’s important to have conversations with teens to be sure they’re aware of the warning signs and what to do when they feel a predator is in their midst.

Another reason to monitor teens’ online activities is to teach them about cyberbullying. Cyberbullying manifests in name-calling or insults, spreading gossip and rumors, and circulating unflattering pictures.

Cyberbullying threatens the safety and security of teens. It can create harmful effects, including hurt feelings, sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, shame, fear, frustration, low self-esteem, inability to trust others, withdrawal, avoidance of social relationships, poor academic performance, bullying of others, and, in extreme cases, suicide.

Being targeted online can destroy feelings of self-worth and make it virtually impossible to build and improve self-esteem. These behaviors make it more difficult for a teen to be happy and lead a meaningful life.

The case for monitoring

The key issue is to teach your teen responsible behavior and that actions have consequences. The following lists good arguments for monitoring.

  • Communicating with a teen about social media limitations can build responsible behavior and they learn to be accountable for their actions.
  • Monitoring their behavior can help deal with problems such as sexting and cyberbullying that can be harmful to their growth and development.
  • Monitoring can help to control predatory behavior that threatens a teen’s well-being.
  • Discussing online behaviors can be used as a teachable moment to explain what’s meant by respecting others and how online behaviors promote civility in relationships.

Reasons not to monitor

There are a few good reasons for not monitoring as follows.

  • Teens have a right to privacy and may not want their parents to see everything they do on social networking sites; they may perceive it to be invading their sacred online space.
  • Trusting parents is a key issue in strengthening the bond between teen and parent.
  • Teens may wonder what else parents are monitoring; do they follow them on dates, for example, especially at younger ages?

Returning to the original question: Should parents monitor teens’ online activities? If you are a parent, the benefits of doing so and protecting your kids against harmful behaviors outweigh the costs.

Yes, privacy and trust are important issues to teens, and they may not understand why you have chosen to ignore these. Still, you are the parent and should provide guidance for your teen in navigating the sometimes choppy waters online.

Ask yourself: How would you feel if you didn’t monitor those activities and your teen became the target of a predator or was cyberbullied

Reporting an accident

Many of us have been involved in situations where we scratch another car on the way out of a tight spot in a parking area. The ethical question is whether to inform the owner of the car and, if so, how to do it.

These incidents create ethical dilemmas because the way we deal with them says a lot about our character and whether we act in our own interests or the interests of others.

As the following situation illustrates, the way we react may depend on whether anyone was watching.

Consider the following facts to get started. You pulled out of a tight space in a parking lot and dented the car next to you. You’re quite sure no one saw you. What would you do?

Some people may be tempted to simply leave and avoid the hassle of reporting the incident. This is especially true if the accident will cause insurance rates to go up. Ignoring the situation may be the easiest solution but is it the most ethically appropriate?

Let’s change the facts now and you think someone may have witnessed the incident. Should you report the accident now? One reason for doing so is if you leave the scene without reporting it to the police or at least leaving a note for the driver you may have violated the law.

In most states, you need to make a reasonable effort to identify the owner of the vehicle and notify them about what happened. If you are unable to find the owner, you should leave a written notice with your contact information.

What if you’re a risk-taker and still don’t want to report it? How would you feel if someone did witness the event? Now you can be charged with leaving the scene of an accident.

Still not sure what you would do? Imagine that your child is in the car. She is aware that you scratched the other car on the way out of the parking lot. Would that change what you would do?

Most people now say they would at least leave a note for the other driver with contact information. After all, you want to send the right ethical message to your kid and take responsibility for your action.

Ethically speaking, it shouldn’t matter whether someone witnessed what you did or not.

Doing the right thing is not relative to the situation but is based on the ethical standards of honesty, integrity, and, in the case of the car accident, personal responsibility.

A person of integrity acts on principle about right and wrong and accepts the consequences of their actions.

A good way to check your behavior before acting is to ask how you would feel if your action was discussed on social media. Would you be proud to defend it?

Anticipating how our actions become public is important to ethical behavior because most people want to be respected for their actions and leaving the scene is likely to create a negative response by those in the know.

The moral of the story is ethics is easier said than done.

Ghosting in the workplace

Ghosting occurs when someone you believe cares about you, such as a person you have been dating, disappears from contact without any explanation at all—no phone call, email, or text. They just seem to disappear.

Ghosting a dating partner because you are no longer interested is an unkind act. The person you have been dating has a right to know about your feelings so they can move on with their life. Ask yourself how would you feel if the roles were reversed? You would, most likely, want to be informed to have closure.

Ghosting in the context of interviewing for a job can create an ethical dilemma.

Ghosting occurs when a candidate abruptly disengages from the interview process without explanation. The candidate might fail to inform the interviewer that they have accepted another position.

In some cases, a candidate has accepted a position only to accept a second one and not inform the first employer.

Consider the following facts. You are interviewing for a job. You’ve gone through interviews at five companies and are anxiously awaiting the responses. You get your first offer and verbally commit to taking the job. You will not start to work for another two weeks.

Shortly after accepting the first offer a second one comes in. It’s the better of the two offers and from your preferred employer. Since you haven’t started work for the first employer you face an ethical dilemma: Decline the second offer because you have already accepted the first or accept the second offer.

There is something to be said, ethically, to living up to your word and staying with the first acceptance. It does reflect a sense of honesty and personal responsibility.

However, many people in this situation might take a more self-interested position and bow out of the first offer and accept the second.

There’s nothing wrong with accepting the second offer as long as your reasons are explained to the first employer. They have a right to know why you changed your mind. It may help them in the recruiting process going forward.

In many cases, such as this, it’s not so much what your decision is but how you explain it that counts. After all, the first employer probably doesn’t want you to work for them if you will regret accepting their job offer.

You have a responsibility to inform the first employer because it made an offer, held a position open for you, and will need to fill it once informed of your decision.

Failing to inform this employer means a position that would otherwise be closed is really open because you plan to renege on the offer.

Ghosting the first employer is a selfish act. You are doing what is easiest not what is ethically appropriate. The key ethical issue is the trustworthiness.

Imagine if you didn’t tell the first employer and just disappeared and then the second employer somehow found out about the ghosting. Would they be just as anxious to have you come aboard? Should they be concerned about whether you will be a trusted employee?

Your word is your bond and while our minds may change over time it is important to fully explain to the affected parties why that has occurred. Transparency is the key to developing trusted relationships whether in a dating situation or when interviewing for a job.

Dr. Holly Wilson

Holly Wilson

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

Medical care versus religious beliefs

Some of the thorniest ethical dilemmas for doctors and others in the medical field are those that involve a patient’s religious beliefs.

To illustrate to my bioethics students just how true this can be, I often share the example of William MacArthur, which was included in “Case Studies in Biomedical Ethics”:

The book explains that William MacArthur was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witness do not believe in blood transfusions because the Bible forbids ingesting blood – but, doctors believed MacArthur, who was in end-stage renal failure, would die without a transfusion. Still, MacArthur insisted: No transfusion.

On top of that, the patient had to be resuscitated twice, using CPR, after heart attacks. The doctor treating MacArthur pointed out that further CPR would be medically futile, without the option of a transfusion.

Still, MacArthur refused to sign a do-not-resuscitate order, hoping to live as long as possible. But the doctor felt just as strongly as MacArthur that CPR would not help and should not be performed. He asked the medical ethics committee to weigh in.

This is not rare in medicine; physicians encounter situations in which they insist that a given treatment is unnecessary or not beneficial, but patients or family members insist just as fervently that they want the treatment anyway. But should this mean patients have the right to any treatment they ask for?

If we take a Kantian position we would have to respect the wishes of the patient and continue to administer CPR. Some doctors prefer this strategy. However, in Louisiana, a physician can refuse treatment they believe is futile but must refer to another physician.

If we decide to take a Utilitarianism approach then we’d have to weigh the harms against the benefits – we’d have to ask if the benefits of CPR really outweigh the harms for Mr. MacArthur.

Andrea C. Hummel

Andrea C. Hummel

Founder, Improv For Peace

Misinterpret data deliberately?

A number of years ago, I was hired to collect data on the effectiveness of a national preschool learning program. The client, an organization in New York, needed to prove their program was successful enough to have its funding renewed by the Department of Education.

After conducting lengthy interviews and analyzing data shared by individual sites, I was ready to write up a report. The client flew me to New York, all expenses paid and asked for a presentation on my findings before I compiled them.

I had to break the news to them that the data didn’t showcase their program as strongly as they’d hoped. (That happens sometimes; it’s due to the measurements used, not the program itself.)

They strongly suggested I take another look at the data and interpret it differently – basically analogous to a half-full rather than half-empty glass. I was uncomfortable doing so but felt pressured by the client.

I did believe in the effectiveness of the program and thought it was an innovative approach – but did not want to misrepresent the findings.

What I ended up doing was a compromise: in my report, I shared numbers, graphs, and charts. Then I added summaries for each, stating how I interpreted the statistics (as supportive but not stellar). This left it up to the reader to decide how to interpret the data.

In some ways this is what Robert Mueller did recently when he compiled a report with strong evidence of possible presidential misconduct, yet stopped short of making an accusation.

Share my political leanings and risk losing clients?

Much of my work these days involves bringing together people and groups with conflicting viewpoints and ideologies. To be effective, I have to come across as impartial so both sides can trust and come to the table to heal.

However, I’m not immune to what I hear. The country’s current sociopolitical climate and recent shootings and riots have left me questioning whether I can be neutral.

On the one hand, I want to be honest about my emotions and share stories on social media that show we need to come together as a country.

On the other hand, some of the groups I want to work with have been associated with violence and hate. That’s why I’d like to help them get to the root of what they want from society and why they feel discounted. But if I’m public about my personal ideologies, I risk alienating them

So far I haven’t found a solution to this ethical dilemma; I feel I’m short-changing both sides of the social conversation.

Diana Graber

Diana Graber

Founder, Cyberwise |
Author, Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology

Internet dilemmas

I teach middle schools students about the safe and responsible use of digital tools and we talk about how the Internet is full of ethical dilemmas.

  • Do I post a picture of a sleepover I’ve been invited to, even though I know other kids in the class who were left out and will see these posts?
  • Do I download a song or video that I have not purchased the rights to?
  • Do I copy and paste the work of another and include it in my school assignment without crediting the author?

These are just a few examples of ethical dilemmas posed by the online world, and oftentimes kids too young to engage in ethical thinking are in possession of a connected device that asks them to make decisions like these all the time.

It takes about 12 years of life for children to develop the cognitive capacity for ethical thinking. And good judgment? Well, that takes almost 25 years to develop!

That’s why it’s so important for adults to discuss possible online ethical scenarios with their children offline, and before they have the chance to make mistakes that the Internet will never forget.

Nikki Webster

Nikki Webster

Travel Blogger, BritOnTheMove

I was recently offered a gig to promote a new suitcase that I don’t really use

I write a travel blog and I’m often approached with free products to try out and/or review. I’ve never done one yet because I’ve yet to be offered one I can stand behind.

I had to think about this for a long time. It would be ridiculously easy for me to promote the suitcase and tell everyone it’s fabulous and earn $25 a pop. A really easy way for me to monetize.

The dilemma is, I’m a die-hard Samsonite luggage fan and it took me 10 years of trying many brands before I became brand loyal to Samsonite. I’ve talked about this one my blog, everyone who knows me personally could tell you what my luggage is.

In other words, having thought through this deeply it would be immoral for me to promote this new suitcase. It would be a total sell-out, telling my readers to buy something that I would not.

Even if I tired the new case which I never did, how could I in good faith tell my readers to buy it when my sole purpose for trying it would have been to get them to buy it?

In the short term, I’ve likely lost some potential earnings. In the long term, I’ve protected my brand and that’s far more important.

Angela J. Thompson

Angela J. Thompson

Business Coach | Writer | Speaker | CEO, Marriage-Minded Only

To cheat or not to cheat is the question

Each of us has choices in life. Some choices are most difficult than others if you have a moral compass. While attending a class reunion, one of my best friends encountered the guy the used to be the geek, but now a hunky professional which was extremely attracted to her.

In this case, the attraction was mutual! To top it off, she is religious and he is a youth pastor. The dilemma you ask: He is married.

Actually, about two months prior he posted a heartfelt tribute to their marriage. While they were speaking, I had no idea what he was saying. Also, as middle-aged people, I would not have disturbed them anyway. Apparently, he really put it on. He was successful, positive and just needed a mate. There was no mention of a wife.

After the event on the way back, I had the displeasure of sharing his status. Although a little disappointed she told me that she would not pursue a relationship, she was cheated on and refuse to be a part of the same horrible drama which ended her marriage.

Did it end there? No. He has dropped a note via social media, or a call or text a least monthly for over a year. I believe he is not used to being rejected. She, on the other hand, has not found a mate although she is beautiful and successful.

She could easily have an affair and hope not to be caught. She is attracted to him after all, or she could continue to remain strong.

I say, stay strong girl! Your single man may be around the corner.

Emily Denbow Morrison, M.Ed.

Emily Denbow Morrison

High School English Teacher

It can be hard for teachers to navigate what’s right and wrong for kids to think, say, and do, and I’d like to share my experience creating a fair, consistent, positive atmosphere inside the classroom.

Set an example

One of the ways that teachers break trust is by breaking the rules they wish to enforce. If you don’t want children to use profanity, then you can’t either.

If you want students to turn their work in on time, then give them adequate time to complete it. Also, if you want them to use feedback in a timely manner, then you need to give them feedback in a timely manner.

Teachers cannot tell children, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We must be the example that they follow by our words and by our actions.

Be aware

There are so many children in our educational system today that are coming to us without their basic needs being met. They are living in food-insecure homes, living in poverty, living with abuse of one kind or another, and they are doing all they can do to attend school.

Make sure you realize when one of your students is struggling and see that the appropriate adults are aware of their physical, social, and emotional needs.

Be consistently kind

If you’ve been in the trenches long, you understand all the ways that children can anger you. They will frustrate you. They will make you mad. They will disappoint you. They’ll even insult you from time-to-time.

Do you know why? Because children have no choice in who or how they’ve been parented or taught. They are the products of their experiences.

As teachers, we must be patient with our students when they get upset or frustrated.

This means sharing our very real frustration and anger with them in the most appropriate ways. We must never insult a child’s character or personality in our attempts to teach them. This is inexcusable.

Don’t overstep

When you love kids, and you have to if you’re in this profession, it’s easy to take responsibility for them. You feel bad when they’re going through a hard time. You want to help them through personal struggles, not just their academic performance. The good news is, “It’s okay to care! And it’s okay to show you care!”

The reality is, be careful how you do it.

You can’t be friends on Facebook. You can’t give them a grade for something they didn’t do. You can’t say, “Ah, you’re my favorite. You don’t have to turn work in on time.”

Of course, we must treat every child with kindness and respect, but when you break the rules for one kid, the rest of them are wondering, “Why didn’t they do that for me?”

Rob Stephens, CPA

Rob Stephens

Founder, CFO Perspective

Mutual promotion with a topless dance club

I was the bookkeeper for a nonprofit agency when I was in college. A topless dance club offered us a large sum of money if they could do bikini car washes to promote us. They would promote our agency and we would promote them.

Our Executive Director asked how much promotion they expected from us. They said they expected as much promotion as we would do for IBM if IBM had given us that amount of money. There were political movements at the time to add zoning restrictions for dance clubs like their club.

What the dance club didn’t know was that our local agency had been greatly struggling financially. Our national office was talking about shutting us down. We had to meet our financial target that year or face closure.

The Executive Director was a marketing expert and decided the public relations nightmare working with the dance club would create for our agency and so passed on the offer. Thankfully, we still hit our financial target that year and were able to keep our doors open.

Matt Billy

Matt Billy

Podcast Creator, Bleeped

Should I take my child to a drag queen story hour?

The area around Lafayette, Louisiana, is one of the country’s most conservative. So when the Lafayette Public Library added Drag Queen Story Hour to their event calendar, Aimee Robinson knew it was going to be controversial.

Aimee’s an activist and has lived in Lafayette for over twenty years. She’s fought many battles for LGBTQ rights, so she knew how Lafayette’s conservative community would react to Drag Queen Story Hour.

They’d respond with protests, pickets signs, and angry words yelled from megaphones. This type of backlash wasn’t new to Aimee, but something about this controversy was different. Children were stuck in the middle of it.

Drag Queen Story Hour is an event where drag queens read storybooks about diversity, self-love, and an appreciation of others to groups of young children.

After the first Story Hour in 2015, the event spread like wildfire all over the country. DQSH now boasts over thirty chapters in the United States and libraries often say the Story Hours are their best-attended events.

But not everyone thinks Drag Queen Story Hour’s proliferation is a good thing. As Story Hours spread from LGBTQ friendly cities like San Francisco, and into more socially conservative areas like Lafayette, many have protested the event. They claim it “sexualizes children.”

More extreme critics have whipped up a conspiracy theory that Drag Queen Story Hour is part of a secret plot by the LGBTQ community to “groom young children” into their “dangerous alternative lifestyle.”

Now a movement is building to stop cities from hosting Drag Queen Story Queen Hours. DQSH opposition has organized protests all over the country. Often, when parents take their children to a DQSH, they have had to walk them through a sea of angry protestors chanting about sodomy and pedophilia.

One Story Hour in Renton, Washington — a state with an open carry law — many of the protesters had handguns strapped to their waists that the children could see.

It’s scary for parents to walk their children through this hatred and anger. With two children of her own, Aimee Robinson understands this concern. That’s why in Lafayette, she organized a “balloon barricade.”

The balloon barricade is essentially a counter-protest where people hold balloons and pickets signs with positive messages while chatting happily. The idea is to shield the children from anger.

After multiple cancellations and two lawsuits, it took Aimee six months to organize a successful Drag Queen Story Hour. She spent half a year of her life fighting for and organizing the event, but Aimee thinks it’s worth it to teach children to accept people for who they are.

Why is Drag Queen Story Hours important? LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth. Many times, the sadness that precedes such an action is brought on by bullying, not being accepted by their peers, and feeling alone.

Aimee hopes that the lessons a young child can glean from Drag Queen Story Hour can play some role in changing that statistic.

So, should we take our children to a Drag Queen Story Hour even if it means they are exposed to armed and angry protesters? If we prefer they become part of Aimee’s balloon barricade and not one of the angry protesters, it’s probably a good idea.

Brian Kearney

Brian Kearney

Founder, Driving Force Communications

Dishonest selling

I was recently faced with an ethical dilemma when a client of mine switched production from the US to overseas in Vietnam.

The company’s brand was largely based on the fact that their products were made in the USA, and some senior-level members of the company wanted that to remain on the website and in their communications with the public, influencers, media, etc.

I knew this was not only unethical but borderline illegal. After quite a few in-depth conversations with my client, explaining to them the ramifications of continuing to communicate the products were made in the USA (both from a legal and PR standpoint).

We were able to come to an agreement on how to rebrand so that we no longer put such heavy emphasis on where the product was made and started honest communication about the products’ place of production.