Ethical dilemmas: the lesser of two evils, the greater of two goods

c62d27794d6f7bdaaf1d3f049b54f83aI have recently embarked on a new learning journey to explore and better understand the field of ethics – as the issues of morality were becoming increasingly pertinent to my study, learning about moral philosophy emerged as an unavoidable – and a highly desirable! – necessity. My quest for an inspiring educational resource on the subject has brought me to Coursera – an online education platform which offers courses from the world’s leading universities and institutions to all avid learners for free. There are hundreds of courses in various disciplines with diverse and engaging content, which includes anything from video lectures and interactive quizzes to assessed forum discussions and peer-graded assignments. Thanks to this amazing learning platform, I could feel myself a fresher again – it is the end of my first week as a student on a virtual course called Unethical Decision Making in Organizations. Offered by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, the course addresses the issue of ethical dilemmas and the impact of surrounding contexts on individuals’ moral decision-making. Its goal is to equip the students with analytical skills to assess ethical decisions not in isolation, but as embedded in various circumstances that exert powerful impact on people’s moral behavior. Although the course focuses primarily on explaining unethical decisions, I feel that the framework it offers is equally valuable for a better understanding of ethical actions, since the latter are just as tied to specific situations as the former. The primary learning objective – to understand the effect of societal contexts on individual moral reasoning and decision-making – is especially relevant to my study on ethical consumption, more so in the light of my first empirical findings. Moreover, the content of the course is drawn from a variety of disciplines, including management, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, and will therefore provide a comprehensive framework to analyze the issue of ethics both in theory and in praxis.

Despite being introductory, this week has been full of exciting learning activities – several video lectures introducing the concept of evil and ethical dilemmas, forum discussions on related topics, a writing assignment, and more. I was immediately drawn to an assessed forum thread where we had to come up with an example of an ethical dilemma and post it on a discussion board. One observation struck me while I was skimming through hundreds of posts presenting various ethical dilemmas – some hypothetical, some referring to real life situations. Thus, it appears that people tend to think of ethical dilemmas as situations that necessarily involve a transgression of some moral value, some sort of moral wrongdoing, whichever of the possible options is chosen. Having come to the forum with the baggage of my research findings, I felt the urge to challenge this commonly accepted understanding of the nature of ethical dilemmas.

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Ethical dilemmas are, as my study participants kept stressing, part and parcel of responsible shopping. Indeed, commitment to ethical consumption requires individuals to choose which specific moral value to uphold and which kind of moral good to promote: one can choose fair trade thereby furthering social justice and aiding third-world farmers, or go for organic to sustain environmental well-being; one can support local producers by shopping at a farmer’s market, or go to a chain store in search of certified sustainable seafood. One specific example from my observations of participants’ shopping is that of a lady who, standing in front of a shelf with several packs of sultanas, was struggling to choose between the ones imported from Turkey (opt for less food mileage?…) and those shipped from Africa (…or support developing countries?). This might be an ethical dilemma of a somewhat different kind – not about the lesser of the two evils, but about the greater of the two goods – but it may not be any easier to solve. On the surface it seems like not facing an option which would involve causing harm or suffering to anyone makes it an easy game to play, but for people with strong moral commitments the choice can still be hard. Going back to a specific consumption example – do you prefer to help developing countries by buying fair trade or support your community by shopping at a local grocery? If you think in terms of higher order moral principles then the choice is not so obvious – in other words, if helping those who are in need is your ethical commitment then choosing between two needy groups can be very challenging. The ubiquity of consumers’ confessions about the struggles involved in solving such moral conundrums suggests to me that the concept of an ethical dilemma should be extended to include not just the “good versus bad”, but “one good versus another” type of decisions as well.

All in all, I am enjoying the course and look forward to more mental riddles about moral puzzles – I’ll keep writing about the most useful insights that I am sure the course will offer. In conclusion, I’d like to make a brief mention of another very useful resource on the philosophy of ethics – a series of video lectures called “A Romp through Ethics for Complete Beginners” by Marianne Talbot of Oxford University. It’s been of immense help in terms of getting my head around moral philosophy and different theories of ethics, and I very much recommend it. Check out this link for the first lecture of the series!

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