Moral Dilemma

Moral Dilemma Fundamentals Explained With 4 Classic Examples

As the name suggests, moral dilemma has got to do with the decision-making abilities of humans. Read the following article to understand this concept in detail, with the help of some examples and situations.
Moral dilemma is a state in which none of us would like to be. It is defined as the situation in which one has to make a decision, whose outcome is in any case going to be undesirable. This definition is not standard as it is defined differently in the fields of psychology, philosophy, etc. Morality is not to be confused with ethics. It is used in the perspective of individual character, while ethics are the way a group or a society behaves. The debate on this dilemma topic has been going out for a long time now, but it came into limelight with the Alexander Holmes trial of 1842.

Classic Examples

The Overcrowded Ship
On 13 March 1841, the ship William Brown left Liverpool, with 17 crewmen and 65 passengers, most of whom were Irish and Scottish immigrants. On the 19th of April, the ship hit an iceberg and began to sink rapidly. There were two lifeboats: one big, and one small. The captain, eight seamen, and a passenger boarded the small lifeboat, whereas the forty-one people, including nine passengers, occupied the larger lifeboat. There was not enough space on the larger lifeboat, and to add to the passenger's woes, wind picked up, and it began to rain heavily. The leader and crewmen knew that if they hoped to survive, they would need to get rid of the excess weight on the boat, and for that, some passengers needed to be thrown off. In this unfortunate situation, Alexander Holmes, one of the seamen, along with other crewmen began throwing people off into the freezing waters of Atlantic. On reaching Philadelphia, Alexander Holmes was tried for manslaughter, as he was the only crewman to be found in the city. However, in view of the exceptional scenario in which he had to make this choice, he was sentenced to six months in prison and was fined USD 20. There was a lot of public sympathy though; everyone agreed that Holmes had no personal malice towards any passenger that had to be thrown off. Many also believed that he did it in the interest of the bigger cause. However, on the other hand, a lot of people criticized the seamen for saving their own lives rather than those of the passengers.

Sophie's Choice
The 1976 novel, Sophie's choice by William Styron, is another example. In the novel, a Polish woman Sophie Zawistowska is told to make a choice between the life of her son and daughter by the Nazis. In an impulse, she decides that they can take her daughter as she thinks that her son is older and stronger and will survive. Unfortunately, she never hears from him ever, and years later, remorseful that she had chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide.

The Fat Man in the Cave
A group of people is stuck in a cave, in which the water level is rising. There is only one small exit to the cave, but unfortunately one of them, who is not the most compact of blokes, is stuck there. Though they try hard to push him out, it doesn't help. If he is not removed from the mouth of the cave, then all of them will perish. One of them, who has a dynamite stick, proposes that they blow up their friend in order to get out of the cave. This is again a moral dilemma situation, as someone has to be sacrificed so that others can live.

Jean Valjean's Conscience
In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the protagonist Jean Valijean is wanted for some of his illegal acts. However, he has established himself in a new town under an assumed name as a public benefactor. Although Jean would be sentenced if he gets caught, he is a good man in reality, who helps the poor and the needy. All is well, until one day, a man is arrested for a minor crime and is identified as Jean Valijean. Jean now is in a dilemma whether to reveal his true identity and go behind the bars, or just let the life continue as nothing has happened. He thinks about so many people who are dependent on him, especially a helpless woman and her small child towards whom he has a special obligation. In the end, he reveals his true identity and stands for trial.

(Please note that the example "The Overcrowded Ship" is a true story, whereas other examples are fictitious.)

  • If you find a bag full of money, would you keep it quietly, or search for the owner?
  • If the person you love the most is suffering from a disease for which you need a large amount of money quickly, would you resort to unfair means of making money?
  • You have been saving money from the past six months to buy a new car. However, a close friend of yours, who just met with an accident, calls up to inquire, if you can help him in settling medical bills. Would you still go for the car or help him out?
  • If your close one has been declared "brain dead", and doctors ask you whether to "pull the plug" or not, what would you do?
  • You wish to have a baby boy, but fetal screening tests have shown that it is a baby girl, would you abort it?
  • Would you cheat in order to pass your college examinations?
There has been a lot of research going on in the field of human morality. Lawrence Kohelberg, the famous psychologist conducted a survey on this topic, ethics, and the decisions that people make in extreme scenarios. His survey pointed to the various facets of human personality. All of us find ourselves in moral dilemmas, but we are old enough to make our decisions on our own. However, we need to focus in case of students as they are at a learning stage of their lives.
Under-the-table transactions
Hand holding a money bag with US dollar