When Someone’s Right-vs.-Wrong Decision Puts the Observer into a Right-vs.-Right Dilemma Case Study


Ethical problems are, perhaps, the most complicated of all those existing, since different ethical theories allow to consider ethical issues from various standpoints and, therefore, presupposes that the choice of the solutions is extremely ample. As a result, numerous ethical dilemmas, which demand immediate solution, emerge.

Despite the fact that in the case study in question, different solutions are possible from the standpoint of different ethical theories, a compromise can be achieved by viewing the situation through the prism of the Utilitarianism ethics.


According to the basic details mentioned in the case study, the issue revolves around the problem of witnessing an instance of a petty theft. As the case study shows, a young woman named Lisa, who is a college student, was doing her voluntary work together with a college student named Tony when she noticed that the latter was taking some of the supplies with him, though he had no permission for that.

Therefore, it will be most logical to assume that Lisa witnessed an instance of theft. However, not being completely sure and, which is even more important, not wanting to become a traitor and an informer, Lisa is hesitant about what she should be doing next.

Case summary: the dilemma to be solved

When it comes to discussing the case in question, one might notice that it features a number of ethical concepts and issues. To start with, it is necessary to point out that the case in question involves three participants, i.e., Lisa, Tony and the organization, who has allegedly been robbed. In addition, there is the dilemma, which is the choice between Tony and the organization. Finally, the problem under consideration questions the logics of the actual morality.

Therefore, the problem can be summarized in the following way: defining the course of actions that harm each of the participants and the relationships between them the least, allowing for the personal growth of the person who is responsible for the theft and contributing to returning the stolen items back to the organization.

Through ethical lens: applying the right terminology

Considering the case in point from an ethical perspective means applying the right terminology to define the participants, the actions which they take and the choices that they make or should make. Therefore, the basics of deontological ideas and concepts must be introduced.

However, relating the details of the case study to the elements and concepts of ethical theories is not enough; to choose the ethical dimension in which the solution to the problem is going to be located in, it will be necessary to address the key theories of ethics. Thus, placing the case study in question in different ethical environment, one can possibly pick the one in which the solution will become more obvious.

To start with, the Utilitarianism theory should be given a proper mentioning. The theory that allows to address each side of the conflict and keep the damage done to any of the, to a minimum, Utilitarianism is an obvious choice as a moral dimension in which the dilemma in question should be considered in.

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According to the existing definitions of Utilitarianism, the latter is the doctrine that presupposes utility maximization and is traditionally interpreted as “society’s net benefit over harm” (Lewis and Gilman 122).

As it will be shown further on, the concept of relativism should also be introduced into the case study analysis. Therefore, the issues concerning relativism definition should also be addressed. According to the latest attempt of interpreting the given concept, Relativism “is not only the doctrine about (the conditions of) truth, that is, an epistemological doctrine, but a more complex philosophical thesis, more exactly a threefold one” (Zilioli 10).

Zilioli interprets philosophical relativism as an alethic, epistemological and ontological thesis (Zilioli 10). In other words, Zilioli denies the idea of relativism being self-refuting.

It has been mentioned above that the case in point allows questioning the logics behind the so-called actual morality. Although the phenomenon of morality is especially hard to nail down, seeing how it differs depending on the culture and norms of a specific society, the concept of actual morality is, in fact, relatively easy to define; known as the set of morals that are traditionally accepted in the given society, actual morality is the ethical term of the set of moral rules that a person is or should be guided by in a specific situation.

The principle of Natural Law should also be mentioned among the theories that are going to be utilized in the process of discussion. Natural Law is traditionally defined as an understanding of the world “as anchored in God’s eternal reason” (Schockenhoff 133) from a Thomistic point of view. In the given case, it is going to be used as a prism to consider the choice of non-action through.

The last, but definitely not the least, the principle of Kantian ethics should also be brought up. According to Kant’s ethical dimension, striving for the greater good is the basic principle of human life; however, only when backed up by good intentions, an action can be considered good.

As a matter of fact, Kant goes as far as claiming that, even if the results of a specific action leave much to be desired, when inspired by someone’s good will, these actions can be considered as good. Herein lies the principle of the so-called Categorical Imperative, or the “supreme principle of morality” (Paton 29), as Paton put it. Allowing one to evaluate the intentions behind a specific action, Categorical Imperative, therefore, helps define the moral value of a specific action.

Concerning the dilemma: right vs. right

As it has been specified above, the problem of the case in point is not the lack of possible moves, but the fact that each of the possible moves seems right; or, to be more specific, they seem right at first, but, when being considered closer, each of the possible solutions seems contrived and dishonest.

Indeed, Lisa is obviously going into a no-win situation. Whatever she chooses, she will clearly have to let one of the sides of the conflict down. Therefore, when considering the dilemma closer, one will be able to spot the obvious truth; the dilemma that Lisa is facing is actually not right-vs.-right, but wrong-vs.-wrong, since none of the solutions seems to satisfy her idea of morality.


As it has been stated above, the case in question can be approached by adopting different ethical principles. However, each of the solutions has its flaws. By defining the pros and cons of the possible avenues for Lisa to take, one can figure out which of these alternatives should be used in the given situation.

Silencing the problem: the probable outcomes

One of the easiest avenues to take for Lisa is keeping silent. However, such attitude will most likely lead to even more thefts. In addition, Lisa will feel even guiltier about not doing what she should have as a law-abiding citizen. It is remarkable that, from the perspective of the natural law, the given decision would be acceptable, seeing how it presupposes non-interference into the natural course of events. Indeed, according to the basic principles of the Natural Law ethical dimension, the interference into the course of events would be unreasonable.

Telling the authorities: turning into a traitor?

Informing the managers or the leader of the organization is another option that Lisa has. It has its ethical pros and cons as well. On the one hand, from the perspective of the Kantian ethics, the given action can be justified as long as Lisa’s intent is to help return the goods and at the same time help Tony mend his ways. However, the consequences of such actions should also be taken into account. If considering the given solution from a Utilitarian perspective, one will see clearly that only one side of the conflict, i.e., Lisa, benefits.

Tony will be doubtlessly fired, whereas the organization will lose a volunteer employee. Seeing how the given work does not involve payment in any way, it is rather doubtful that the organization will find a replacement for tony any time soon; as a result, the quality of the work will suffer. Therefore, informing the authorities does not seem a perfect ethical solution either.

The golden mean: a heart-to-heart talk

As the given case shows clearly, in a conflict situation, each solution presupposes that one of the sides of the conflict will ultimately suffer; whether the choice will be made in favor of the thief, or the company, either the former, or the latter will be inevitably put under the blow.

The fact that in the given conflict, a compromise is practically impossible to reach leads to the idea of introducing another set of ethical principles into the discussion. As it has been mentioned above, the angle from which the situation is being observed predetermines the victim and, therefore, defines the solution.

The given situation crosses with the basic principles of relativism, since it presupposes that there is no right or wrong side of conflict outside the realm of specific ethical principles, and creates the premises for adopting a Utilitarian approach, i.e., allowing all sides of the conflict to benefit. In the best possible outcome, the company retrieves its goods back, Tony realizes that he made a mistake and is willing to mend his ways, and Lisa will do the right thing without betraying her friend.


Despite the controversy around it, the situation can still be helped. By applying the key principles of Utilitarianism, one can define the best way to solve the conflict.

Following the principles of Utilitarianism: The greater good

However, none of the aforementioned solutions seem to be decent enough to pick in the case described above. From a humanistic point of view, which should also be considered here, informing the authorities secretly on the actions of a person whom Lisa has been working side by side with up until now is unfair to say the least. Therefore, the only possible solution in the given case seems legitimate. Following the principles of Utilitarianism and leaving both sides of the conflict, i.e., Tony and the local authorities, Lisa should tell Tony that she saw him taking home the things that he was not supposed to touch.

The given solution, however, does not presuppose shifting responsibilities from one person to another. On the contrary, the given action will allow Lisa to finally take measures unless Tony explains the situation, confesses or brings the possibly stolen things back.

As it has been pointed out earlier, the ethical dilemma concerned the issue of possible betrayal of Tony by telling on him without him knowing it. After letting Tony know that she is aware of his actions, however, Lisa will have the moral right to undertake action, since Tony will be aware of her being a witness. Therefore, in the given case, the Utilitarianism approach seems the most reasonable.

As it has been stressed in the scenario provided above, though, the Kantian ethics shows clearly that there is no wrong step to take in the given case. Each of the decisions that Lisa can choose from depends on her own concept of morality and can be considered viable from a corresponding perspective in a specific moral dimension.

Considering the rest of the options: pros and cons

In a very basic way, applying any of the other existing solutions is possible if considering these solutions within the realm of Kantian ethics. If one considers Lisa’s motivations from the point of view of the Categorical Imperative, one will be able to see that in each case, her key motivations are to restore justice and at the same time harm her friend as little as possible.

It could be argued, though, that from the point of Categorical Imperative, Lisa’s motivations should also include shaping Tony’s moral values as well by letting him embrace the injustice that he has done. However, it has not been stated anywhere in the case description that Lisa was not concerned about Tony’s morality, either. Therefore, it can be assumed that Lisa has given a thought about Tony’s “lost soul” as well.

With that being said, the concept of Categorical Imperative does not restrict Lisa from taking any of the steps specified above. Indeed, whether she will inform the authorities and tell about the supposed theft, keep silence about what she has seen for the sake of Tony’s safety or talk to Tony about what she has seen, the Kantian ethics will view any of these steps as showing her concern for at least one of the sides of the conflict. Therefore, from the point of the Kantian ethics, Lisa has the right to take whatever step she thinks is right.

Conclusion: a matter of one’s personal choice

As it follows from the description of other possible avenues for the leading character of the case study to take, it can be assumed that there is, in fact, no absolutely wrong step to take; almost every possible step makes a perfect sense in a specific ethical universe. Depending on the choice of ethical system in the realm of which the problem is going to be solved, a different solution can be applied.

With that being said, however, in the traditional system of human values, which is generally accepted in the present-day society, informing the guilty part of the witness’s awareness seems the most adequate step to make. By letting the given person know that his actions are no longer a secret, the other character of the case study motivates her partner for an ethical evaluation of situation and creates the premises for her to act if Toni does not confess to the manager.

Works Cited

Lewis, Carol W., and Gilman, Stuart C. The Ethics Challenge in Public Service: A Problem-Solving Guide. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. 2012. Print.

Paton, Herbert James. The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1971. Print.

Schockenhoff, Eberhard. Natural Law and Human Dignity: Universal Ethics in a Historical World. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press. 2003. Print.

Zilioli, Ugo. Protagoras and the Challenge of Relativism: Plato’s Subtlest Enemy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company. 2012. Print.