Janet Lasley and Ilayna Pickett
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


Although it is easy and valuable to have students discuss an ethical dilemma, the students can fall into the trap of jumping to their first impressions and then trying to justify their responses. It would be more in keeping with the idea that ethics is a process to have students intelligently assess the information relative to a dilemma in the hope that a resolution will become apparent as a result of exploring the problem. In order to accomplish this, the student will need models and practice in detaching themselves from personal interests and understanding the types of reasoning, or ethical systems, that people commonly use.

The purpose of this module is to have students illustrate types of ethical decisions by role playing a script, then involving the class in discovering the type of thinking demonstrated. Knowing the types of systems will hopefully help to shape their future discussions of ethical dilemmas and help to broaden the repertoire of thinking they can bring to use. Students may try to put these systems on a continuum of right/wrong or good/bad. It is important to point out that they are simply ways people find the reasoning they bring to an ethical dilemma. All of these are useful in looking for considerations and in understanding other points of view.


(Any High School Class)


  1. Students will come to a common understanding of the different frameworks people use in dealing with ethical dilemmas.

  2. Students will recognize the differences people have in approaching an ethical framework depending on their individual views and values.

  3. Students will be able to demonstrate their understanding by using the frameworks to approach new situations.

    Time: This module could be presented as a quick overview in a single class period. It is more likely that two days will be used; the first to present the types of systems and the second to check understanding and provide the students with practice. Either way, following this module with other activities involving ethical decision making will allow the students to put into use the thinking they have acquired and reinforce their understanding.

    Attached Material:

    • Part 1: Exploring Ethical Systems

      • A. Directions
      • B. Dialogue Parts
      • C. Information on Systems (chart)
    • Part 2: Practice

      • A. Teacher's Guide
      • B. Worksheet...Ethical Systems in Use
      • C. Activity...Thinking Behind Ethical Systems

    Part 1: Exploring Ethical Systems

    Dialogue Directions:

    What follows is a dialogue among some students about an ethical dilemma they are confronting. This dialogue is designed to illustrate the types of thinking people use (i.e.. their ethical systems).


    1. Assign students various parts to read. It would be helpful for students to sit in small groups that represent each type of ethical system (notice the first letter of the names of the students are consistent within each ethical type).

    2. Have students read aloud each little dialogue. It may be helpful to pause as you move between groups.

    3. Discussion:

      • A. The purpose of this discussion is to have the students focus on the types of ethical systems the students just saw being used.

      • B. Have the first small group repeat their dialogue. Ask the students what type of reasoning they see common to all students. Some probing questions: What commonalties do you see in the student's reasoning? What do the students seem to stay focused on to guide their thinking? What can you generalize about the rules the students focus on?

      • C. Students should be able to discern easily the reasoning being used. At this point you might check their comprehension by asking them if an example you make up fits the system.

      • D. Depending on your purpose you can at this point name the type of ethical system (Relativism in the first dialogue) and descriptors of this system. Attached is a chart (with a blank original) that may be helpful in organization.

      • E. Repeat this process with each dialogue.

    Note: It may be useful to point out to the students the process each group used in their discussion. The dialogue shows the players focusing on the issue and type of reasoning important (and why) to approaching the dilemma. Students tend to want to state the first solution that comes to mind and spend their time defending it. For further ideas on structuring discussion to avoid this see Section III of this collection of modules.


    Franena, W. (1973). Ethics. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

    Rachels, J. (Ed.) (1989). The Right Thing To Do: Basic Readings In Moral Philosophy. New York: Random House.


    Ethical Dilemma:

    Mary stole a copy of the final for Honors Biology and circulated it among her friends. You have an opportunity to see the final and are particu-larly torn about if you should look or not...after all you are in about the middle of this class gradewise and only those students who score in the top 50% will be allowed to go on to the advanced class (which is highly regarded on a college application). Of course if you say nothing your chance of being in that top 50% is pretty slim.


    Rita: I think that in today's society cheating of this sort is so usual that there is no particular reason not to look at the test.

    Robert: Yea, look at all the security around testing; it wouldn't be necessary if they didn't think we were going to cheat. It's like they almost expect it.

    Roger: I've heard of those schools with strict honor systems and if you went there you might feel differently, but we're here...You know, when in Rome do as the Romans do.

    Divine Command:

    Donna: First of all it seems that having this information is a form of stealing information that is not yours. Didn't we learn as children in Sunday school that we shouldn't steal?

    Doris: Yeah, and if I use this information to get a better score aren't I representing myself as being more knowledgeable than I really am? This sounds a lot like bearing false witness that I've always learned is wrong.

    Dick: But, also remember, the Lord helps those who help themselves.


    Tim: I think the real issue here is do the ends justify the means.

    Terry: On the whole cheating may be bad but in this case the greater good might come because I can do a decent job on this test and be able to take that next class.

    Tina: When you look at all the alternatives, like doing poorly, dealing with mad friends if you turn them in, or just using the answers, and weigh the pro's and con's it seems like just using the answers comes out on top for me.

    Tony: In this case, keeping quiet offers the greatest benefit for the least cost.

    Teresa: Maybe for you, but I think the costs of a guilty conscience and fear of being discovered outweigh the risks of telling.


    Deb: It seems like I ought to look at the moral rules that come into play in a situation like this.

    Dahlia: Yeah, what about justice, equal treatment and refraining from evil?

    Dan: Maybe the best thing to do would be to see which rules you feel most bound by, qualified by the specifics of this situation.

    Dillon: I think this balancing ought to take into account how we are using ourselves and other people....can the decision we make be applied to others beyond just the person in this exact situation.

    Virtue Ethics:

    Valerie: I think to deal with this dilemma you ought to look deep inside yourself and see what your motives are for the action you might take.

    Vince: Like if you ratted on your friends just to call attention to yourself, you wouldn't really have made any progress on this issue at just would have done another wrong.

    Victor: I think I would feel better about myself if I overcame the temptation to use the answers because I knew it was wrong instead of just because I knew it was expected of me, or I was afraid of being caught.


    ETHICAL RELATIVISM - No principles are universally valid. All moral principles are valid relative to cultural tastes. The rules of the society serve as a standard.S- Brings about tolerance of other cultures. Keeps societies from falling apart.

    W- Confuses what ought to be done with what is cur-rently done.

    South Seas Islanders practice cannibalism. Cannibalism is strictly prohibited in the U.S.
    DIVINE COMMAND THEORY - Moral standards depend on God who is all-knowing. Any act that conforms to the law of God is right; an act that breaks God's law is wrong.S- Standards are from a higher authority than humans. Gives reasons why man should behave morally. Gives worth to all equally.

    W- Can be arbitrary depend-ing on interpretation. Can we know the true divine authority?

    Christian religions point believers to rules like the Ten Commandments.
    UTILITARIANISM - Actions are judged right or wrong solely by their consequences. Right actions are those that produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness. Each person's happiness is equally important. S- Promotes human well-being and attempts to lessen human suffering.

    W- One person's good can be another's evil. Hard to predict accurately all consequences.

    The U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Japan in WWII believing it was worth the loss of life to gain the end of the war and stop the higher loss of life if the war continued.
    DEONTOLOGY - Emphasis is on moral rules and duty. If not willing for everyone to follow the rule, then it is not morally permissible. Emphasis on autonomy, justice and kind acts. People treated as ends, never means. S- It provides a special moral status for humans. Moral rules are universal.

    W- It says nothing about other living things. Rules can be abstract.

    In the U.S. a continued emphasis on human rights for all people stems from a willingness to reason that justice and equal treatment ought to be applied universally.
    VIRTUE ETHICS - Morals are internal. It seeks to produce good people who act well out of spontaneous goodness. It emphasizes living well and achieving excellence.S- It internalize moral behavior.

    W- Offers no guidance for resolving ethical dilemmas.

    A faculty determines that a student council officer with a genuine interest to serve deserves more recognition than one who just wants to beef up his resume.







    The Thinking Behind Ethical Systems



    Read the following scenario and describe the kind of thinking each of the different participants would engage in to decide on their advice to Joan.

    In high school Joan was a three-time Iowa state champion discus and javelin thrower. She is currently attending a state university on an athletic scholarship for these events. Many of her competitors are using anabolic steroids to increase their performances and Joan finds it increasingly difficult to maintain her number one position in her conference. Joan is considering taking steroids herself but decides to ask for advice from five friends. Each of these friends operates from a different moral philosophy and ethical system. What kinds of thinking would each engage in when giving advice to Joan?

    Rita, the Relativist, would reason:

    Doris, the Divine Command ethicist, would reason:

    Tim, the Utilitarianist, would reason:

    Dan, the Deontologist, would reason:

    Valerie, the Virtue Ethicist, would reason:

    Part 2: Practice/Evaluation

    Teacher's guide:

    The two exercises entitled "Ethical Systems in Use" and "The Thinking Behind Ethical Systems" could be used either as practice for the students or for evaluation or a combination of both. The exercises could be administered individually or in student groups.

    Suggested answers to "Ethical Systems in Use:"

    There may be additional answers which could be considered correct if these answers are supported by plausible reasons.

    CASE 1 - Ethical Relativism - The decision was based on the mores or traditions of the tribe.

    CASE 2 - Divine Command Theory - The decision was based on one of The Ten Commandments - honor thy mother and father, for instance.

    CASE 3 - Utilitarianism - The decision was based on the best consequence for the most people.

    CASE 4 - Deontology - The decision was based on duty - Ted would want his decision to be universal.

    CASE 5 - Virtue Ethics - The decision was based on wanting to continue doing good.

    CASE 6 - Utilitarian - The decision was based on the best consequence for Sarah.

    CASE 7 - Divine Command - The decision was based on "thou shalt not bear false witness."

    CASE 8 - Deontology - The decision was based on the worth of the individ-ual who should never be used as a means to an end. OR Virtue Ethics - He acts out of spontaneous goodness.

    Suggested answers to "The Thinking Behind Ethical Systems:"

    Rita, the Relativist: Everybody else is doing it. It's expected that athletes use steroids especially for increasing strength.

    Doris, the Divine Command ethicist: The Bible says that your body is the temple of the Lord and God certainly wouldn't want you to abuse it. Besides, if you're on steroids it's like you're lying because it's not your true performance.

    Tim, the Utilitarianist: Maintaining your top position in conference means additional years of scholarship. The end justifies taking the drug. They haven't really proved that the steroids will affect your health that much. Dan, the Deontologist: You are a valuable human being and you shouldn't take a chance on risking your health just for a championship and the glory to the school.

    Valerie, the Virtue ethicist: How could you even think of doing such a thing? The action of taking steroids is not the right or good thing to do. How could you live with your conscience?

    Ethical Systems in Use



    Identify the following decisions according to the ethical system being adhered to. Support your choice with the reasoning you used. The choices for ethical systems are Ethical Relativism, Divine Command Theory, Utilitarianism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics.

    CASE 1 -

    Enu, the old grandmother of an Shoshone tribe, could no longer chew the buffalo hides to make them supple enough for making items of clothing. When winter came and food supplies were not sufficient for all, it was decided by the tribe that Enu would be left alone on a nearby hill to die.



    CASE 2 -

    Rachel has fallen in love with Nathan, a schoolmate in a small religious school set up by a Christian sect. Her parents forbid a marriage with Nathan and make arrangements for Rachel to marry Peter, another youth in the church. Rachel married Peter.



    CASE 3 -

    In Germany during 1942 a Christian soldier, whose close friend is imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp, finds himself in a crowd with his leader, Adolf Hitler. He views the Fuhrer as ruthless and dangerous to his country. Being armed, he considers killing Hitler. After a few moments of hesitation, the soldier assassinates Adolf Hitler.



    CASE 4 -

    Ted, an insurance agent, receives a phone call from a fellow agent who works in the same office, asking for a ride to work because his car has broken down. Ted had intended to use the drive to work to view some property he would like to buy but picking up his co-worker would not leave him time to do this. He decides not to refuse the co-worker's request.



    CASE 5 -

    Thomas, a missionary doctor in El Salvador, was told by the govern-ment to abandon his work and return to the United States. Thomas doesn't even consider stopping his work with the poor people of the countryside.



    CASE 6 -

    Rachel visited her friend Sarah in the hospital. Sarah had been badly burned and blinded in a car accident and seemed most concerned about how disfigured she might look. She asks Rachel how awful she looks. Rachel lies to Sarah and tells her the effects of the burn are not bad at all.



    CASE 7 -

    Art gets a new car and asks his good neighbor Sam whether he likes the color. Even though Sam knows the truth will hurt Art he believes in the ten commandments and so gives his honest opinion that the car would look better in a different color.



    CASE 8 -

    Hank, who is not religious, witnesses a man known to be quite wealthy drop a money clip containing several large bills. Hank could definitely use the money to help buy clothes for his eight foster children but instead returns the money to the man.



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