What are moral dilemmas?

Moral dilemmas are situations where an individual has to make a choice between two or more clashing options.

These options are often not pleasing to the individual and are usually not truly morally acceptable either. We can identify moral dilemmas by recognising that our actions in these given situations have moral and ethical consequences.

We must choose between which actions to take. However, we may not be happy with any choice, and none of them can be considered fully morally acceptable.

Our first point of order might be to consult any personal moral beliefs or societal ethical and lawful norms in order to resolve such difficulties. Yet, this is often not enough. It may not point towards the best action to take, and it may not even be sufficient in tackling the moral dilemma.

We must find ways of resolving these challenging situations in order to produce the least suffering possible. To do this, it is useful to identify the different types of moral dilemmas that we may find ourselves in.

6 Types of Moral Dilemmas

There are several categories of moral dilemmas within philosophical thought. They can seem complex, but learning the basics of them can help identify them and mould a solution for them:

Epistemic moral dilemmas

Epistemic’ means to do with the knowledge of something. This is what this dilemma is about.

The situation involves two moral choices that conflict, but the individual has no idea which choice is the most morally acceptable. They don’t know which is the most ethically viable. They need more information and knowledge surrounding the two options before making an informed decision.

Ontological moral dilemmas

Ontological’ means the nature of something or the relation between things. The options in this dilemma are equal in their moral consequences.

This means that neither of them supersedes the other. They are fundamentally on the same ethical level. Therefore, the individual cannot choose between the two.

Self-imposed moral dilemmas

A self-imposed dilemma is a situation that has been caused by the individual’s mistakes or misconduct. The moral dilemma is self-inflicted. This can cause a number of complications when attempting to make a decision.

World-imposed moral dilemmas

A world-imposed dilemma is a situation where events that we can’t control have created an unavoidable moral conflict.

An individual must resolve a moral dilemma, even though the cause of it is beyond his/her control. For example, this could be in times of war or a financial crash.

Obligation moral dilemmas

Obligation dilemmas are situations where we feel we are obliged to opt for more than one choice. We feel we are obliged to carry out an action from a moral or legal standpoint.

If there were just one option that is obligatory, then the choice would be easy. However, if an individual feels obliged to opt for several of the choices in front of them but can only choose one, which one should they choose?

Prohibition moral dilemmas

Prohibition dilemmas are the opposite of obligation dilemmas. The choices that are offered to us are all, on some level, morally reprehensible.

They can all be considered as wrong, but we must choose one. They could be illegal, or just plain immoral. An individual must choose between what would normally be considered as prohibited.

These are examples of some of the types of moral dilemmas that may arise. Our actions will affect not just ourselves, but many other people as well.

So, we should thoroughly consider the action before we carry it out. However, they are complex and problematic, and resolving them may seem an impossible task.

How to resolve them?

The largest struggle in trying to resolve a moral dilemma is recognising that whatever action you take, it will not be completely ethical. It will just be the most ethical in comparison with the other choices.

Philosophers have attempted to find solutions to moral dilemmas for centuries. They have discussed and attempted to find the best ways to resolve them, in order to help us live better and reduce the suffering that we may face.

Here are a few pieces of advice to help resolve moral dilemmas:

Be reasonable, not emotional

We have a greater chance of overcoming these struggles if we logically work through them. Analyse the aspects of the dilemma in order to better conclude what action is the greatest good. Emotion can cloud our judgment of what may be the best ethical outcome.

Choose the greater good or the lesser evil

Perhaps the soundest piece of advice is to conclude which choice allows for the greatest good, or the less evil. This isn’t simple and will take much consideration.

However, if there is an action that is on balance morally superior, despite other personal or social implications, then it is the best action to take.

Is there an alternative?

Analysing the situation in greater detail may reveal alternative options that were not immediately obvious. Is there an alternative choice or action that will resolve the dilemma better than the ones you have in front of you? Take time to recognise if there is.

What are the consequences?

Weighing up the positive and negative consequences of each action will give a clearer picture of the best choice to make. Each option may have a number of negative consequences, but if one has more positive consequences and less negative, then it is on the balance the right action to take.

What would a good person do?

Sometimes a useful thing to do would be to just simply ask: What would a good person do?

Imagine yourself as a truly virtuous and moral character and determine what they would do, regardless of your own character and the personal or social factors that may influence your decision.

Resolving moral dilemmas will not be easy

Never think too much about a dilemma. Answers come to a relaxed mind; time allows things to fall into place; a calm attitude yields the best results.

Never think too much about a dilemma. Answers come to a relaxed mind; time allows things to fall into place; a calm attitude yields the best results.

The dilemmas that we face will be complex and arduous. The advice given by philosophers will aid us when trying to resolve them.

However, it is not as straightforward as using one piece of advice to solve a single dilemma. Often, it will be a combination of many of them that will give us the best chance of taking the correct action. Most of the time, all of them will be relevant in every dilemma that we face.

But there is one thing that all of these methods of resolutions promote: the importance of reason. Moral dilemmas can seem so over-facing that our emotions can prevent us from making an informed decision. Or, they can misguide us into making the wrong decision.

Taking a step back to dissect and analyse the dilemma will allow for a better perspective on the situation. This allows you to see more clearly the consequences of each action, the goods and evils of each action and any alternatives that may present themselves.

However, perhaps the best piece of advice is just recognising that resolving moral dilemmas will not be easy. It will be difficult and may cause us deep anguish as we wrestle between conflicting moral options.

We are better equipped to face these dilemmas if we are aware of this. Thinking reasonably, and not being overwhelmed by the dilemma, will be a good start as well.


  1. https://examples.yourdictionary.com/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jim

    I have a major life dilemma. My life has not been the greatest and I recently found an opportunity to a better and happier life. But I absolutely know my mom is against this type of opportunity. She has bailed me out of bad decisions I have made and this would really hurt her. This opportunity has to do with something I really desire and I know I will be much happier than I am now and my future looks the same as it is now. My question is should I follow my gut instinct, feelings, desires or logic? Should I make myself happy or my mom happy?

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