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Ethical Dilemmas

Exploring 10 common conundrums.

Source: ZeevVeez/CC 2.0
Source: ZeevVeez/CC 2.0

One way to improve our ethics is to example arguments on both sides of common ethical dilemmas.

Here are 10. For space, the arguments are truncated but hopefully this article will still serve its purpose: to encourage people to not overweight expediency relative to other considerations, including universal, cosmic justice.

1. Terminate an employee with cancer?

You’re a manager at a nonprofit. Your supervisee has been a planned-giving fundraiser there for five years. Four years ago, his performance was poor because he was undergoing chemotherapy. Since then, it’s improved to average but, in the past few months has declined severely again—He’s raised only half as much money as before. He explains that his cancer has recurred and has spread to his lymph nodes, so he’s in the middle of a six-month round of chemotherapy and his prognosis is not good. He says he prefers to keep working but if you terminate him, he won’t file a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He is his family's sole source of income and his nonprofit salary is modest and so he has little in savings. He’s just getting by. Do you retain him?

An argument for retaining him: Most organizations, but especially nonprofits, espouse putting people above profits. To let him go when he’s been an acceptable performer and now has to endure treatment for recurred cancer would be hypocritical, especially since you know he is his family’s sole support and he's saved little because he’s worked for nonprofits. From a pragmatic standpoint, letting him go would hurt the organization’s morale. Besides, with his cancer having recurred and in his lymph nodes, it’s unlikely he’d want or be able to stay employed for very long. Retaining him would be an appropriate “cost of doing business.”

An argument against retaining him: Less money raised means less services to the many needy people the nonprofit services. He’s only one person. Yes, he’s an employee, but the wise person makes decisions mainly based on what will do the most good, not giving extra consideration to the person in front of you. You can mitigate the toll to staff morale by telling the employees the ethical basis for letting him go and giving them ample opportunity to process it. To help him financially, you might give a generous severance package. That would still save much money compared with keeping him on.

So what would you do? And would your decision be different if it were a small company? A large company? The government?

2. Do you abort your child with Down syndrome?

You’re four months pregnant and an ultrasound reveals your baby will have Down syndrome. Do you keep the baby or abort?

An argument for keeping the baby: To abort a child with Downs is to kill a future person who likely can live a decent life. And from a selfish perspective, Downs children often are unusually sweet.

An argument for aborting the baby: Having a child with Downs will dramatically impede your career and personal life. And if you abort that child, you can choose to have another, who likely will not have the disorder. In either case, you’re bringing one child into the world. Why not bring one who will live a more enriched life and allow you to live yours?

So what would you do?

3. Do you cut into a lane?

Every day, your commute back home requires you to exit from a two-lane road onto a freeway. To do so, you must be in the right lane. But that right lane backs up for two miles, adding 20 minutes to your daily commute. You’re tempted to stay in the left lane, which moves much more quickly and then, right before the freeway on-ramp, cut ahead of the cars that have been waiting the 20 minutes. Do you cut in?

An argument for cutting in: Unlike some of the drivers, you’re exhausted from a full work day and when you get home, you’re going to have the equanimity to break up your kids' fights, be present for your spouse, and so on. To sit in that gridlock for that 20 minutes every day makes you a worse spouse and parent.

An argument for staying in the right lane: Many other people also would be more effective human beings if they didn’t have to sit in that right lane for 20 minutes. Even if your rationale is more compelling than some of theirs, the lesson you give to the other drivers—that selfishness pays—imposes too great a social cost.

So what would you do?

4. Is a salesperson ethically obliged to reveal his product's core weakness?

You sell new Chevys. A prospect is deciding between a Chevy Cruze and a Mazda 3. S/he tells you that reliability is the No. 1 criterion in choosing the car. “I hate getting into my car to go to work and then it won’t start. Or the vulnerability of being on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck." S/he thinks the Chevy is more reliable than the Mazda. You think s/he's wrong but aren’t sure. You’re thinking of checking Consumer Reports and letting the customer know what you find.

An argument for checking and reporting: If you do find that the Mazda is more reliable, you’ll likely save the prospect much anxiety—S/he’ll buy the Mazda, which s/he'll feel more confident in. And the car will, in fact, be less likely to break down. Of course, you can cite any benefits the Chevy has over the Mazda.

An argument for not checking and reporting: It’s unrealistic to expect a salesperson to do research that will likely eliminate the possibility of a sale. If that would be the case, the Chevy salesperson probably will sell few cars. That will both cut the dealer’s income and result in the salesperson getting fired and being less likely to obtain another job to support the family. If in a subsequent job interview, s/he is asked why s/he lost the job and says, “Because I keep doing research for prospective customers that reveals that my company’s cars are inferior,” s/he may never get hired for a sales job and have to train for a new career. It is ethical for a salesperson to not do such research for the customer but rather, listen to their needs and point out any relevant advantages the Chevy has over the Mazda.

So what would you do? Would the customer’s gender, attractiveness, or age affect your decision?

Would your decision be different if the salespersons were pitching for donations for a charity even though s/he suspects a competing charity does more good with the money?

5. When you're desperate, is it worth lying to land a job?

You’re a soft-skilled employee. You’re not technical and have gotten by on being organized and well-liked. After having been laid off, you’ve looked hard for a job but it’s now been 10 months and you've received no offers. You’ve exhausted your savings and are just two months from being unable to pay the rent. You could move back in with your parents but then your child would have to change schools to a worse school. You know that the longer you’re unemployed, the harder it will be to convince an employer to hire you. You’re increasingly viewed as having been picked-over and no one else wants to hire you, so why should they? So you’re wondering if you should lie on your resume and say you’re working and ask your friend if it’s OK to list him as your boss.

An argument for lying: Many jobs require just soft-skills and you’re good at them and so deserve a job, but with that gap in employment, it’s really hard to land one. So if you leave that gap on your resume, you’ll lose your apartment and have to live with your parents, which will be hard on them, and your child having to change schools will mean she’ll get a worse education and be around worse kids, not to mention she’d lose all her current friends. The small lie is more than compensated for by the benefit.

An argument against lying: You’re being unfair to the honest job applicant who thereby would be denied the job. Yes, it’s possible that person needs the job less than you do, but that’s far from certain. Also, the fact that you’ve not been selected despite 10 months of trying suggests that you may not be as worthy an employee as you think. It’s wiser to look inward and to get some honest feedback so you can improve your skills or change careers to one in which you’d more readily be hired.

So what would you do?

6. Is there ever justification for hiding money from your spouse?

You’ve been married for five years and live in a city with a high cost of living. You made nearly all the income and because that has been a real strain, you begged your spouse to find a job: “The stress is killing me!” But it has been to no avail. Your spouse made only half-hearted efforts, which not surprisingly failed. You were quite sure your spouse sabotaged efforts to land a job because s/he didn’t want to work. After three years, you were increasingly sure that the marriage won’t last and so you hid $25,000 by giving it to your mom for safekeeping. Now you’re divorcing and although $75,000 remains in a joint account. a friend tells you to put that $25,000 back in the pot to be divided with your spouse in the divorce settlement.

An argument for putting that $25,000 into the pot: When you decided to marry, you knew the law requires that, in divorce, your spouse get half the money, no matter who earned it. And even if, before marrying, you didn’t know your spouse would earn no income, if that indeed was a deal-breaker, you should have initiated divorce when you realized that, which would have allowed both of you to more quickly move on to a mutually agreeable relationship.

An argument for not putting the $25,000 into the pot: From a universal justice perspective, you deserve that money. You earned it and your spouse, who claimed, in marrying you, to love you forever, despite your begging, "The stress is killing me,” refuses to work, and unless your income is unusually high, it's untenable, after taxes, to live in a major city or suburb on just one income. From that cosmic justice perspective, it is unjust for that non-earner to get $12,500 on top of having been supported for five years, plus the $37,500 s/he’d get from the joint account's assets.

So what would you do?

7. On a dating website, is it ever ethical to make yourself seem younger than you are?

You’re older, been single a long time, and are lonely. You’re frustrated that it seems that all the good potential romantic partners want someone younger. You think, “If only they’d give me a chance, they’d see I bring a lot to a relationship even if I have wrinkles.” So you’re wondering if, like many people, your profile should say you’re younger than you and include only a distant photo so your age isn’t apparent.

An argument for lying about your age: What really counts is what’s inside and if you have to lie to overcome unreasonable ageism, why not? That would result both in you and the other person getting into a good relationship that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred.

An argument against lying: People should be allowed to make choices based on the truth. If a person wants a younger partner because of chemical attraction, is afraid that an older spouse will be culturally different, or get sick sooner, that’s their right. Also, lying about age builds your relationship on a lie, which typically leads to more lies. And all that assumes you don’t get discovered. It’s likely that at the first date, if you look older than your stated age or fuzzy picture implies, the person will distrust you and probably discontinue the relationship even if s/he otherwise enjoyed your company.

So what would you do?

8. Is it always right to be a whistleblower?

Your coworkers routinely pad their expense accounts. Do you blow the whistle?

An argument for telling your boss: Except in unusual circumstances, stealing is unethical. A society in which property is unjustifiably wrested cannot survive. Even if the company makes plenty of money and underpays you, that’s insufficient justification for stealing. The appropriate response is to ask for a raise and/or look for an employer that will treat you better.

An argument for not telling your boss: A few employees padding an expense account has minimal impact on most organizations' bottom line. And study after study shows that whistleblowers normally lose their jobs and have a hard time finding new work. For a relatively venial sin, is it worth jeopardizing your and your family’s financial security? Besides, many organizations and their leaders make far more money than the workers—and that’s unjust. Not ratting on your coworkers is a mere bit of justifiable Robin-Hooding, income redistribution.

So what would you do? Would your decision be different if it were your boss padding his or her expense account? Would it matter if it were a small company, large company, non-profit, or government agency? Why?

9. If you're terminal, do you ever have an obligation to end your life?

You have stage 4 cancer and have poor quality of life. So you’re wondering if you should off yourself.

An argument in favor: Even with co-pays, your family is probably losing its financial security paying for your care, for example in assisted-living or home nursing and domestic help. And the more care people get, the more expensive insurance premiums will be for everyone. Plus, there’s a shortage of doctors, nurses, etc. If it’s spent on hopeless cases, there’s not enough access for people who could profit more. That’s something every war medic knows: Triage is necessary to make the biggest difference. And you know that if you continue with treatment, chances are you’ll need expensive palliative surgery, drugs, etc, and still only live a short, low-quality time. You’re well aware that most people spend the most health care dollars in their life’s last six months.

An argument against: You can’t be expected to be that self-sacrificial. You’re entitled to live as long as you decide is worth it. Society has enough money to pay for good health care. If it chooses to spend on other things, that doesn’t mean you have an obligation to kill yourself. Give yourself a break. You’re suffering enough in your illness. You shouldn’t feel the need to donate your life. The savings to the system would be trivial, and with regard to your family’s spending down their resources, shouldn’t they have the freedom to decide what to do with their money?

So what would you do?

10. Is it ethical to start a business that sells the frivolous, for example, party favors?

You’re thinking of opening a store that sells party goods: Thanksgiving party decorations, New Year's hats and horns, cute plates and napkins. In short, you want to compete with Party City stores and Amazon by providing well-curated stuff, all available to be seen and touched, and with salespeople to help with party planning.

An argument against: You’re devoting your efforts to the silly. When millions of people are starving, being abused and so on, how can you waste your time on crepe paper and noisemakers? And almost all that stuff is made in China, workers paid so little and with bad working conditions--and you, unlike big corporations, can’t check on worker conditions. And when you’re trying to push those pointy party hats and noisemakers with ads or with “good” salespeople, you’re pushing people to part with good money on crap, when the money could be so much more wisely spent.

An argument in favor: Selling anything has pros and cons. To argue against selling party good is to argue against selling anything. The environmental degradation is modest compared with most things people spend money on. And if those party favors aren’t sold, the workers in China or whereever may lose their jobs. And the cost of buying party favors is minor, unlike for example those commercials that push luxury automobiles. In selling party favors, you’re giving people clear pleasure with no downsides, unlike alcohol, tobacco, and yes, weed. Do you really want a world so bleak that they can’t decorate their room for a holiday party? And that party favor store, unlike on Amazon, can provide personalized service, for example, helping the person plan the party, not just what party favors they need but perhaps tips on invitation lists, seating arrangements, etc.

So, if your friend said that he or she wanted to start a party goods store, how would you feel about their ethics?

I read this aloud on YouTube.