Do real moral dilemmas exist?


According to Rau and Trevor Dewey every “seemingly” real moral dilemma has a morally correct solution, so in their opinion there are no real dilemmas. After all a true dilemma presents a situation where two moral imperatives collide, and the agent must resolve the conflict.

So here is a hypothetical problem for you to consider.
Two people are sent out to a faraway place, where there is a deadly epidemic. They carry the antidote to cure it. The antidote is packed into dry ice, and it must be delivered before it melts. They suffer an accident, their radio is ruined, and one of the two people is injured. He will die without help, but they do not have the necessary wherewithal to do it. The area is infested with hungry rats. The injured person is too heavy to bring to safety. If the antidote is not delivered before the ice melts, thousands of people will die, in horrible pain. “Innocent” children, too. (I am aware that this phrase has a special significance for you.)

There are three options for the delivery people.

  1. The healthy one kills the other one, and carries out the mission. The injured one ASKS for the quick release. He does not want to be eaten alive.
  2. The healthy one abandons the injured one, and carries out the mission. This solution has the side effect that the rats will eat the injured one alive. The people with the epidemic will be saved.
  3. They stay in place until the injured person dies naturally due to his wounds. Unfortunately the ice melts, the antidote is ruined. The mission is failure… and those thousands of “innocent” children will all die in horrible pain.
    So what is the morally correct solution? Either kill or let die and fulfill the mission, or help the injured one and CONDEMN to sick people to painful death?

And no, you cannot “whistle up” a helicopter. The Pied Piper is not in the neighborhood. They do not have the necessary weapons to fend of the rats indefinitely. Etc… etc… The problem is as presented.

Find a morally correct solution. I mean, which is morally correct according to you. :slight_smile: Good luck.



Just following to see what is said.

I have no doubt that a morally-acceptable solution exists, but am not a moral philosopher and won’t attempt it myself.

What is the goal of these exercises, beyond trying to convince everybody that all morality is situational?



Exactly the point and a favorite game in Philosophy classes around the world.

A short explanation, Wiki - Ethical dilemma (has a link to a database full of these types of questions).

In short, there is no moral solution to this situation, just a subjective choice amongst the perceived lessor of “evils.”

Kobayashi Maru


There was a ferry disaster not too far away from here not so long ago. It was on its side and sinking fast there was a wall of passengers climbing up to doorways. They climbed up in panic standing on each others head, faces, hands, shoulders, young and old. Survivors were interviewed afterwards and they calmly said they had climbed up other passengers, standing on their heads, shoulders or whatever they needed to do.

I imaging their would also be some urgency in your example but I am curious if you have no weapons how you are going to quickly dispatch your comrade. And if you do happen to suddenly find a weapon could he not use it to frighten the rats.


I can see the reply already:
Either one gun and one bullet… or even if there are more bullets, too many rats.
As far as any other weapon, too many rats to fight off for long.

Seen this question before. :slight_smile:


The second option of killing the injured person is very similar to the dilemma of terminally ill person facing a very painful death asking to “die with dignity” so they don’t have to go through the pain. This very real dilemma is facing us now and is being decided (or soon will be) by the courts. Catholics cannot condone killing another person, whatever the reason. The ends (a relatively pain-free death) never justify the means (murder).

The only solution here is to leave the injured person, sheltering him as well as possible and leaving him with some kind of weapon, like a tire iron. Then send for help as soon as possible and pray the whole time it doesn’t arrive too late. (I added praying because, as I mentioned, I’m Catholic and prayer is always in our arsenal.)

This situation is also very similar to the train scenario where you see a train heading for a busload of peoples stuck on the track ahead. You can throw the switch to make the train take the side track, but as luck would have it there is a person on that track two. Do you throw the switch to kill 1 person and save a dozen, or let the train continue on its path to hit the bus? Similar to your story, do you allow 1 person to die or thousands?


I’m not going to attempt to answer the question from the first post, but as to the question in the thread title, I think it depends on what you mean by a moral dilemma.
You seem to be defining a moral dilemma to be a situation in which there is no morally correct option (in other words, if you are in such a situation and you are aware of all possible actions you could take and the moral implications of each, you will sin no matter what you do), and by that definition, I would agree that there are no moral dilemmas. However, I also think that is a very strange understanding of a dilemma.
If you define a moral dilemma as a situation in which all options seem immoral to the one making the choice and the one making the choice doesn’t know what the morally correct option is (which seems like a more natural understanding of a dilemma), they there are real moral dilemmas.


The morally correct response is #2. Also, there is no guarantee the rats will eat him alive. He has the option of praying.


The difference is that while it is not moral to trample another human being, the trampler’s fear of drowning would be a strongly mitigating circumstance. I imagine that people who were not in a panic would avoid trampling on others.

The original dilemma admits of no mitigating circumstances. I am not sure that being in a hurry to get vaccine to children would mitigate deliberately murdering someone.



What I would do and what I would expect somebody else to do if I was the injured one:

#2: Continue with the mission. Say farewell and leave the companion behind to be eaten alive by rats. If he panics and asks you to kill him, refuse.

There is a reparation demanded for all of our immoral actions. Taking your own life is a grave matter. He would either A) go to hell, or B) if he was voluntarily euthanized but was not damned, he would incur a penalty in Purgatory, which would far outweigh any temporal pain on Earth, thus sparing himself from nothing.

The time dying would be spent on intense reflection and prayer in his final moments, which is infinitely more valuable than trying to get off the hook from a tiny measure of pain (all Earthly pain is trivial compared to the pains of Purgatory or hell).


I meant that urgency would reduce the blame if any of leaving him alive to die by rats.


I’m giving your question, for sake of argument, the benefit of the doubt that I magically - or by divine revelation - have absolute knowledge of the outcomes.

In real life, I would choose number 2, deliver the antidote, and then go back to check on my wounded companion (to find him dead).


Thank you for your replies. Keep them coming. I will reflect on them in due course.


Very interesting… the answers just dried up. But the ones I saw were quite revealing. I learned more about the Catholic morality… if these replies are actually a representative of the Catholic morality. Which they may or may not be.

How can anyone argue that mercy killing, especially at the request of the person to be killed is somehow at odds with human dignity. On the other hand leaving the victim to be eaten alive by rodents will preserve their dignity. Very strange.


The Catholic Church dares to make this argument.
From the CCC
Intentional homicide

2268 The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance.69

Infanticide,70 fratricide, parricide, and the murder of a spouse are especially grave crimes by reason of the natural bonds which they break. Concern for eugenics or public health cannot justify any murder, even if commanded by public authority.

**2269 The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person’s death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger. **

The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.71

Unintentional killing is not morally imputable. But one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone’s death, even without the intention to do so.
2324 Intentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is murder. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.


I’ve just seen this, and I would argue for option 2.

Option 3 is clearly untenable: the injured person will not be saved by this option, and even if he were, its still one life against thousands.

So that leaves whether or not to kill the injured worker. Aside from my moral repulsion at the concept or euthanasia, there is clearly a chance no matter how small that the man will survive. A passerby may find him and call for help. Its a slim chance, but there is always some possibility. So option 2.


#2 is representative of official Church teaching. Euthanasia is completely unacceptable. Consent or lack of consent doesn’t affect this.

I explained some of my view in my post, but to further elaborate: it is impossible to see view #2 as the acceptable option, or even humane / sane option, unless you accept a few other metaphysical truths. Such as 1) this life (or prelude to life) exists as a transit to a true life that is impassable, and 2) Being at peace with your Creator and in acquiescence to his will always takes precedence over our own comforts.

For a person that views this life as the life, then yes, it is correct that I don’t think it is possible for Catholic moral teaching to ever find common ground on this. For such a person, I would expect #2 to seem ludicrous. If you’re going to allow a person to die a painful death (as opposed to a swift or relatively comforting one) you would need a very good reason for it. Providing the person painkillers or a sedative wasn’t presented as an option though, and since you intentionally put the moral question against a wall: you still can never take their life. Namely because neither you, nor the actual person that wants to die, have no claim to it.


Well, life is not simple. Intentionally taking someone’s life can have several forms. Killing in self-defense or killing in the defense of others is clearly allowed. Killing in a war is also excepted. The state sanctioned execution of a criminal is allowed.

Also, we can take a mentally disturbed person, running amok, and indiscriminately killing everyone in his way. We do NOT talk about a terrorist here, only a simple human being who is insane and thus not morally culpable. Killing such a person is acceptable.

There is another problem here. The catechism uses the word “murder” outside its permitted epistemological scope. Murder is the unlawful or illegal taking of a human life. That is why the state sanctioned execution or killing in self-defense are NOT murders, even if they are intentional takings of human lives.

In those countries where euthanasia is legal, it is NOT murder. Those who wish to call it “murder”, immediately remove themselves from rational consideration.

There is another aspect, which needs to be addressed. Sometimes there are other ways and means to defend oneself or others. Sometimes, a direct killing of the would-be perpetrator cannot prevent the act. What about these instances? The catechism does not cover these questions. How far can we go in protecting others? If a dirty bomb is hidden somewhere and the terrorist cannot be compelled to confess its hiding place, is torture acceptable? How about the torture of his loved ones? How about the simulated torture of his loved ones? No actual torture, just a convincing simulation? Where do we draw the line?

Further, the famous trolley dilemma comes into the picture. Is it allowed to flip the switch and kill the lonely person to save a busload of others? The solution is simple for rational persons, flip the switch and save more people. For those who assert that actively killing someone is more reprehensible than passively allowing the death of others, the solution is also simple. Run down the busload of people, and then wash you hands a la Ponte Pilate… But most people will not accept this defense. In reality the active killing and the passive allowing of deaths are exactly the same - morally speaking.


Strangely enough, not everyone will agree with you. The do not care if thousands of people will die somewhere else, they only care about the injured one, here and now.

A “chance, however small”? There are no passers by, who will save the day. No random helicopters come to the rescue. Merlin, with his magic wand or the Pied Piper are otherwise engaged.

Mathematically speaking it is possible that all the rats approaching the victims will be struck down by a lucky coincidence of small meteors or lightning… but you cannot count on that. It is true that the scenario did not explicitly spell out, but it is implicitly assumed that the victim will be devoured by those rodents.

You need to address the problem according to the stipulated parameters, not some “miraculous deus ex machina” (from a Greek tragedy).


I understand that this is your assertion. I am not sure that the church has an official, “infallible” document supporting this. But maybe it does.

I need to make a correction: “a few other metaphysical ASSUMPTIONS”. You cannot demonstrate the “truth” of those assumptions. if you could, you would be a winner, hands down.

Only if the alleged creator does not care about our comforts. Which lack of caring is contradicted by the other “assumption”, namely that this creator “loves us, and cares about us”. Let’s just use another analogy. If your small child trips and skins his knee that is such a minor thing that it is totally irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. Yet, a loving and caring parent WILL comfort the child and not stay aloof.

Yes, we have to agree on this, no matter how sad this disagreement might be.

Yes, and so far I have not seen an argument to support this option.

Sometimes life does not present a palatable option. But taking one’s own life is logically permitted, even if the theological arguments are against it. If those theological arguments could be substantiated, that would be a different ballgame. But there is no proof for them.

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