14 Moral Dilemmas

The following is a list of some moral dilemmas, mostly adapted from Moral Reasoning, by Victor Grassian (Prentice Hall, 1981, 1992), with a couple additions. The question to consider with all of these is why they are dilemmas. Some, however, may not seem to be dilemmas at all.

1. The Overcrowded 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?

2. Father's Agonizing Choice

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?

3. Sophie's Choice,
not in Grassian.

In the novel Sophie's Choice , by William Styron (Vintage Books, 1976 -- the 1982 movie starred Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline), a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is "honored" for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one. In an agony of indecision, as both children are being taken away, she suddenly does choose. They can take her daughter, who is younger and smaller. Sophie hopes that her older and stronger son will be better able to survive, but she loses track of him and never does learn of his fate. Did she do the right thing? Years later, haunted by the guilt of having chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide. Should she have felt guilty?

The Fat Man and the Impending Doom, with parts cut out in the 2nd edition; they seem to have gotten removed to avoid unintentionally humorous overtones.

A fat man leading a group of 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 he is unstuck, they will all be drowned except the fat man, whose head is out of the cave. [But, fortunately, or unfortunately, someone has with him a stick of dynamite.] There seems no way to get the fat man loose without using [that] dynamite which will inevitably kill him; but if they do not use it everyone will drown. What should they do?

5. The Costly Underwater Tunnel, compare:  112 men were killed during the construction of Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border (the "official" number was 98, but others had died from causes more difficult to identify -- or easier to ignore -- like by carbon monoxide poisoning):  The first was a surveyor, J.G. Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1922, and the last was his son , Patrick Tierney, who drowned on December 20, 1935 -- 13 years to the day after his father. The working conditions in the summer down in the canyon involved temperatures hitting highs of 119 o , with lows of no less than 95 o (familiar numbers to those who have visited the cities of Needles, Blythe, or Yuma in the summer). In 1931, about the time that Hoover Dam, a federal project, was begun, the Empire State Building, a private project, was completed. Although the rule of thumb had been that one man would die for every story built in a skyscraper, which would have meant 120 dead for the Empire State Building, in fact only 5 men died in the whole project. By comparison, in the earlier (1908-1913) building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct by William Mulholland (d.1935), it was also the case that only 5 men died (though when Mulholland's St. Francis Dam, in Francisquito Canyon, collapsed in 1928, it killed over 500 people). The Golden Gate Bridge cost 14 lives. The Tunnel under the English Channel, built in the early 1990's, cost 11 lives. When the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was being planned, the prediction was that 15 workers would die, but none did. Similarly, though much earlier (1927-1941), no one died during the carving of Mt. Rushmore. Even with such progress over time, the John Hancock Building in Chicago (1970) cost 109 lives, or, indeed, about one per floor, as predicted for the Empire State Building. While it is usually ordinary workers who suffer in construction accidents, it isn't always, as was the case with the Brooklyn Bridge, whose designer, John Augustus Roebling, died in a ferry accident in 1869 while surveying the site. His son, Washington Roebling, suffered such a severe case of the bends, working in a pressurized caisson in 1872, that he supervised the rest of the construction crippled in bed, sending instructions through his wife, until the bridge was completed in 1883. Overall, 27 died on the Brooklyn Bridge, 3 from the bends. It was many years before it was known what to do about this condition. Workers were still suffering from the bends when the Holland Tunnel was built in the 1920's. The chief engineer of the tunnel, Clifford Milburn Holland, died suddenly in 1924, aged 41, of "exhaustion." The tunnel, opened in 1927, was then named after him. The first tunnel under the Hudson, for railroads, was begun in 1874; but construction was abandoned, restarted, and not completed until 1908. All such bridges and tunnels eliminate the need for ferry boats. Even in recent years, ferry sinkings and accidents are common, and they still result in the deaths of hundreds of people at a time.

An underwater tunnel is being constructed despite an almost certain loss of several lives [actually, all but certain]. Presumably the expected loss is a calculated cost that society is prepared to pay for having the tunnel ["society" doesn't make any such calculation]. At a critical moment when a fitting must be lowered into place, a workman is trapped in a section of the partly laid tunnel. If it is lowered, it will surely crush the trapped workman to death. Yet, if it is not and a time consuming rescue of the workman is attempted, the tunnel will have to be abandoned and the whole project begun anew. Two workmen have already died in the project as a result of anticipated and unavoidable conditions in the building of the tunnel. What should be done? Was it a mistake to begin the tunnel in the first place? But don't we take such risks all the time?

6. Jean Valjean's Conscience, with some comments; see the 1998 movie, Les Miserables , with Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush.

In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the hero, Jean Valjean, is an ex-convict, living illegally under an assumed name and wanted for a robbery he committed many years ago. [Actually, no -- he is only wanted for breaking parole.] Although he will be returned to the galleys -- probably [in fact, actually] for life -- if he is caught, he is a good man who does not deserve to be punished. He has established himself in a town, becoming mayor and a public benefactor. One day, Jean learns that another man, a vagabond, has been arrested for a minor crime and identified as Jean Valjean. Jean is first tempted to remain quiet, reasoning to himself that since he had nothing to do with the false identification of this hapless vagabond, he has no obligation to save him. Perhaps this man's false identification, Jean reflects, is "an act of Providence meant to save me." Upon reflection, however, Jean judges such reasoning "monstrous and hypocritical." He now feels certain that it is his duty to reveal his identity, regardless of the disastrous personal consequences. His resolve is disturbed, however, as he reflects on the irreparable harm his return to the galleys will mean to so many people who depend upon him for their livelihood -- especially troubling in the case of a helpless woman and her small child to whom he feels a special obligation. He now reproaches himself for being too selfish, for thinking only of his own conscience and not of others. The right thing to do, he now claims to himself, is to remain quiet, to continue making money and using it to help others. The vagabond, he comforts himself, is not a worthy person, anyway. Still unconvinced and tormented by the need to decide, Jean goes to the trial and confesses. Did he do the right thing?

7. A Callous Passerby

Roger Smith, a quite competent swimmer, is out for a leisurely stroll. During the course of his walk he passes by a deserted pier from which a teenage boy who apparently cannot swim has fallen into the water. The boy is screaming for help. Smith recognizes that there is absolutely no danger to himself if he jumps in to save the boy; he could easily succeed if he tried. Nevertheless, he chooses to ignore the boy's cries. The water is cold and he is afraid of catching a cold -- he doesn't want to get his good clothes wet either. "Why should I inconvenience myself for this kid," Smith says to himself, and passes on. Does Smith have a moral obligation to save the boy? If so, should he have a legal obligation ["Good Samaritan" laws] as well?

8. The Last Episode of Seinfeld, not in Grassian.

The cast of Seinfeld , Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, have a layover in a small New England town. They witness a robbery in broad daylight. The robber has his hand in his pocket, and the victim shouts that the man has a gun. As soon as the robber runs away, a policeman appears on the scene; but instead of pursuing the robber, he arrests Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer for having violated the new "Good Samaritan" law of the town. Since the four of them spent the time of the robbery making fun of the victim, who was fat, their role in the matter doesn't look good, and at their trial everyone who has ever felt wronged by them in the course of the television series testifies against them. They are convicted. Is this just? What were they supposed to do during the robbery? Should they have rushed the robber, just in case he didn't really have a gun?

9. A Poisonous Cup of Coffee, with Jane and Debbie added for the sake of gender equality.

Tom[/Jane], hating his[/her] wife[/husband] and wanting her[/him] dead, puts poison in her[/his] coffee, thereby killing her[/him]. Joe[/Debbie] also hates his[/her] wife[/husband] and would like her[/him] dead. One day, Joe's[/Debbie's] wife[/husband] accidentally puts poison in her[/his] coffee, thinking it's cream. Joe[/Debbie] has the antidote, but he[/she] does not give it to her[/him]. Knowing that he[/she] is the only one who can save her[/him], he[/she] lets her[/him] die. Is Joe's[/Debbie's] failure to act as bad as Tom's[/Jane's] action?

10. The Torture of the Mad Bomber. cf. Clint Eastwood's movie, Dirty Harry. Now, however, after 9/11/01, we have the case of terrorist suspects who may know of planned operations that could cost the lives of thousands. The otherwise four-square civil libertarian and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has actually suggested legalized torture to deal with such people.

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, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber's innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?

11. The Principle of Psychiatric Confidentiality, cf. the 1997 movie, Devil's Advocate, and the 1993 movie, The Firm, on confidentiality between lawyers and clients.

You are a psychiatrist and your patient has just confided to you that he intends to kill a woman. You're inclined to dismiss the threat as idle, but you aren't sure. Should you report the threat to the police and the woman or should you remain silent as the principle of confidentiality between psychiatrist and patient demands? Should there be a law that compels you to report such threats?

12. The Partiality of Friendship

Jim has the responsibility of filling a position in his firm. His friend Paul has applied and is qualified, but someone else seems even more qualified. Jim wants to give the job to Paul, but he feels guilty, believing that he ought to be impartial. That's the essence of morality, he initially tells himself. This belief is, however, rejected, as Jim resolves that friendship has a moral importance that permits, and perhaps even requires, partiality in some circumstances. So he gives the job to Paul. Was he right?

13. The Value of a Promise, Compare with the role of David Cash in the murder of Sherrice Iverson by Jeremy Strohmeyer.

A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

14. The Perjured President, not in Grassian.

A long time Governor of a Southern State is elected President of the United States on a platform that includes strong support for laws against sexual harassment. After he is in office, it comes out that he may have used State Troopers, on duty to protect him as Governor, to pick up women for him. One of the women named in the national press stories as having been brought to the Governor for sex felt defamed because she had actually rebuffed his crude advances, even though he had said that he knew her boss -- she was a State employee. She decides to clear her name by suing the now President for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court allows the suit to proceed against the sitting President. Because the sexual harassment laws have been recently expanded, with the President's agreement, to allow testimony about the history of sexual conduct of the accused harasser, the President is questioned under oath about rumors of an affair with a young White House intern. He strongly denies that any sexual relationship had ever taken place, and professes not to remember if he was even ever alone with the intern. Later, incontrovertible evidence is introduced -- the President's own semen on the intern's dress -- that establishes the existence of the rumored sexual relationship. The President then finally admits only to an ambiguous "improper relationship." So the question is: Is it hypocritical of the President and his supporters to continued to support the sexual harassment and perjury laws if they do not want him to be subject to the ordinary penalties for breaking them?