Do you remember a time when you had to make a choice and each option was equally unpleasant? Perhaps you lied, and something terrible happened, or you were faced with the task of divulging the truth and being punished for lying. This mess is called a dilemma: a situation that challenges an agreeable solution. In literature, dilemmas form the central conflict many protagonists encounter. Many people face all kinds of dilemmas in life, and the choice they make can have long-lasting impacts. Sometimes these dilemmas have even caused changes in society and history! Common dilemmas include: classical, ethical, and moral.
A classical dilemma is a choice between two or more alternatives, in which the outcomes are equally undesirable, or equally favorable. The dilemma does not typically involve a moral or ethical crisis, but the person or character’s life may change as a result of their decision. Some examples of classical dilemmas include:
Deciding where to go for dinner
Uncertainty about which job offer to take
Wondering whether or not to make the move to a new city
Classical dilemmas are more than simple choices, because they usually prompt the person to think about the outcomes of the choices. As a result, a character in a story may find themselves on an adventure, in fear for their lives, or instituting change because of the choice they made in their dilemma.
An ethical dilemma arises when a person is forced to decide between two morally sound options, but they may conflict with the established boundaries of a business, a governmental agency, or the law. Some ethical dilemmas may involve following the truth versus being loyal to a friend; following the laws or rules versus having compassion for an individual’s plight; and concerns about an individual person versus the larger impact on a community. An ethical dilemma differs from a moral dilemma because it very much involves following rules rather than one’s conscience, although one’s conscience can certainly move an individual to consider breaking the rules.
Ethical dilemmas are especially important in the medical and criminal justice fields, and in careers such as social work and psychology. In addition, most public servants have to undergo ethics training to address common dilemmas they may come across while working with the public. Recent advancements in science have also brought forward interesting and uncharted ethical dilemmas. Some examples of ethical dilemmas include:
A secretary discovers her boss has been laundering money, and she must decide whether or not to turn him in.
A doctor refuses to give a terminal patient morphine, but the nurse can see the patient is in agony.
A teacher, who is also the volleyball coach, asks her athletes to give her their cell phone numbers so she can get in touch with them quickly; however, according to district policy, teachers are not supposed to have contact with students on their phones.
While responding to a domestic violence call, a police officer finds out that the assailant is the brother of the police chief, and the police chief tells the officer to “make it go away”.
A government contractor discovers that intelligence agencies have been spying on its citizens illegally, but is bound by contract and legalities to keep his confidentiality about the discovery.