What's "Ethical" If All the Decisions Are "Right?"

Throughout June, the Alliance education team was on hand at the Better Business Bureau Integrity Awards training sessions to talk about ethical dilemmas. Check out more about the BBB Integrity Awards (including the application) here

An ethical dilemma is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place: we’re presented with courses of action that are right for different reasons, and each alternative has benefits and costs. The task before us in an ethical dilemma is to choose the “best right.”

An ethical dilemma is NOT when there is one action that is clearly right and one that is clearly wrong. Those situations aren’t “dilemmas” because the right answer is fairly obvious, even if it isn’t always easy to make. 

Today we’re sharing our knowledge of ethical dilemmas and putting your ethical decision-making skills to the test! Consider the following real-life ethical dilemma, one that maybe you have experienced yourself:


Your co-worker Chuck recently returned to the office after being sick for several weeks with pneumonia. As a result, he has fallen a bit behind in his work and is trying to get caught up on several projects. For your part, you've been incredibly productive this quarter; in fact, you’re nearing completion of a very important project that is time sensitive. It will be a huge accomplishment not only for you personally but also for the organization. One day, Chuck approaches you to ask if there is any way you could take some time out of your schedule to help him get caught up with his projects. You're conflicted because you're so close to meeting your own goal and getting a “win” for your organization; if you start taking on other people’s work, you know it will impact this project negatively. On top of that, Chuck has always been a little rude to you and his other co-workers and doesn't always help others when they ask for his assistance.


If this is an ethical “dilemma,” then at least TWO ethical values are in conflict—each course of action is the result of a different ethical value (think of words like freedom, responsibility, respect, loyalty, fairness, honesty, etc.). What are the possible courses of action in this scenario and their corresponding values? 

What steps would you take in order to make this decision? Remember, this is not the same as a threat to an ethical commitment, in which one course of action is clearly right and the other is clearly wrong. Instead, at least two “right” courses of action are in conflict here. How will you decide which right decision to make? What information would you consider and why? 

Are there any creative, outside-the-box options—ones that would ease the conflict of our ethical principles? 

Tell us what you think in the comments! In our next post, we’ll compile your thoughts and follow up with some of our own!