Moral Moment or Ethical Dilemma?

by Michael C Kelly, MA

Moral moments differ from ethical dilemmas. 

A moral moment? If we're eating at a restaurant, do we fill our pockets with the remaining, unopened condiments on the table to stockpile at home for later consumption? There is a right answer and a wrong answer. Simple, a clear choice, a moral moment. Even ordinary actions like this contain moral questions we either respect or deny (to paraphrase John Ralston Saul).1 Do the right thing and we sleep well at night.

An ethical dilemma? Imagine a vegetarian. She sits at the table of a dear friend and is served a succulent meal consisting of home-raised, roasted lamb and factory-raised, barbecued chicken wings. Does she eat heartily, compromising her vegetarian values, or refuse and risk offending her friend? It really doesn't matter which way she decides, she will experience some sort of philosophical (compromised values) or emotional (strained friendship) pain. Here we have a not-so-clear choice, a moral moment containing a dilemma.2 The exceptional actions taken in these intensified moments derive from stressful questions we struggle to respect or deny.   



1. See Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter's CompanionToronto: Penguin Books, 1995. [Quick, pick this gem up and immediately put it in your bathroom. It is "a dictionary of aggressive common sense." So, while on the throne, why not read a few short quips?]

2. Dilemma: A noun referring to a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones. OAD

© 2011  Michael C Kelly