Ethics typically involves trying to make difficult choices under less than ideal conditions. However, there is a language error that often takes place when we talk about ethics, and it creates the illusion that ethics is far more complicated than it truly is. Most ethical questions revolve around the resolution of some sort of problem, but very few ethical issues actually qualify as dilemmas. Thus, our purpose will be to clarify what qualifies as a problem, as opposed to a dilemma, as well as why this distinction matters.
The most significant confusion in this area is the declaration that a particular issue is a dilemma, when it is truly nothing more than a problem. This is problematic because of the suggestive nature of the term “dilemma.” To suggest that something is a dilemma is to imply that it is irresolvable, or that it requires us to choose among several equally terrible options. This is rarely the case, and the language of “dilemmas” creates a false sense that the relevant ethical issue is not resolvable.
A dilemma involves choosing between two equally unattractive options. The key feature of a dilemma is that it describes a scenario where no matter what we choose to do, we are acting immorally. A classic example of a dilemma is taken from Immanuel Kant’s work. Let’s say that your close friend comes to your door and begs you to hide them from the murderer that is trying to kill them, which you agree to do. Moments later, the same murderer comes to the door and asks if your friend is hiding inside. If you say yes, your friend will be murdered, and you will be somewhat responsible. If you say no, you are lying, which most people would agree is an immoral act.
Both of the available actions are morally objectionable, assuming these are the only options, and it seems that the best we can do is to minimize the harm we cause. However, whatever we choose to do, we cannot avoid being somewhat immoral. This is what makes a particular scenario a true dilemma.
Most ethical issues properly qualify as problems, rather than dilemmas. For example, many people cheat on their taxes every year. This is an ethical problem, but not a dilemma by any means. You may feel it is unfair that you must pay taxes, or be bothered by your financial struggles to pay what you owe. However, the key element of a dilemma, more than one morally undesirable option to choose from, but no obviously acceptable choice, is not present.
Your choices are to either cheat on your taxes or not. Cheating is essentially lying, and this is the obviously immoral choice, while paying what you owe and being honest is clearly the right thing to do, despite your personal feelings about paying taxes. This qualifies as an ethical problem because it involves a question of what we ought to do in the face of conflicting emotions. But this is not the same as a genuine ethical dilemma.
As we have stated, understanding this distinction is important because of the problematic nature of dilemmas. Dilemmas are not easily solvable, and we are often left unsatisfied or guilt-ridden, regardless of what we choose. Further, some dilemmas simply have no obvious answer. Abortion is an obvious example of a moral dilemma, as both legalizing and outlawing abortions have undesirable moral consequences. Luckily, most ethical issues properly qualify as mere problems. If we keep this in mind, it is much easier to feel comfortable about the prospect of actually making the right choice.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.