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This lesson will explore the ethical decision making process through two classic case studies. The lesson includes a thorough examination of the Heinz and Louise dilemmas from Kohlberg’s classic dilemma research.

A History of Ethical Dilemmas

Have you ever found yourself between a rock and hard place? How about on the the horns of a dilemma? Sounds uncomfortable, right? Dilemmas are situations where there is no one obvious right choice or situations where the choice is especially difficult because no solution is appealing. Let’s explore.Lawrence Kohlberg was the first psychologist to do heavy research into human ethics and how people reacted to dilemmas. Coming of age during the WWII period, Kohlberg took a special interest in how people formed moral judgments. He eventually used his work to develop a theory of the stages of human moral development.

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These are known formally as Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. There are six stages leading from childlike ethical thinking processes to more altruistic adult ones. If we make it all the way to the last one, we hope to make all our decisions ethically and by coming from a place of altruism, or concern for the good of everyone. If that sounds very Zen, that’s because it is.

Ethical Decision Making Process

The steps we can use to make ethical decisions are a commonly taught process. We will work through them in two examples following this overview.

  1. Stop! Now isn’t the time for rash decisions.
  2. Goals? Figure out what your objective is and what you’re hoping and not hoping will come of your choice.
  3. Research. Consider your facts, including evaluating the reliability of your sources.
  4. Options? Make a list of options based on the facts you have at hand and the goals you have.

  5. Consequences? Carefully review your options. Do any of them have problems that violate your values or ethics?
  6. Choose! Game time: choose what best fits from the previous steps and reflects your moral values. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to apply the Golden Rule: treat others how you want to be treated.

  7. Effects? Finally, what are the effects of your decision? When you look to decide something ethically, you’re keeping an eye out afterwards and are ready to assess your decision if the effects are worse than you intended or you gain additional information.

Let’s try it out.

The Heinz Dilemma Example

Classically called the Heinz dilemma, our first situation goes like this: There’s a pharmacist who creates a medicine. The medicine can save Heinz’ wife from death but Doc has marked the drug up exorbitantly because he can. Heinz pleads with the man, but he only wants to make money and won’t help Heinz out.

Heinz is desperate to save his wife, and so he’s debating whether he should rob the pharmacist to secure the drug he can’t afford. What should Heinz do?In this situation, we quickly realize that Heinz has some pretty terrible options here. He can either rob the druggist or let his wife die. On top of that, the pharmacist is a pure greedy jerk. So, let’s apply the seven steps.Heinz needs to take a breath.

What’s his ultimate goal here? Let’s say it’s to save his wife. He knows his facts: the pharmacist has the medication but he’s not willing to part with it except at full price because the pharmacist wants money for his work. His options he’s arrived at are steal it or not steal it. For consequences, well, if he doesn’t steal it, his wife is dead. If he does and he’s caught, there’s potential jail time. Even if he’s not, he may feel guilty for the theft.

Now he has to choose. Let’s say he steals the drug because his wife’s life is more important than maybe going to prison, or the theft itself. Great! His wife lives and he doesn’t get caught. But, the guilt is eating away at him. So now Heinz decides upon re-evaluating that he should pay the pharmacist back secretly until he hands over the full sum. Problem solved!

The Louise Dilemma Example

Another classic Kohlberg dilemma features a big sister named Louise.

Little sister Judy is 12. Judy saves up money to go to a concert after her mother promised her permission to go if she can pay for it herself. Lo and behold, Judy earns enough money, but then mom changes her mind and says Judy needs to spend her money on school clothes instead.

Judy decides to lie to her mother and attend the concert anyway, under the guise of being at a friend’s house. She then uses the remainder of her savings to buy a few clothes. After a week, Judy tells her older sister Louise what she did. Louise now wonders whether she should tell their mother or not.Louise’s situation, while not necessarily as dramatic, brings some interesting factors into play. She can tell or not tell, but we have a mom who broke her word and a younger sister who lied and snuck out.

So none of our players are exactly behaving like angels.Let’s start with Stop! Louise loves her sister, and Louise loves her mother. There’s definitely some family dynamic here. What does she owe to each? She has obligations as a sister and daughter.

What are Louise’s goals? Let’s say she wants a good relationship with both her sister and her mother. She doesn’t have much to research: she knows the facts. She’s decided her choices are she can choose to tell or not. The consequences are, if she tells on her sister, her sister will be mad. Maybe she doesn’t agree with her mother breaking her promise. If she doesn’t tell her mother though, she’s hiding something from her.

Louise decides not to tell. However, since she doesn’t like keeping a secret from their mother, when she reaches the evaluation part, she encourages her younger sister to talk it out with their mother and own up to her actions. That way, everyone clears the air.

Lesson Summary

Let’s briefly go over all of what we’ve learned in this lesson. Dilemmas are situations where there is not an obvious right choice, like being between a rock and a hard place.

Lawrence Kohlberg developed the Stages of Moral Development, the six stages leading from childlike ethical thinking processes to more altruistic adult ones, from research into ethical dilemmas. People can utilize the seven-step ethical decision-making process to arrive at the best possible solution to difficult situations.These steps are:

  1. Stop!
  2. Goals
  3. Research
  4. Options
  5. Consequences
  6. Decisions
  7. Effects

When looking at your choices, the Golden Rule, which as you might recall is ‘treat others how you’d want to be treated,’ may be necessary to apply.The Heinz dilemma features a man trying to find a way to save his dying wife. His choices are robbing a greedy pharmacist or letting his wife die.

The Louise dilemma has a big sister struggling with whether to rat out a little sister who lied to mom, but only after mom broke a promise. In both examples, there is no one right answer. An ethical decision is about the framework used to make the decision, not the actual final choice.

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