Andrew Szebenyi
Le Moyne College, 2010.

Definition of dilemma.

State of uncertainty or perplexity requiring a necessary choice between two unfavorable options. Logically a dilemma is an either-or situation without a good outcome. In moral theology the procedure in a dilemma is to choose the lesser of two evils. Whichever way we look at it, dilemmas create unhappy situations.


The classical example of a dilemma is the situation of a bank official at time of bank robbery. Only he knows the combination to the safe, which at this time holds a large sum of money. Armed robbers enter the bank, put a gun to to bank official’s head and demand to open the safe. He has two choices. In one, he refuses to open the safe, and then he is shot. In the other, he opens the safe and makes the robbery possible. The answer is: open the safe. To save his life is of higher value than all the money in the vault.

A search for best strategy.

Is it possible to change the situation and defuse a dilemma? Can the conditions of the situation be somehow modified, so that the dilemma becomes unreal or unimportant and no choice is then necessary? Can the “either-or” situation be resolved into an “and” situation through a reasonable compromise? 

Other examples.

Controversies are common. See, for instance, the nature versus nurture controversy, or that of creation versus evolution. The former is resolved by the discovery that the inherited and the acquired or learned do not contribute to a final outcome independently of each other in a quantitative manner, but through many forms of interactions, resulting in a fully integrated end product. Nature and nurture are not enemies but allies in the same venture. This means that the ‘either-or’ situation is actually an ‘and’ situation and there is no dilemma, no controversy. The solution is to provide the genetic given with the best developmental opportunity.

Similar is the solution for the creation versus evolution controversy. The statement that it is either creation according to faith, or evolution according to science is resolved through the understanding that God is creating an unfolding process of life on earth. After all, God is not in time. Time and space are the created framework of a created world, that we understand in our created way, that is, in time and space. In this view, the appreciation of Genesis, which states that one God created everything, is undertaken along the lines of proper scholarship. First, we go back to the time when the book of Genesis was written, and learn about the prevalent culture and cosmology of that time. We find that the ancient cosmology was definitely static and looked upon creation that has been done in the beginning of time and reached its completion. We also find a clear theological statement in Genesis, a faith statement, about creation by the one and only God. The next step is to bring this statement of faith back into our own cosmology and culture as distinct from an ancient world view, and express it in terms of our present knowledge which is definitely dynamic. If anything still remains of the controversy after all this, it will be not a matter of faith versus science, but that of two different cosmologies, one old and static, the other new and dynamic. And that becomes a matter of change in our perspectives and knowledge, a matter of a historical event, and not that of an ‘either faith or science’ situation.

More examples.

The dissension between the Pharisees and Jesus has been the breeding ground of dilemmas. The Pharisees and the leaders of the people tried many times to catch Jesus in his speech so that they may condemn him and destroy his reputation before the people. So they set up traps for Jesus in the form of dilemmas, making sure that whichever way he answers them will be an answer they will be able to use against him. They tried to place him into a politically loaded situation asking him, whether it is right to pay tax to Caesar or not? If he says it is right, they can show him up as the enemy of the people. If he says it is not right, they can accuse him before the Roman authorities. Another time they brought to him a woman caught in adultery. According to the Mosaic law she was to be stoned to death as a punishment for her sin. They asked Jesus, what should be done? If he says, yes stone her, he will be no more the gentle healer and teacher before the people. If he says no, he will then make a public statement against the law of Moses, and that will also ruin his reputation.

Jesus resolved the first dilemma by taking the positive meaning of each situation and bringing them together saying, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:21) The ‘either-or’ hostility is resolved by the ‘and’ realism of a positive compromise.

In the other example Jesus simply said: The one who has no sin should throw the first stone, and bending down he wrote in the sand with his hand. According to one interpretation, he was writing down the sins of the accusers. So, they walked away one by one, beginning with the elders. What is most relevant to the solution of the dilemma is what happened after all were gone, and Jesus was left there with the woman. Jesus asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:10-11) In this case the solution of the dilemma is the better understanding of God’s love and mercy that goes way beyond the Mosaic Law.

In conclusion, faced with the dilemmas of the above examples, here is a list of possible strategies to follow up on.

1.         If the dilemma is based on ignorance, it is resolved after proper information is obtained. This is the solution for the dilemmas involved in the nature versus nurture and the creation versus evolution controversies.

2.         A dilemma may be resolved through a compromise aiming at the positive aspects of each proposition, changing the “either-or” structure of the dilemma to an “and” situation. This is the way Jesus resolves the conflict between religious and political tensions about paying tax.

3.         By going to the very source of the dilemma, we may find the key to resolve it. If the source is evil intention, show it up and the dilemma collapses as in case of the pharisees using the woman caught in adultery.

4.         In some situations the only answer to a dilemma is choosing the lesser of two evils, as in the classical case of bank robbery.

Application of these ideas to a current situation.

For reasons of very real concern, we should realize that there are a number of dilemmas presented to us today in terms of rather dysfunctional conflicts. What I have in mind are the various forms of non-reproductive sexual expressions in human relationships. One of these is the conflict between the need to achieve the demographic transition from growth to balance within the carrying capacity of the earth, which requires reproductive restraint, and the traditional position, which demands the maximization of reproductive success in order to balance high death rates prevalent through most of our history. The former demands adequate control of conception for the sake of survival, the latter condemns such practices for the sake of tradition whose aim was also survival, though under different conditions. 

First, let us have a brief look at the data. The following diagram presents the dilemma visually.

                                Time in years

This diagram reveals rather strongly that we are facing today a historically unprecedented situation, an exponential population growth, that is way off balance and cannot be supported on an earth of limited resources. All through human history we had to have as many children as biologically possible, in order to balance high death rates. In this way we maintained ourselves with a slight positive edge in favor of survival. This situation has dramatically changed during the last century, because of a number of discoveries in health related issues, substantially reducing death rate. These issues were a better understanding of the importance of proper hygiene, the discovery of immunization against viral diseases, the discovery of antibiotics, and more recently, the various benefits of modern medical technologies. Since the need to maximize reproductive success has been with us up to the most recent times, the sudden decrease in death rate has not been properly balanced, resulting in an unprecedented population growth from one to over six billion in a very short time. The effort today is to achieve a demographic transition to regain balance between birthrate and death rate at a population size that is still below the carrying capacity of our planet. In this effort we should realize that whatever be the value of this carrying capacity, and at whatever standard of living, an off balance situations has no survival value, and therefore, balance is required by any realistic love and respect for life. To support survival in our time we need to regain balance, and that requires adequate reproductive restraint.

There is an opposition between present needs and traditional directives. This opposition is so fundamental that the traditional directives, which have been established through long history in support of love and respect for life by maximizing reproductive success, are now a threat to survival. Without new and adequate directives centering on the need to regain demographic balance through reproductive restraint we live in a world of life threatening dysfunctionality.

A partial list of the most obvious signs of dysfunctionality.

Denial of data. This involves a certain blindness to ecological issues. Their importance is played down. The consequences of this neglect are not considered. It is assumed that the sources of information are unreliable. In this denial, there is an inability to see and follow through issues of the real world.

There is a  shift of emphasis to other things than the main ecological issues, saying for instance, that the real problem is not demographic imbalance but social and economic justice. In this mind frame the realization that the availability of resources is primary over their just distribution is distorted.

Proposals of inadequate means to achieve the needed demographic transition to regain viable balance. An example of this is the restriction of means of  reproductive restraint to natural family planning, which in biological terms is not natural, and for most people and in most cultures it is found to be either inapplicable or inadequate.

Another sign of dysfunctionality is lack of transparency and the erosion of credibility causing untold damage to people in terms of both, faith and morality. Demanding what is inadequate or impractical, or even impossible in our present circumstances, and giving no adequate rational explanation are the causes of this erosion process.

In religious context, yet another sign of dysfunctionality is the slow erosion or even outright betrayal of the spirit of the second Vatican council, which dared to open windows to see the real world, and dared to start a process of aggiornamento or adaptability to achieve the much needed functionality of the church in the modern world. Here is a quote from the council about theological, moral, and scientific realism.

“Let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.” (Vatican II. GS § 62.)


Some practical insights.

Mostly for cultural reasons, our sexuality is shrouded in an aura of debilitating secrecy, taboos, and shame, seasoned with fear and ignorance all so weird. In this aura of secrecy and cultivated ignorance, there is little chance for habituation to channel the rich stimuli of the body into rational functionality of a relevant few. The lack of transparency prevents any form of early and practical education of children towards rational control so much needed for maturing into reproductive restraint. This whole scenario of unhabituated body mystique may have been functional in terms of the much needed maximization of reproductive success all through our past history; but this is no more the case and hence the conflict and the dilemma.

We are in great need of a new and functional moral theology that can respond to present realities, and is able to harmonize the positive aspects of traditional values with present needs. We do need a new moral theology that can support both, adequate measures of contraception, and the sanctity of life and family. We also need a clear formulation of a non procreative but real, functional, and nurturing sexuality for all stages of life. In this effort, we should not start from a by now disembodied principle, but from a clear statement of present needs. Without this realism there is no true love and respect for life.




            Frank Notestein, a Princeton demographer, formulated in 1945 the idea of the three observable stages in the demographic transition that characterizes the twentieth century. The sequence of the three stages explains the widely different population growth rates in the world today. In the first stage, represented by the preindustrial societies of the past, both birth rates and death rates were high and balanced out close to zero growth rate in a relatively small base population. In more modern societies, death rates fell because of new developments in the medical sciences, while birth rates remained high. The difference created a demographic imbalance and an explosive population growth resulting in an enormous increase in the size of the base population. This situation represents the second stage of the demographic transition. As modernization continued, birth rates fell mostly through contraception and came into balance with the already low death rates. Once again balance has been reached but at the level of a now large base population. This population stabilization at low birth rates and low death rates represents the third stage of the demographic transition.
According to demographic data, all countries today are in either stage two or stage three. As to date some 32 industrial countries have reached stage three. The other 150 or so countries are in stage two. Among these, 39 countries are approaching stage three including China and the United States. In the European Union population stabilized at 380 million while grain consumption and water consumption reached a balanced plateau within the limits of its own land and water resources. This represents an ideal situation today.
It is unfortunate that not all countries can look forward to such bright future as those in the European Union. A number of countries have reached and even passed the limits of their land and water resources and are still facing enormous population growth in the near future. These countries are at risk of falling back into stage one because of a natural increase of death rates. Countries at risk are Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sudan, Tanzania, and Yemen. This falling back into stage one is a devastating experience because a new balance is achieved by a sudden rise in death rates due to famine, water shortage and disease, accompanied by the disintegration of governments, social services, ecological devastation, and ethnic conflicts.
Many people consider our well being in terms of momentary economic progress and are blind to the hidden costs in terms of ecological depletion. The rule is that we cannot aim at unlimited growth in a limited world, be that growth economic or demographic. I list here just a few points to illustrate this statement.
There is no more land to be discovered on the earth to increase grain production. The use of fertilizers to increase yield is either unavailable as in most of the third world countries, or it has been stabilized by the law of diminishing returns as in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. Grain production per person is now declining proportionally with population increase. Grain consumption per person in India today is less than 200 kg per year.
The available fresh water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural use is on the decline. Some major rivers, such as the Colorado in the United States, the Yellow river in China, and the Nile in the Middle East, rarely reach the sea. “Water tables are falling on every continent including in major food-producing regions. Among those where aquifiers are depleted are the U.S. southern Great Plains, the North China Plain, which produces nearly 40 percent of China’s grain; and most of India.” (Brown, Gardner, Halweil) Most of this water is used for irrigation but as scarcity becomes more pronounced industry wins the battle for economic reasons. (Water used to grow $200 worth of agricultural products expands industrial output by $14.000, a ratio of 70 to 1.)
Biodiversity is on a rapid decline. The major cause of this depletion is habitat loss as the natural world around us yields to human development. Examples are the gradual destruction of tropical rain forests by settlers and miners; the destruction of coastal wetlands by developers; the disappearance of coral reefs by encroachment and pollution, the second highest concentration of biodiversity after the rain forests; the vast disruption of ecosystems on a global scale by greenhouse gas emissions.
And one could go on and cite the overfishing of the oceans, the disappearance of forests, the enormous problems of waste disposal contaminating the soil and the ground water; the gradual rising of sea level as global warming melts the polar ice. These are primarily ecological issues and to disregard them in the name of economic progress implies to spiral into a process of blind self-destruct. Such attitude is totally contrary to love and respect for life.

Source: World Watch Papers, #143, 1998 by Brown, Gardner, and Halweil.

Return to List