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March 10, 2009

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This question is designed to evaluate your ability to reason through complexities rather than to assess your ethical standards. In other words, the admissions committee is not looking to confirm that you are a good person. Moreover, the dilemma you choose should not have a clear "right" answer. For example, if your essay involves you struggling against temptation to make the ethical choice, then that is not a dilemma. A dilemma must involve two choices for which equally compelling arguments exist.

The most common approach to this essay is to set yourself up for a third option that offers a compromise between the two original choices. Be careful that this third option isn't a copout or immediately obvious from the beginning. The best essays will conclude with a genuinely creative solution that effectively addresses both sides of the equation.

You can, of course, simply decide to go with one option over the other, but you should have a clear reason for your decision. Don't simply describe the reasons for both sides and arbitrarily choose one in the end. Justify your choice, and show how you dealt with the negative consequences that resulted from it.

The hardest part about this essay is often finding the right topic, so the following is a list of possible scenarios to spark your thinking. Keep in mind that you'll have to do more than substitute your own details, however, because these generic examples don't reach the level of complexity that your answer should reach.

Scenario 1: You discover that your immediate supervisor is taking kickbacks. You are uncertain whether to report it. The conflict is between your loyalty to your boss and your commitment to the greater good of the company.

Possible solution: You decide to turn your boss in, appealing to absolute moral standards. The fact that he has committed a wrong outweighs your personal feelings of friendship.

Better solution: You decide to confront your boss directly, demanding an end to the unethical behavior. This is a compromise in the sense that you're not betraying him outright, but you're seeking the best interests of your company. This solution is stronger because it shows more nuanced thinking and problem solving.

Note that one problem with this dilemma is that it's hard to justify doing nothing about the situation. If you offer the second solution, then you're at least showing a creative analysis, whereas if you go with the first solution, you're merely appealing to the "what's right is right" principle, which may be too simplistic.

Scenario 2: You work for a nonprofit organization that helps AIDS victims. You discover a government error that results in significantly higher funding for your organization. Do you keep the money, which you know will go to a good cause, or do you report the error?

Possible solution: You decide to keep the money, arguing that it could not go to a better cause if sent back through the bureaucracy.

Possible solution: You decide to report the error, because it's not your position to determine the best use for that money.

Third option: You write up a proposal for how that extra money would be used. You then contact donors who have been generous in the past explaining your situation and asking that they help you to generate the funds so that you can return the misrouted government money.

Perhaps you could have come up with an even better third option. This scenario does at least have two more equally matched alternatives. If you chose one side over the other, you should have more fully fleshed out your reasoning to justify your decision.


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