Written by Erla Maas
You notice that your friend has stolen something from the store. You know that your friend’s actions are wrong, but he is your friend. Do you rat out your friend, even if he is doing something wrong or not? Welcome to the moral dilemma!
A moral dilemma determines how we view what is right or wrong. It is a situation where you are confronted with two possible options, and you choose one based on what you believe to be the more “moral” choice.
The Moral Dilemma vs the Problem
The moral dilemma often becomes the foundation for a work of literature. However, to properly understand it, one must know the difference between our dilemma and a problem. In a problem, there is a situation that must be resolved or dealt with. There is often no moral connotation to it whatsoever. For example, Susie is challenged at school because she is smaller than the other students. Susie has to figure out how she will overcome this problem to create a victorious pathway to success.
In a moral dilemma, a person is confronted with two or more alternatives: each option is often undesirable. Let’s get back to the example given at the start of this post. A person knows it is wrong that their friend is stealing from someone in the store. They should report them. However, telling on their friend could cost them their friendship. Clearly, this is a challenging circumstance, especially if the two are very close. The dilemma can become even worse if the value of the property stolen is significant. Maybe it is a necklace another person had received from his/her grandmother before the grandmother passed away. The more dramatic the dilemma, the more exciting the novel!
A Common Focus in Literature
The moral dilemma has become a trendy option in literature for a good reason. What the author is usually trying to do is to draw the reader into the situation. The author does not just want the person reading the story to see what happens but to evaluate the heroes’ decisions and feel they would make the same one.
How would they address the moral dilemma?
This is a very common theme in books and movies. Throughout history, authors have used the moral dilemma to capture audiences’ attention while making a moral point about society or human nature. One such example is Billy Budd. This is a story by Herman Melville about a young man impressed by the British Navy during a time of war with the French. This was a common practice where military vessels would take able crew members off another ship and force them into conscription in the British Navy. In the case of Budd: he was a strong young man who had difficulty speaking when he was upset or frustrated, which would force him to stutter. He was also a well-liked crew member, but his Sergent, a man known as Claggart, didn’t like him much.
It was the job of Claggart to impose discipline, and he loved his job. Still, he hated Billy because the young man refused to see the wickedness in him. At one point, Claggart accuses Billy of attempting to mutiny, taking his allegation to the captain. Billy is outraged by the allegation against him, knowing, however, he is unable to speak. His only recourse is to lash out, striking the Sergeant at Arms, who falls and hits his head, dying. The captain recognizes that Claggart has made a false allegation. He knows Billy and knows that the young man would not commit such an act. He also knows that Budd cannot speak when frustrated in this way.
However, Billy did murder the Sergeant at Arms.
This creates a moral dilemma.
Should Billy be hung for murder, or should he be set free because of the false accusation against him?
The Hunger Games
For modern (young) readers, the Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, is an excellent example of a moral dilemma. This is about a society where life and death for each community depend upon the success of their champions in the Hunger Games.
Many are quite familiar with the story and cheer on both Katniss and Peeta as they battle to try to win for District 12. The two understand that victory means food for their district, keeping their community from starving. However, there is the moral dilemma of having to kill all the champions of other districts to win the games. This is a battle that Katniss struggles with internally as she copes with the reality that some communities embrace the murder of other contestants with great glee. At the same time, she sees this as a barbaric yet necessary act.
Whether you are a Christian believer or not, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion present one of the most significant moral dilemmas EVER! The Roman ruler, Pontius Pilate, has a man before him who he knows is innocent of any charge that has been levied against him. Yet, he has an angry mob and religious leaders clamoring for Jesus to be crucified. This presents the ultimate moral dilemma for Pilate. Does he kill an innocent man to keep the crowd at bay, or does he let this man go knowing that a riot will likely ensue?
Why Is the Moral Dilemma So Popular?
As you can see from these three examples, the reader starts to put themselves in the place of the person in the story, trying to see how they would react or make a decision if they were in that place. This is what makes the stories a lot more interesting. If Katniss was simply a nice girl trying to survive a tough time, hoping that someone would win in the games so that she would have food, that is an excellent story but not a particularly enticing one. However, when she faces the moral dilemma of killing to feed her people or dying and letting them starve, it is easy to see why people are so drawn to the story.
There is no doubt that the moral dilemma has become a prevalent theme in literature. One must consider that the reason it is so popular is that we face these types of puzzles every day. Don’t you agree?
Next post – Interview with Ryan Uytdewilligen