The Heinz dilemma is one in which I hope none of us need to ever face. It is a very hard situation to think about and even more tough to think of how we would react in the face of this cruel predicament. The dilemma is a man’s wife is dying of cancer with no known cure and the husband is desperate for a cure to save his wife (Mcleod, 2013). The husband is told of a drug that has been developed by a scientist in his town but the scientist is charging a boatload of money for the drug. The husband pleads with the scientist to no avail, he raises half the money needed but the scientist will not accept it, and so what should the husband do? In this dilemma, the husband breaks into the scientist’s house at night and steals the medication needed to save his wife. This may be the movie buff in me, but I do feel that many husbands would break into someone’s house, knowing the consequences of their actions, and steal the life saving medicine. The question I pose to you is, is this ethical behavior?
Ethics can be defined as “the kinds of values and morals an individual or a society finds desirable or appropriate,” (Northouse, 2016, p. 330). It specifically goes on to speak of motives in the moment of an ethical decision. For our husband, his motive is genuine – he wants to save his wife’s life by any means necessary including going to jail for breaking and entering. Breaking it down even further, let’s take a look at Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.
In the first stage, pre-convention morality, an individual will make a decision based on the direct consequences of their actions (Northouse, 2016, p. 331). For our husband, the direct consequences of his non-action would be his wife’s death so to a point, his decision is understandable. In stage 1 of this level of the model, obedience and punishment are top of mind. Authority sets the rules in place like going to jail if you break into someone’s house to steal but at this level, the important thing to remember is following rules means avoiding punishment (Northouse, 2016, p. 331). The husband is unconcerned with obeying the rules because the love of his life is lying in bed dying and there IS something he can do to help. Stage 2 can also be applied to this situation because it is based on the assumption that an action is right is it aligns with the individual’s own self interest (Northouse, 2016, p. 331). The self interest in the dilemma can be stated as the husband wanting to save his own wife. Would he steal the drugs for someone else’s wife? He might steal the drugs for his neighbor’s wife if there was an exchange of favors according to stage 2 of the model. In this level, there is no thought of community standards but on level 2, there is.
In level 2, actions are based on the “norms of the group to which the person belongs.” (Northouse, 2016, p. 332). We do not know the specifics of this couple’s circumstances except that they cannot afford the life saving drugs. What we can infer is the traditional societal rules that apply to all Americans such as following the law. In the third stage of this model, behaviors are governed by trying to be a good person and it is clear that breaking and entering and stealing are not what a good person would do. What changes here is the circumstances of the husband’s actions – he is trying to save his wife. So, does his ethical compass switch or adjust to the situation? In stage 4 of the model, the community model goes even further to say that individuals respect society as whole, that is function, laws, authority, and rules (Northouse, 2016, p. 332). I personally would not want anyone breaking into my house for any reason. It seems that our husband does not belong in any of these stages but rather seems to have developed his own personal code of ethics in which he follows.
Level 3 is exactly that personal code of ethics level – the principled level. This level is developed over a lifetime and is a guiding set of principles in which one lives their life and makes decisions. Stage 5 speaks of making decisions on what you believe a society should look like (Northouse, 2016, p. 332). The key distinction on this level is that society needs to agree of the laws in which you follow. Our husband does not agree to the laws of a business transaction or the laws of breaking and entering but rather makes his decision based on what he believes is the right thing to do in that movement – save his wife’s life. Stage 6 speaks of “universal principles of justice that apply to everyone.” (Northouse, 2016, p. 333). Essentially, any decision that is made needs to cater to everyone involved.
So, based on Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, our husband does not really fit exactly into any of them. If I were to choose one, it would be stage 5 – social contract and individual rights. This stage is based on making decisions on what you believe a good society should look like. The husband tried to reason with the scientist, tried to raise the money, tried to work out a deal where he could pay the rest later and yet the scientist said no every time. This is a common dilemma (well not exactly to the T), that many families of sick members have to go through. Death is a sad truth in our society but it is a necessary one. Without it, the planet would be ruined from over population and the more people that “steal” or purchase those life saving drugs, fill the world even more. I understand that is not an easy thing to read or believe in it but I do believe it. More and more people are surviving, going around Darwin’s survival of the fittest, and filling up an already over populated world. For me, I believe I am in stage 4 – maintaining the social order. I believe laws should be beaded and respect authority. But then again going back to this dilemma, I do not have a wife to care for so who knows what I would do if I was ever put into Mr. Heinz’ situation.
Mcleod, S. (2013). Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved July 05, 2020, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/kohlberg.html
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.