A moral dilemma involves moral or ethical issues that have positive and negative consequences no matter the choices made. It also involves internal and external pressures to choose one way over the other.
Once upon a time in middle school, a close friend of mine was involved in a case that would have him suspended from school and risk ever being admitted to another private school. I cherished our friendship, but I also loved my education because I was a year clear from earning an international art scholarship for young achievers. One night, we hid in a classroom chugging beers we stole from the groundskeeper’s house. Minutes into our second can, the big man found us laying on the floor drunk with our shoes off. He screamed at us and tried to hail a guard, we jumped him, and he was hurt badly.
He tried to fight back and we ran – Chris left a boot behind. Unfortunately, all student clothing came with name tags. The next day, I was called into the principal’s office and was shown the boot, he was adamant I knew where Chris was. A few minutes into the conversation and he had me where he wanted, pleading my way out of a suspension that could ruin any future scholarships. He promised if I told him where Chris was, we would both get suspended but I would be back to school in two weeks, while Chris would be gone for sometime or may never come back at all. My family wouldn’t have to know because it would seem like a short-term break. That was a good deal seeing that he admired my academic success and I wouldn’t get in trouble. On the other hand, I knew where Chris was because I was the one who hid him when they came looking, I assured him that no one would find out and we’d just have to wait till everything blew over.
The moral dilemma in that little story was that if I told the principal what he needed to know, my family would not have to get involved, I would still have an optimistic chance of earning scholarships, and I would be doing right by the school. However, Chris would hate me forever, students might not want to socialize with me anymore, and I would lose all credibility in school.
On the flip side, if I had stayed quiet about the situation, the authorities would have eventually found out about us, we would both be suspended, my family would definitely get involved, I would lose that scholarship opportunities, and risk being admitted into any other school. However, the relationship between Chris and I would be solid, and everyone in school would respect me and see me as a solid guy. I would be relieved knowing that I didn’t let my friend suffer alone for a crime that we both committed.
I told the principal everything he needed to know, from the incident that happened the night before, to where Chris was hiding, and how to catch him. The principal assured me that everything would be fine because I did the right thing. He promised me that the case wouldn’t affect me, my family wouldn’t have to know what happened and what I did to resolve the issue.
According to a development study, my story is under the Preconventional Moral Reasoning stage. It states that “Each person tries to take care of his or her own needs, and to be nice to other people so that they will be nice in return.”
I had a lot to gain by turning Chris in because we would have been caught eventually after intense investigation, and that would be worse for both of us. However, I lost a friendship with my best friend because of that decision. After I was allowed to come back to school on the second week of my suspension, the entire school had heard about what I had done. I did get a one-year art scholarship after the school year ended, but I never saw Chris again.
I was always going to maintain the appearance of obedience to authority, but the overall decision was based on the assumption that my needs were more important than the friendship with Chris and stigma from other students.