An ethical dilemma, or ethical paradox, is a decision-making problem between two possible moral imperatives—neither of which is unambiguously acceptable or preferable. The complexity arises out of the situational conflict in which obeying one would result in transgressing another. It becomes quite difficult under such situations to take a stand because whatever action one may take, one or the other ethical principle gets violated. However, you—as a moral agent—have to choose one of the ethical principles and give up the other. Your choice not only affects your own conscience, but also affects other people; and you are often held responsible for the unethical action either way you act.
Moral dilemma may arise due to the following reasons:
1. Conflict of Ethical Principles: The dilemma that arises due to conflict between the normative ethical principles—like value ethics, deontology, teleology—and relational ethics.
2. Conflict of End and Means: The dilemma that is encountered in following the process of justice or achieving the end of justice, viz. the conflicts between ends and means.
3. Conflicts of Prima facie principles: The dilemma that arises due to the conflicts of different prima facie principles.
1. Conflict of Ethical Principles
There is no universal definition of ethics and even the greatest philosophers can’t agree on a single principle of ethics. The ethical principles are sometimes opposite of each other, and hence observation of one principle naturally leads to violation of other principles.
Ethical dimensions are those norms and principles that provide the basic guidelines for determining how conflicts in human interests are to be settled and for optimising mutual benefits of people living together in groups. Some of the moral criteria are:
Normative ethics is the branch of ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act. We have to use these principles to take the most ethical action in such difficult situations. We have learned about the ‘Normative Ethics’ in the chapter ‘Dimensions of Ethics’.
Normative ethics attempts to provide prescription for the moral action and helps determining what should be done in a given situation. There are mainly four Normative ethical theories:
1. Virtue Ethics: It focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on specific actions. If a person is good or virtuous, all his actions shall also be good.
2. Deontology/Rule based Ethics: It argues that moral laws are inviolable and must be followed in all cases irrespective of the consequence.
3. Teleology/Utilitarianism: It holds that an action is ethical or unethical based on the utility or the consequence of the action. An ethical action leads to the maximum happiness for the greatest number of people.
4. Relationship/Feminine Ethics: It holds that morality arises out of the experiences of empathy and compassion just like we treat the family members.
Most of the time, there is no conflict between the ethical principles as they complement each other. However, sometimes there may be a conflict between them. For example, if a boy is being chased by criminals to be kidnapped and he has hidden behind a tree to save his life and the criminals come across you and ask you if you have seen the boy—it becomes an ethical dilemma situation.
• If you speak truth following deontology principle, the life of the boy is threatened violating the principle of teleology as the boy may suffer due to honesty.
• If you speak a lie for saving the life of the body following teleology principle, you violate the deontology principle.
In such a situation, it may be better to speak a lie to save the life of the child because saving the life of a person is more important than speaking the truth. In this way, we can resolve the ethical dilemma. Using similar examples, we can thus train people to follow the best course of ethical action in similar complex situations.
2. Conflicts between End and Means
We sometime face the dilemma of end and means. Some people believe that end justifies means. Hence, if evil means are used to achieve good ends, it is acceptable.
However, many scholars and thinkers don’t agree to this argument. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Some people say that means are, after all, means. I would say, means are, after all, everything. As is the means, so is the end.’ As per Gandhi’s thought, there is no wall separating means and end. Many other scholars also agree with this view. Here are two examples:
• The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means. (Georges Bernanos, a French author and a soldier in World War I)
• The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means. (Ursula K. Le Guin, an American author)
We have to, therefore, justify the ends as well as means when taking an action. It is important to follow the due process of justice to achieve ethical ends.
Process of Justice
It is wisely said that justice should not only be done, but it should be seen to be done. The process of delivering justice is thus as important as the delivery of justice itself. The judicial process must satisfy the following criteria.
(i) Equality of Access
(vi) Right to Appeal
(i) Equality to Justice
In order to ensure fairness, it is important that all parties affected are given equal opportunity before the decision-maker. They must be provided with all the necessary information and the decision-making process should be known to all people. The administrator must hear all the concerned parties before passing the judgement.
It is important that public servants are impartial while taking a decision. They must have no bias for or against anyone on the basis of caste, religion, race, etc. They must decide the case exclusively on merit.
There must be a transparency in the decision-making process. It should be taken in an open manner after informing all stakeholders. The order or decision should be ‘speaking’ in the sense that it should speak for itself by expressing the specific reasons based on which it has been taken. The decisions should be accessible to every person for scrutiny.
It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. There is no point in irrigating the land when the crop has already been spoiled. In the same way, if the decision is not taken within a reasonable time, its values are lost. A public servant must ensure expedited decision-making without any undue delay.
In modern times, it is common to involve all the stakeholders in the decision-making process. The government often places draft policies and rules on its website for comments and suggestions before a law is passed by the Parliament. When people participate in the decision-making process, the goal of democracy, i.e. ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’, is truly realised.
(vii) Right to Appeal
It is often said that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. It is important to ensure that no single person can take the ultimate decision in an important matter. There must be an inbuilt provision in the law to allow the aggrieved party to contest the decision at a higher level by filing an appeal. This also helps in the correction of the judgement by a higher authority and builds trust in the judicial process.
Case Study: A Case of a Police Officer
Suraj is an honest IPS officer who is appointed as SP of a district. The crime rate of the district is quite high and media is highlighting the crimes every day, embarrassing the police force and the State government. Suraj collects intelligence reports and finds out that a few people—including some political leaders—may be behind the criminal activities. However, he gets no tangible evidence against them despite his best efforts.
One day, he conducts a raid in the house of the most notorious criminal with his team and kills several criminals in the encounter. A video of the encounter by some unknown persons is put up on social media that goes viral. Suraj and his team members, are immediately suspended and a CBI enquiry is ordered. They are now facing arrest, prosecution and dismissal from service.
What mistake was committed by Suraj?
It is important to understand that the police is an agency to ensure law and order. If police officers themselves break the law, how can they ask citizens to obey the law? Observance of law is more important than public opinion which is based mostly on emotions than on reason. One should not apply shortcuts to achieve success.
In this case, collection of intelligence and gathering of proper evidence should have been done before conducting the raid. The killing people in a false encounter is illegal and it should have been avoided. Only a judge can decide if a person is a criminal or innocent after following the due process of law. An ethical police officer should not take the law in his own hands. He knows that awarding punishment is done by the court and killing a person amounts to murder even if it is done by the police. End can’t justify the means and everyone is equal before the law.
3. Prima Facie Principles
A well-known twentieth century ethicist W.D. Ross argued that moral issues can be understood as conflicts between certain prima facie duties. The duties that can be expressed in terms of a number of commonly accepted principles called ‘Prima Facie Principles’.
The word prima facie means ‘on first view’. We can call this the first impression or initial moral presumptions concerning how we should act as moral agents. Presumption means that something is taken to be true unless proven otherwise, e.g. everyone is treated to be innocent before a court of law unless proven guilty.
A moral presumption is simply a presumption that someone ought to act in a certain way under certain circumstances unless some special justification is offered that defeats the presumption. When these moral presumptions come into conflict, then a moral issue arises. Prima Facie principles thus points to the moral presumption, i.e. the way we must act in a situation in a normal situation.
3.1: Types of Prima Facie Principles
There are six prima facie principles in general:
(i) Principle of Honesty
We must speak truth all the time. We expect people to speak the truth to us and hence others too expect the truth from us. Truth is important for communication of accurate information which alone can make people take effective decisions. If in a group, everyone lies with other members, there is no scope for teamwork or the progress of the society.
(ii) Principle of Promise-keeping
Keeping the promises or walking the talk is one of the most important moral principles all over the world. It is said in Ramacharitmanas written by Swami Tulsidas: ‘Raghukul riti sada chal aayi. Pran jaye par vachan na jayi.’ (It is the tradition in the clan of Lord Rama, that you should lose your life but always keep your word). We expect people to keep their promises made to us. Hence, we, too, must keep our promises made to others.
The important issue, however, is what constitutes a promise. Sometimes, people make direct promises to others and sometimes promises are assumed due to the nature of human relationship. For example, parents offer their children all types of help and support for their development when they are young and they expect children to take care of them in their old age, even though there is no explicit contract in this regards. Sometimes, a promise is implicit. For example, if your close friend shares a secret with you, he assumes that you will not tell it to anyone. Thus, confidentially is assumed in intimate relationships. The discussions between spouse, relatives, family members and friends must be kept confidential even if specifically not promised so.
On the other hand, some explicit promises are not taken on face value. For example, politicians make tall promises in their manifesto before elections, which they usually fail to fulfil when they are in power. However, people expect politicians to make tall promises as their professional requirement. They don’t feel too disappointed if some promises are not fulfilled. Yet, such type of behaviour lowers the respect of the politicians in the eyes of the people.
However, if a person makes most sincere promise (like getting selected in the civil services) and then fails to fulfil it despite all his efforts, we can’t say that he has broken his promise. Similarly, if someone has promised to be present at a function at a given time, but his car breaks down or he meets with an accident or he faces an unexpected traffic-jam, he can’t be held accountable for breaking his promise.
However, in general, it is possible to fulfil our promises most of the times, if we are sincere and careful in making our promises. Accordingly, we must make realistic promises and always try our best to keep them.
(iii) Principle of Non-maleficence (Not harming others)
Ethical people keep the interest of other people in their mind. They believe that everyone has as much right to live and enjoy their lives just like them. Hence, people should not cause any kind of harm to other people, whether physical or psychological. Only in exceptional situations like self-defence or for the defence of others, one is permitted to harm others.
(iv) Principle of Beneficence (Doing good to others)
It is not enough if we don’t harm others, as we are also required to actually do good to others. It is not sufficient if the parents don’t punish their children. They must love and take care of their children and contribute to their growth. As a member of the society, we have a duty to help other members of the society so that we can maximise the happiness of the society as a whole.
‘Good’ in this context, must be interpreted broadly, to cover both physical good (nourishment, health) and psychological good (security, happiness).
Beneficence and non-maleficence are often confused in cases of preventing harm from coming to others. Preventing harm is required by beneficence, not non-maleficence, since preventing someone from coming to harm is not a failure to do harm oneself, but doing something good for another.
(v) Principle of Autonomy
This principles provides that all people have the right to live their lives as they deem fit so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. This moral principle corresponds to the political value of freedom of action, speech, faith, profession as enshrined in the Indian Constitution and also in the constitution of other civilised nations. We must allow the people to make their own decisions, to live as they wish, so long as the exercise of this freedom does not impede the exercise of other people’s rights.
The principle of autonomy constitutes two elements.
(1) Right of non-interference: We must not interfere in the actions of others people as long as these actions are legal and they don’t interfere with the rights of other people.
(2) Right of control: In some cases, a person has the right to control others for our own benefit. For example, a patient suffering with cancer has a right to control which procedures the surgeon takes to bring the cancer under control.
(vi) Principle of Equality (Justice)
Equality is one of the most cherished goals of ethics. All people should be treated in the same manner in the same situations. Everyone deserves respect from his fellow human beings. All people need to be treated equal before the law. This principle expects that the universal standard by which we treat one person is the same standard we use to treat all people.
It is important to understand that this principle does not imply that everyone should be treated alike. We can’t treat a criminal in the same way as we treat a saint or a charitable person. However, it implies that each person should be treated in accordance with the same criteria. We can’t treat two people committing the same crime in a different manner. The law has to be the same for everyone and everyone should be treated similarly according to the same legal standards.
3.2: Using of Prima Facie Principles to Resolve Ethical Dilemma
We can use Prima facie principles in a simple and straightforward manner to resolve ethical dilemmas. They can be used as the general moral principles within the premises of a moral argument and derive moral judgments concerning actions that have been or might be taken in a moral situation.
W. D. Ross suggested that we can solve moral dilemmas by simply investigating all of the morally relevant facts that apply in a moral situation and then determine which of the conflicting prima facie duties is more important in the situation. The more important prima facie duty that overrides the less important, constitutes our actual duty in the situation. For example, if we see a frightened man pursued by his potential murderer and the latter asks us where the man went, we may override honesty and tell a lie. This may be perfectly justifiable in such situation.
Case Study: Dilemma of a Friend
Amit and Suraj are very close friends. Amit has recently taken a divorce from his wife after facing great harassment at the hands of his ex-wife and his in-laws. One day, Amit told his friend Suraj in strict confidence that he is planning to get his wife abducted by a gang for a huge ransom to take revenge for all the harassment. Suraj tries his best to convince his friend that such an act is illegal and it could put him and his wife in deep trouble. However, Amit remains adamant to take revenge.
Suraj is a very close friend and he does not wish to violate the confidence of his friend. However, he also does not want his friend to suffer for his illegal act.
What should Suraj do?
If Suraj reveals this plan to the police or to the family of Amit’s ex-wife, he would be breaking his friend’s confidence which falls under the principle of promise keeping.
On the other hand, if Suraj fails to take any action and keep the confidentiality of the communication, it would cause harm to his friend, his ex-wife and her family, which would be a violation of the principle of beneficence.
His dilemma is this case is a conflict between the principles of promise keeping and beneficence.
The issue becomes clear once Prima Facie principles are applied to the case.
In this case, it would be better to keep the principle of beneficence rather than the principle of promise- keeping because that is more beneficial to his friend and the ex-wife and her family.
Moreover, it is also the legal duty to a citizen to inform the police if someone is planning such criminal activities.
Case Study: Dilemma of a Doctor
Amit is a government doctor who is very passionate about his job. He was once called at the scene of a terrible accident. There were two people involved in the accident and the condition of both the victims was extremely critical. Amit finds that he has the medicine to save only one life. If he treats one person, the other victim is sure to die.
What should he do?
The principle of beneficence applies to both people injured during the accident. Ideally, Amit must save the life of both the accident victims. However, due to lack of medicine, he can save only one. Therefore, the principle of beneficence conflicts with itself.
In this case, Amit has to take a call and cure a person based on his own moral judgement. For example:
• He may choose to save the life of the person who is younger since he would live longer.
• He may choose to save the life of a person who has more dependents because that would be more beneficial to the society.
• He may choose to examine the level of fatality of the two and prefer to take care of the one who has better chances of survival.
Amit must take the decision that maximises the benefit to the people following the Prima facie principle of beneficence.