Ethical Dilemma: Some examples

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : November 5th, 2020

Ethical dilemma is a problem in the decision-making process between two possible choices, neither of which is absolutely acceptable from an ethics point of view. Although we face many ethical and moral problems in our lives, most of them come with relatively straightforward solutions.  The concept of Ethical dilemma is very important for UPSC GS Paper-IV Ethics answer writing including case studies

Ethical Dilemma 

According to the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration & Management (CAPAM), an ethical dilemma arises from a situation that necessitates a choice between competing sets of principles. Thus an ethical dilemma can be described as a circumstance that requires a choice between competing sets of principles in a given, usually undesirable or perplexing, situation.

Ethical Dilemmas in the Public Service

Conflicts of interest are possibly the most obvious example that could place public sector leaders in an ethical dilemma.

Other types of ethical dilemmas in which public servants may find themselves include:

  • The conflict between the values of public administration;
  • Justifications for the institutions;
  • Aspects of the code of conduct;
  • Personal values and supervisor or governmental directive;
  • Professional ethics and supervisor or governmental directive;
  • Personal values and professional ethics versus governmental directive;
  • Blurred or competing accountabilities; etc.

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Public Servants

Some of the most common ethical dilemmas with which public servants are confronted revolves around aspects such as:

  • Administrative discretion: Public officials have huge discretionary powers even within the rules and regulations pertaining to inspection, service delivery and dismissal of people etc. Discretion gives scope for unethical decision making.
  • Corruption: Should the officer sacrifice public interest or end corrupt practices? Or should blow the whistle or compliant with corruption?
  • Favouritism: Showing preferential attitude while awarding contracts and appointing staff, disregarding merit principle/eligibility. Should the officer show partiality or should he be objective?
  • Administrative secrecy: Secrecy provides an opportunity to hide unethical conduct. Should officer work in secrecy or c decisions open to the public?
  • Information leaks: Some kinds of information (tax rise, a proposal for metro rail in a particular area) regarding government decisions are sensitive and strategic. Leaking such information at a date prior to the public announcement thereof is a violation of procedures and can be an ethical dilemma.
  • Public accountability: Officers are accountable for their official actions to their superiors, the courts and the public. However, it is possible for them to escape in the name of anonymity etc.
  • Policy dilemma: Policymakers are often confronted by conflicting responsibilities. For instance, an MP has an ethical dilemma with respect to his responsibility to obey party stand and the interests of his constituency.
  • Some ethical dilemmas in the workplace: such as abuse of sick leave privileges, extended tea breaks and the violation of office rules in general.


How to overcome Ethical dilemma?

  • The reputation and success of governance rest on the conduct of public officials and what the public believes about their conduct.
  • Hence it is essential that bureaucrats act justly and fairly to all in all circumstances, not simply paying lip service to ethical conduct but also ensuring that these are manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done. The officer must not only be good, must be seen doing good.
  • Bureaucrats upon accepting government employment must recognize that they have a special duty to be open, fair and impartial in their dealings with society.
  • They have a bounden duty to uphold public interest above private interest


Ethical dilemmas are common in democracy and in a high dynamic sphere of administration. However, bureaucrats must remember Gandhi’s Talisman - recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him - that could offer an ethical course action in times of ethical dilemma.

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