Resolving an Ethical Dilemma: 5 Approach

Although it may not be possible to resolve an ethical dilemma in a perfect manner, individuals and institutions will have to take a decision in such situations. Such a decision must be based on a reasonable justification for choosing one course of action over another. As such, there are five broad approaches that can be considered, each with a fundamental justification but also a corresponding limitation. While taking a decision, one or a combination of these approaches can be used. The more the number of approaches satisfied by a decision, the closer it comes to being ideal.

The Utilitarian Approach

This approach believes that an ideal decision should produce the greatest good or the least harm for the greatest number i.e. it creates the greatest balance of good over harm. As such, it offers a relatively simple, binary justification for choosing one course of action over another. This approach is especially useful in situations where multiple groups have competing claims. For instance, it can be used to justify forced displacements, preventive detention, torture, and even capital punishment.

However, it may not always be possible to estimate the true benefits and costs involved in a decision. More importantly, this approach is inherently ends-based and does not allow for adequate scope for considering the means being employed. As such, it may overlook concerns regarding justice, liberties, dignity and rights.

The Rights Approach

This approach believes that an ideal decision is one that best protects and respects the rights of all the stakeholders. It is based on the belief that all humans (and even animals) have certain inviolable rights that must be preserved. Therefore, they have a right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends.

However, this approach may sometimes over-emphasize the individual at the expense of the system. There may be situations where the social or economic costs that result from upholding an individual’s rights may be too high. In such situations, the rights of an individual may need to be reasonably restricted for larger public welfare e.g. the suspension of even fundamental rights during an emergency.

The Justice Approach

This approach states that equals should be treated equally and unequal to be unequal. In other words,
individuals should be treated as the same unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved. For instance, affirmative action is based upon the desire to provide disadvantaged sections an equal platform.

However, determining what constitutes a just decision is not easy. An element of subjectivity is unavoidable, making it difficult to arrive at standardized and quantitative parameters e.g. wage determination, assignment of duties and responsibilities, etc.

The Common Good Approach:

This approach believes that an ideal decision is one that promotes general conditions that are equal to everyone’s advantage i.e. a decision that serves the entire system and not just certain sections. The utility of this approach is especially high in areas where social participation is important, such as in promoting peace, environmental concerns, public hygiene, demilitarisation, tax compliance, etc.

However, in a diverse system of individuals and nations, determining what would constitute a common good is not easy. There is also the problem of the “free-rider”, referring to those who want to enjoy the benefits of the common good but are unwilling to contribute. Further, promoting common welfare may require individuals or nations to share burdens unequally or to make sacrifices. This becomes especially difficult in a system that promotes individualistic tendencies.

The Virtue Approach:

This approach believes that an ideal decision should be consistent with the highest humanitarian values such as honesty, loyalty, courage, compassion, sacrifice, etc. This promotes not only the individual’s long-term welfare but also multiplies into overall social welfare.

However, the fundamental problem is that this approach depends upon self-direction, self-regulation and a strong moral character. When individuals, societies or nations do not have a strong character and an internal locus of control, they are vulnerable to external stimulus. In such circumstances, implementing this approach is extremely difficult.

5 Approach for Resolving An Ethical Dilemma

Utilitarian ApproachDoes this decision produce the most good and do the least harm?
Rights ApproachDoes this decision best respect the rights of all who have a stake?
Justice ApproachDoes this decision best respect the rights of all who have a stake?
Common Good ApproachDoes this decision serve the community as a whole, not just some sections?
Virtue ApproachDoes this decision portray me as the sort of person I want to be and be seen as?
5 Approach for Resolving An Ethical Dilemma

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