The world was stunned recently with the indictment of what was touted to be the modern day Apple of Healthcare- Theranos, led by the extremely suave Elizabeth Holmes. A shrewd lady as she has come out to be understood by all, she was deft in connecting with all the right people in the right places- from politicians to media to investors. It was not possible to build a billion dollar empire without putting several people in jeopardy as regards their jobs and security. Now imagine all those hundreds of employees and stakeholders who knew about her wrongdoings and yet couldn’t open their mouth for fear of being harassed and/or lose their jobs. One can only feel for them as they faced the biggest ethical dilemma of their life- to keep their job or to take on the most notorious seamstress.
Ethics are a totally man made philosophical construct based on what works for everyone without causing harm. That’s why they have been deemed ‘good’. So whatever is opposed to this ‘good’ is unethical and hence not worth pursuing.
When a person stands at a crossroads of two opposing circumstances, one of which he must choose to move ahead, he faces ethical dilemmas. It’s all about making the choice that you weigh the most in favor. These could be in your personal lives, professional or social lives. The Indian epic Mahabharata is a classic example of how ethical dilemmas pose and how people resolve them, some successfully (with less damage) and some otherwise. In Gurcharan Das’ take on the ethical questions of the Mahabharata in a contemporary view in his book ‘The Difficulty OfBeing Good’, Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas asks the eldest one, Yudhishthira, who is an epitome of Dharma or virtue,“Why be good?”. His simple answer is that because that’s the only way to be. If only all ethical dilemmas would be as simple to follow, but the underlying message rings clear in your mind.
Take for instance a woman whose husband is an inconsiderate man. She knows the marriage has no substance but she does not have the wherewithal to move out of such a dud marriage. She cares for her kids whose life would be vulnerable if she decides to move out. That’s an ethical dilemma.
Doctors, Judges, teachers, and we – all face such dilemmas regularly.
The covid pandemic showed us all the worst kind of ethical dilemmas.
– Doctors had to switch off ventilators of patients whom they knew would never regain control without it, so that they could make way for someone who had hopes of survival.
– Owners had to get houses vacated because the tenants could not pay rent even when they knew the family would not find accommodation.
– World leaders had to impose lock-downs knowing very well the consequences of lost jobs and livelihoods.
– And many more..
We make a conscious choice: most of the times which is conventional ‘good’ and some times which is against it. Ethical dilemmas pose a big challenge of choosing between the lesser bad. In case of the example of the woman mentioned above: she knows her relationship is doomed but the choice of putting kids at risk is far worse than suffering alone.
Managers face dilemmas when they have to lay off people because of the company’s bad decisions. Laid off employees suffer. At times they plead. But there’s no other way.
Are all ethical dilemmas genuine?
Short answer: No.
Some are just a result of our lack of timely decisiveness.
Life is but a string of choices we make. Many times we just go with what looks appealing, ignoring what is obvious and what should have been the preferred choice in the long run.
A dilemma arises when you’re unsure about the choice you are presented with and which you have to make. You have to choose either of the two or more options before you. Which means you can choose both. If you can choose both, then it’s not a choice anymore. There is also a differentiation between obligation and prohibition. The former is when you are expected to do something while the latter is when you’re not expected to do. When you’re not permitted to do something, it’s not impossible to overrule that permission if your conscience allows you to.
Tackling Ethical Dilemmas
It is possible to tackle ethical dilemmas when you weigh the lesser of the worse.
Plot a comparison chart and mark each option.
Consult someone whose ethical compass you trust.
Best of all, companies must establish strong code of ethics so that its people do not have to turn to gut feelings in decision making.
Having a strong moral compass that is active at all times helps one during times when you have to make a conscious ethical choice.
Do what you feel is right and it turns out to be good.
As humans progress with artificial intelligence and machine learning, its going to be tougher to teach machines about ethics.
– When machines learn an artist’s way of creating and replicate it, where does copyright stand?
– How can a self-driven car decide when it faces ethical dilemmas while driving?
– Would a robotic surgeon be a tad more gentle with an elderly person that with a young one?
You really don’t know how ethics are going to evolve once machines take over human intelligence.
That does not rule out human decision making, at least in the next few years.
People and companies that have clear set of rules about what they would and would not do in specific circumstances rarely face ethical dilemmas.
Only those who are ambiguous and can lean both ways, that face dilemmas. That leaves us with the only option to weigh your choices and make the one that feels good – to make and to accept without guilt. Ethical dilemmas also leave you with being accountable for your choice or your decision. You can’t just shrug off the consequence saying you had little by way of choice. Having a choice is in itself empowering, for there are several instances when people have none. Use discretion wisely when you face ethical dilemmas. See if you can generate more options. Only then make a choice.
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