Ethical Dilemma

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The case study presents a moral dilemma based on potential harm to innocent people. By using Kohlberg’s moral development model and by examining major ethical systems, namely deontology and utilitarianism, a clear understanding of the factors influencing this type of decision-making can be gained. Specifically, utilitarianism, Kant’s categorical imperative and the doctrine of double effect address the decision from differing viewpoints, providing the decision maker with compelling evidence to support both angles of the ethical and moral dilemma presented in the decision at hand. A decision can then be made if it is considered morally justified, depending on the model used to make the decision. Often the solution of an ethical dilemma would mean choosing what would result in the greatest good. However, it would not be a dilemma if it was an easy decision to make. Thus, the decision maker must ensure that the scenario is examined from every angle to ensure the correct decision is made. Pojman and Fieser (2009) state that there are four domains of ethical assessment; the action, consequence, character, and motive. These domains clearly show that morals and ethics have more than observed behavior and each domain takes on a more or less important value depending on the chosen ethical theory.

In this case study, the reader is challenged to put themselves into the role as the acting Commanding Officer (A/CO) of a submarine. The submarine has been the victim of a torpedo attack and the engineering compartment is filling with water. Three of the crew attempted to stop the flood and are stuck inside. If the water tight hatch to the engineering compartment does not get closed, resulting in trapping the three men, then the submarine will sink to such a level that the pressure will crush the submarine and kill all on board. If they close the hatch then the three men will quickly perish and the rest of the crew will presumably survive.

As the A/CO the decision whether or not to close the hatch poses an ethical dilemma, more specifically a harm dilemma. A harm dilemma is described by the Canadian Defence Ethics Program (2002) as a dilemma that “identifies those difficult situations, especially in a military environment, where any action taken will result in harm or injury to others” (pp. 18-19). Either decision made by the A/CO will result in death, however, choosing to close the hatch will result in a “greater good” as less people will die.

In his cognitive-developmental theory Kohlberg (1976) suggested that moral development has six stages. It is based on the work from Piaget who states that there are stages of logical reasoning and intelligence through which people progress and advanced moral reasoning can be achieved through advanced logical reasoning. Kohlberg states that “since moral reasoning clearly is reasoning, advanced moral reasoning depends upon advanced logical reasoning” (pp. 32). According to Kohlberg, a person’s moral development influences their decision making. Kohlberg describes three levels of moral development with each level consisting of two stages. The levels are: Level I - pre-conventional (stages one and two), Level II - conventional (stages three and four), and Level III - post-conventional (stages five and six). Using Kohlberg’s morale reasoning model the decision of the A/CO to close the hatch would be made at the Level III – Post Conventional. The stage of development within that level would be Stage 6 – Universal Ethical Principles. As A/CO, the principles such as the human right to life would have to be assessed. Acceptance of society’s rules is understood at this level and one of those rules is to not end someone’s life deliberately. However, the A/CO logically understands that the “greater good” is the survival of the remaining crew and submarine. He also has a military responsibility to ensure its survival as well. The A/CO must also come to the conclusion that the three men will die regardless of...
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