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A moral dilemma is a conflict in which you have to choose between two or more actions and have moral reasons for choosing each action. Learn more about moral dilemmas from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Moral Dilemma in Action

Imagine you are walking to a store with your friend Gia. She tells you that Kayla, a student at your school, stole money from the cafeteria and blamed Gia for it. As a result, Gia was suspended for two weeks and had to pay the money back.As you and Gia walk into the store, you see Kayla.

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Gia pushes Kayla slightly and drops a pair of earrings into Kayla’s purse. The alarm sounds once Kayla tries to walk out of the store. She is pulled aside by security for shoplifting, and they call the police. Kayla tells them that she is innocent and that Gia dropped the earrings in her purse. Gia calls Kayla a liar and asks you to back her up.If you tell the truth, Gia will get in trouble again and will face consequences from the law and her parents. Kayla will go unpunished for originally stealing money from the cafeteria.

If you do not tell the truth, Kayla will finally be punished for stealing, and Gia will have her revenge. However, you may be committing a crime by lying to the police officers, and Kayla’s punishment will be more severe than it would have been for stealing money in the cafeteria.The police arrive and ask for your version of the story. What do you say?

What is a Moral Dilemma?

In the situation with Gia and Kayla, you have a moral dilemma.

By moral, I am referring to our standards for judging right and wrong. A moral dilemma is a situation where:

  1. You are presented with two or more actions, all of which you have the ability to perform.
  2. There are moral reasons for you to choose each of the actions.
  3. You cannot perform all of the actions and have to choose which action, or actions when there are three or more choices, to perform.

Since there are moral reasons for you to choose each action, and you cannot choose them all, it follows that no matter what choice you make, you will be failing to follow your morals. In other words, someone or something will suffer no matter what choice you make. For example, Gia will suffer if you tell the truth, and you will likely lose your friendship.

But if you don’t tell the truth, you will be a liar and possibly a lawbreaker, and Kayla will get arrested for a crime she did not commit.As is often the case, there are both moral reasons for you to perform each action and moral reasons to not choose each action. For example, telling the truth is morally important.

At the same time, it is also morally important for Kayla to be punished for stealing and lying about Gia.

Examples of Moral Dilemmas

You are a passenger on a sinking cruise ship with your significant other and your daughter. You have a lifeboat, but there is only room for two of you.

The person who does not get on the lifeboat will surely drown. Who do you decide to put on the lifeboat?Your professor hands you back your test and you received an ‘A.’ You’re speaking to your classmates about your grade when you notice that Max, the smartest kid in the class, received a ‘C.’ You look at Max’s paper, and you see a doodle you drew. You realize your professor accidentally switched your test sheet with Max’s and that you should have a ‘C’ and Max should have an ‘A.’ No one knows about this mix-up but you, and you figure that Max has straight ‘A’s in the course anyway so he should be fine.

What do you do?Your two best friends since elementary school, Tim and Sarah, decide to date each other. A week later, you see Sarah kissing a boy from another school. What do you do?

Lesson Summary

A moral dilemma is a conflict of morals, where you are forced to choose between two or more options and you have a moral reason to choose and not choose each option. No matter what choice you make in these situations, you always end up compromising some moral value.

An example of a moral dilemma is having to choose between saving a dog from a fire or saving your sister.

Learning Outcomes

When you are done, you should be able to:

  • Explain what makes a problem a moral dilemma
  • Give examples of moral dilemmas

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