Somewhere in the world there is an epigram for every dilemma. ~ Hendrik Willem Van Loon

Sometimes in life, we are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to do something supposedly bad under normal circumstances, in order to salvage a dire situation, and restore positivity and order. Most of these times, we choose to go for it, and commit the not so pleasant act, reasoning that the intention behind, and expected outcome of such an action is positive, and involves good faith. This is the part of the premises of ethics and morality, where the concept of Heinz dilemma comes into the picture.


A dilemma is a situation, wherein one needs to choose from two mutually exclusive and equally unfavorable courses of action, as a solution to the issue at hand. Heinz dilemma is an example of ethical dilemma, and it reflects a similar situation of choosing between the devil and the deep sea. Heinz is the name of the titular character of this case study on moral dilemma. Heinz's wife was suffering from a type of cancer, and was fast approaching mortality. Around that time, a local druggist had discovered a kind of radium-based drug, which was touted by doctors as the only cure for this malady at that time. However, this druggist intended on commercializing his discovery, and making as much money as he could by selling the drug at a price of USD 2000, which was ten times the cost (USD 200) of manufacturing it. Heinz knew this, and went to everyone he knew to borrow money to pay for that drug, in order to save his wife's life.

However, he could only manage to get USD 1000, which was half of what the druggist had charged. All his entreaties for being allowed to have the drug in return for paying the rest of the amount later fell on deaf ears. Hence, Heinz followed the adage called desperate times call for desperate measures, broke into the druggist's shop and stole the drug. This is where the first and most significant of Heinz dilemma questions arise: should he or should he not have stolen the drug? To answer this, we must take a brief look of Kohlberg's stages of moral development.

Kohlberg's Heinz Dilemma Vis-à-Vis Stages of Moral Development

This concept of ethics is often confused with Hobson's choice, though both are not the same. Let's analyze the sanctity (or lack of it) of Heinz's action, against the background of Kohlberg's six stages of moral development, to get close to the dilemma answers.

Stage #1 - Obedience and Punishment

There are two approaches for this stage. The first one says that Heinz should not have stolen the drug, as it would get him imprisoned, making him a bad person in the eyes of the society. The second approach says that Heinz did nothing wrong as the druggist was overcharging him. The druggist wanted USD 2000 for a USD 200 worth medicine, and when Heinz offered to pay him USD 1000, he was as it is ready to overpay. Besides, when Heinz broke in, he didn't steal any other object except the drug.

Stage #2 - Self Interest Orientation

This is all about self-centered priorities. If Heinz feels that saving his wife's life would make him happy, even if he has to serve prison term for it, then he would not see anything wrong with stealing the drug. On the other hand, Heinz would not steal the medicine, as languishing in prison may seem a far more harrowing experience than mourning over his wife's dead body.

Stage #3 - Interpersonal Accord and Conformity

This stage deals with choosing between behaving in conformity with personal or social standards of ethics and morality. If he steals the drug and saves his wife, the latter would be grateful and consider him as a good husband. However, society views stealing as a crime, and he wouldn't want to come across as a criminal by stealing.

Stage #4 - Law and Social Order

This is about acting with full knowledge of the legal consequences of one's actions. Heinz can either obey law and not steal, or he may steal and accept the punishment as prescribed by law for the same, irrespective of any related intentions.

Stage #5 - Right to Life and Compensation

Under this stage, Heinz's action may be justified saying that every human being has a right to live, and the value of life is way above law, and it should be saved if possible. On the other hand, the right to remuneration for labor, justifies the druggist's dismay, by stating that the discoverer has a right to fair compensation, and by stealing the medicine, Heinz has violated this right.

Stage #6 - Universal Principles of Human Ethics

This stage argues the validity of a human life above the rights to property. On the other hand, it also argues the fact that others may also be in desperate need of the same property, and may be in a position to pay for it. Therefore, by stealing it, Heinz may have denied both the discoverer of his fair compensation, and another party of the benefits of that drug.

The above examples show us that every coin has two sides, and every decision or course of action has two approaches. Which option you opt for depends as much upon the moral opportunity cost that is incurred, by foregoing the consequences that would have arisen, had the alternative approach been taken depending upon the gravity of the situation at hand. The trick is to balance your decisions between complete selfishness and unconditional altruism.