Real-Life Ethical Dilemmas

We sometimes face complex situations with no clear right choice. What should Christians do when confronted with spiritual, moral or ethical dilemmas?

Have you ever been in a lose-lose situation? Or a catch-22? Or even, dare we say, a jam or a pickle? How about a Kobayashi Maru (for all the Star Trek fans)? Ever been between a rock and a hard place? Have you ever had to choose between the lesser of two evils?

Whatever idiom we use to label the experience, we no doubt have all had dilemmas in our lives in which there seemed to be no way to do the right or ethical thing. No pros, all cons. No saving grace or silver lining, only a seemingly impossible choice.

There can be many reasons we find ourselves in these types of situations:

  • We are trying to protect our loved ones, or even strangers, from harm or suffering.
  • We have limited time, limited resources and limited information for making a decision.
  • We want to keep ourselves from harm or suffering, as well as hardship.
  • We see a possible threat to our family’s basic human needs, and we have to react.

The trolley dilemma

Perhaps the most famous ethical dilemma in psychology literature today is the “trolley dilemma” developed by the philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 (“Would You Kill One Person to Save Five?”).

There have been several variations over the years, but the gist is this: An out-of-control trolley is careening toward five people who are tied to the track. You have a lever and are able to change the course of the trolley to another track, which would kill only one innocent bystander.

What do you do?

Situational ethics

Human beings have come up with various approaches to the dilemmas that pop up in our lives. One of the most popular is referred to as situational ethics or moral relativism.

This view asserts that there is no objective or universal moral law or code of ethics, and so morality and ethics need to change to meet the situation, not the other way around.

Christian ethics

Christians understandably have a big problem with the situational ethics way of thinking.

For starters, we believe that God has a universal moral law, so whoever breaks that law commits sin (1 John 3:4). Therefore, no matter the situation Christians find themselves in, they are responsible to try their best to imitate Jesus Christ in loving God and loving others, which is the fulfillment of God’s law (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10). Showing love is demonstrated by keeping God’s commandments, which were given for our good (1 John 5:3; Deuteronomy 10:13). This doesn’t change according to culture, human law or situation.

Knowing this, Christians believe that there is an objective, black-and-white code of right and wrong: the truth of God’s Word (John 17:17). What we may think of as gray areas in our lives can be made clear by the application of that truth.

The Bible shows how God deals with what has been done right and what has been done wrong. His laws and His expectations have not changed, though we can be eternally grateful that He shows His abundant mercy by wiping away our past sins when we wholeheartedly repent (Psalm 103:10).

We often look at ethical, moral or spiritual dilemmas as difficult gray areas between the black and white of right and wrong. But the following insights into how to resolve our various dilemmas, and the corresponding examples, can help us shine a light into these seemingly gray areas.

Consider two overall principles for dealing with real-life ethical dilemmas:

1. Base ethical decision making on reality and truth, not hypothetical situations.

Take the trolley dilemma as an example. Think of the canned and structured nature of the hypothetical situation: out-of-control trolley, five people randomly tied to the track, and one innocent who just happens to be haplessly standing in the way on the other track.

Though this hypothetical situation is extremely unlikely to happen to you, it is fair to consider that these types of “sacrifice the one to save the many” situations do happen in real life. Such dilemmas can come up in military conflicts, medical triage units during disasters, and so forth.

In such horrible, real-life situations, moral relativism may become more and more appealing, since there is seemingly no good answer. But framing these situations in the same way hypotheticals are framed can ignore other valid solutions.

Hypotheticals are not real life. In the hypothetical, there is no possibility that the people tied up might find some way to untie themselves, or that the man on the other track may find some way to get out of the way or be warned of the coming trolley. There is a forced binary, with absolutely no question that you have to do one of two evil things in order to serve the “greater good.”

Christians believe that there is a God they can pray to for wisdom, who can miraculously intervene or guide them to the best decision.

On the other hand, Christians also recognize that there is someone who constantly wants human beings to be stuck in thinking that they couldn’t possibly do something that would align with God’s burdensome commandments. That someone is Satan the devil (Revelation 12:9). He is a master at creating situations in our lives where it can seem like there is absolutely no way out without sinning. He wants us to believe we have no choice.

In order to prepare for these situations, we should not be using hypotheticals as our guide. We should be using God’s truth in the Bible.

What did Jesus do?

Here are two examples from Jesus Christ’s life that show how He navigated seemingly no-win situations without sinning:

  • A woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus. The self-righteous and hypocritical crowd who brought her to Him thought that if He didn’t condemn her to death, they would be able to accuse Him of not supporting God’s law, and that if He did condemn her to death, they would be able to discredit His message of repentance and forgiveness. (Notice that the crowd brought only the woman caught in adultery, not the man.) What did Jesus do? He told the crowd that anyone without sin should be the first to stone her. Of course, no one but Jesus was without sin. After the crowd dispersed, rather than stone her, He told the woman to go and sin no more (John 8:1-11).
    • The woman had committed adultery (sin, black and white), and Christ could see the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the crowd (sin, black and white). However, Christ turned the impossible binary choice into an unforeseen third option by showing mercy and asking for personal reflection.
  • Some men tried to get Jesus to say that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes to Caesar. They were trying to entangle Him, since they thought either He would have to tell them to stop following the law of the land and paying taxes to Caesar (rebellion) or He would be seen as a respecter of men (showing partiality) and not a real King. What did He do? He asked for a coin and told them to pay what was owed to the earthly king pictured on the coin, but also to give what is owed to God (Matthew 22:15-22).
    • Disobeying governmental laws that do not directly conflict with the laws of God is a sin, black and white. Respecting earthly kings over God is a sin, black and white. However, Christ turned this seemingly binary choice into an unforeseen third option by completely reframing the question and answer.

Therefore, when no-win situations do come up, let’s not be too hasty in thinking we have no choice. We can pray and seek an unforeseen third option based on mercy, reflection or reframing. We do not have to be trapped in the box of a no-win hypothetical.

2. When we do end up making an unethical decision, we should repent and avoid rationalizations.

Many times in our lives we will feel this great pressure and end up doing one of those “lesser evils.” We are human and we mess up; it is inevitable. God is ready and willing to forgive us when we repent and strive to not do it again (1 John 1:9).

When we accept that sin is never the best option, our decision can become easier. Discernment (knowing what is good and what is evil and how to deal with tricky situations) is developed through careful and constant obedience.But, if we rationalize and say we had no choice, not taking responsibility for our part in the decision-making process, we are basically saying that we have not done anything wrong. (Realize that the lesser of two evils is still evil.)

Expressing remorse and wanting to not ever do something like that again looks and sounds a lot better than stubbornly making our point and thinking, “If the same thing happened again, I would do the exact same thing.”

When ethical, moral and spiritual dilemmas come up, we must resolve to avoid including sin in our list of options. The minute we put sin on the table of options, we start to think things like: “Well, I can always repent of it later, and God will forgive me.” This is dangerous because it makes sin routine and normal, rather than what it should be seen as in a Christian’s life: the cause of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

Planning to sin in some situation is far different from planning to succeed and then failing. Planning to sin is literally planning to fail.

When we accept that sin is never the best option, our decision can become easier. Discernment (knowing what is good and what is evil and how to deal with tricky situations) is developed through careful and constant obedience (Hebrews 5:14; Ephesians 5:8-10, 15-17). It can also be enhanced by seeking wise counsel.

Real-life examples of ethical dilemmas

Think of some familiar dilemmas and how this applies:

  • We are in legal and financial troubles. Lying will help us get out of them, but lying is wrong (Exodus 20:16). I need to protect and provide for my family and make sure they are okay. I have no choice. I’ll lie and repent later.
    • Where’s the justice and love for those we lie to? Where is the repentance and seeking God’s help? Where is the search for other solutions?
  • My manager tells me to wear a pin on my work uniform that denotes an ideological or activist stance that the company is supporting but that the Bible says is wrong. I know that doing so would cause people to think I support that cause (which I don’t). I will never be able to find another job that works around my schedule. I don’t want people to think I am hateful of anyone. I have no choice. I will go along with what my boss wants and repent later.
    • Where’s the faith that God will take care of us? Where is the resourcefulness to seek a different solution?
  • The classic self-defense dilemma: There’s a person threatening my loved ones’ lives, and I need to keep them safe. To do that, I’ll have to commit [some horrific thing] to save my loved ones. I’ll do it and repent of it later.
    • Where’s the line for objective morality? Would we torture children if we knew it would save our family? Would we enslave an entire race if it cured cancer? Would we even have any “red line” for morality anymore, or would we simply justify anything we want and then say it was for the greater good?
  • My boss says I have to work on the Sabbath or I’ll get fired. I believe that the Sabbath is holy time (Exodus 20:8), but I need to support my family, and I help the community through my job. I have no choice. I’ll work on the Sabbath and repent of it later.
    • Where’s the discernment? Where’s the spiritual reframing? Where’s the reliance on God and the search for outside-the-box solutions?

With all of these ethical dilemmas, we get the feeling that sin is the huge viable option on the table, due to the urgency and pressure we feel. We sin and pick the lesser of two evils many times in our lives. What we do then is important.

Do we resolve to do the right thing every time from then on, or do we constantly look at sin as an out? Do we repent after every mistake and poor ethical decision, or do we blame others and rationalize away our guilt for what has happened? It matters to God, and it should matter to us.

Use a godly, ethical decision-making framework

When no-win ethical dilemmas come up in our lives that make the black and white of the truth and God’s law look a little gray, we must not look to outlandish hypotheticals and sin for a viable option to respond to them.

We must look to God’s framework of using prayer, wisdom, counsel, discernment, mercy, personal reflection and spiritual reframing of physical circumstances in order to make right ethical and moral decisions.

For further study, see “A World Adrift With No Moral Compass,” “Are Good Morals Good Enough?” and “Gray Areas in Life: When the Right Decision Isn’t Obvious.”

About the Author

Eddie and Shannon Foster

Eddie and Shannon Foster

Eddie (a school speech-language pathologist) and Shannon (a former school counselor) Foster are members of the Cincinnati/Dayton, Ohio, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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