Michael Shaw Perry has published Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition: A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed. Perry is well-equipped for such a discussion. He earned a BA in philosophy from Dartmouth and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins. Apparently an over-achiever, he also obtained a JD from the University of Michigan Law School. His book reflects his "personal and intellectual struggles with the framework for ethical thinking and trying to figure out how to live a purposeful, fulfilling life." It is not light reading.
Ethics, says Perry, "is the study of how one ought to structure one's life and it is from this that ethically correct actions follow." When one is faced with a moral dilemma, ethics can help us understand the right thing to do. Perry says there are three kinds of moral dilemmas:
1) The pedestrian—the kind of daily choices we have to make, between, say, going to a child's birthday party or finishing a project at work; between telling a cancer patient she has six months to live or saying nothing.
2) The theoretical—push a fat man off a bridge to his death to stop a runaway trolley that will otherwise kill five people tied to the track? I.e., that is should you kill one person to save five?
3) The critical—a dilemma in which someone, through no fault of her own, must make an impossible choice. I.e., a mother in a concentration camp is told to choose which of her two children may live. Fortunately, such dilemmas are rare if only because there is no satisfactory solution.
After discussing moral dilemmas generally, Perry clears the ground of earlier philosophical approaches to ethics by discussing the weaknesses of theological, deontological, consequential, and value-based approaches. While each of these may have value in a specific situation, history has shown that they are not universally applicable—and philosophers like Plato, Bentham, Mill, Kant, and others have tried to develop an ethical theory that would be universally applicable. Perry argues, cogently, that such an approach is bound to fail because they leave a gulf between the theories and "our moral condition as we find and experience it."
Perry's approach is to ground ethical behavior in identity. "I am a human being and as such have various needs, interests, and obligations. I respond to reasons, show sympathy with others, desire certain ends, feel affinity with my fellows, etc." Moreover we often have many other identities: child, brother, father, husband, citizen, employee, manager, and many, many more. Some of these identities you can never shed. You are still someone's child even if your parents are dead, even if you were an orphan. Other identities are more transient. You may be a member of the PTA, but you can drop out without serious consequences.
With these identities, says Perry, come ethical norms and obligations. These are perhaps clearest for people like doctors and lawyers, professions for which the norms and obligations have been hammered over time. It means that a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, a police officer, a President may perform an ethical act in that role that would be someone who is not a doctor, a lawyer, etc.
It also seems to mean that ethics are culturally bound. That is, an act that would be unethical for a businessman in one culture (offering a bribe, for example) may be perfectly ethical for a businessman in another—same identify, same act, different ethical norm.
As I said above, Moral Dilemmas is not easy reading. It would have been helped with more concrete examples, less passive voice, and a good editor. (The chapter about ethics and lawyers is among the most lively and accessible.) Nevertheless I believe the book is worth the effort to absorb if only to help clarify your own thinking about the right thing to do in what seems to be a moral dilemma.