The "rightness" and "wrongness" of an action is often quite clear. Then we make a choice, based on our integrity and courage, to either do one or the other. It doesn't require much reflection. But when there is more than one possible and desirable outcome we must reflect and try to determine which one is the best. Usually we are trying to bring about the best solution or the least painful solution. And it's not easy.
"Without competing choices, there is no moral dilemma." Marc Hauser
Life situations are simply there: we interpret them as having meaning—and a meaning that requires decisions and action. A moral situation is one that we interpret as breaking patterns of behavior, as transgressing into forbidden territory or somehow falling short of the duties we require of others and ourselves. When we can see that there is more than one acceptable way to resolve the situation it becomes a moral dilemma.
The word "dilemma" comes from two Greek words: "di" meaning "two," and "lemma" which refers to an assumption or a premise. A dilemma is a situation in which we are weighing or comparing two assumptions or premises.
We hear a lot about "paradigm shifts" and "new paradigms." Again, the word is derived from Greek roots that point to an example or pattern, the idea that we are comparing two or more things side by side, and we're looking for patterns.
Rushworth Kidder, in his book How Good People Make Tough Choices, gives us a helpful schema of four dilemma paradigms. Kidder says these cover most of the situations in life that we would characterize as ethical dilemmas: both values are right—and we cannot choose both.
We may be asked by someone we know and care for to tell them the truth about something that concerns them. But we may also be bound by loyalty and a promise not to reveal what we know. Which one do we compromise?
Then there is the tension between the individual and the community. We value personal liberty and autonomy, two principles which get much of the moral emphasis in Western countries. But individuals are also part of communities. How do we balance individual rights over against community expectations and responsibilities? Are there actions so important to the preservation of the community that we should sacrifice our individual rights? How do we choose—and justify those decisions?
Sometimes we sacrifice our individual rights and liberties for the greater good of our communities. We might hope that if the good of the community prevails then everyone will benefit. Or we might believe that what the community stands for is so important that we are willing to risk our individual rights for the higher cause.
Do we go for the short-term gain or the long-term benefit? What should we do when there are things demanding our attention in the moment, but we know that more will be required further along? Do we focus on our jobs and try to get ahead? Or do we make a commitment to finishing college or graduate school so that our long-term situation improves? Both are important, but we may not be able to do both at once.
Do we have the determination and discipline to stay in there for the long run, even if it means giving up some of the things in the moment that we enjoy so much? Would we sacrifice for the good of others over the long-term and put aside our short-term desires? How would we make that decision?
What about a situation in which someone has clearly done wrong, gone against the rules, and broken trust? You have the power to punish that person. Do you have any options? Others will look at your decision to fire that person and think you are power-hungry and heartless. But if you let that person off some might think that the rules don't matter and you're too soft. Justice is important to a community because it means that all will be treated equally and fairly. But maybe there are situations where the best thing is to find a third way between punishment and ignoring the offense.
Maybe the best thing for everyone concerned is recognize that a mistake has been made and to move beyond it. People do make mistakes and we can all learn from them. Shouldn't we get a second chance to do better? Mercy gives us that second chance.
The Potter Box was developed by Harvard theologian Ralph Potter. The Box has four steps which should be followed in order. 1) understanding the facts; 2) outlining the values in the decision; 3) applying relevant philosophical principles (Aristotle, Kant, Mill); and 4) articulating a loyalty.
The power of ethical decisions lies in the fact that they are voluntary, not coerced. Our decisions may be greatly influenced by religion, social norms, altruism, even self-interest. But in the end acting ethically is a choice, not a law.