Moral Philosophy and Cases of Moral Dilemma

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“Why would it be morally permissible to give the medicine to the five patients in the drug case, but not morally permissible to perform the operation on the man in order to save five patients in the transplant case?”

Moral philosophy plays a role in defining who we are and our beliefs. It is a branch of philosophy that deals with what is morally wrong and right. When discussing ethics, we typically stumble across moral dilemmas which create room for controversial arguments with concepts such as utilitarianism and cultural relativism. At the heart of the question as to why it would be morally permissible to give the medicine to five patients in one case but not morally permissible to perform the operation on the man to save five patients in the similarly other case, is the connection between moral philosophy, cultural relativism and utilitarianism. In this essay, I will outline the different cases presented and express my position on the matter by using logical arguments. I intend to argue that it is morally wrong to kill the innocent man even with his consent and morally right to give the medicine to the five patients. The arguments will oppose the concept of the utilitarianism approach where it objects that the morally right choice to make is to always save the lives of the greatest amount of people, no matter the situation. Additionally, I will examine the way cultural relativism has the ability to change the perception of morality depending on the context, situation and personal circumstances, in order to back up my argument. Finally, at its conclusion this essay will aim to highlight the way morality changes under different circumstances.

When we take a look at the two cases presented, we may notice that they are very similar to one another since the same choices are presented just under different circumstances. They both offer the options to either kill one to save five or kill five to save one. This is where the dilemma commences. The transplant case focuses on cutting an innocent visitor and distribute his parts in order to save the five patients that need them. This case focuses more on actively killing one person with the purpose of saving five whereas, the drug case looks at saving five people by letting one die. It stresses more on letting someone die rather than kill them. This leads me to my first argument which claims that it is worse to kill than let die. In my views, it is morally impermissible to proceed with the operation in the transplant case because by doing that, this means that the surgeon is making the conscious and active choice to take this innocent man’s life – despite the man’s consent. In other words, this would mean that the surgeon is intentionally killing someone for the greater good of others. In contrast, the utilitarianism approach – which is an approach “where the happiness of the greatest number of people is considered the greatest good” – would argue that it would be morally permissible to proceed with the operation as it would be saving five people, which is the greatest number. However, I disagree with such claim as in this specific case, killing the one person would be a side effect of saving the five. Meaning, if the surgeon proceeds with the operation, he would be violating the innocent man’s right to life. Even with the man’s consent, the action to kill, in itself, would still be morally unjustified. As a result, the surgeon would be violating the man’s life even though the act could have been avoided from the start. In addition to this, saving the five patients by killing one person is not morally correct, as this would go on to express that the concept of using human beings as a means to save others is acceptable as a whole.

By critically analyzing the drug case, it is noticeable that it brings attention to the concept of utilitarianism once again. Here, utilitarianism argues that it is morally permissible to save the greatest number of people as you must always save the greatest number without exceptions. Meaning, in this case it would be morally permissible to give the medicine to the five patients instead of the one patient. Many people would agree to follow utilitarianism in this case. Although the transplant case uses the same situation as well as the same amount of people to save, the concept of morality in that case vicissitudes. The difference between this case and the transplant case is that in this case, the harm would be deviated as opposed to the first case. Meaning, the bottle would be given to the five patients without causing intentional harm to the one patient. This juxtaposition demonstrates that in the drug case it would be morally permissible to give the medicine to the five patients as we are not causing harm to the other patient who needs the whole bottle, and we are rather simply deflecting the harm in order to save the five patients. However, despite choosing the same option as a utilitarian would in this situation, my argument still opposes the concept of utilitarianism as it differs in the reasoning. This means that my argument aims to express that we are not essentially killing the person as a means but rather as a foreseen side effect of our action. Whereas, utilitarianism only cares about the consequences of our actions which is to save the five patients. Utilitarianism would contend to give the drug to the five people and kill one with the justification that we would be saving the greater amount of patients. Such justification is immoral as this would mean that the five patients have more of a right than the other which consequently implies that it is always permissible to kill someone in order to save more people.

Furthermore, to back up my arguments, I will be critically analyzing the concept of cultural relativism and the way it impacts our views regarding the two cases. The notion of cultural relativism suggests that our moral principles are not objective moral truths. Instead, the idea of cultural relativism states that most of the time, the claims we make are based on cultural, social and even personal circumstances. This once again proves that morality differs according to diverse circumstances and situations as shown in both the cases above. For example, the irony that sparks from the transplant and drug case is the idea behind what is morally permissible or impermissible. As a utilitarian would argue, the moral thing to do in both cases would be to always save the lives of the greatest amount of people. This is emphasized by the drug case where it is believed that saving the five patients instead of the one patient would be the ethical thing to do. Whereas, in the case of the transplant the ideology is reversed and it is not morally acceptable to proceed with the operation that involves killing one to save five. Here it becomes clear that cultural relativism allows us to use our own logic in determining what we believe is the moral choice.

To conclude, by contrasting both cases, it would seem rational that the surgeon should not kill the innocent man. While it is noticeable that every case presents the idea that we can sacrifice one in order to save five, it is crucial to understand that my argument in the drug case does not agree with the points that the utilitarian approach provides, regardless of having chosen the same option of saving the five patients. In fact, it is interesting to observe the way the conception of morality differs in different situations and cases. It is also interesting to view how the reasoning behind the choices differ despite having chosen the same option. Finally, this goes on to prove how several factors including cultural relativism can influence our views regarding the two cases above and the way such moral dilemmas are able to present what people may deem as what is morally right or wrong.


  1. “Moral Philosophy.” Ethics Unwrapped, ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-philosophy.
  2. “When Was the Last Time You Said This?” BusinessDictionary.com, www.businessdictionary.com/definition/utilitarianism.html.

Cite this paper

Moral Philosophy and Cases of Moral Dilemma. (2020, Nov 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/moral-philosophy-and-cases-of-moral-dilemma/

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