What Is an Ethical Dilemma and How Do You Solve One?

As human beings, we are faced with decisions every day. What we decide to do in these moments can impact our well-being and the lives of others too.

But what if there is no right answer?

An ethical dilemma is a challenging situation wherein one must make difficult choices that affect many people’s lives for better or worse.

So, how does one know which decision will be best at this point in time? We asked experts to share their insights.

Erica Cramer, LCSW

Erica Cramer

Clinical Social Work/Therapist, Cobb Psychotherapy NYC

An ethical dilemma is when your values and what you want to do conflict

  • You are married but attracted to a co-worker. You are kosher but craving a cheeseburger.
  • You don’t believe in lying but need a better reason than your hangover to call out of work.

Ethical dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes, and there are just as many ways to solve them. The amount of time, energy, and thought you invest in it varies from problem to problem. While some are extremely complicated and require extensive analysis, others are simpler and can be resolved quickly.

Related: 25+ Moral Dilemma Examples, Questions, and Scenarios

When you’re stuck in an ethically ambiguous grey area, here are a few tips and tricks to navigating a solution you’re morally comfortable with and resolving your problem:

Write a pro/con list

Writing a pro/con list of sticking with your values vs. opposing them can be helpful in visually seeing the situation and analyzing it from a different perspective. You can write a simple pro/con list and go with whatever column has more points.

If it is a more complicated issue, you may want to rank your points from 1-3.

  • Not Important
  • Somewhat Important
  • Very Important

Whichever column has the largest total is your answer. If you’re unhappy with the answer that this leads you to, chances are your gut is telling you to go in another direction. There is also something that can be said for listening to your gut.

In most cases, your first choice is your best choice.

Another version of the pro/con list is to analyze the risk vs. rewards. What are you risking by not following your ethics, and what is the potential reward?

Speak to people you trust and respect

Opinions can be hurtful or helpful. Sometimes they help someone who is too close to a situation get a clearer perspective. Other times, they can confuse someone and be inaccurate. No one knows all the pieces to your puzzle.

It is important to carefully think about who you are asking and why.

If they are someone who knows you and the situation quite well, they may be helpful and point you in the right direction. If someone has been in your shoes, even better. It is important to think carefully before asking someone.

Don’t just ask anyone.

If your answer is clear and boils down to temptation, or you’re toiling over something unnecessary and just need to be talked out of it, bringing in a ringer can help. Are you feeling hypocritical about playing hooky at work or considering a BLT even though you’re always saying, “you’ve been vegan over a decade”?

Sometimes you’re not as conflicted as you think but just need someone to call you out.

Evaluate the long-term consequences

If you do it, can you live with it? Is this something you will feel shame, guilt, and disappointment about for the rest of your life? Or is it something that you can confidently do and not second guess?

Long-term consequences are important to consider because we cannot reverse actions we have taken or decisions we have made. We can learn from them, we can grow from them, but we can’t undo them.

Determine if the value is outdated

Many people are taught things as children. Whether it’s to follow a certain religion or that premarital sex is sinful. But should a 30-year-old follow the same values they did as a 10-year-old? You may have matured, and unconsciously, your values have shifted.

Do an internal scan of your current ethical values to determine if the conflict is still valid. Is this a value that you were taught to believe or something that you still believe? If you no longer hold this value, it is not an ethical dilemma, and you can proceed. If you still hold this value, follow one of the above tips.

Take yourself out of the equation

We are our toughest critics. Sometimes people have difficulty making decisions because it feels too personal. Pretend this issue belongs to someone else.

  • How would you guide them to proceed?
  • Would you encourage them to oppose their values or follow them?
  • Would you judge them or tell them that this is really a grey area not to get too hung up on?

This trick may help you view the situation more clearly.

Ethics are personal and to each their own. It’s important to remember that all we can do is continue working on ourselves, continue getting to know ourselves, and define what’s more and less important to us.

The decision you make is ultimately your own, and you can still be the same person you were yesterday, tomorrow, regardless of your choice. When you define your ethics and make tough choices, sometimes the toughest one is allowing yourself forgiveness and the opportunity for growth.

Ethical dilemmas are related to values

An ethical dilemma signals that a situation is touching on two or more values and that the values are pulling in different directions. These situations come up all the time because the values often pull in different directions.

Some business decisions are common ethical dilemmas, such as:

  • an employee that you like but isn’t doing a good job
  • when the business has slowed down enough that you need to lay off some people who were doing a good job
  • perhaps you are being asked to do a type of work that makes you uneasy
  • perhaps, in your personal life, a friend has asked you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable (telling a lie for them)

Ethical dilemmas also arise because two people feel differently.

Even though we all (and I mean all humans) have the same basic values, we each place different importance on the various values, and we interpret them differently. Conflicts between people can often be traced to two people using different values or having different interpretations of those values in the same situation.

Related: 16 Real-Life Examples of Ethical Dilemmas

This can also signal an ethical dilemma – perhaps we aren’t giving enough weight to the other person’s perspective.

The process of solving an ethical dilemma starts with becoming aware of the values involved

To solve this type of problem, the first step is to become aware of which basic values are involved. To do this, you need to learn about values. This isn’t easy because our values are invisible to us until we encounter these situations.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind or my book, “Persuade, Don’t Preach,” provides good descriptions of the fundamental values that all humans share. Once you are clear about what is underneath your discomfort, then give some thought to how important each of the values is to you in this situation.

It’s also important not just to think about what you believe; you also need to consider which other values are relevant to the dilemma and how other people might feel. This is important because ethical dilemmas can sometimes result in situations blowing up and causing more problems.

It isn’t just about you; you need to consider others.

What kind of person do you want to be should be at the root of your answer

The final step is to think through or talk through with a trusted friend what each possible resolution would say about you, both to yourself and others.

  • What kind of person do you want to be?
  • What kind of person do you want others to think you are?

As you do this, the answer should become clearer.

Robert C. Bird

Robert Bird

Professor of Business Law and Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics, University of Connecticut | President, Academy of Legal Studies in Business

An ethical dilemma occurs when someone has to choose between different conflicting actions

Most decisions have a clear answer for what is right and wrong. We know not to steal or commit crimes, for example, and we choose the alternative that avoids obviously unethical or illegal behavior.

However, there are some situations where an ethical dilemma presents itself requiring further thought about what is the right thing to do.

An ethical dilemma occurs when an individual is presented with a choice between different actions, and these actions have conflicting or other problematic ethical implications embedded in each choice. Each choice has the potential to infringe upon an ethical principle or standard.

A choice that has a clear ethical and unethical path is not an ethical dilemma.

Ethical dilemmas can arise in both our personal and professional lives. Sometimes we have an opportunity to consider the alternatives before taking action. Other times, however, a decision must be made immediately.

That is why honest consideration of one’s own ethical values must happen before an ethical dilemma presents itself.

An ethical dilemma is also challenging because it forces the decision-maker to choose between multiple options without a clear path toward an ethical standard. The decision-maker must look at the ethical implications more closely and weigh the various interests involved.

What is the ‘right’ decision to make in an ethical dilemma can often be subjective, making the selection of an appropriate choice all the more difficult. Ethical dilemmas can present real risks, but with advance planning and careful consideration, we can ensure that the choices we make are usually the right ones.

Daniel Torres Pacheco

Daniel Torres Pacheco

Researcher in Philosophy | Outreach Marketing Specialist, Zety

We cannot solve ethical dilemmas but we can choose certain criteria that will guide our action

An ethical dilemma is a situation in which an agent has to make a certain choice, the outcome of which will necessarily entail choosing one moral principle to the detriment of another.

The most famous example is a thought experiment called the trolley problem:

“There is a runaway trolley going down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the sidetrack.

You have two options:

  • Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
  • Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or What is the right thing to do?”

Unfortunately for us, there is no right answer for this and other dilemmas. Ethics is not an exact science. If it was, we would develop models and instruments to help us take all the ethical decisions in the world.

We wouldn’t need philosophers discussing nuclear arms or biotechnology and coming up with principles of action to inform policymaking since these would be possible to deduce with precision, just as we can deduce that 2 + 2 = 4.

Ethical dilemmas are not solvable in the way that we can solve arithmetic problems. But that doesn’t mean there are no options available to us so as to make a decision. Ethics is about choosing your first principles, the criteria or code that will guide your actions.

Traditionally there are three strong traditions:

Consequentialists (or utilitarians) take the consequences of their actions as the main factor for ethical decisions. In the trolley problem, they will divert the trolley because the consequence of their action will lead only to one death, rather than five — even knowing fully well they are responsible for that one death, the overall utility for the world is greater if they pull the lever.

Deontologists use universal maxims to guide their action (thou shall not kill; thou shall not lie). The consequences matter little to them. What matters is having recognized the principle that should be applied universally in any given situation.

They are unlikely to pull the lever because that would violate one of their universal principles: not to kill.

Lastly, Virtue ethicists will favor particular character (and intellectual) virtues rather than general consequences or principles. For them, ethics is above all about character, about good character traits (indeed, ēthos means character in classical Greek).

They will look to first cultivate a good character based on virtues like courage, temperance, prudence and fortitude and let actions take place from this stable ground. They may have different approaches to the trolley problem, and whether their action is good or bad depends on their motivations and how their character affects them.

For example, if one switches the lever because one’s ex-partner is on the other track, this will be deemed a poor motivation and decision and contrary to virtues like temperance.

To be sure, no proponent of each position will always ‘solve’ a dilemma based on their favorite approach. There may be some flexibility. But they usually take one of these to be more often applicable than the others.

In short: we cannot solve ethical dilemmas, but we can choose certain criteria that will guide our action and apply it when necessary.

David Aylor

David Aylor

Founder & CEO, David Aylor Law Offices

Analyze the situation to find alternative options without compromising your values or ethics

An ethical dilemma is a situation in which the user needs to choose between two difficult choices, both of which are ethically wrong or don’t come to an acceptable conclusion.

While many choose the option they see as the lesser of two evils, the best response to an ethical dilemma is to analyze the situation to find alternative options without compromising your values or ethics.

Being an outside-of-the-box thinker can be exceptionally valuable in ethical dilemmas, rather than the “only way out is through” mentality that leads to a losing choice either way.

Though ethical dilemmas are often theoretical in nature, practicing those critical thinking skills in high-stake simulations can help you learn to make better real-world business decisions that align with your values.

Jennifer L. Bennett

Jennifer L. Bennett

Owner, Law Office of Jennifer L. Bennett

An ethical dilemma is when you have to choose between two conflicting choices with moral values

When a person finds himself/herself in front of a crossroad wherein they have to choose between two conflicting choices with moral values, it is considered to be an ethical dilemma.

One must use his/her emotional intelligence to choose the right path for them.

If you are the person standing in front of the choices, you will have to choose between what is right and what any other person would normally do. It demands courage and faith to make the right choice.

In the workplace, we have witnessed ethical dilemmas in cases of discrimination and unethical leadership. At times, your boss might just be unreasonable and do something unfair. It will be your call to either take action or go with the flow.

Related: How to Deal With a Bad or Difficult Boss

Ethical decision-making is all about making tough decisions that provide all parties involved with equal justice. Always keep the ethics code at the center of the dilemma and keep all the parties involved adherent to the ethics code of conduct.

Ann Young

Ann Young

Writer and Photographer | Co-Inventor & CEO, Fix The Photo

An ethical dilemma is a situation in which two values, duties, or beliefs are at odds with one another

Ethical dilemmas are situations in which our beliefs and morals are challenged. When we make choices in these situations, we often experience emotional turmoil and struggle to reconcile right versus wrong. These are deeply conflicting, difficult situations that leave us feeling torn regarding the right course of action to take.

When faced with an ethical dilemma, there are no right or wrong answers. The important thing is for you to be able to understand how you arrive at a decision that best suits your beliefs and values.

It is important to understand that an ethical dilemma is not about being good or bad. It is about understanding the problem, which requires a thought process in solving each dilemma. Solutions are objective and often based on limited information.

In order to come up with a solution, you need to think through what you have been told and observed since ethics requires an in-depth understanding of the people, situation, and/or task at hand. Understanding how others are involved in the problem is an important first step in figuring out possible solutions.

Rank the values or principles from most to least important.

  • To determine this, ask yourself: Which value or principle do I consider to be the most important in this situation?
  • Then ask yourself: Which value or principle do I consider to be the second most important in this situation?

Continue asking for each subsequent value or principle. Once you have ranked your values or principles, figure out how you can make your action consistent with those values or principles that you have rated as most important. This will help you develop an action plan that is consistent with your ethical priorities.

Nate Tsang

Nate Tsang

Founder & CEO, WallStreetZen

Ethical standards are moral frameworks that guide individuals’ and organizations’ decision-making processes that allow them to differentiate right and wrong.

When there is a problem, and the only available solutions will compromise or violate someone’s ethical standards, it is called an ethical dilemma. Solving an ethical dilemma is difficult, and nobody wants to be in this kind of situation.

Here are some ways that can help you solve it:

Understand where you stand and what power you hold

If you are part of an organization and need to solve an ethical dilemma, the best approach is to understand your duties and obligations. Understand where you stand and what power you hold.

Do you have the capacity to decide on your own, or do you need your manager’s approval? Once you have established your role, check your organizations’ ethical standards and find which solution is best.

Ask yourself what matters to you most before solving the dilemma

If it is a personal ethical dilemma, ask yourself what matters to you most before solving the dilemma. Analyze it properly and see if you can come up with a lesser evil solution. In some cases, you can reconsider the problem, and you may find an alternative solution to it.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you recognize an ethical dilemma?

Recognizing an ethical dilemma can be tricky, but there are some common signs you can look out for. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Conflicting values or principles: When you find yourself torn between two different values or principles, you may be facing an ethical dilemma. For example, if you value honesty but also want to protect someone’s feelings, you might be in a difficult position if you witness your friend cheating on a test.

Harm to others: If your actions or decisions have the potential to harm others, you may be facing an ethical dilemma. This could be something as simple as sharing someone’s personal information without their consent, or something more complex like deciding whether or not to blow the whistle on unethical behavior in your workplace.

Legal and ethical considerations: Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ethical. If you’re facing a situation where you’re unsure whether your actions or decisions align with both legal and ethical considerations, you may be facing an ethical dilemma.

Personal discomfort: Sometimes, you might just have a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right. If you feel uncomfortable or uneasy about a situation, it’s worth taking the time to examine why you feel that way.

Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to identifying ethical dilemmas. Everyone’s values and experiences are different, so what might be an ethical dilemma for one person might not be for another. However, by being aware of the signs of an ethical dilemma and taking the time to reflect on your own values and principles, you can be better prepared to make ethical decisions when the time comes.

What is the most common ethical dilemma?

Ethics is a fascinating and complex field, and there are many different ethical dilemmas that people encounter in their personal and professional lives. However, one of the most common ethical dilemmas that people face is the conflict between honesty and loyalty.

On one hand, honesty is a core value that most people hold dear. We believe that it’s important to tell the truth and be transparent, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable.

However, on the other hand, many people also place a high value on loyalty. We feel a sense of obligation to protect and support the people and institutions that we care about, even if that means keeping some information confidential.

So when these two values come into conflict, it can be very challenging to decide what to do. For example, imagine that you have a friend who confides in you that they have done something wrong. They ask you not to tell anyone, but you also have a close relationship with another person who would be directly affected by this information.

Do you prioritize your duty to be honest, or your duty to be loyal?

There’s no easy answer to this question, and different people may come to different conclusions based on their personal values and circumstances. However, by thinking carefully about the ethical principles at play and considering the potential consequences of different choices, we can all strive to make ethical decisions that we can be proud of.

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