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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 his decision. It has to be assumed that if one is in the position of A/CO that there has been advanced military training. The logical reasoning at the Level III, Stage 6 would allow the acting CO to absorb outside influences yet still conclude that the decision to close the hatch is the best. He would no doubt meet resistance from the other submariners regarding his decision.

By closing the hatch you save the majority of the remaining men and the submarine. There is the personal ethical dilemma where as A/CO, you are consciously aware that you will cause the men to die inside the engineering compartment. The ethical dilemma between closing the hatch or to keep attempting to try to rescue the men at all costs requires further analysis using teleological ethics.

Teleological systems are based on person’s acts therefore the result of the act is more important than the nature of the act (Pojman & Fieser, 2009). Utilitarianism is defined as a universal system that calls for the maximization of the goodness in society and is considered the dominant version of teleological systems. Pojman and Feiser (2009) describe two main features of utilitarianism; the consequentialist principle and the utility principle. The consequentialist principle is where the moral rightness or wrongness of the act is determined by the consequences of the act, not the act itself. As A/CO, the act of closing the hatch will result in presumably saving the lives of other submariners (or at least a better chance of survival). But it also causes the death of three men. Therefore, according to the consequentialist principle by choosing to close the hatch will ultimately result in a “greater good” by saving the lives of the other submariners (greater number of men survive). The utility principle also supports the A/CO’s decision in that the right actions are those that yield the most good or utility. By closing the hatch there will be more lives saved and also a more expedient death to the three trapped men.

There are two variations of utilitarianism; act- utilitarianism and rule- utilitarianism (Pojman & Feiser, 2009). Act-Utilitarianism is based on a situational context, considering that an act is right if and only if it results in as much good as any available alternative. It is only concerned with the good and evil that results from a particular circumstance, not the means to get there. This particular situation involves quick decision-making abilities while under an increasing presence of danger. The A/CO must make a decision under extremely stressful conditions. It is the decision to close the hatch to save the lives of the remaining crew that result in the greater good. However, Rule-Utilitarianism is not as dependent on the context of a situation. An act is right provided it is required by a rule, and that this rule is a member of a set of rules whose acceptance would lead to greater utility for society than any other alternative rule (Pojman & Feiser, 2009). The emergency procedure to close the hatch to the engineering department due to flooding would be followed. By ignoring this procedure the submarine will sink farther and crush under the pressure.

By taking a closer look at utilitarianism most outcomes, whether good or bad, have been considered. Basing it on the greater good for the greater number you would have to choose closing the hatch to save the submarine and remaining submariners. Deontological systems differ from teleological systems in that deontology hold that it is the fundamental basis of the act, what the act actually is, that categorizes whether the act is good or bad. It is the act itself, not just the consequences that justify moral actions. Deontological systems have sub-variations and the most common variation is rule-based. It is this variation that accepts the principle of universalisability and rules when making a decision. A rational form of deontology and ethical decision making was developed by Immanuel Kant. Kant’s moral theory provides a decision making process that can be applied in this particular case. His theory, using a deontological approach, is based on his belief that “reason is sufficient for establishing the moral law as something transcendent and universally binding on all rational creatures” (Pojamn & Feiser, 2009, pp. 124).

Basically it means that Kant believed that the only thing that is absolute good is good will, thereby agreeing that the act itself (or aspects of the act) must be morally acceptable, not just the result. He focuses on moral obligations which he described as two imperatives; hypothetical imperative (HI) and categorical imperative (CI). The HI formula is “If you want A, then do B” and is not the type of imperative that characterize moral actions (Pojman and Fisher, 2009, p.128). According to Kant, this type of imperative has no moral content. Categorical imperative (CI), however, is described as “Do B!”, essentially meaning to do the right thing, regardless of what result you desire. Categorical imperatives (CI) are universal action statements in which A is done because it is the morally correct deed, not to obtain a definite end result. Categorical imperative (CI) also states that any action must be taken with the belief that the principles on which it is based could stand as universal law. They form the intuitive rules that humans use to make rational decisions about ethical or moral issues.

Kant separated categorical imperative into three formulations; principle of the law of nature (aka principle of universalizability), principle of ends, and principle of autonomy. The first, principle of universalizability, is a generalized rule often referred to the CI itself stating that if you would not will your action stand as universal law, it is not the morally correct action. The second, principle of ends (PE), states that all human beings have intrinsic worth and therefore must be treated as an ends rather than a means. The last formulation, the principle of autonomy (PA) states that all human beings do not need outside authority to tell them what is good and are capable of using common sense to determine moral principles. Using Kant’s approach to the ethical dilemma presented in the case study, a decision can be made by following a set of guidelines. First, the actions available must be identified. The A/CO needs to ignore the outcomes of the different courses of action. Rather, he or she must evaluate the actions to see if they conform to the three formulations of the CI. The following questions must be addressed: could the action stand as universal law? Is every human being treated as an end rather than a means, recognizing their intrinsic value and dignity? Are moral principles being applied through the process of reason?

Finally, the action that conforms to these principles is the correct moral action. By using Kant’s CI and the three formulations it can be considered morally justified to close the hatch to the engine compartment. Using Kant’s model as A/CO it has been identified that there are two choices to make: to close the hatch or to not close the hatch. As A/CO the potential outcomes must be ignored when reaching a decision. Instead, the A/CO must address whether or not these actions uphold the formulations of the CI. In the first scenario, the A/CO does not order the closure of the hatch as the engine compartment floods. The result is the submarine floods and reaches crush depth, killing all on board. This action does not look to be the right choice when considering all three formulations of categorical imperative. It does not satisfy the criteria of CI as the decision of not closing the hatch could not be considered universal law. In addition, this action does not conform to the principle of ends, as all of the crew are not being treated as an end.

The principle of autonomy is also not satisfied as the A/CO would be able to rationally decide that since the three men are going to die either way it is best to save the remaining men. In the second situation, the acting CO orders the hatch to be closed and traps the three men inside the engine compartment. This decision could pass the principle of universalizability “when there is a flood in the engine compartment I should close the hatch”. The fact is that the closing of the hatch will result in the death of three crew members. However, it is important to also follow the advice of the COB and close the hatch to save the other crew members. Thus, utilizing Kant’s moral theory the decision by the A/CO to close the hatch is supported. The doctrine of double effect (DDE), developed by Aquinas allows a concept that there are sometimes situations where moral principles must be weighed against each other to come to a decision when dealing with moral dilemmas (Pojman & Feiser, 2009). Moral absolutism is described as non-override able principles that should never be violated.

Moral objectivism, however, refers to moral principles that override all considerations yet when coming to a decision each principle must be weighed against the other. As Pojman and Feiser (2009) state “sometimes we encounter moral conflicts, ‘dilemmas’ in which we cannot do good without also bringing about evil consequences” (p 34). So it is sometimes permissible to do a good act even though it can bring about a bad consequence. The value of life and the two moral principles – always preserve human life and always reduce human suffering. By closing the hatch you are also reducing the suffering as they will die very quickly. Four conditions must be met for DDE before an act is considered morally acceptable; the nature-of-the-act condition, the means-end condition, the right-intention condition, and the proportionality condition. The first condition, nature-of-the-act, can be met in this scenario. While it is not morally permissible to kill the three men to save the others the A/CO is not intentionally killing the three men.

He is closing the hatch to the engine compartment in order to stop the flooding. The end result is that the men will die, but killing the men is not intended, they are not intended targets, to save the rest of the men. The means-end condition is satisfied as the bas effect, the men dying, is not how the god effect (ship not sinking) is achieved. It is the closing of the hatch that is the means. Condition three, the right-intention, is satisfied as the drowning of the men is unintended side effect. It is foreseen yet unintended. The fourth condition, proportionality condition, is satisfied in that the bad effect is less than the good effect. Using the DDE it can be morally justified to close the hatch as the intention is not to kill the three men but to stop the flood from causing the submarine to sink farther.

Kohlberg’s model suggests that the level of the individuals logical reasoning, and in turn their moral reasoning, are key indicators on how one would react in an ethical dilemma. The tests of moral judgment are limited to how one perceives the moral dilemma not how the individual would actually behave or react (Trevino, 1986). The model also fails to describe how each situation has a different set of characteristics that influence the decision making process. Jones’ issue-contingent model of moral decision making recognizes and identifies the influence of characteristics of specific ethical situations (Blais & Thompson, 2008). His model recognizes the importance of moral intensity and how, as moral intensity increases, so does awareness of the ethical situation as it is issue-dependent (Jones, 1991). Moral intensity does not focus on the moral agent or the organizational behavior but instead focuses on the moral issue itself (Jones, 1991). According to Jones (1991), moral intensity is comprised of six characteristics; the magnitude of consequences, social consensus, probability of effect, temporal immediacy, proximity, and concentration of effect.

Each characteristic has influence on the level of moral intensity, and each characteristic can be influenced by interaction with another. By assuming that the A/CO knows the three men very well, the characteristic of proximity would have a great influence on the decision of closing the hatch. Proximity, in this model, refers to how close the decision maker is to the people in the situation who will bear the effects of the decision, with closeness described as psychologically, socially, physically, and culturally (Jones, 1991). As the A/CO knows the men well the moral intensity of the situation has escalated and will effect the decision making process. Another characteristic of Jones’ model that has the greatest influence on the A/CO decision is the magnitude of consequence. This characteristic refers to how much harm or benefits will be brought to the recipients of the decision. His choice to close the hatch will result in certain death for the three men that he knows very well resulting in high consequence. The six characteristics of Jones’ model interact with one another and some, as noted above, take precedence over others.

Rest (as stated in Jones, 1991) uses a four step model for ethical decision making. Jones’ (1991) examines how the six characteristics of moral intensity influence each of these steps. For instance, the first step is to recognize the moral issue. This has already been achieved by the A/CO as he is aware that his decision will affect others and that he has to make the choice. The moral intensity is increased as the previous mentioned characteristics (magnitude of consequence and proximity) will affect the recognition of the moral issues. The second step, make moral judgments reaches back to Kohlberg’s model of cognitive development and it has already been stated that the A/CO is at Stage 6. However, using Jones’ moral intensity model as the ethical dilemma is situation dependent the A/CO’s moral judgment is still going to be influenced by the previously mentioned characteristics. The third step, moral intent is recognized when moral intensity is higher as the individual acknowledges that a decision needs to be made.

And the fourth step, moral behavior, is actually acting on ones moral intentions. Not only is the closeness of the A/CO with the three men in the engine compartment a factor but the closeness of the three men to the rest of the crew as well. Jones’ model of moral intensity clearly suggests how closeness to others can strongly influence a command decision regardless of the level of logical and moral reasoning. Military members are required to make difficult decisions many times. This can be in any context, operational or even day to day. It’s an institution that allows for certain decisions to be made that would not be understood by other institutions. 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. Each 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.


Blais, A. & Thompson, M. M. (2008). Decision process in military moral dilemmas: The role of moral intensity and moral judgment DRDC Toronto, TR 2008-190 December 2008.

Department of National Defence (DND). The Statement of Defence Ethics.
(2002). Defence ethics program: Fundamentals of Canadian Defence ethics (pp. 18-19). Ottawa: Author

Jones, T. M. (1991). Ethical decision-making by individuals in organizations: An issue-contingent model. Academy of management review, 16(2), 366-395.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach. In T. Lickona (Ed.). Moral development and behaviour: Theory, research, and social issues (pp. 31-41). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Pojman, L.P. & Fieser, J. (2009). Ethics: Discovering Right & Wrong, 6th Ed. Wadsworth Group:

Trevino, L. K. (1986). Ethical decision making in organizations: A person-situation interactionist model. Academy of Management Review, 11(3), 601-617.

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