Ethical Dilemmas

(The Algorithm)

by Michael C Kelly, MA


What would you do if you were faced with an ethical dilemma? How would you go about solving it? To answer this, let's explore a few points - definitions, processes and recommendations.

A. Definitions

What exactly is an ethical dilemma? This can be a tricky question to answer, especially if you are steeped in the traditions of philosophy. Suffice it to say it is a no-win moral moment. It is a moment when you need to make a choice between two moral options and no matter what choice you make, there will be a measure of unpleasantness involved. There are still rights and wrongs - so there is some consolation - but the choices are not comfortable ones. Why? Because a choice will need to be made between two moral imperatives. For example, do I lie to protect someone from harm, or do I allow the harm so as not to lie?

Let's use a workplace-related example. 

Imagine you are a new supervisor. Your boss comes to you and demands you discipline one of your employees for leaving early. You did not actually see your employee leave early and know that without the specifics around the action you are open to a rough time from the union stewards, the grievance process and possibly a governmental labour board. Could you be called to account and possibly fined or charged with unfair treatment. Then again, if you don't discipline, you subject yourself to the wrath of your boss. Will the boss discipline me for insubordination? Could I lose my job? 

What do you do? Risk it with the labour authorities or with your boss?

Situations like this, where you are at odds with the actions of your boss, can be difficult. In fact, in our workplaces we tend to see these kinds of difficulties in four key areas.

1. Peer capabilities

Let's say, for example, you witness your co-worker doing something illegal and unsafe. You have an excellent working relationship with them and in fact depend on their knowledge to get you through tough situations. But what do you do about the illegal and unsafe act? Do you report the co-worker according to the laws of the land and risk the health of your working relationship? Or do you let it go and risk having your co-worker injured or worse?

2. Confidentiality

Imagine your best friend and co-worker in your organization comes to you with a rumour. According to your friend there is evidence that someone in the organization is about to commit a serious infraction by doing something illegal, immoral or life endangering. The rumour was shared with you in confidence. What do you do? Report the pending infraction and lose a friend? Don't bother reporting and let the infraction happen?

3. Direct authority conflicts

How about the supervisor's boss who asked an employee be disciplined - the work-related example cited earlier? 

4. Organizational conflicts

Consider an employer who insists their personnel dress in a manner some deem to be inappropriate, i.e servers with short skirts or revealing shirts.  Now, let's say you are asked to dress in this manner. Your cultural or moral upbringing does not allow this kind of dress. Doing so compromises your values. Not doing so compromises your job. What do you do?

These are simple examples and the solutions may seem obvious but the point is made. It doesn't matter what action you take, there could be unpleasant consequences for you.

So, what do you do? What process can you follow?

B. Process and Recommendations

Dealing with moral or ethical dilemmas requires a bit of critical and self reflective thinking. Work your way through the algorithm below to address your ethical dilemmas.


ethics algorithm


  1. From a process perspective, ask if you have a code. One simple guiding code for me (for use in my workplaces, families and with friends) is to set an illegal, immoral or life threatening boundary. If an issue or action violates or threatens to violate the boundary, I’ll be taking a stand. Recommendation? Once you’ve established the boundary, tell everyone - your friends, your family, your staff. There should be no surprises in your moral compass.


  1. Does the code work all the time? Is it useful in all situations? Hard to say. No two moral situations are exactly alike and some can get complicated. Reading about ethical dilemmas can be a useful process to go through in demonstrating how codes come into play in particular situations. So too can your experiences. So give these a try: 
  • Examine your life, good or bad. Reflect on and construct your encounters with situations and people in a manner that offers helpful moral life lessons? Relate two or more encounters to see if there are common themes.
  • Use your critical thinking skills to develop sensibilities. What have you come to appreciate about the situations or the people involved in your life? What have you learned?
  • Now, how can you build this into your code? In what way will your learning inspire rational thought and cause positive, authentic expressions of feeling? It what way has your moral compass improved?


  1. Look for support. Seek out mentors or wise friends to share your thoughts and ideas. You don’t need to necessarily take their advice, just prudently develop a trusting, nonjudgmental sounding board. Even so, your situation could be so difficult and complicated that you will need to stand alone. Always remember it can get lonely sometimes.


If the above three processes and suggestions don’t pan out, then there’s one last bit of hope. Sometimes luck takes over. There are times when things simply turn out fine, influenced by outside factors or elements beyond the control of ourselves. It wouldn’t be prudent to rely on this “luck" all the time, but sometimes life just works out that way.


© 2011  Michael C Kelly