What is a Moral Dilemma?

5 November 2016

Before we attempt to answer this question, we should state what we mean by the term “Moral Dilemma”. In English, the term “Ethics” and “Moral Philosophy” are used as Synonyms. The former is derived from a Greek word ethikos and the later from a Latin word Moralis both concerned about customs. They often refer to that branch of philosophy dealing with good and evil. The moral sense in a human being also called ‘conscience”, denotes the ability to grasp and make moral judgements. A Dilemma is a conflict situation for an individual A (a rational agent). He is to choose only one of the several available options, X, Y, Z etc., in a given situation. All actions involve in different consequences and ethical considerations.


Example: ‘A’ has an old father (in his eighties) living with him. He is diagnosed to have cancer. The doctor suggests an immediate operation to remove the cancerous growth. The doctor describes the scenario thus:


(A) If the operation is performed immediately most probably he will recover in a fortnight and lead a normal life. The operation has a fairly good chance of success, Of course given the age of the patient, there is a small chance that he will not recover at all and might even die soon or may be post-operation problems in rare case which severely affect the quality of the patient’s life.


(B) On a question regarding the possible postponement of an operation, the doctor responds: The risk is higher at a later date because the cancer ease may spread covering a larger area; his health also might detreated and his chances of recovery, if the operation is performed after 6 months. Therefore, postponement of operation is a worse option.


(C)When the doctor is asked about not having an operation at all, but to pursue an alternative therapy such as Homeopathy, the doctor responds as follows:


Generally, we the practitioners of modern medicine, do not give much value to the claims of Homeopaths in their ability to cure such deceases as Cancer. Their Claims to are not validated scientifically. In the best scenario, he may survive for a year or two and in few months his suffering will increase and at that stage operation will not be beneficial. The chances of his surviving more than two years in any case are negligible. In the worst case scenario his condition might deteriorate rapidly and he might even die in a few months’ time.  There are costs, risks and benefits. If anyone has to arrive a “rational” decision. The consequences of the outcomes of the 3 alternatives are not exactly known. The probabilities of each of the outcomes in the 3 scenarios are given by the doctors and have to be often trusted as “Aapta Vakya Pramaana” by the patient and the patient’s son. Two doctors may even give different probabilities for these scenarios. The issues are further complicated by the cost of the operation and who has to pay for it etc. The questions, regarding morals come about in the following way. Whether the patient lives are not, the surgeon and the hospital are enriched by the operation.


Does this factor have a bearing on the advice of the doctors? The son or the daughter-in-law may secretly be wishing the father’s early death in order to inherit his money. Alternatively, the son might be tempted to choose the alternate Therapy not because of his belief in its efficacy, but in terms of the relative cost of alternate therapies. His wife also seems to suggest that Homeopathy is better, with the same motive. Ultimately, each human being behaves in a particular way depending on his or her basic nature. Does an ethically correct way exist and is there an appropriate prescription for the same? Mutual goes a step further to several situations of human action. When the actor (decision maker) does


X and foregoes Y.

When a foregone i.e. Y is a reward or possession?

Y is a minor issue or omission.

Y is a major issue and a part of a decision maker’s commitment in life.

If Y is not done, it is harmful to the decision maker.

If Y is not done, it is harmful to others, but the damage is reparable.

If Y is not done, it does great harm to others.


Arjuna’s Dilemma at battle field at Kurukshetra, in these simplistic terms is the case# 6. If option X is his waging war and option Y is his retreating from the war and by not choosing option Y, Arjuna has become seemingly responsible for the massive destruction of humanity including his relatives, teachers and respected elders. It needed a Bhagavadgita from the Lord Krishna Himself to set him on the course of right action.


The question that arises is whether morality is a social issue or an individual issue. In the west, the issues are morality are often confused with that of legality. To repeat a familiar example, consider the former US present, Mr. Bill Clinton’s afire with the White House intern, Ms. Monica Lewinsky.


The senate committee felt that the greater moral lapse of the present was his lying on oath denying his clandestine afire rather than his involvement in the afire by itself. A great supporter of Clinton was Rev. Jessie Jackson, the Baptist preacher politician, who admitted about his illegitimate child recently. In the context of contemporary American Society, these are not moral lapses of any great significance. Similarly, an issue such as the Bofors gun deal is a major corruption in India, while in Sweden, the amount spent by the company is just a routine business expense and the morality or otherwise is not of any concern to the people of government there.



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