Understanding A Moral Dilemma.

Awareness of our actions is the first step in making wise decisions.


Aranza Sánchez

3 years ago | 5 min read

You have probably heard several examples of moral dilemmas. Many of them are widely discussed, but few are the people who go deeper into the subject to understand what they really are and what they imply.

The knowledge of what moral dilemmas are, can impressively help us in our decision making, and thus in understanding the decisions of others.

The Tram Dilemma.

To explain more clearly what a moral dilemma is, I would like to bring to this space one of the most well known dilemmas: the tramway dilemma.

This dilemma is widely used by psychologists and philosophers to try to understand what our decision making is like. Surely you have heard of it, but I would like you to imagine that scenario once again:

A streetcar is running without brakes and is about to run over five people who are on the track. You are on the side of the road and with just a pull of a lever you can save the lives of those five people, because it will cause the train to swerve into another lane.

However, on that other rail is one person who will die if you decide to pull the lever.
You have 10 seconds to make a decision. If you do nothing, five people die; if you pull the lever, one person dies. What do you do?

For many people, this situation is not perceived as a dilemma. It is preferable to save the lives of five people even if we have to sacrifice one.

This perspective is completely understandable, however it is not without problems. The intention of mentioning this dilemma is not to get to answer about what is right or wrong, but to understand that even though many times it may not seem so, the decisions we make can be very problematic.

Remember that every decision leaves a precedent, and in the wrong hands this could lead to catastrophic consequences.

The arguments behind the dilemma.

Different positions can be argued about this situation and we can even make it more complex to contrast different perspectives.

The tram dilemma.
The tram dilemma.

For now, I only want to refer to two arguments:

  1. The principle of utility (Utilitarianism)
  2. The Categorical Imperative, by Kant.

Utilitarianism is a moral doctrine that, in general terms, considers moral actions to be those that maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Within the framework of this doctrine, we find the principle of utility formulated by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which reads as follows:

“principle of utility (…), that principle which approves or rejects every action according to the tendency in which it seems to increase the happiness of the person involved whose interest is in question. Or what is the same, what promotes or opposes that happiness”.

In a few words:

The principle of utility aims to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Under this argument, the most appropriate choice to make regarding the streetcar’s dilemma seems to be to choose to pull the lever and thus save 5 people instead of only 1.

As you will notice, this is a very convincing argument and would help support this perspective perfectly. However, there is a problem: it is not the only argument we can make.

In fact, the argument that addresses the problem from Kant calls for looking at that other person on the other side.

The categorical imperative is a fundamental element of Kant’s ethical theory. We can find many formulations of this concept, and if we apply them all to the tramway dilemma we will find problems in each one. I am not going to address all of them, but one of them is the following:

“Work in such a way that you use humanity, both in your person and in the person of anyone else, always at the same time as an end and never as a mere means.”

Regardless of the actions of each person, for Kant every human life is valuable in itself. In that sense, each person must be treated as an end in itself, never as a means.

If we choose to go the utilitarian way, Kant would completely agree that this is very problematic because we would be using the one person on the other track as a means to save the other five people.

You’re probably thinking that this sounds completely crazy. At the end of the day, all five people are being saved; the intention is good, the intention is to save lives.

What I want to point out here is not that if we opt for utilitarianism then we are making a cruel and ruthless decision. We are not. Rather, I want to point out that making that decision has very troubling consequences.

To start thinking like that would bring us dangerously close to falling down a slippery slope.

What is a moral dilemma?

With the example of the streetcar, it is very clear to visualize the complexity of moral dilemmas. You have probably never seen this dilemma like this.

On the one hand, preferring to save the lives of five people instead of one, is a decision we can easily lean towards.

On the other hand, deciding this way leaves a rather dangerous precedent in which we can imagine a scenario where it is permissible to use a person as an object to achieve something. Even when what we want to achieve is with good intention.

Those who are dedicated to the study of ethics have formed a whole theorization that helps us distinguish a moral dilemma from one that is not.

A moral dilemma is not defined simply by a situation in which we have trouble making choices. There need to be two values that conflict.
For a case to be qualified as a dilemma it must meet the following characteristics:

  1. The moral agent must have good reasons for performing two or more actions (supported by ethical principles or duties).
  2. The moral agent has every possibility of performing either of these two actions.
  3. However, the agent cannot perform these two actions, only one of them.
  4. Therefore, there is a certain “moral failure” because even if we fulfill one of our obligations, we fail to fulfill the others.

What do I do when faced with a moral dilemma?

Despite the complexity, there are certain courses of action to be taken:

  1. Learn to identify and distinguish a dilemma from other cases of interest to ethics.
  2. Recognize what principles or duties are at stake in the argument for the two possible courses of action.
  3. Assess the complexity of the case, and justify which course of action to follow.

Finally, I would like to leave you with the following sentence:

Never think that your decisions do not affect other people. Your perspective is not the perspective of others.


Created by

Aranza Sánchez







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