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What is an ethical dilemma?

An ethical dilemma is a situation where we have to make a difficult decision and where there are only two options. Both cause irreparable damage.

An ethical dilemma is a situation where we have to make a difficult decision and where there are only two options. Both alternatives cause irreparable harm and are mutually exclusive and equally defensible and reprehensible.

If we are faced with an ethical dilemma, any solution has some degree of injustice. Ethics can help us to exercise our freedom of choice more rationally and accurately.

What should we do when faced with an ethical dilemma?

1.- Understand the initial situation, the people you are going to involve and see what effects, both fair and unfair, you are going to generate for them.
2.- Identify fundamental ethical principles, prioritise and argue the choice we make.

In order to identify the most ethically sound option, we can look at the criteria put forward by the different ethical schools: deontological, utilitarian, virtue ethics, discursive and professional ethics.

If we analyse a dilemma from different points of view and we see that there is an answer on which all, or most, theoretical approaches agree, then this answer will surely be ethically sounder and will allow us to make the most just decision to address it.

Dilemmas vs problems

It is important not to confuse dilemmas with problems. We speak of a problem when the options we have are not mutually exclusive, when one of the options protects a legitimate right or expectation and the other a non-legitimate one.

For example, one problem is when a car company, seeking to increase its profits, lowers production costs to the point of decreasing safety, increasing the risk for its consumers. While the pursuit of increased profits may be a legitimate interest, it cannot be pursued to the detriment of consumer safety.

In this case, the answer is therefore clear and there is no need to resort to the tools provided by ethics to determine which decision is right or wrong. No two options are mutually exclusive and both are undesirable. There is only one ethically arguable option.

In our daily lives, ethical dilemmas are often complex. Ethics enables us to be more aware of why we adopt certain behaviours and give reasons for it.

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