Most of the time you and I don’t have any trouble following the rules, laws, and standards that are expected of us. We know how to be loyal, tell the truth, and do our job, but what happens when something comes up that causes us to give up one value for another. Have you every told a lie to protect a friend or loved one? Maybe you shirked your duty, because your duty conflicted with some other value that is more important to you. How you decide what to do in these or other more complicated situations requires careful thought and analysis. We are going to discuss these types of situations and a process that you can use to make a decision, act on the decision and defend your decision if need be.



Given an ethical dilemma, make a decision using the ethical decision making process.



  • Define: Ethical dilemma
  • Discuss ethical rationalizations
  • Given scenarios, small groups work through the ethical decision making process and discuss their process and decision with the class.



An ethical dilemma occurs when you must chose one moral, standard, value, or norm above another in a situation. Not acting when a situation like this arises will violate one or more ethical principles.



Allison, Jim, and Tom are friends and seniors at Mount Vernon High School. Allison and Tom have been Straight "A" students throughout high school and are competing for the valedictorian position; Jim is currently ranked 10th in the class and is the class president. Tom and Jim have been best friends since 2nd grade and Jim has been dating Allison for two years. During their Physics final Jim sees Allison cheating on the exam.

If Jim turns Allison in then he will be violating his loyalty and friendship to her, but will be doing his duty as a student and class president. If he doesn’t turn in Allison then, he is violating his friendship and loyalty to Tom, who really wants to be the valedictorian. He would also be violating his sense of duty as a student and class president. So by doing nothing he still violates his ethical principles. Note: Jim won a $2000.00 college scholarship for his essay "Integrity and Politics: Agonist or Antagonist". Keep this scenario in mind; we will refer to it later.


Sometimes when we are faced with ethical dilemmas, we rationalize what we should do to allow ourselves not to feel guilty. This will definitely occur if we use one set of ethical standards at home and a separate set of standards at work. Lets take a look at a few rationalizations that people often use.

The Top Ten reasons why I did it:

  • Number 10. I can still be objective – An example of this might be receiving gifts or favors from one of multiple employees. Will you treat this employee the same as another when he/she makes a mistake or when he/she is up for a promotion?
  • Number 9. I did it for you – These are the unethical things that people do out of love. They know they are wrong, but they did them to protect or help a loved one.
  • Number 8. I had to do it – This comes from a feeling that you had no other choice to do what you did, even though you knew it was wrong. "I had to rob the liquor store to pay the rent and feed the kids".
  • Number 7. It doesn’t hurt anyone – This implies that you can do anything as long as you don’t directly see harm being done to someone else. Cheating on your taxes is a good example.
  • Number 6. If I don’t gain financially, then it’s ok – It’s ok to copy movies from blockbuster as long as I don’t sell them.
  • Number 5. They owe me – I am overworked and underpaid to do this job; the office supplies I take, the long distance personal calls I make, and the extended lunches/breaks, are owed to me by the company.
  • Number 4. If it’s legal, then it’s OK - A contractor can bid on a project, get the job and then charge you up to 10% more than the original bid. So, if you know it’s going to cost $25,000 to do a job, bid $23,000 to be the low bid, then charge $25,300.
  • Number 3. Fighting Fire with Fire – If they do it to us, then we can do it to them.
  • Number 2. Everybody does it – Everyone smokes pot, it must be ok.

And the Number 1 reason why I did it:


  • The ends justify the means– I know you have heard this one before, but a good example would be a recruiter lying to an applicant to get them to enlist. "Sure I lied, but the Army needs the soldiers".

I’m sure that you could come up with many more rationalizations, but these are the most common ones. Now, lets move on to making an ethical decision not rationalizing a decision we already made.



The Ethical decision-making process is composed of 5 major steps that can help you make a decision when you are faced with an ethical dilemma. The five steps are:


  • Define the Problem
  • Know the principles, standards, laws, etc
  • Develop possible courses of action
  • Evaluate or analyze each course of action
  • Choose the course of action that best represents your values

Although not part of the process, you must take the action that you decided upon and evaluate the outcome. Ethical decisions you make will not always be the best decision. You will make a decision and later realize that you should have done something else. We learn from our mistakes and the next time we have a similar situation we might choose an alternate course of action.

Lets refer back to the example dilemma and go through the Ethical decision-making process step-by-step.


You will need to open the decision-making process worksheet to type your responses on as we go through this exercise.

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Note:This scenario letter is "Z"

  • Step 1: Define the Problem– Defining the problem means that you gather all of the information related to the situation. Ok, lets assume you are Jim. What is the problem? Don’t jump ahead to look at possible courses of actions, just the facts and the problem. Remember there can be multiple parts to the problem.


Type your responses on the decision-making worksheet.

This is what I listed as the problem:


    • Jim wants to be loyal to his best friend and give him the opportunity to be the valedictorian, which he deserves – he earned his grades.
    • Jim wants to be loyal to his girlfriend and help keep her out of trouble. He also knows that she would like to be the valedictorian.
    • Jim also feels a duty as an honest student and class president to report cheating. He did sign the "Student Rights and Responsibilities" affidavit and took an oath as the student president. His integrity is on the line.
    • Jim feels that the student population may think he is a "nark" and feel that he betrayed his fellow student. He values his current popularity within the student body.
    • Jim is 17 and having a girlfriend is very very important to him.
    • Jim thinks that personal courage is a rare, but a highly valued trait, that more people in government need.


  • Step 2: Know the principles, standards, laws, etc.– What laws, regulations, and moral obligations apply to this situation? Tell me which values, laws, policies, etc., apply to this situation.


Type your responses on the decision-making worksheet.

These are the values and regulations that apply.

    • Loyalty to friends
    • Moral courage to do the right thing despite repercussions from friends and the student body.
    • School Policy – cheating is against the rules and can result in suspension.
    • Integrity – Allison has given up her integrity. Jim can maintain his integrity by following his oath and affidavit.


  • Step 3: Develop possible courses of action– It may appear that there are only two courses of action here, but there are actually more. What courses of action do you see?


Type your responses on the decision-making worksheet.

Here are the options we came up with:

    • Report Allison to the teacher.
    • Do nothing.
    • Talk to Allison after class and try and convince her to confess to cheating.
    • Tell the teacher or principle after class that you saw Allison cheating.
    • Write a note to the teacher, telling him/her that Allison is cheating and turn it in with your exam. Asking the teacher to keep you anonymous.
    • Step 4: Evaluate or analyze each course of action– This is when you want to look at the pros and cons of each of potential courses of action. Take a quick look at each course of action that you came up with and write down the pros and cons.

Type your responses on the decision-making worksheet.

This is the analysis of each option listed earlier.


    • Report Allison to the teacher. If Jim reports Allison in class, then he is being loyal to Tom, but not Allison. He will have shown his personal courage, and maintained his integrity.
    • Do nothing. Nobody would ever be the wiser, but Jim would not have shown personal courage. He would have demonstrated loyalty to Allison, but not Tom. He also would have given up his integrity.
    • Talk to Allison after class and try and convince her to confess to cheating. This option allows Jim to be loyal and protect his integrity and shows loyalty to both friends. Of course if Allison doesn’t confess then he will have to turn her in.
    • Tell the teacher or principle after class that you saw Allison cheating. This option allows him to be anonymous, but it may be difficult to prove that she cheated. You have been loyal to Tom, but not Allison. Your integrity is intact, except that you would not be honest with Allison about turning her in.
    • Write a note to the teacher, telling him/her that Allison is cheating and turn it in with your exam. Asking the teacher to keep you anonymous. Basically the same as the last one, but now the teacher has the opportunity to catch Allison in the act.
    • Step 5: Choose the course of action that best represents the values of the Army, the values of prevention coordinators, and your values– Based on what you have typed on the decision making worksheet, which option would you choose? Type your answer on the worksheet and state why?

Send your completed worksheet to Prevention Branch.

We have defined what an ethical dilemma is, some common rationalizations and went through the decision making process. Remember that when you are presented with an ethical dilemma to use the decision making process and carefully choose a course of action; you may have to defend the action later on.


IMPORTANT: Please click on the Quiz button below and complete all quizzes in order to receive your
                  homework assignment for this section.

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