An ethical dilemma is a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another. Sometimes called ethical paradoxes in moral philosophy, ethical dilemmas are often invoked in an attempt to refute an ethical system or moral code, or to improve it so as to resolve the paradox.
Responses to the arguments
These arguments can be refuted in various ways, for example by showing that the claimed ethical dilemma is only apparent and does not really exist (thus is not a paradox logically), or that the solution to the ethical dilemma involves choosing the greater good and lesser evil (as discussed in value theory), or that the whole framing of the problem omits creative alternatives (such as peacemaking), or (more recently) that situational ethics or situated ethics must apply because the case cannot be removed from context and still be understood. See also case-based reasoning on this process. An alternative to situational ethics is graded absolutism.
Perhaps the most commonly cited ethical conflict is that between an imperative or injunction not to steal and one to care for a family that you cannot afford to feed without stolen money. Debates on this often revolve around the availability of alternate means of income or support such as a social safety net, charity, etc. The debate is in its starkest form when framed as stealing food. Under an ethical system in which stealing is always wrong and letting one's family die from starvation is always wrong, a person in such a situation would be forced to commit one wrong to avoid committing another, and be in constant conflict with those whose view of the acts varied.
However, there are no legitimate ethical systems in which stealing is more wrong than letting one's family die. Ethical systems do in fact allow for, and sometimes outline, tradeoffs or priorities in decisions. Some have suggested that international law requires this kind of mechanism to resolve whether World Trade Organization (WTO) or Kyoto Protocol takes precedence in deciding whether a WTO notification is valid. That is, whether nations may use trade mechanisms to complain about climate change measures.
As there are few economies that can operate smoothly in a chaotic climate, the dilemma would seem to be easy to resolve, but since fallacious justifications for restricting trade are easily imagined, just as fallacious justifications for theft are easily imagined at the family level, the seemingly obvious resolution becomes clouded by the suspicion of an illegitimate motive. Resolving ethical dilemmas is rarely simple or clearcut and very often involves revisiting similar dilemmas that recur within societies:
According to some philosophers and sociologists, e.g. Karl Marx, it is the different life experience of people and the different exposure of them and their families in these roles (the rich constantly robbing the poor, the poor in a position of constant begging and subordination) that creates social class differences. In other words, ethical dilemmas can become political and economic factions that engage in long term recurring struggles. See conflict theory and left-wing politics versus right-wing politics.
Design of a voting system, other electoral reform, a criminal justice system, or other high-stakes adversarial process for dispute resolution will almost always reflect the deep persistent struggles involved. However, no amount of good intent and hard work can undo a bad role structure:
Roles within structures
Where a structural conflict is involved, dilemmas will very often recur. A trivial example is working with a bad operating system whose error messages do not match the problems the user perceives. Each such error presents the user with a dilemma: reboot the machine and continue working at one's employment or spend time trying to reproduce the problem for the benefit of the developer of the operating system.
So role structure sabotages feedback and results in sub-optimal results since provision has been made to actually reward people for reporting these errors and problems.
See total quality management for more on addressing this type of failure and governance on how many ethical and structural conflicts can be resolved with appropriate supervisory mechanisms.