Ethical Dilemmas to Pose to Students

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Ethical dilemmas you pose to students will help you get your students to think rationally about emotional problems and question their own assumptions. Ethical dilemmas are situations in which the best moral course of action is not clear-cut. Asking students what they would do in a few situations can foster a better understanding of ethical issues. Doctors, nurses, psychologists and people from many other professions have to deal with ethical dilemmas frequently.

1 Logic Versus Emotion

Many ethical dilemmas have a clear logical choice, but present an issue because of the intense emotional weight presented by the problem. William Styron’s novel “Sophie’s Choice” contains one such dilemma, where the protagonist, Sophie, is sent to prison camp by the Nazis. She is told she can spare one of her children if she can choose which one. She does, and later is racked with guilt. Should she be guilty? Another similar dilemma involves your being in a concentration camp, and a guard says he is going to hang your son. He wants you to pull the chair away, but says if you don’t he will kill another innocent inmate, too. What do you do? Both of these situations present the opportunity to prevent someone’s murder, but only if you become “complicit” in another. The additional emotional weight comes from your close relationship with the person whose murder you would have to facilitate.

2 Utilitarian Choices

Another type of ethical dilemma presents issues that can obviously be solved by simple utilitarian thinking. Utilitarianism basically states that the solution that produces the least unhappiness or harm is the best one. This can be illustrated by the “overcrowded lifeboat dilemma," which Victor Grassian presented in his 1992 book "Moral Reasoning: Ethical Theory and Some Contemporary Moral Problems." Tell your students that a ship hit a iceberg in 1842, and 30 survivors ended up on a lifeboat designed for seven people. A coming storm meant that the boat would have to be made lighter for anybody to survive. The captain decides to throw the weaker people on the lifeboat overboard, so that the stronger ones can row to safety. Is his decision worse than letting everybody die from the storm? Should he be convicted of murder?

3 Blurring the Lines

Some ethical dilemmas try to blur the line between right and wrong. In her case files titled "Ethical Dilemmas for Classroom Discussion," Charis Denison presents the dilemma of Georgia, a student who is terrible at taking tests and has an important math test coming up. She understands all of the necessary ideas and has even tutored other students in class; however, the stress of taking tests is too much for her. She is stuck on a question worth a lot of points, and she notices that a girl she tutored, who has sat in front of her, has answered the question. The teacher watching over the test turns away, and Georgia considers cheating. After all, she understands the content, has taught the person she would be copying from, but can’t take tests. If she fails, her later life would be affected, and she might not get into her chosen university. The teacher is still turned away, completely oblivious to what is going on. Is it right for Georgia to cheat on the test?

4 Moral Obligation

Several ethical dilemmas are not so easy to classify but relate to the idea of having an obligation to help people. For example, in the last episode of "Seinfeld," Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are arrested after witnessing a robbery. A man with his hand thrust in his pocket robbed someone in broad daylight, and the victim shouted that the robber had a gun. They are convicted for not helping the victim; is that right?

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.