Moral dilemmas are thought experiments which ask you to imagine a difficult situation and decide what you think the morally correct course of action would be. There are no truly ‘right’ answers to these questions, as they often ask you to compare two different moral imperatives and choose which one you feel is most important.
For example, if we accept that it is morally correct to never torture a living creature, and that it is morally correct to save a human’s life if you have the ability to do so, how do you decide what to do if you can only save a human’s life by torturing someone else?
Read through these 25 moral dilemmas, and have a think about what you might do in each situation.
The Trapped Mining Crew
She is able to calculate that this space has just enough oxygen for three people to survive for 36 hours, but definitely not enough for four people. The only way to save the other crew members is to refuse medical aid to the injured crew member so that there will be just enough oxygen for the rest of the crew to survive.
Should Heather allow the injured crew member to die in order to save the lives of the remaining crew members?
The Runaway Trolley
A runaway trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workmen who will be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. Molly is on a footbridge over the tracks, in between the approaching trolley and the five workmen. Next to her on this footbridge is a stranger who happens to be very large.
If she does nothing the trolley will proceed, causing the deaths of the five workmen. The only way to save the lives of these workmen is to push this stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks below, where his large body will stop the trolley, causing his death.
Should Molly push the stranger onto the tracks in order to save the five workmen?
The Deliberate Infection
Ken is a doctor. One of his patients, whom he has diagnosed as HIV positive, is about to receive a blood transfusion prior to being released from the hospital. He has told Ken, in the confidence of their doctor-patient relationship, that after he gets his transfusion, and his medicine from Ken, he intends to infect as many people as possible with HIV starting that evening.
Because Ken is bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, there is no legal way to stop this man from carrying out his plan. Even if Ken warned the police, they would not be able to arrest him, since his medical information is protected.
It occurs to Ken that he could contaminate his medication by putting an untraceable poison in it that will kill him before he gets a chance to infect others.
Should Ken poison this man in order to prevent him from spreading HIV?
The Hostage Ecologists
Tom is part of a group of ecologists who live in a remote stretch of jungle. The entire group, which includes eight children, has been taken hostage by a group of paramilitary terrorists. One of the terrorists takes a liking to Tom. He informs Tom that his leader intends to kill him and the rest of the hostages the following morning.
He is willing to help Tom and the children escape, but as an act of good faith he wants Tom to torture and kill one of his fellow hostages whom he does not like. If Tom refuses his offer, all the hostages including the children and Tom will die. If he accepts his offer, then the others will die in the morning but Tom and the eight children will escape.
Should Tom torture and kill one of his fellow hostages in order to escape from the terrorists and save the lives of the eight children?
The Life Insurance Policy
Mary is in a hospital lounge waiting to visit a sick friend. A young man sitting next to Mary explains that his father is very ill. The doctors believe that he has a week to live at most. He explains further that his father has a substantial life insurance policy that expires at midnight.
If his father dies before midnight, this young man will receive a very large sum of money. He says that the money would mean a great deal to him and his family, and that no good will come from his father’s living a few more days. After talking with him Mary can tell this man is in desperate need of the money to feed his family. The man asks Mary to go up to his father’s room and smother his father with a pillow.
Should Mary kill this man’s father in order to get money for the man and his family?
The Submarine Crew
Mark is a crewperson on a marine-research submarine traveling underneath a large iceberg. An onboard explosion has damaged the ship, killed and injured several crewmembers. Additionally, it has collapsed the only access corridor between the upper and lower parts of the ship. The upper section, where Mark and most of the others are located, does not have enough oxygen remaining for all of them to survive until Mark has reached the surface. Only one remaining crewmember is located in the lower section, where there is enough oxygen.
There is an emergency access hatch between the upper and lower sections of the ship. If released by an emergency switch, it will fall to the deck and allow oxygen to reach the area where Mark and the others are. However, the hatch will crush the crewmember below, since he was knocked unconscious and is lying beneath it. Mark and the rest of the crew are almost out of air though, and they will all die if Mark does not do this.
Should Mark release the hatch and crush the crewmember below to save himself and the other crew members?
The Baby or The Townspeople
Enemy soldiers have taken over Jane’s village. They have orders to kill all remaining civilians over the age of two. Jane and some of the townspeople have sought refuge in two rooms of the cellar of a large house. Outside Jane hears the voices of soldiers who have come to search the house for valuables. Jane’s baby begins to cry loudly in the other room.
His crying will summon the attention of the soldiers who will spare Jane’s baby’s life, but will kill Jane and the others hiding in both rooms.
If Jane turns on the noisy furnace to block the sound, the other room will become uncomfortably hot for adults and children, but deadly for infants.
To save her and the others Jane must activate the furnace, which will kill her baby.
Should Jane overheat her baby in order to save herself and the other townspeople?
The Overloaded Lifeboat
Doug is on a cruise ship when there is a fire on board, and the ship has to be abandoned. The lifeboats are carrying many more people than they were designed to carry. The lifeboat he’s in is sitting dangerously low in the water – a few inches lower and it will sink.
The seas start to get rough, and the boat begins to fill with water. A group of old people are in the water and ask Doug to throw them a rope so they can come aboard the lifeboat. It seems to Doug that the boat will sink if it takes on any more passengers.
Should Doug refuse to throw the rope in order to save himself and the other lifeboat passengers?
The Hospital Ventilation
Carrie is a doctor working in a hospital. Due to an accident in the building next door, there are deadly fumes rising up through the hospital’s ventilation system. In a certain room of the hospital are four of her patients. In another room there is one of her patients. If she does nothing the fumes will rise up into the room containing the four patients and cause their deaths.
The only way to avoid the deaths of these patients is to hit a switch that will cause the fumes to bypass the room containing the four patients. As a result of doing this, the fumes will enter the room containing the single patient (against her will). If she does this, the woman will die, but the other four patients will live.
Should Carrie hit the switch in order to save four of her patients?
The Concentration Camp
You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says.
What should you do?
The Unfaithful Wife
You are an emergency worker that has just been called to the scene of an accident. When you arrive you see that the car belongs to your wife. Fearing the worst you rush over, only to see she is trapped in her car with another man. He is obviously her lover, with whom she’s been having an affair.
You reel back in shock, devastated by what you have just found out. As you step back, the wreck in front of you comes into focus. You see your wife is seriously hurt and she needs attention straight away. Even if she gets immediate attention there’s a very high chance she’ll die. You look at the seat next to her and see her lover. He’s bleeding heavily from a wound to the neck and you need to stem the flow of blood immediately.
If you attend to your wife, her lover will bleed to death, and you may not be able to save her anyway. If you work on the lover, you can save his life, but your wife will definitely die.
Who should you choose to work on?
The Incriminating Email
You are the network administrator for a rather large company. You have a young family and need your job to support them. Part of your responsibility as a network administrator is to monitor the emails for the organization. Usually this just means occasionally allowing through emails for staff members that have been accidentally blocked by the spam filters.
One day you get a helpdesk request from a staff member asking for an email to get released. Normally it’s standard procedure, except this time the request has come from the wife of a very good friend of yours. You recognize the name on the helpdesk request so quickly attend to the problem. As part of the procedure you need to manually open up the email to ensure that it isn’t actually spam. You find that it turns out to be an email to your friend’s wife from her lover. You scan the rest of the contents of the email and there is no doubt that she has been having an affair for some time now.
You release the email, but you can’t decide what to do now. Your initial reaction is to call your friend up and tell him about the email, however you quickly realize that company policy is very strict about revealing the contents of staff emails, and you will certainly lose your job if your boss finds out.
In any case you know that revealing this information presents great risk, because even if you don’t do it directly, there is a good chance that the dots will be joined somewhere along the line and you will be found out. However you feel that by not telling your friend you are helping his wife to get away with adultery and this troubles you greatly.
What should you do?
The Pregnant Lady and The Dynamite
A pregnant woman leading a group of five people out of a cave on a coast is stuck in the mouth of that cave. In a short time high tide will be upon them, and unless she is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the woman, whose head is out of the cave. Fortunately, (or unfortunately,) someone has with him a stick of dynamite. There seems no way to get the pregnant woman loose without using the dynamite which will inevitably kill her; but if they do not use it everyone else will drown.
What should they do?
The Drowning Children
You and your family are going away for the weekend. Your daughter is 7 and is best friends with your niece, who is also 7. Your families are very close and your daughter asks if your niece can come with you on your holiday. You have been on holidays together before and don’t see any problem, so you agree.
You arrive at your holiday destination and the house you are staying at backs onto a beach. The girls ask if they can go for a swim. You tell them that they have to wait until you have unpacked the car, but they can play on the sand directly in front of the beach. They run down to the sand, and you begin to unpack the car. After about 5 minutes, you hear screaming coming from the direction of the beach and it sounds like the girls.
You run down to see what the matter is, and you discover that they hadn’t listened to you and have gone for a swim. There is no one else on the beach and the girls are caught in a rip tide.
The girls are really struggling, particularly your niece who isn’t as strong a swimmer as your daughter is. You swim out quickly, but when you get there, you realize that there is no way you will be able to get both the girls back to the shore on your own.
You need to decide which of the girls you will rescue first, you have enough strength and energy to rescue them both, but you can only do it one at a time. You look at the two girls, and your niece is really struggling to hold her head above water and you know if you take your daughter back first, there will be little or no chance that she will survive.
Your daughter is struggling also, but is much stronger in the water and you estimate that if you take your niece back to shore first, there’s probably a 50% chance that your daughter will be able to stay afloat long enough for you return, but you simply don’t know how long she will hold on for.
Who should you save first?
The Bali Drugs Charge
You are on holiday in Bali with your wife and 18 year old son. You have been there for a week and are ready to head home. All three of you are at the airport getting ready to board your plane, when an armed officer comes around with a sniffer dog. You have all your bags on a trolley, and the dog sniffs at both your wife and your bag, and passes over them, however when he gets to your son’s bag, he begins to get a bit more active.
You look over at your son and he’s looking a little nervous. You know he’s smoked a little marijuana in his time, but generally, he’s a good kid, and you certainly didn’t think he’d actually be stupid enough to bring it back on the plane with him. At first you feel angry that he would do such a thing and start planning your responsibility lecture, but then you realize that you are in Bali, and they have a zero tolerance policy on drugs, meaning your son could be jailed for life, or worse, executed, if he does have some illicit materials in his bag.
You look at your wife and realize she has come to the same conclusion and has gone pale with fear.
The armed officer accompanying the dog is beginning to look more stern with every sniff the dog takes and looks directly at you and asks you to open to the bag.
You do, and as the officer begins to take things out of the bag, you see to your horror that there is a small quantity of marijuana stashed in with your son’s belongings.
The officer looks at you and asks “Whose bag is this?”
You realize you have to answer, but the answer won’t be easy. You see your wife in the corner of your eye, and she is about to step forward and claim it as her own.
What should you do?
The Mad Bomber
A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, but the official is sure that it will make him tell the truth in time for you to find and defuse the bombs.
What should you do?
What if you know that the bomber can withstand torture himself, but would talk if you were to torture his innocent wife instead?
The Sinking Lifeboat
You are going on a cruise. 2 days into the cruise your ship experiences technical difficulties and the captain says it needs to make an unscheduled stop. A couple of hours later the captain makes another announcement that the ship’s hull has been breached and that you will all need to start heading to life rafts and abandon ship. The ship’s life rafts are lowered as people begin to pile in and you get on board one of the life rafts.
As it is lowered however, it hits the side of the ship, putting a hole in the side of the raft, and when it hits the water it begins to sink. There are 10 people in the boat and to prevent it sinking, you quickly work out that by having 9 people working for 10 minutes while 1 person rests you can bail the water out with their hands, quickly enough to keep the water at bay and preventing it from sinking, but you have to continually keep it up to ensure that the boat doesn’t sink. By being able to rest one person you are greatly able to increase the length of time you can keep the boat afloat, however if the rescue team doesn’t turn up you calculate that within 5 hours the boat will sink and you will all die.
While taking your break, you glance over to another boat and notice that a friend of yours whom you met on the boat is there and has noticed your predicament. He is signaling for you to come over and join them on their boat so you don’t have to continue bailing water out. There is only just enough room for one more person. You also notice that their boat is moving away rapidly with the current, but your boat can’t keep up because the hole is affecting its buoyancy.
You estimate that if you jump ship, you will force all 9 remaining crew members to bail water continuously, which will reduce the total time they can stay afloat to just 2 hours, but will ensure that you will be able to live long enough to be rescued.
If you stay aboard, you will not have another chance to jump ship, and there’s no guarantee that the rescue will arrive in 5 hours, meaning you will all drown, however by staying you give everyone a better chance of survival.
As you watch the boat with your friend drift away, you realize you have about 30 seconds to make a decision.
Do you stay on your current boat and help keep it afloat as long as possible and hope that the rescue will arrive in 5 hours, or do you go to your friend’s boat, ensuring your rescue, but reducing the chances of the others on the boat being rescued?
The Over-Crowded Lifeboat
In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action.
If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?
The Tortured Child
Imagine that a powerful alien were to visit earth, with the ability to eradicate war, famine and suffering. The alien says that he will do this, and turn the world into a utopia where humans will be happy and peaceful forever more, but only if a price is paid. He demands a small child be given to him so that he can perform hideous scientific experiments on it, causing the child unimaginable pain.
Should you hand over the child?
What if the alien demands that you must inflict the torture on the child yourself?
The Poisoned Coffee
Tom, hating his wife and wanting her dead, puts poison in her coffee, thereby killing her. Jane also hates her husband, and would like him dead. One day her husband accidentally puts poison in his own coffee, thinking it is cream. Jane realises this, and has the antidote that could save him, but does not hand it over and her husband dies.
Is Jane’s failure to act as bad as Tom’s action?
The Hijacked Plane
You are on a plane containing 150 people, currently flying over barren desert. Hijackers take over, killing the pilot and co-pilot, and sealing themselves in the cockpit. There is no way for you to open the door, but you could damage the ventilation system causing poisonous fumes to fill the cockpit. If you do this the hijackers will die, but with no-one able to enter the cockpit and fly the plane, it will crash in the desert killing everyone on board. If you do nothing, the hijackers might land the plane safely, or they might crash it into a civilian target killing even more people.
What should you do?
The Sick Patients
You are a skilled doctor, with five patients who all need different organ transplants. There are currently no organs available to give them, and if they don’t get their transplants soon they will all die. You have a sixth patient, who is dying of an incurable disease. At the moment you are giving him medicine to ease his pain and prolong his life. He is a compatible organ donor for your five other patients, but the medicine he is taking will keep him alive just a day longer than they have left. If you were to stop giving him medicine he would die before them, in a very painful way, but you would then be able to use his organs to save the other five.
What should you do?
What if the sixth patient’s disease was curable, and the medicine you are giving him will allow him to make a complete recovery?
The Robin Hood Robber
You witness a man rob a bank, but instead of keeping the money for himself, he donates it to a local orphanage. You know this orphanage has been struggling for funding, and this money will allow the children to receive proper food, clothing and medical care. If you report the crime, the money will be taken away from the orphanage and given back to the bank.
What should you do?
The Plagiarised Report
You are an English teacher at a high school. One of your pupils is a very bright and gifted girl, whom you have always enjoyed teaching. She has always achieved A grades throughout her school years, and is now in her final year and getting ready to graduate. Unfortunately she has been very ill this term, and missed several weeks of schooling. She has just turned in a report which is worth 40% of her final grade, but you realise that she did not write it herself – she has copied a report found online and tried to pass it off as her own work.
If you report her plagiarisation to the school authorities it will be entered on her permanent record and she will no longer be eligible to attend the prestigious university that she has dreamed of attending all through high school. If you refuse to accept the report, her final mark will be very poor and may harm her chances of being chosen for this university. If you mark the paper as though you believed it was her own work, she will do very well, and stand every chance of getting her desired university place.
What should you do?
The Expensive Treatment
Your partner is dying from a rare disease. Luckily a cure has recently been invented, by one druggist who lives fairly close to you. This druggist is selling the cure for ten times the amount it cost him to make it. You try to raise the money, but even borrowing from friends and taking a loan from the bank, you can only raise half the amount. You go to the druggist and offer to pay him half now and half later, but he refuses, saying that he invented the cure and is determined to make money off it. You beg him to sell it cheaper as your partner will die before you can raise the full amount, but he still refuses.
You believe you could break into his store one night after he has gone home and steal the cure. This would definitely save your partner, although you might be arrested for the crime.
What should you do?
What if you could only steal the cure by killing the druggist?