An Analysis of the Heinz Dilemma using Different Ethical theories



The line between what is right or wrong is not always very clear. Consequently, we are constantly presented with moral dilemmas that require debating on a philosophical level. Luckily, several ethical theories have been proposed by moral philosophers and ethicists. These theories are useful in assessing whether an action is right or wrong. They include those which are principled and those which are not. For instance: deontological, utilitarian, Care and virtue ethics. This essay examines the Heinz dilemma and assesses Heinz’s actions using different ethical theories, to determine whether he did the right thing.

A Utilitarian’s Response to the Heinz Dilemma

Let’s take utilitarianism into consideration. This is an ethical theory which argues on the morality of an action based on utility. This is to say that a utilitarian considers the action that offers the best outcomes as the right action. In other words, the goodness of action lays entirely on the outcomes it produces (Mill 339). If we argue the Heinz dilemma from a utilitarian’s point of view, then Heinz’s did the right thing by breaking into the laboratory and stealing the drug since this is the action that maximizes utility.

Heinz’s dilemma included the option of waiting for his wife to die since he could not afford the medicine or stealing the medicine in which case his wife would be healed. If he were not to steal the medicine, the outcomes would include him not breaking the law and remaining a free man and a law-abiding citizen. On the other hand though and even more unfortunate, his wife would die. If he were to steal the medicine, his wife would live but he would have to pay for his crime by serving a sentence in jail away from his wife.

Utilitarianism applies the principle of utility by picking the action that produces the outcomes with the most goodness. The utility that would come out of not stealing the medicine is that Heinz would not serve a prison sentence. He would, however, be a sad man for losing his wife. By stealing, the utility would include saving his wife’s life. Although he will serve a short sentence, he would be reunited with his wife afterward. Thus, in this case, the action with the best outcomes and most utility is stealing the medicine. For this reason, Heinz’s actions to steal the medicine are right from a utilitarian point of view.


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A Virtue Ethicist’s Response to the Heinz Dilemma

Virtue ethicists insist on the role of virtues and character that one possesses. Thus, this moral philosophy is not guided by a certain imperative that we should adhere to as is the case with deontological ethics. Neither does it focus on the outcomes as utilitarianism does, but rather on the virtuous nature of a person. Aristotle put forward the fact that a virtuous person is one who possesses ideal character traits and acts in the right way because that is their character (Hutchinson 81).

Let’s apply virtue ethics to the Heinz dilemma. In this case, the determination of whether Heinz’s actions were right or wrong is based on whether he acted as an agent of goodness. Is Heinz a virtuous person? According to Aristotle, his understanding of character is that one should possess the right inner state. Such states should automatically guide the appropriate action to take. It is clear that Heinz was driven by love and care for his wife. Both these are virtues which can be used to justify his actions. However, the controversy comes in Heinz’s actions to steal which cannot be considered as an ideal character trait as Aristotle labeled them.

At this point, it is significant to consider Aristotelian virtues. Virtue ethics further consider the purpose of the action. It is not enough to act virtuously but furthermore, one must consciously choose the right action. This is to mean that the action undertaken must have a purpose for the good. Also, one is supposed to act with reason, which is man’s highest function to bring about happiness and well-being with respect to Eudaimonism. Additionally, Aristotle is careful to note that ethics are imprecise and can therefore not be held accountable to a single principle as is the case in utilitarianism.

Now considering all this, by stealing, Heinz not only acted out of virtues of care and love but also with the purpose of the well-being and happiness of his wife given that his wife would live. If he had not stolen the medicine and sat back to watch as his wife died, then such action is not virtuous and lacks any function. If anything, it can only be regarded as negligence on his part as well a lack of reasoning which virtue ethics hold in high regard. When it comes to this issue of stealing, this can be defended by Aristotle’s admission that matters of ethics are flexible and not answerable to any particular principle. It is enough the Heinz acted with virtue and a good purpose. For this reason, Heinz’s actions were right.



An Analysis of Utilitarianism and Virtue-based ethics

Each of the above normative ethical theories has its strengths as well as its shortcomings, even though they both arrive at the same conclusion regarding the Heinz dilemma. Utilitarianism is good in that it considers the well-being of Heinz’s wife. It, however, fails to consider the harm that may be done to ensure her well-being. Its principled nature does not allow the analysis of all the factors. The only thing that matters is the outcome. Thus, it does not address the fact that he stole hence lacking flexibility.

Virtue ethics, on the other hand, is broad and thus not limited to a singular principle. For this reason, it can be easily applied to many dilemmas such as the one presented before Heinz. The morality of Heinz’s actions is judged based on his character and virtues as well as his purpose and reason. Every aspect is therefore evaluated. Additionally, it is a theory that encourages people to be moral agents.

Based on this analysis, virtue ethics should be applied in assessing Heinz’s case instead of utilitarianism. It promotes goodness in people, encourages people to mind other’s well-being, and encompasses a wide range of virtues. On the contrary, utilitarianism is limited and does not consider the wrongs done, only the utility of the outcomes.


Based on both utilitarian theory and virtue-based ethics, Heinz should have broken into the laboratory and stolen the drug. Reasoning from utilitarianism, stealing the drug results in the best utility while also upon reasoning from virtue-based ethics, stealing the drug proves that Heinz possesses virtues of love and care and purposes to do well.

Works Cited

Hutchinson, Douglas S. The virtues of Aristotle. Routledge, 2015.

Mill, John Stuart. “Utilitarianism.” Seven masterpieces of philosophy. Routledge, 2016. 337-383.


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