Society and individuals are governed by ethics. Also described as the philosophy of morality, ethics is a set of moral principles that influence individuals’ decisions and their overall way of life. The sole concern of ethics is on what is good for society as well as individuals by covering some of the moral dilemmas faced by individuals in their daily lives. Some of these dilemmas include individual rights and responsibilities, how to lead a good life, and how to discern between right and wrong. However, individuals are often faced with a decision-making problem perpetuated by a situational conflict hence subjecting them to an ethical dilemma.


Also referred to as a moral dilemma, an ethical dilemma has been defined as a situational conflict whereby an individual has to decide between two courses of action which are also likely to compromise ethical principles. For example, sometimes when an exam room a friend might reach out for your assistance. Although the moral principles compel us to assist others, exam malpractice is considered unethical hence leading to an ethical dilemma. Therefore, based on this example, this paper seeks to critically analyze ethical dilemmas using three theories of ethics; virtue ethics, formalism, and utilitarianism, and determine what it means to become ethical. 


Application of Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is one of the key ethical approaches that comprise normative ethics whereby the emphasis is on an individual’s overall character rather than the action. The moral character of an individual that performs a certain action takes precedence over the consequences of the action, or the stipulated rules and ethical duties. Virtue ethics not only determines whether an action was right or wrong, but it also explains the behavior and characteristics of a virtuous person.


Therefore, it can be depicted that the major concern of virtue ethics is the totality of an individual’s life that should not be limited to specific actions. Some of the characteristic traits of a virtuous person include honesty, self-control, fairness, and integrity, among others. The combination of all these characteristic traits is used to assess the general life of an individual rather than a particular moral situation. 


Virtue ethics holds that the ultimate goal of ethical behavior is to enable an individual to lead a desirable life by pursuing good deeds or virtuous actions that will eventually lead to ethical happiness. Consequently, moral principles require individuals to assist others when they are in need. Individuals go to school to obtain knowledge that will lead them to good careers and enable them to make better decisions which will culminate in ethical happiness. Therefore, based on the above situation, our ultimate goal is to attain academic excellence through virtuous actions.


However, helping a friend during a test or deciding to observe the rules are both virtuous actions that are acceptable. For instance, if I assist a friend during a test to enable him/her pass the test will contribute to my happiness and portray me like a true friend. On the other hand, choosing to adhere to the rules will portray me as an honest individual, a virtue that should be possessed by a virtuous person. In this particular instance, the decision to observe the rules will lead to greater happiness compared to the decision to assist the friend. This is because, if caught cheating during a test the consequences are severe hence contradicting the ultimate goal which is happiness. 


Virtue ethics argues that observation of moral virtues is the ideal way of becoming ethical. Anchored on the philosophical thoughts of Aristotle, the desirable character traits of a virtuous person, honesty, self-control, fairness, and integrity among others, are said to be inborn but required to be stabilized by being nurtured. Nurturing these characteristic traits is simply creating a habit of being virtuous or becoming ethical. Based on the above ethical circumstance, if assisting others while in need is my habit then I will be justifiable to assist the friend during the test since it is the habit that I have acquired in the process of becoming ethical. 


Lastly, virtue ethics holds that it is not possible to give a prescription of good conduct. When determining whether an action is morally good or wrong. The focus should be on an individual, the moral agent, rather than the action itself. In this particular ethical dilemma, if my virtuous characteristic traits have been stabilized and I am regarded as a virtuous person, assisting a friend during a test will be considered ethical as it is an expression of kindness. The strength of this theory is that it has centered what is morally acceptable on what it means to be human. For instance, assisting a friend during a test is human.


Also, it bases its judgment on an individual’s entire life rather than one action. Therefore, assisting a friend during a test might be unethical but I can be vindicated as it may not represent my entire life. One notable weakness of this theory is that it fails to explain what should be done during ethical dilemmas. Similarly, there is a lack of general agreement on the required virtues and the situations where they are applicable. 


Application of Formalism

Formalism is a theory of ethics that holds that the right or wrongfulness of action should be determined by a formal consideration and not material consideration. Formal considerations include the attitude and intention of the moral agent, and the law while material consideration of action includes the action itself and its consequences. 


The goal of ethical behavior under formalism theory is to perform a moral duty. This implies that individuals are morally obligated to observe stipulated rules despite the outcome. For example, Christians are obligated to observe the Ten Commandments. Similarly, students are obligated to observe examination rules as stipulated by the school. Therefore, if I assist a friend during a test, I will be breaking the rules hence that action will be morally wrong. 


The formalism theory of ethics holds that individuals should be guided by the principle of the categorical imperative. Observation of this principle provides the means to become ethical. In this supreme principle, categorical imperative, Immanuel Kant argues that being ethical is to choose an action that could have been chosen by another individual under similar circumstances. Based on this principle, in the above ethical dilemma, if I assist my friend during the test it will indicate that I am yet to become ethical. This is because in the same situation the majority of individuals will choose to observe the stipulated school rules. The formalism theory of ethics stipulates that the unconditional command of an individual’s conscience is the ideal way of becoming ethical.

While judging an action, formalism theory stipulates that practical and categorical imperatives should take precedence over the consequences of an action. For example, if caught cheating during a test, the consequences are that my friend and I will be punished as per the stipulated rules. However, the consequences of an action cannot be used to determine the morality of an action. The underlying basis of judgment will be on the principle of categorical imperative whereby the right decision will be the one that will be chosen by the majority, which is to observe the rules.

A notable weakness of this theory is that it does not consider the consequences of an action when determining its morality. It could be wise to argue that assisting a friend during a test is against the rules and will lead to some form of punishment rather than focusing on the number of individuals settling on a particular option to determine the suitability of an action. Also, the moral duty of this theory contradicts an individual’s natural inclinations. This theory is weak in guiding individuals as they strive to become ethical since it discourages them from obeying their intuitions. 


Application of Utilitarianism

A theory of normative ethics, utilitarianism theory holds that the morality of an action should be determined by the amount of happiness and the number of individuals affected by the action. The underlying principle of this theory stipulates that good actions are those actions that will elicit happiness to the greatest number of individuals. The focus is on the economic analysis of human lives. Therefore, the ultimate goal of the ethical behavior of an individual is to seek the highest form of happiness for the highest number of individuals.


For example, stealing is not permissible in our society, however, according to utilitarianism, it is morally permissible for an individual to steal in situations that will lead to the happiness of other individuals. Based on the above ethical dilemma, assisting a friend during a test will contribute to the happiness of the friend and I compared to the observation of the rules. However, utilitarianism further holds that an action is morally right if it complies with the stipulated rules, and if each individual followed similar rules it will lead to happiness for the greatest number of individuals. Therefore, assisting a friend during a test is morally wrong as it will to unequal distribution of grades and the action is not likely to chosen by the majority. 


Utilitarianism theory argues that becoming ethical means maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain. Therefore, the underlying principle in becoming ethical according to utilitarianism is by ensuring that individuals are guided by the moral obligation that will elicit maximum pleasure. This guiding principle seems to justify assistance accorded a friend during a test as it will elicit happiness to the highest number of individuals even if it is against the stipulated rules. Utilitarianism theory does not focus on the established rules here, the focus is on the happiness and the number of individuals who will be happy. Therefore, becoming ethical is by ensuring that our actions are pleasure-driven for others and for us. 


Lastly, when judging an action within the utilitarianism ethical framework, the focus should be on the consequences of action towards an individual and others without bias. According to utilitarianism, the outcome of action matters more than the underlying motive of an action. For example, if I refuse to assist a friend during a test to avoid the consequences of being caught I will be morally justifiable as the consequences of breaking school rules will cause pain hence should be avoided. Similarly, if I assist the friend without being caught, we would have avoided the punishment and elicited happiness at the same time hence the action will be justifiable.


Therefore this indicates that utilitarianism is difficult to apply in any given situation. This is because it is impractical to calculate all the effects of an action for all individuals likely to be affected. Also, utilitarianism appears to sacrifice justice. For instance, justice requires that all students to undertake a test without being assisted and the awarded grades should reflect the ability of each student. However, if I assist my friend without being caught my action might be upheld by utilitarianism at the expense of justice. Failure to consider justice can be regarded as the primary weakness of this ethical theory. 



Our daily actions are governed by moral ethics that have been developed in society over the years. However, weaknesses in these ethics often subject individuals into a moral dilemma. This is because some situations in life require actions that will somehow compromise our ethical principles. Ethical theories such as virtue ethics, formalism, and utilitarianism attempt to explain what is morally right or wrong. However, the provided explanations are not sufficient. This indicates that it is difficult to come up with a solid moral framework without any loopholes. Therefore, the morality of an action should be judged within the context of situational circumstances and what is acceptable by society. 


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