You’re going to face moral dilemmas. They’re inevitable and they’re hard to deal with. In this Live Well and Flourish article, practical philosopher Dr. Andrea Christelle and Dr. Craig Van Slyke share insights on how to deal with moral dilemmas in a way that reduces their negative effects.
In the last Live Well and Flourish article, Andrea and Craig discussed moral dilemmas and the effects they can have on our flourishing. If you aren’t familiar with moral dilemmas, you may want to check out that article, which is available at livewellandflourish.com
Moral dilemmas occur when you face a decision for which there is no fully moral choice. Regardless of which alternative you choose, you fail to meet a moral obligation. It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t sort of situation. Because you face a true dilemma, there is no fully correct choice. So, you end up feeling distressed regardless of what you do (or don’t do). Your self-esteem is also threatened. The bottom line is that moral dilemmas can be damaging to your flourishing and your wellbeing.
Suppose you face a moral dilemma, you have to make a choice, and regardless of what you choose, you’re going to fail to live up to some moral duty.
So, you face this dilemma, you need some way to make the choice. Keep in mind, though that you’re not really solving a moral dilemma, you’re just trying to find a way forward to make a choice that you think is the best available to you.
When you face a true dilemma, you're going to violate a moral precept, a moral rule, regardless of what you choose. So, there’s going to be some degree of discomfort. There is no getting around the fact that, at least in some way, you are going to be dissatisfied with your choice.
Now, in some ways this shouldn’t be too surprising, because we’ve all faced tough choices, and we know that it is not always possible to escape an unpleasant outcome. In other words, we're destined to make mistakes, and that’s part of what makes us human. We’re all human and humans are imperfect.
So, along those same lines, it’s critical to remember that you can’t control the fact that you’ve been put in the position of making a difficult choice, or that you’re going to go against some moral value that you hold to be important. The situation exists. So, you need to focus on what you can do -- understand yourself and your values, spend the appropriate time and effort in thinking through the choices available to you. Make your decision and that’s all you can do. There’s no point in unduly stressing over the situation, you just handle it as best you can.
Before moving on, I do want to remind readers of one of our recommendations from the last article.
You should do some prep work by thinking about and trying to understand the values you hold and the moral standards you want to live up to. This understanding is critical. Remembering that a moral dilemma is a dilemma because two competing rules or norms are in conflict. It’s important to understand our values behind each rule, and how and why those values matter to us. For example, freedom and security are often in tension with one another. We value both, but having security often means giving up some freedom, and the more freedom we have, the less secure we are. So, it’s kind of a balancing act. Understanding your moral values is really important and would also help you understand why you feel conflicted.
Let’s get into what you can do when you face a moral dilemma. But before getting into any sort of process, let’s examine the nature of moral dilemmas. I’ve been thinking about the nature of moral dilemmas a lot due to a paper I’m working on.
I’ve been thinking about this in a medical context in which a care provider faces a difficult moral choice, and what makes them favor one alternative over another. There is no need to get into the details, but all of this led me to think that these dilemmas are ultimately brought on by our personal identity and sense of self.
Personal-identity is something that philosophers have been wrestling with for centuries. I should note that psychologists talk about the same basic idea as self-identity, but we’ll stick to personal identity here. For our purposes they’re the same thing. So, the short version is that personal identity is made up of stable and prominent characteristics of your self-perception, the way you view who you are, who do you see yourself as being.
What's really interesting is it turns out that we have multiple self-identities. We would have these multiple self-identities that would include personal self-identity, group self-identity, professional self-identity, religious, moral, all of these exist and come together to create your view of yourself. What's really interesting in this context is that each of these reflect what we can call a value set, a set of values that you associate with that personal-identity. Of course, most of the time you don’t really think about this, it’s kind of in the background.
But often, a moral dilemma comes about because some aspect of these value sets conflict. So, what one set of values says you should do is contrary to what another set of values says is right. It’s pretty interesting and it actually matches up pretty well with two causes of moral dilemmas, which are value conflict and role conflict.
Value conflict occurs when you face equally or nearly equally important, but unfortunately conflicting values. Like we just talked about freedom and security. You know, living up to one or prioritizing one means you fail to live up or prioritize less the other. This is kind of the perspective we’ve been taking so far.
There’s also role conflict, which involves having competing and legitimate obligations. Again, meeting one obligation, say a personal obligation, might mean failing to meet the other, say professional obligations. Sort of like trying to balance the time you spend with your family against the dedication you have to your work and your profession. I think that matches our perspective pretty well.
The third cause is coercion. And something can be described as coercion when external pressures force you to violate some value. This is what happened in the Sophie’s Choice discussed last time. The concentration camp guard forced Sophie into a moral dilemma. And if you’re not familiar with Sophie’s Choice you can listen to the previous article. But suffice it to say both options were awful but not choosing one of the options was worse.
Now that we understand the causes of moral dilemmas, how do we go about resolving them? Before we get to that, it’s important to remind everybody that when you face a true moral dilemma, you’re going to be left dissatisfied. It's really important to remember there is not a perfect choice.
It is important to emphasize that, and it is the nature of a moral dilemma. No matter what you do, you’re going to fail to live up to some moral ideal. And you’re just trying to make the best of a really bad situation. It is worth spending some time on this, because usually we want to tell ourselves that in a tough situation, doing the wrong thing is okay, because we didn’t have any other choice. The key point here is that it is not okay, even if we didn’t have any other choice, and it just sucks when we find ourselves in a dilemma. I’m going to give a quick example to make this point. And it's a well-worn example and intro to philosophy classes.
If Nazis are at your door and they ask you if there are Jews upstairs in the attic, and there are in fact Jews upstairs in the attic, then you face a moral dilemma: tell the truth, and contribute to the likely death of innocent people or lie and contribute to the possible saving of life of innocent people.
Now, in this case, most people would say that “it’s ok to lie, because saving peoples’ lives is more important than always telling the truth.” But really, it’s not ok to lie. Lying is wrong. However, it is also wrong not to protect innocent life when you can.
So, either you are going to lie, or you are going to contribute to the wrongful treatment and possible death of innocent people. In this case it’s pretty clear that the thing to do is lie. However, this does not make the lying ok. It just means that in this dilemma you opted for the least bad choice given the alternatives.
Now, just to tease this out a little bit, there might be, and probably are other values in play, such as your own personal safety and the safety of your friends, family, and colleagues, all of which you might be putting at risk by hiding people. But anyway, the important point here is that even if you clearly know when one value trumps the other–saving lives trumps truth telling–it doesn’t mean that truth telling loses its moral force. You’ve still done something wrong by lying.
Now, that’s that part that is hard for some people to accept. Many people want to say that the lie was not wrong, but it is.
Now moving on to our method. I like taking a multiple perspective approach. It’s usually important to be able to look at things from different points of view.
In this case, we’re going to take two different perspectives based two theories of ethics we talked about last time. Let me preface this by saying that we used an article by Thomas I. White of Loyola Marymount University as the foundation for our approach. We modified it quite a bit, but we built on what he wrote. There is a link to Dr. White’s article below.
When you have a moral dilemma it’s important to understand the consequences of the alternatives available, which is the utilitarian approach. What you should do is to think about who will be helped or harmed by the probable outcomes. It is important to understand that the consequences, because we're dealing with utilitarian theory, because they show you which alternatives should be preferred. Now, maybe it’s more important to help, or avoid harming one person or group than the other. Of course, you also have to think about the magnitude of the harm; that’s also important. And I will warn you that this can get pretty hard to do, and it can be tough to think about preferring one group or person over others.
Maybe one thing to consider is whether one group needs your help more. Also, you might think about whether one group is more resilient or resistant to the possible harm than another. In the last article we used a silly example of a moral dilemma, whether Craig’s wife Tracy should favor kindness or truthfulness when I asked if she liked his beard. Craig is pretty thick-skinned and appreciates honesty and honest opinions from those he trusts, even if it’s not what he wants to hear. So, her best path is to be honest since if his feelings get hurt, frankly the hurt will be minor and he’ll probably recover really quickly. He’s still not shaving his beard, though.
Some people are better equipped to deal with some kinds of harm than others. Some people need more help than others. So, you might be able to use these differences to choose the least harmful or most helpful alternatives. You still are going to violate a moral precept, but you’ll minimize the harm or maximize the benefit.
Some of you might think that this all seems pretty messy because we’re doing a lot of predicting here. We’re predicting who will be affected, and how strongly they’ll be affected. We’re also trying to predict their abilities to recover from the harm, or how well they can take advantage of whatever benefit we might be bestowing on them through our decision.
I see your point, and there is reason to that. But do keep in mind that your goal is just to do the best that you can. I mean, your predictions certainly will not be perfect, but they can be informed.
So, consider how different people that are affected and by the way, I’m saying people, but it could be animals as well, or even the natural environment like with the example from Sophie last time. Sophie is the dog. So again, if you missed the last article, we encourage you to go back and read it, despite sounding confusing, and strangely coincidental.
To sort out the Sophies go back to the last article. But right now we're considering people. Let’s think about the kinds of benefits and harms that might be involved. Some goods are more valuable than others, and some forms of harm are more painful than others.
However, bear in mind that this calculus depends on what set of values we’re applying. When you start valuing one thing over another, you’re applying your particular set of values. Finally, you also need to consider whether there are ways to mitigate any harms that come about from an alternative. Maybe you can follow your decision with some actions that will also lessen the harm. An example of this might be Tracy giving Craig a scotch when she criticizes his beard.
You also need to think about the impact on yourself. You’re an important part of what’s going on, and as we mentioned last time, moral dilemmas often result in moral distress. You’re going to have to live with whatever decision you make, so be sure to consider the personal consequences of each alternative in your calculus.
I know that’s a lot to think about, but dilemmas aren’t easy.
Let’s change perspectives. In the next step, think about the available options from the perspective of virtues. How will the actions involved in each alternative uphold or fail to uphold important moral precepts? Moral precepts are pretty closely tied to our values, by the way.
And you want to apply similar logic as you did in the first step. You want to figure out if one of the moral precepts is more important than another. At least in this particular concept. Keep in mind that this may be really hard to do and it maybe practically impossible. But it is worth thinking about.
Another thing to consider here is whether some of the conflicting values are tied to particular aspects of your self-identity. So, which one of your “identities” would you harm with each alternative? You probably value some identities more than others. If so, thinking through this may help you make a decision. For example, even though my professional identity is really important to me, my personal identity is even more important. So, if I have alternatives that put values related to these identities in conflict with one another, I think I’ll choose the one that harms my professional identity over one that harms my personal identity.
After you go through all of this analysis, you may find that you don’t really face a moral dilemma. Maybe there’s some third path that you hadn’t considered yet, one that might allow you to live up to all of your values.
Also, I think this is really important, if you can you might find it useful to “sleep” on the decision. So let your subconscious work on it. Sometimes this can provide some really useful insights, like maybe a third way.
This third way, we actually call that a false dichotomy. When we say something like, it's only A or B and you have to choose just A or B when it could actually be C. What seems like it might be two choices might actually have other alternatives on offer.
Another thing that can help you, when you do actually have a dilemma, because sometimes that will be the case, is just to think about what a wise and disinterested person would think of your decision. Now by disinterested I mean that they don’t have any particular vested interest in the outcome. Note that disinterested does not mean uninterested, it just means the person doesn’t have a personal interest, or a personal stake in the outcome. These kinds of thought experiments, imagining what such a person might think of the situation, can help remove emotion from your decision.
A similar way to think is to imagine how you would defend your decision if you were asked to do so. You want to think about this for each alternative.
So you’ve considered the situation from two different perspectives, you’ve slept on it, you’ve tried to view the choices through the eyes of others, you've considered whether or not there's a third path. Now it’s time to make a decision. Remember, you’re not going to make a perfect decision. Perfect is not available here. You’re just trying to make the best decision you can. That’s all you can hope for. And you make the decision. But really that’s not the end of the process.
You might be asking what’s left? Well, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the outcomes. Were they what you expected and how accurate were your perceptions? Did you properly think about the people involved? It’s important to reflect on the decision and its consequences because reflecting on this decision might help you in future decisions.
This is probably not going to be the last dilemma you face. And as you know, I’m a big fan of reflecting so that you can learn. Reflecting is how you make sense out of the world and what goes on in it. But I think you have to be careful not to engage in pointless regret. Your post-decision reflections need to be done with an eye on improving your ability to deal with future dilemmas, not moaning over the outcome of some past dilemma. Remember, the past is in the past, you can't do anything about it.
One Thing to Help Deal with Moral Dilemmas
This time we’re going to condense our usual “Three Things” to just one.
One thing you can do this week to help you deal with moral dilemmas is spend some time thinking about the different identities that make up how you think of yourself. We’ve mentioned a few - professional identity, moral identity, group identities - you probably have several of these. Think about three or four of these and write them down. If you took our suggestion from the last article and created a list of values, tie each of the values to one or more of your identities. You may find some values don’t fit any of the identities you listed and probably means that there’s another identity you haven’t named. This may sound like a lot of work, but you don’t have to do it in one sitting, and plus, investments in figuring out who you are usually pay big dividends for your flourishing. “Know yourself.” It’s never as easy as it seems.
Despite not being easy, it is interesting, can be kind of fun, and is absolutely worth the effort. On that note we’ll close with a quote attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Apology: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
Article by Dr. Thomas I. White of Loyola Marymount University
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 36, ”Moral Dilemmas and the Death of a Pup”
The Cage of Your Assumptions
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”