Professional and Alumni

A Matter of Ethics

Ethical Dilemmas

From Ethical Dimensions of the Scholar, a professional development module for 1989-91 Kappa Omicron Phi and Omicron Nu Program Theme, developed by Dorothy I. Mitstifer, 1989.


Purpose: This activity will apply ethical reasoning steps to ethical dilemmas to develop a course of action.

Materials Needed:  Handouts - Ethical Principles, Ethical Reasoning Steps, Case Studies: Ethical Dilemmas

Detailed Procedural Steps:

  1. Form groups of 5-8 persons (if total group is small, 3-4).
  2. Using the worksheet and a case study of an ethical dilemma, apply the ethical reasoning steps to respond to the situation in an ethical manner.
  1. Reflect on the meaning of the activity. Direct participants to think for a few minutes and then share with the small group: I learned that . . . I noticed that . . . I had difficulty with . . . I discovered that . . . .
  2. Share cases and ethical decisions with the large group.

Synergizing (Facilitator presentation of mini-lecture)


This activity used a four-step procedure (Goodwin, 1985) as a basic tool for reasoning about moral dilemmas, and then a course of action was determined. You didn't find black and white answers; you didn't know whether you were choosing the right action. That's frustrating.

There are no predetermined answers in most difficult ethical cases. The difficulty we feel is not a matter of ignorance about what is obviously the correct solution. (Goodwin, 1985, p. 8)

Rest (1982) concluded that there are four components of moral behavior:

  1. Interpreting the situation - In other words, the individual is aware that there is an ethical dilemma, that the situation has the potential to (or does) violate moral behavior.
  2. Formulating a course of action - The individual uses ethical reasoning to make a decision about what to do.
  3. Deciding what one actually intends to do - Although the individual knows the ideal course of action, there are usually competing values. This component has to do with committing to the moral value above all others.
  4. Implementing what one intends to do - The individual has the ego strength and social skills to execute good intentions.

Failure to behave morally can result from deficiencies in any of the four components . . . . Moral development entails gaining proficiency in all these . . . processes (Rest, 1982, p. 29). 


Goodwin, L. (1985, Fall) Ethical theory in the practical context. SCAN, 6-8.

Rest, J. R. (1982). A psychologist looks at the teaching of ethics. The Hastings Center Report, 12(1), 29-36.

Thiroux, J. (1986). Ethics: Theory and practice. London: Collier McMillan.

Ethical Principles

The following principles (Thiroux, 1986) are guidelines for regulating ethical behavior.

  1. Value of Life - Human life has inviolable sanctity. . . . "it is always wrong to act in a way which directly intends to harm or to kill an innocent human person". (Goodwin, 1985, p. 7).
  2. Goodness or Rightness - Ethical decisions should involve the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. Doing good, in addition to refraining from doing evil, is required so that the consequences are good for the individual and for society.
  3. Justice or Fairness - This principle relates to equality of treatment and fair distribution of benefits and burdens among members of society.
  4. Truth-telling or Honesty - Although ethical action should be based on the truth, this principle is complicated by issues related to who has a right to the truth and whether or not it is appropriate to withhold it. When do you know you have all of the facts and can determine what is true? Confidentiality (contact-keeping), related to honesty and individual freedom, poses its own set of complications: What do you do when human welfare conflicts with confidentiality? When do you break a promise?
  5. Individual Freedom - Ethical decisions should consider the principle of self-determination. ". . . treat human beings as ends in themselves, never as means only" (Kant in Goodwin, 1985, p.7). Related to this standard are the following complexities: Whose right is uppermost when one person's autonomy impinges on another? Who should speak for those who cannot speak for themselves?

Ethical Reasoning Steps*

  1. Clarify the facts.
  2. Identify the moral dilemma. What is the ethical question?
  3. Identify and interpret the relevant ethical principles: value of life, goodness, justice, truth-telling, individual freedom.
  4. Resolve the conflicts among principles. If more than one principle is involved, which one has precedence?
  5. State the moral decision.
  6. Formulate a course of action-action steps: what and how, who, when.

 * Adapted from the theory of Thiroux (1985).

Case Studies: Ethical Dilemmas

  1. Mary and Joann were roommates at Ivy University. Although Mary and Joanne were enrolled in the Dietetics major, they weren't in the same classes. Mary had started at Ivy U, but Joanne transferred from Brown Junior College at the beginning of her sophomore year. Knowing that Mary was a good student, Joanne asked to borrow her class notes. Mary didn't mind. But when Joanne asked to use one of her papers that reviewed the literature on bulimia, Mary didn't know what to do. Joanne was a good roommate, and she didn't want to lose her friendship. Besides, Joanne was always generous with her. She often loaned sweaters and other clothes and took her home with her on weekends. How should Mary solve this dilemma?
  2. Doug was an undergraduate research assistant to his favorite professor. Dr. Brown was active within the University and was often busy conducting workshops at national meetings or with speaking engagements. Doug had worked with Dr. Brown for two years and had been able to virtually take over the daycare project. Dr. Brown was pleased with his work, and Doug was proud to be asked to submit a written draft of the research findings. Dr. Brown gave a few suggestions for revision, and Doug completed the paper and delivered it to Dr. Brown's office. In a few days, Doug received a message, "Well done. Thanks." Doug graduated soon after and entered graduate school at another university. That first year in graduate school he had an occasion to choose a small research project for one of his classes, and he decided to do a small pilot follow-up study of his undergraduate research experience. As he was updating his review of the literature, he found an article written by Dr. Brown. Doug thought it sounded familiar, and he checked it out. Yes, it was familiar; it was his own work-word for word! What should he do? First-year grad students don't have much power. Would anyone believe him? What would you do?
  3. Susan was an honors student at Big U. Her senior research project compared dietary habits of women living off campus in apartments with women living in dormitories. Her hypothesis was that dormitory women would eat better than apartment women. But she was surprised to find little difference. She was so sure that she was right and that the dorm women just didn't cooperate fully in reporting daily intake. So she just reported some of the findings-the ones that supported her hypothesis. Her Professor was impressed with her well-written report, and it was announced that Susan was to be recognized on Honors Day for her outstanding project. Susan didn't expect that; she realized too late that it didn't really matter with research what the outcome was. Perhaps the award has nothing to do with her findings; maybe she would have gotten the award anyway. But now what should she do?
  4. Marylou read the notice about a scholarship in education. She needed more money for school next year or she might not be able to return. She had decided to change majors. But if there was a chance she could get that scholarship, she could wait until next year to change to psychology. So she submitted her application by the deadline. She was delighted two months later to receive a congratulatory letter. The Bay City Educators were delighted that she had selected teaching as her vocation. Marylou hadn't counted on people being interested in her and concerned about how their money would be used. What should Marylou do?
  5. Jan was a merchandising major, and she always enjoyed the annual Charity Fashion Show that her department sponsored. This year the department would work with Jacobson's Department Store, and Jan would be one of the directors. She was excited when Wednesday arrived. She was to go to the store to work with the fashion coordinator to choose clothing for the Fashion Show. She found a great dressy dress for herself. She could hardly wait until Friday when it would be delivered for the Saturday night event. On Thursday Jan was invited to a Friday night Frat Party. She was so ecstatic to be invited that she didn't even think about what she would wear. She knew she didn't have any extra money; what would she wear? Then, she got an idea. The fashion show dress would be perfect. Nobody would know. And besides, the dress would be worn once; twice couldn't hurt. Yes, that's the perfect idea. During the fashion show, Paula, one of Jan's classmates, was astounded to see a dress that she had seen the night before. No, it couldn't be. What should she do? Should she report Jan, keep quiet, talk to her? What should Paula do?
  6. John accepted the nomination for President of the XYZ Professional Club, thinking that he wouldn't be elected. But he was. He didn't have much interest in the organization; student organizations weren't very important on campus anyway. He knew that the treasurer and the vice president would work hard, and it wouldn't hurt his resume to include a leadership position. So, he decided to show up at meetings; he would do what he was asked to do. It didn't take long for the other officers and the adviser to figure out that the president intended to be a figurehead only. What should the adviser do? the officers?
  7. Marie had a work-study job in the Department Office. Twice a week she filled in for the Department Secretary when she had time off to take a course. She often helped herself to office supplies in the closet. After all, taxpayers pay for them; they were meant to be used for education. She was using them for education. No big deal. The Secretary noticed one day that the last of the pens were gone; she was sure there was a whole package that morning. Where could they have gone? She thought to herself, I was only gone for one hour. How could they have disappeared? Some other things have seemed to turn up missing on Tuesday and Thursday. I wonder. It couldn't be Marie; she's such a nice student. What should I do?- What should the secretary do?



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