Resolving an ethical dilemma

Resolving an Ethical Dilemma

Thomas I. White, Ph.D. 

So you’ve got an ethical dilemma on your hands. How do you figure out what to do? Generally speaking, there are two major approaches that philosophers use in handling ethical dilemmas. One approach focuses on the practical consequences of what we do; the other concentrates on the actions themselves. The first school of thought basically argues “no harm, no foul”; the second claims that some actions are simply wrong. Thinkers have debated the relative merits of these approaches for centuries, but for the purpose of getting help with handling ethical dilemmas, think of them as complementary strategies for analyzing and resolving problems.

Here’ s a brief, three-step strategy that shows you how to combine them. (By the way, we’re going to assume that if there are any laws involved, you plan to obey them. This isn’t to say that it’s always morally wrong to break laws. But in ethical dilemmas that arise in business, the laws generally establish at least a bare minimum for how you should act. Besides, if a business regularly breaks laws, it becomes an anti-social force in society. And no matter how much money’s involved, at that point, there’s not a huge difference between a business and organized crime.)  

Step 1: Analyze The Consequences  

O.k., you’re going to stay on this side of the law. What next? It’s probably easier to start by looking at the consequences of the actions you’re considering. Assume you have a variety of options. Consider the range of both positive and negative consequences connected with each one.  

  • Who will be helped by what you do? 
  • Who will be hurt? 
  • What kind of benefits and harms are we talking about? After all, some “goods” in life (like health) are more valuable than others (like a new big screen TV). A small amount of “high quality” good can outweigh a larger amount of “lower quality” good. By the same token, a small amount of “high quality” harm (the pain you produce if you betray someone’s trust on a very important matter) can outweigh a larger amount of “lower quality” pain (the disappointment connected with waiting another few months for a promotion).  
  • How does all of this look over the long run as well as the short run? And if you’re tempted to give short shrift to the long run, just remember that you’re living with a lot of long-term negative consequences (like air and water pollution and the long-term damage from the meltdown) that people who came before you thought weren’t important enough to worry about. 

After looking at all of your options, which one produces the best mix of benefits over harms? 

Step 2: Analyze The Actions 

Now consider all of your options from a completely different perspective. Don’t think about the consequences. Concentrate instead strictly on the actions. How do they measure up against moral principles like honesty, fairness, equality, respecting the dignity of others, respecting people’ s rights, and recognizing the vulnerability of individuals weaker or less fortunate than others? Do any of the actions that you’ re considering “cross the line,” in terms of anything from simple decency to an important ethical principle? If there’ s a conflict between principles or between the rights of different people involved, is there a way to see one principle as more important than the others? What you’ re looking for is the option whose actions are least problematic.

Step 3: Make A Decision 

And now, take both parts of your analysis into account and make a decision. But recognize that what you choose to do must pass muster from both perspectives–the consequences and the actions. You don’t get to pick the perspective that fits best with what you want to do, setting ethics aside. You’ve got to make it over both hurdles.

This strategy should give you at least some basic steps you can follow.