Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Ethical Dilemmas

  • Johan WempeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_73-1



A dilemma is defined as “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two (or more) equally undesirable things or course of action.” A dilemma is “a state of indecision between two or more unpleasant alternatives” (Oxford Dictionaries).


A moral dilemma concerns situations in which one is morally obliged to act and, at the same time, to refrain from acting due to another obligation. It may be that we are required to act to achieve a certain end but that the side effects render the action unacceptable (Wempe and Donaldson 2004). In a moral dilemma, we have to cope with conflicting moral obligations or conflicting underlying moral values.

Dilemmas play an important role in ethics. They particularly occur when we want to translate ethical theory into practice. Theory often starts with ideal situations in which a problem is optimally framed. In everyday situations, however, there are often multiple obligations and unintended counter-effects at stake. Multiple conflicting values have to be included in the considerations. A choice in favor of one value often implies that no or insufficient justice is given to the conflicting value(s).

A choice between a good and a bad action is not a difficult choice and therefore lacks a moral dilemma. With such a choice, it is clear what you are supposed to do. In a true moral dilemma, a tough choice between obligations or values has to be made. Every choice that is made implies favoring one value over another. A dilemma has been described as a difficult choice between “right and right” (Badaracco 1997). In such situations, it is emphasized that a certain value has to be chosen (something that is right) and that this is not a rejection of the conflicting value.

A moral dilemma concerns a choice between two or more possible actions where:
  1. 1.

    There is a moral value behind every possible action.

  2. 2.

    The choice for one of the options implies acting in conflict with the moral values that lie behind the alternative possibilities of action.

  3. 3.

    There is a necessity to act and therefore a need to choose between the values at stake. Nonacting also implies a choice.


A dilemma should be distinguished from a paradox. A paradox is a seemingly unbridgeable contradiction. However, the conflict between the possible actions and values is only apparent: a paradox can be solved by thinking through the issue.

Dilemmas in Business and Professional Ethics

Dilemmas play a major role in business ethics and professional ethics. In business ethics, attention has been given to dilemmas through the introduction of the concept of stakeholders (Freeman 1984). Nowadays, companies are seen as organizations in which a multitude of parties have a “stake,” and the problem arises as to how their often conflicting and legitimate expectations should be weighed against each other. Stakeholder management is therefore essentially moral in nature: it is about making responsible choices. Dilemmas are thus directly linked to day-to-day decision-making by managers within companies.

Dilemmas also play a major role in professional ethics. Within each profession, there are dilemmas inherent to that profession. Many dilemmas occur in the medical sector. Doctors have to act in the interests of their patients but also have to take account of the affordability of healthcare and, for example, the health of other people when a contagious disease is detected. The care of the patient can be at odds with the social obligations of the physician. Training courses for professionals often entail forms of ethical training. In these programs, dilemmas are often used. On the basis of such dilemmas, professionals investigate how moral decision-making should take place according to the standards of the profession.


A number of model examples of dilemmas have been developed in the literature for heuristic purposes and for educational programs. A classic example is Sophocles’ Antigone (Sophocles 1986). In this tragedy, Antigone must choose between her conscience and the laws of the state, between obeying the laws of the gods (universal laws) and obeying the laws of the king (the secular authority). This dilemma is a model for the more recently prominent issues of civil disobedience (Wiltshire 1976) and the dilemma facing the whistle-blower (Contu 2014). Within developmental psychology, the Heinz Dilemma is a classic example. Heinz wonders whether he should break into the premises of a pharmacist who has developed a drug that will cure his seriously ill wife but is too expensive for Heinz to purchase. Kohlberg uses this dilemma to show the different stages in moral reasoning seen in children. At every stage of their development, children use different types of moral argumentation (Kohlberg 1981). Another dilemma that is used in many ethics courses is the Trolley Dilemma. Here, the solidity of utilitarianism is put to the test (Thomson 1985). In one of the variants of the Trolley Dilemma, a passer-by is confronted with a Trolleybus running downhill and no longer under the control of the driver. The bystander who sees this by chance then faces the choice of sacrificing the life of one person to save five other lives. A dilemma that has been extensively analyzed in the context of game theory is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This dilemma forms a model for many social dilemmas. The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that people who fail to communicate make decisions and are driven to act in their own interests, and are unable to realize an optimal situation for everyone (Poundstone 1992).

Dilemmas in Theory and Practice

Ethics in organizations and in professions are often shaped by establishing the moral principles of that organization or that profession in a code of conduct (Kaptein 2008). Such a code describes a number of rules of behavior that prescribe how employees should behave in concrete situations. However, rules often misinterpret the complexity of situations that occurs in everyday practice. In management practice or the practice of a profession, there are often multiple principles that may conflict with each other.

The question remains, however, whether genuine dilemmas exist. Are we really faced with conflicting moral obligations that cannot be realized at the same time, and where the realization of the one offers no excuse for neglecting the other, or is it a case of difficult issues where we simply have to think through the situation more deeply in order to judge which action deserves priority? One argument against the existence of true dilemmas is that such situations would amount to a logical inconsistency. On the one hand, obligations have to be honored, on the other, “ought implies can.” We are not bound by impossibilities (McConnell 1987). A second argument that is often advanced against the existence of true dilemmas concerns the unacceptable consequences of accepting their existence: to do so would undermine all ethics. According to the critics, we should hold on to the ideal of coherence, as without it ethical reflection is meaningless or even impossible (Wempe and Donaldson 2004).

We argue that, on the one hand, different norms and values apply that cannot be reduced to a single measure. On the other hand, ethical reflection requires rational decision-making. If the choice of a given criterion is ultimately arbitrary, both the meaning and possibility of ethics are undermined (Wempe and Donaldson 2004). From a theoretical perspective, it is difficult to understand dilemmas. In everyday practice, however, a pressing need is felt to understand dilemmas. As McConnell observes, “Common sense and ordinary moral discourse are on the side of the friends of dilemmas” (McConnel 1996, p. 37).

An interest in dilemmas arises when we are confronted with translating moral principles into practice. Then the question arises how, in the decision-making process, the conflicting values should be weighed against each other. In this context, it is important to recognize the difference between values and behavioral obligations. Values describe what should be seen as valuable. Values constitute a reason to act in a certain way. As such, value offers a basis for rationality (Bouwmeester 2017). Conflicting values can co-exist and remain of value even when, under pressure to choose, one opts to honor one value and ignore the other values. This does not mean that the nonhonored values are inherently less important. This is why many organizations choose to organize dilemma training as an instrument to learn how to work with a code of conduct.

Thinking in terms of dilemmas implies a vision on the status of morality and an ability to reflect upon it. In theoretical situations, it is possible to assess a certain action separately from its context. In such situations, it is possible to use one principle to assess the action or situation. Such an approach is based on a monistic ethic: that there is one principle that is decisive in assessing an action or situation as right or wrong. The recognition of the existence of genuine dilemmas is that, in practice, the situation is often more complex and that multiple values can simultaneously apply. This presupposes a pluralistic ethics (Walzer 1983; Badaracco 1997).

Source of Dilemmas

It is possible to recognize a number of causes for dilemmas emerging.

An important cause of dilemmas can be found in the cooperation among people in the context of an organization. When people start working together and form an organization, three types of dilemmas arise: the Dirty Hands, the Many Hands, and the Entangled Hands (Kaptein and Wempe 2002).

The Dirty Hands Dilemma concerns the tension between the organization’s goal, which is usually understood in utilitarian terms, and the obligation to respect rights and to act justly. The Dirty Hands Dilemma questions whether realizing the organizational goal justifies acting in violation of justice and rights.

The dilemma of the Many Hands concerns the tension between individual and collective responsibility. An effective and efficient organization offers individuals the opportunity to hide behind organizational responsibility. If a corporation acts irresponsibly, the collective moral responsibility can become diffused in that it gets lost among the individual responsibilities of employees. The Many Hands Dilemma can arise in organizations in different ways. First, multiple employees may have separate, uncoordinated perspectives on the corporate objectives and responsibilities. Each of them feels responsible for the organization and the future of the organization. The Many Hands Dilemma can also be trimmed when responsibilities are shirked and stakeholders are left with no one to turn to. In such instances, no one is willing to take on the task because they are unauthorized or lack the necessary competence. When employees only feel responsible for their own tasks, the bigger picture simply fades away.

The Entangled Hands Dilemma arises because people who start to act in an organized context inevitably have to deal with multiple roles. This leads to the possibility of role conflicts. Each role implies moral obligations and the dilemma concerns the question of which responsibility should prevail.

As soon as people start working together in a form of organization, these three types of dilemmas will arise (Kaptein and Wempe 2002).

Functioning as a professional can also lead to dilemmas. Professional ethics requires certain behavior, but other human or social obligations can conflict with this. A doctor has a duty of confidentiality, but what should doctors do when they have knowledge of a possible crime that they could prevent?

The Solution to Dilemmas

Although it is sometimes possible to resolve a dilemma by prioritizing all the relevant duties involved insofar as some are prima facie stronger than others (Ross 1930), this is often impossible. Practical hurdles can make it impossible to prioritize. Perhaps there is an order of priorities or there are good reasons to make trade-offs, but we lack sufficient knowledge, insight, information, and analytical skills to successfully make such trade-offs (McConnell 1987). In that instance, we could try to resolve these dilemmas with further research to fill the gaps in our knowledge and insight. In such a situation, it would be wrong to talk of a genuine dilemma.

It can also be impossible to come to a rational decision because the values, norms, and ideals at stake cannot be compared.

When it is not possible to come to a rational decision between conflicting values, ethics must be seen as making a choice. The choice depends on the person or organization that you are, or would like to be. According to Badaracco (1997), you develop your identity as a person by the choices you make. In this context, he speaks about “defining moments,” identity-determining choices. He sees this as applying not only to individuals but also to an organization and even to a society. These, too, face identity-determining choices.

A possible solution to dilemmas can be found in recognizing a broader and richer concept of rationality that may underlie decision-making within the organization (Bouwmeester 2017).

When dilemmas can only be “solved” by making a decision, cutting the Gordian knot, the integrity of the decision-maker is often invoked. Then, we try to locate the morality of a decision in the character of the leader: the manager. Managers should be unbiased, have no interest in the outcome of the decision, and be transparent. It is also possible to embed integrity in the structure and culture of the organization (Kaptein and Wempe 2002).


Dilemmas challenge ethics. If you accept that genuine dilemmas exist, you may end up with a sliding scale, and relativism may be a logical consequence. Nevertheless, recognizing dilemmas is of great importance when it comes to the application of ethics in practice.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.VU University AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Muel Kaptein
    • 1
  1. 1.Business Ethics and Integrity ManagementRSM Erasmus UniversityRotterdamNetherlands