What Does Moral Dilemma Mean?

Philosophers as far back as Plato have wrestled near impossible moral questions that test the character of the person making the decision. Today, these questions are known as moral dilemmas. However, centuries of debate still leave many of these dilemmas unsolved.


A moral dilemma is defined as any situation in which the person making the decision experiences a conflict between the moral rightness of a decision and the quality of the results it produces. Many times, these dilemmas involve a morally wrong decision that produces a desirable result, or vice versa. Other times, moral dilemmas involve a decision in which the person is forced to choose only one of two good things.

Historic Examples

One classic example of a moral dilemma is the famous 1842 shipwreck in which the captain was forced to choose between throwing the weak passengers overboard or letting all the passengers drown. The 1982 movie “Sophie’s Choice” portrays another moral dilemma, in which a mother is forced to choose which of her two children would be executed in a concentration camp.

Modern Examples

A family’s difficult decision about whether to take a terminally ill loved one off life support is an example of a modern moral dilemma. Other common dilemmas include good Samaritan situations, for example, a passerby is forced to choose between the convenience of letting a stranger go unaided and the moral obligation to assist someone in need.