Philosophical Discussion: Ethical Dilemmas

One of my favourite non-geeky topics is the ethical or moral dilemma: a hypothetical situation into which you must place yourself, where within the dilemma you must make a decision. The decision may be irrevocable, and it may be that you are not so much forced to choose between a right decision and a wrong one, but what harm should fall upon whom, and under what justification.

I present here a handful of moral dilemmas, beginning with one which has become an academic classic. I would appreciate discussion.

Sophie's Choice

The term comes from the movie and novel of the same name. Sophie, a mother, arrives at the death camp Auschwitz during the Holocaust. She has two children with her. A sadistic doctor informs Sophie that she has a choice. Only one of her children can come in with her. The other is to be taken away and killed immediately. She has only a short time to make a decision, or the soldiers will come in and kill them both before her eyes.

The pain of this choice comes from deciding which of two equally loved offspring one would have to part with. The choice is between two unbearable outcomes, and choosing to refuse is not an option because it would result in both children dying.

Another kind of example of this kind of dilemma is the Miners Dilemma:-

Miners Dilemma

You are a mining engineer sent in to rescue some miners trapped inside a collapsed mine network. You determine that the mine is slowly flooding, and that the miners are trapped in two groups in two separate branches of the mine. You cannot reach both branches in time: you can only rescue the miners in one of those branches.

The left branch only has one miner; the right branch, eight miners.

Which branch would you go after?


As above, but you have to flood one of the branches in order to save the other. This is a more critical version of the dilemma, because unlike Sophie faced with a passive choice, you are the agency of the death of the miner or miners in the branch you condemn to death.

Mad Bomber

A madman who has threatened to explode several bombs in crowded areas has been apprehended. Unfortunately, he has already planted the bombs and they are scheduled to go off in a short time. It is possible that hundreds of people may die. The authorities cannot make him divulge the location of the bombs by conventional methods. He refuses to say anything and requests a lawyer to protect his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination. In exasperation, some high level official suggests torture. This would be illegal, of course, but the official thinks that it is nevertheless the right thing to do in this desperate situation. Do you agree? If you do, would it also be morally justifiable to torture the mad bomber’s innocent wife if that is the only way to make him talk? Why?

Command Decision Required

This dilemma turned up in an episode of Star Trek. You are a commanding officer on board a military vehicle (in this case, the fictional Starship Enterprise) and you are faced with imminent destruction of the vessel with all hands, unless you are able to prevent a warp core breach.

The problem is, to seal off that warp core breach means having to send a crew member, who trusts you implicitly, into a room where he will almost certainly be killed, even if he does succeed in sealing the core breach there.

You are faced with a choice from two crewmen. One is not so close to you, but only has a 50% chance of sealing the core breach in time. The other is closer to you than family, and has a 100% chance of sealing the core breach in time. However, whichever you send in stands a 95% chance of dying in the act of sealing the core breach.

You only have time to send in one crewman. Whom do you choose?

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"And if we have unearned luck, now to scape the serpent's tongue, we will make amends ere long. Else the Puck a liar call ..."

So speak.