What does dilemma mean

Moral dilemma

Does embryonic stem cell research pose moral dilemmas? What is a dilemma anyway?

Dilemma literally means something like "tweak". Originally the expression belongs in the field of logic. Today, the word dilemma is often used in the general sense of a predicament. Anyone facing a dilemma has to choose between (at least) two equally unpleasant or unacceptable alternatives.

Moral dilemma

Moral dilemmas are a special form of moral conflict. Strictly speaking, a moral dilemma is when in a situation

  • at least two goods, rights or interests are at stake,
  • no absolute priority rules exist,
  • both goods, rights or interests in question cannot be realized, protected or fulfilled at the same time, i.e. there is no third way that would allow both (or all of the obligations in question) to be met, and
  • it is not possible to weigh the goods, rights or interests at stake against each other.

In particular, two different reasons can be given for the impossibility of weighing up the interests. One can either be of the opinion that the competing goods, rights or interests are not being weighed against one another can. Anyone who nevertheless tries to weigh up the interests, so the argument goes, is trying to compare apples with pears. But one can also be of the opinion that the goods at stake are not weighed against one another allowed to. This could be the case, for example, because the goods, rights or interests of different, incomparable people are involved, who each count morally for themselves and whose claims must not be "offset" against one another.

Whether one considers moral dilemmas in this form to be possible depends, among other things, on the ethical conception one advocates. Some ethical approaches, such as utilitarianism, deny that real dilemmas are possible.

An example: Sophie's decision

An example of a moral dilemma can be found in the novel "Sophie's Decision":

A Jewish woman has two children, a girl and a boy. A Nazi henchman gives her the choice of either sending both children to certain death or choosing one of them to go on living - if she refuses this decision, both of her will be taken away from her.

Sophie is guilty one way or another: Either she has to do the greatest possible injustice to one of her children by sacrificing it for the benefit of the other child - or she has to allow both children to die even though she could have saved one with a single word. The choice between the alternatives is psychologically very stressful for the person concerned. Sophie later takes her own life because she cannot cope with her decision.

Other moral conflicts

Fortunately, not all moral conflicts take the form of a dilemma. A moral dilemma in the narrower sense, for example, must be distinguished from the much more frequent internal conflicts that one gets into when one has to choose between “duty” and “inclination”.

An example of such a conflict:

Your friend has been promised to help prepare for a test; but one has much more desire to laze around instead. If I choose to be lazy, I feel guilty - if I choose to keep my promise, I have to put my own desires aside.

Those affected can experience such conflicts as very stressful if much is at stake. This may be the case, for example, when you have to decide whether you want to remain decent in a certain situation, even if you are jeopardizing your entire professional career.