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Moral Dilemmas and Ethical Decision making

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

The Merriam-Webster dictionary states that a dilemma is “a usually undesirable or unpleasant choice”. Therefore, one could assume what a moral dilemma is. An example of this is the infamous trolley problem. Imagine you are watching as a speeding train approaches 5 people tied down to the tracks. Luckily, right next to you is a lever that will divert the train onto a separate track; but there is one problem, there is also another person tied to the tracks. Just one. What do you do? Do you kill one person to save another? This dilemma was first raised by Phillipa Foot in 1967. According to Saint Mary's College of California, one of the three rules of ethics is this, “Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being. Such treatment falls under the principle of beneficence. Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent actions in this sense: (1) do not harm and (2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.". In a moral dilemma, these two guidelines contradict themselves as in order to maximize possible benefits, you would need to kill one person, but then again, to save 5, you must kill one. Of course, the Utilitarian approach states that there are no codes or guidelines but rather depends on the effects of said action. For example, let's say we do not flip the switch. Technically we have not killed anybody. However, Utilitarianism states that we must flip the switch and maximize the number of lives saved despite having to lose one. This approach is backed up by the IEP which says that utilitarians believe that “the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the number of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the number of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness).”. The three major approaches to ethics are Deontology (Saint Mary’s approach), Consequentialism (utilitarian approach), and Virtue ethics. They each take a similar, but not quite the same approach to solving this question. So, what should you do? Take the deontological approach and do nothing, or should you be a consequentialist and save 5 people? Personally, I would save the five. I mean- why not? The happiness of the 5 families would outweigh the sadness of one. As cruel as this may be, one person simply is not worth the lives of five.


Would you sacrifice one person to save five? - Eleanor Nelsen

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