December, 2010
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Red Flags of an Ethical Dilemma


If individuals reach adulthood without suffering major psychological traumas, such as child abuse, they usually are capable of determining right from wrong. Many moral problems we face require us to be able to make that determination. Most of the time, adults know right from wrong, but they may be unwilling to pay the price for doing the right thing. When we knowingly choose the wrong thing, we have succumbed to ethical temptation.

Facing ethical temptations is not the same as facing ethical dilemmas. We know it is wrong to lie; we know it is wrong to steal; we know it is wrong to cheat. Thus, it is not really a dilemma when we consider choosing wrong over right It is merely an ethical temptation.

For example, falsifying an annual report to make the company appear in good financial health is an ethical temptation. As long as an individual knows that this act is wrong, then this problem is not really a dilemma. However, choosing between two rights is a compelling ethical predicament — for example, choosing between telling the truth and maintaining loyalty to a friend.

Truth and loyalty are both virtues: What do you do when your friend asks you to lie, perhaps to save his marriage or his job?
Choosing between the individual's needs and a community's needs or choosing between justice and mercy are two more illustrations of true ethical dilemmas. Choosing between two or more positive values requires more than ethical competence; it also requires sound ethical decision-making skills. Developing mature decision-making skills involves recognizing problems when they occur. How can you tell when you are facing issues that have an ethical dimension to them?

The following guidelines may help:

  1. Frequent use of words such as right or wrong, conflict of interest, bottom line, ethics and values.

  2. Desire to call the state regulatory agency or professional hotline.

  3. Making lists of advantages and disadvantages of an action.

  4. Feeling torn between two or more values, goals or parties.

  5. Wondering how the outcome of this problem would look in the newspaper headlines.

  6. Loss of sleep.

  7. Use of expressions such as: "Well, maybe just this once.""Let's keep this under our hats." "We'd better look the other way." "No one will ever know." "Whew, we certainly dodged that bullet." "Don't tell me, I don't want to know." "I have this friend." "No one's going to get hurt." "Everybody does it." "They had it coming." "They'll never miss it." "What's in it for me?"

These red flags advise of impending ethical challenges. Rushworth Kidder, author of "How Good People Make Tough Choices," suggests that ethical dilemmas, rather than temptations, will challenge us more frequently and profoundly in the near future as our society becomes increasingly diverse and complex. He cites the ethical dimensions of technological advancements such as cloning and nuclear power to make his case.

Thus, in addition to being able to recognize ethical temptations, adults also will be called upon to be able to determine, "Which is the greater good?" It is a challenge to those in positions of influence to help others navigate through the difficult moral terrain that we will face in the next decade and beyond.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1998 Deborah H. Long.

Deborah H. Long, Ed.D., DREI, conducts education programs for licensed professionals and is the author of "First Hitler, Then Your Father, And Now You," available from Lulu Publishing. Visit her website at