Here is an activity that I use on the first day of class. The goal is to get students to start thinking about their values. Ethics is only useful for well-meaning people that already have some values, and want to figure out how to apply them.
Activity: Students stand up. Read each question, and have students separate into groups on the left or right side of the room. Standing in the middle is not allowed (unless the student is willing to give a really good explanation!).
|Question||Left side||Right side|
|Which is more important when deciding if an action is moral?||Intentions||Consequences|
|Is it more important to punish all the bad people, or to make sure that no innocent people are wrongly punished?||Better for guilty to go free.||Better for innocent to be punished.|
|Which is more important?||Safety||Civil liberties|
|Which is more important? (inspired by Thoreau)||To be “good”||To be “good for something”|
|Does “true altruism” exist, or do people that act altruistically always get something out of it? (For example, do they do it because it makes them feel good?)||Some people are purely altruistic||Altruistic people always do it because they get something for it.|
|Is “goodness” something that can be learned? (inspired by Aristotle)||Yes||No – you are either good or you aren’t.|
|Is it okay, morally, to be rich when other people are starving?||Yes||No|
|Is it more fun to act morally, or immorally?||Morally||Immorally|
Commentary: Many of these questions touch on deep ideological divides in the United States. In each case I feel that both sides have a reasonable argument, but many students (and perhaps many instructors!) may disagree
I'd love to get more ideas for good binary questions that get at the heart of key ethical issues.
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