In his book How Good People Make Tough Choices, Rushworth Kidder defines an ethical dilemma as a choice between two rights. Different from a moral temptation, an ethical dilemma presents two choices that are equally right. For example, it can be argued that an employee of a company has a right to do what they wish when they are not at work; however, it can also be argued that company drug testing policies aimed at protecting all employees of a company are equally right. Unfortunately, a random drug test could detect drug use of an employee from the night before their shift and now two right choices come into conflict.
Four Paradigms for Ethical Dilemmas
Kidder argues that there are four types of ethical dilemmas. If a dilemma does not fit into at least one of these categories, then it is a moral temptation.
Individual versus. Community – the question of random drug testing fits into this category. On the one hand it is important to protect the rights of the individual, but in doing so we also want to protect the right of the many. The founding fathers of the American democracy wrestled with this question in creating our Constitution. Is it possible to balance the rights of the individual AND the rights of the many?
For example, HIPAA was passed in by the U.S. Congress in 1996 providing standards for the protection of individual health information. This law prevents irrational employment decisions like the AIDS scare in the 1980s when people with AIDS were fired or discriminated against because of the unfounded fear of contagion. However if an employee’s health issues provide an actual threat to others in the workplace, the workforce at large has the right to know about the possible threat to their safety.
Short Term vs. Long Term – looks at the benefit of short-term gains versus the effect of those gains in the long term.
This question is debated in the field of marketing. Many believe marketing objectives need to be both short and long term. That is, marketing needs to provide a reasonable return on investment in the short term so that the business can remain profitable; however, in doing so it is important not to damage the long-term reputation of the organisation or brand.
Justice vs. Mercy – most people have a desire to see justice served; however, the feelings of mercy and empathy are equally right.
At the age of 80, John Rigas one of the founders of Adelphia Communications and majority stakeholder in the Buffalo Sabers was forced to resign the position as CEO after being indicted for bank, wire and securities fraud. Essentially Rigas used Adelphia as a personal “piggy bank” and this led to the destruction of one of the nation’s largest communication companies and the small town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania where Adelphia was one of the town’s only employers. In a case like this justice is demanded for the harm that was caused. However, most employees of Adelphia liked Rigas and felt that Rigas’s punishment was too harsh. Perhaps this is because some desire that justice should be tempered with mercy.
Truth vs. Loyalty – the final type of dilemma is perhaps one of the murkiest. Children are taught to always tell the truth, but friends and family also teach the importance of loyalty. Balancing the two rights can be tough.
Sherron Watkins of Enron must have been caught in a tough ethical dilemma. Realising the “creative accounting” going on at Enron, Watkins was forced to make a choice between the truth by blowing the whistle on the legal accounting practices at Enron or remaining loyal to the company. In 2002, Watkins started a chain reaction that would ultimately bring down Enron.
Making Decisions Using the Ethical Paradigms
When facing tough choices, the first step is to determine whether the dilemma is a moral temptation or an ethical dilemma. Armed with this knowledge it becomes possible to make the best choice possible. When faced with an ethical dilemma, Kidder argues that it is generally best to chose in favour of the community over the individual, the long term over the short term, mercy over justice and the truth over loyalty. However, simply using these general guidelines may not be effective since they do not take in to account the consequences of the decisions.