What is a Moral (Ethical) Dilemma? | Definition & Examples

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Moral Dilemmas in Ethics

In its everyday usage, dilemma refers to a situation whereby someone is faced with two alternatives, neither of which is satisfactory, but from which one has to choose one or the other.

In morality, however, a moral dilemma involves a situation whereby one is confronted with making a moral choice, and either way one considers the alternatives available, one will discover that it is very difficult to satisfy all of the moral rules that apply to the issue at hand.

Since moral issues are not empirically verifiable, it is a bit difficult to give a straightforward resolution or answer to a moral problem. Hence, when one is faced with a moral choice, it is not always easy to determine the moral status of the two conflicting alternatives without careful consideration. Sometimes, however, the arguments that make it seem reasonable to choose either of the two alternatives appear to be compelling or fascinating, even though one cannot choose 'a' and 'not a' at the same time.

According to Davis' explanation of what a moral dilemma is, whether our attention is directed to the actual experiences of morally serious adults or to the predicaments of literary figures, there appears to be a wide range of situations in which individuals face insoluble conflicts between equally compelling but directly competing moral requirements and thus have to violate or fail to satisfy at least one of them. Thus, there seem to be ample experiential grounds for supposing that human moral agents do, and therefore can, encounter genuine moral dilemmas.

Subsequently, we would examine some hypothetical cases of moral dilemmas. It is important to note that usually ethics employs the tool of reason in analyzing moral issues, and that is the reason why there is no one arbitrarily right or correct view or position.

It is also important to note that philosophers or ethicists are not judges who just pass an arbitrary verdict or judgment on moral issues or just pronounce a person guilty or innocent. Similarly, they do not merely endorse or condemn moral actions. Rather, ethicists make use of ethical theories considered earlier to determine the moral status of moral issues.

A Consideration of Abortion

The age-old problem of abortion is a highly controversial one. The abortion debate is, however, a very interesting one. For example, there are theorists and activists in the pro-life movement who are against abortion and contend that a fertilized egg is already an individuated human being or person.

Also, some other anti-abortion groups are from certain religious groups. For example, contemporary Catholic teaching on directly-induced abortion holds that life must be preserved from the moment of conception.

Generally, groups and individuals who are against abortion are called conservatives, pro-life movements, or anti-abortion groups. These groups usually advocate that fetuses possess the right to life or the right not to be killed because they are potential persons or genetic persons, even if they are not yet actual persons.

On the other side of the debate, we have the pro-abortion groups, generally referred to as the liberals. Liberals hold that a right not to be killed deliberately belongs to actual persons, that is, humans who have been born alive. This position stresses having certain characteristics that entitle one to membership in the moral community.

In the same vein, some liberals also take the position that abortion is a personal and private matter and should be legal. A number of feminists, especially radical feminists, are in this category. They argue that a woman should have the freedom, the liberty, and the autonomy to do what she likes with her body.

The problem arises, meanwhile, when a woman's liberty conflicts with a "foetus' right to life," as the pro-life groups would argue. In light of the two sides to the idea of abortion discussed so far, what could you say about the following case?

Let's put it this way:

Angelina is very confused. She seems to be considering so many sides to the issue at hand. Although one thing is obvious—she is in big trouble! Angelina's problem started exactly four weeks ago. She was fast asleep in her room when she sensed some movements near her bed. At first, she was surprised that her roommate, who said she would not be back until the following morning, had come back at that time of the night. However, when she opened her eyes and saw a man standing in front of her, her surprise instantly gave way to fright and anger.

Before Angelina could muster enough courage to ask the man who he was or what he wanted in her room, the man was already advancing towards her. She struggled and tried to shout to call the attention of neighbors, but the man overpowered her and quickly covered her mouth with a piece of cloth he was holding. It was like a bad dream that Angelina thought would vanish into thin air once she woke up. Rather than waking up, however, Angelina found herself immersed in the problem that that fateful night had brought into her life.

Angelina just realized that the event of that night has resulted in the pregnancy of a fetus whose father she does not know. She considers an abortion the surest way out of her present predicament, but her fear is grounded in the fact that she does not know whether she would be killing a person like herself if she did that.

On the other hand, Angelina is worried by the realization that keeping the pregnancy would truncate many of her life ambitions, especially her studies as a 200-level university student. Besides, it may worsen her mom's health condition and aggravate the high blood pressure that the woman, who solely sponsors her education since she lost her dad about ten years earlier, had been grappling with for about seven years.

Considering the case above, would you advise Angelina to go for an abortion? On the other hand, would it be morally wrong to consider certain bad consequences that may result from continued pregnancy, or does it suffice to consider only the health of the mother as a reason why abortion can be approved? For example, some bad consequences may include the loss of a job or other opportunities for a pregnant woman, the suffering of the future child, the burden of caring for the child under particular circumstances, the stigma attached to having children under certain conditions in some societies, and so on.

Surrogacy: Mothering as a Contract

In most cases, with the high importance society attaches to children, both childbearing and childrearing, coupled with the immense satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that a lot of people claim to derive from having their own children, it is usually a thing of worry and frustration when a couple is unable to have children after marriage.

Different methods have been proposed to help people in this situation. However, when means of helping such people to conceive and bear children fail, it is a usual practice for such people to employ alternative means of becoming parents. One of such alternatives, which has become very popular in recent times, is surrogacy.

Although infertility is by no means a necessary condition for contract motherhood, many people regard the pain experienced by infertile couples as a compelling reason to welcome, or at least permit, contract motherhood as a procreative option.

According to Elliot Dorfif, when the couple cannot conceive in the first place or the wife cannot retain pregnancy for any of the known or unknown causes, the couple may try to find another woman to bear their child. This can be done with six different combinations of gametes: (1) those of the husband and wife; (2) the husband's sperm and a donated egg; (3) the wife's egg and donated sperm; (4) the donated sperm and donated egg; (5) the surrogate mother's egg inseminated by the husband's sperm; or (6) the surrogate mother's egg inseminated by donated sperm.


In the course of giving or receiving procreative help through surrogacy, however, different ethical issues come up. For example, let us consider the following case: Chief and Mrs. Paro had been married for ten years. Mrs. Paro got pregnant about six months after she married Chief Paro but lost the pregnancy to a miscarriage. She similarly lost three other pregnancies within the first five years of marriage.

In the last five years, however, Mrs. Paro was no longer able to get pregnant. The couple actually went through a lot, going from specialists in the medical field to practitioners of alternative medicine. All was to no avail. Then there was intense pressure from members of the couple's families, especially from the chief's family.

Mrs. Paro then read a pathetic story in the newspaper about a woman who lost her husband and all their properties were taken over by the man's family because, according to them, "she has no child for us." Mrs. Paro felt so bad and so horrified that she decided to go to any length just to become a mother.

Mrs. Gambo had four children. Life had become very difficult for her and the children because her husband, who was the sole provider for the needs of the family, had just lost his job. Mr. Gambo had since been looking for another job but had not found any—not even the most menial job imaginable. Hence, feeding the children, let alone paying their tuition fees, became a serious problem for Mr. and Mrs. Gambo.

Mrs. Paro's friend, a lawyer who incidentally is also Mrs. Gambo's neighbor, linked the two women, and the two of them quickly saw the need to help each other get what each person needed so desperately and which the other person had but was beyond the reach of the woman who so needed it. It was agreed that Mrs. Paro would pay Mrs. Gambo to help give birth to a child; the lawyer described it as "women helping women."

The contract was signed, Mrs. Gambo was paid half of the total cost, and within three months of about two trials of artificial insemination, she got pregnant. It was soon revealed by the scan, to Mrs. Paro's surprise and delight, that Mrs. Gambo was carrying a set of twins. Problems began, however, when Mr. and Mrs. Gambo lost all their children to an auto crash when the latter went for a picnic accompanied by an aunt.

The Paros took good care of Mrs. Gambo during the pregnancy, providing enough care and comfort to ensure that she went to bed without any complications or problems. However, now that the babies have been born, Mrs. Gambo is hesitant to release them to the commissioning parents. Her plea is that, as the genetic parent of the babies, at least one of them should be given to her. Mr. and Mrs. Gambo even offer to write off the other part of the cost, but the Paros insist on taking the two babies from the Gambos.

Cases like that of the Paros vs. the Gambos are common in the surrogate industry. Surrogacy, therefore, brings to the fore certain moral issues. Emma Lycett observes that "of all the assisted reproduction procedures that have been practiced in recent years, surrogacy remains the most contentious.".

For example, while some feminist bioethicists argue that surrogate pregnancy enhances women's reproductive autonomy, others contend that surrogacy is degrading and exploitative. In fact, some feminists who have written about surrogacy have concerns that all women involved with surrogacy are exploited and controlled either by society, their husbands, themselves, or all of these at once.

Some even worry that physical inability is not the only motive for seeking surrogacy. Some would chase after success and comfort. The imagined self-centered, ambitious professional women who pursued the joy of having a child but were not prepared to compromise any part of their career or exciting social life for the burdens of pregnancy were obvious candidates for future contracting mothers.

On the other hand, some contend that surrogacy is baby-selling and that no one has such a right to sell another human being. In all, however, whose interest should be more paramount in an instance of surrogacy—the interest of the surrogate, that of the commissioning parents, or that of the child to be born via the surrogate process?


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