In the classroom: Lesson Plans

Lesson 1: Introducing Basic Concepts in Moral Thought and Reasoning

In this lesson, you will introduce a series of basic concepts in moral thought and reasoning by using an imaginary case. The case is a very simple (even simplistic) one that we alter in various ways, and discuss from various perspectives, in order to introduce the concepts.

The case

Consider the following (imaginary) case, which we will call Bobby.

Suppose that a person, Bobby, is drowning in a lake. And suppose that only you can save Bobby, by rowing out to Bobby in a boat that lies nearby.

Concept 1: The moral point of view

One can view this and other cases from various points of view.

From the legal point of view, one can ask whether applicable laws require that you save Bobby. Do the laws of the jurisdiction in which you are present include Good Samaritan laws or other laws that require you to save Bobby?

From the prudential (or self-interested) point of view, one can ask whether saving Bobby would benefit you. Would you avoid some legal or social sanction if you do? Might you receive some reward for saving Bobby?

From the moral point of you, one can ask whether you ought (morally) to save Bobby. Is saving Bobby the right thing to do? Or would letting Bobby drown be morally wrong, or impermissible?

Instructor notes: When considering morality, note that the moral point of view can (and should) be distinguished from other points of view. Often people confuse moral and legal concerns, an inclination that is strengthened by the fact that some laws are grounded in moral reasons (e.g., it is plausible to think that murder is illegal because it is immoral). But note that it is not the case that all laws are grounded in morality. Moreover, when there is overlap between the law and morality, it is generally possible to find relevant moral reasons, and it is these reasons that you should focus on. 

Further, students should be warned against committing two very common fallacies. The first, which we may call “moral legalism,” is the fallacy of inferring the moral status of an action, practice, etc. from its legal status. The second, which we may call “moral conventionalism,” is the fallacy of inferring the (actual) moral status of an action, practice, etc. from conventional beliefs about its moral status. A moment’s reflection reveals these to be fallacies. For instance, neither the fact that a society’s legal system permits slavery nor the fact that members of a society believe that slavery is morally permissible entails that slavery is morally permissible. Likewise, even if it would not be illegal to let Bobby drown, it does not follow that it would not be immoral to let Bobby drown.

Concept 2: Obligations (or duties)

Do you have a moral obligation (or duty) to save Bobby? If you do, then—all else equal—saving Bobby is the right thing to do—that is, it is what you ought to do; whereas letting Bobby drown is morally wrong, or impermissible. If you do not, then saving Bobby may be morally praiseworthy, but it is not morally required. (Obligations are often marked by the term “ought” or “should.”. If you ought, morally, to do x, then you have a moral obligation to do x.)

Instructor note: In moral thought, it is possible to distinguish between the obligatory (those things that you ought (in the sense of being morally required) to do), and the supererogatory (those things that you are not morally required to do, but you would be praiseworthy for doing). Another way of stating the distinction is that you are morally blameworthy when you fail to do something that is morally obligatory, and you do not merit special praise for doing your moral duty. Whereas the supererogatory is the other way around: You are not morally blameworthy for failing to do something supererogatory (such as running into a burning building to save a cat), but you do merit special moral praise if you do something supererogatory. Supererogatory actions are sometimes called ““heroic” or “saintly,”“ particularly if they involve considerable risk or cost to the agent.

Concept 3: Rights

In anything like normal circumstances, we ought to respect the rights of others by doing what they have a right that we do. In the case of Bobby we can ask, does Bobby have a right to be saved? More specifically, does Bobby have amoral right against you that you save him or her?

If Bobby does have a moral right against you that you save him or her, then you have a corresponding obligation (or “correlative duty”) to save Bobby and—absent countervailing considerations—you ought to fulfill that obligation.5

But now what about owner of boat? As its owner, he or she has property rights in the boat. Those surely include a moral right against you that you not take it for a joy ride. But do they also include a moral right against you that you not take it and use it to save Bobby? And if they do, is that right outweighed or overridden by any or all of the following: Bobby’s need, your obligation to save Bobby, or Bobby’s right to be saved?

Instructor notes: A plausible and widely-held view (and one that is generally reflected in the law) is that the need or obligation to save a life (e.g., Bobby’s) outweighs or overrides property rights (e.g., the owner’s exclusive right to the use of his or her boat).

Make sure that you are clear about the difference between claims or claim-rights and other things that are called rights: liberties, powers, and immunities.

Make sure also that you are clear about the distinction between positive and negative rights. A positive right is a claim to a performance, or to the provision of some good or service (e.g., active assistance). A negative right is a claim to a forbearance, or to non-interference (e.g., with one’s property). Some (but not all) theorists regard this as an important distinction.

Concept 4: Special obligations and rights

Now we will alter the case by introducing a further, potentially relevant factor.

Suppose that Bobby is not a stranger, but rather your friend, spouse, or child.

Does that change things, morally speaking? And, if it does, how does it change them? Do you now have an obligation to save Bobby where before you did not? Does Bobby now have a right to your life-saving services when before he or she did not? Are the rights of the boat’s owner now outweighed or overridden where before they were not?

Instructor notes: Certain kinds of relationships (e.g., friendship or familial relations) may give rise to special obligations, obligations that we owe to specific individuals, as opposed to others generally. (General obligations, or natural obligations, are those obligations we owe to others generally. The obligation to not harm others is a prime example.) These may include obligations of care.

Promissory obligations are a prime example of special obligations: a promissory obligation is owed by the person who made the promise, the promisor, to the person to whom she made the promise, the promisee. Moreover, special obligations often (and perhaps always) entail corresponding rights. For example, a promisee has a right against the promisor (but not others) that the promise be kept. Thus, had you promised to save Bobby if she got into trouble while swimming, you would have a promissory obligation to save Bobby, and Bobby would have a corresponding right against you that you save him or her.

Concept 5: Permissions (Options)

Now we will alter our original case (Bobby) in a different way.

Suppose that saving Bobby will cost you something. Suppose, for example, that you cannot save Bobby without ruining that very expensive suit or outfit that you just bought. Or suppose that you cannot save Bobby without missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in an Olympic sailing regatta that is being held on the other side of the lake.

Does that change things, morally speaking? And, if it does, how does it change them? Is there some threshold at which the cost to you is sufficiently high that you do not have an obligation to save Bobby where before you did? Or is there some threshold at which the cost to you is sufficiently high that, although you do have an obligation to save Bobby, it is permissible for you not to do so?

Instructor notes: Permissions (or options) are limits on what we must do to promote good ends or optimal outcomes—including, most prominently, permissions to pursue our own interests or projects even when doing so would have suboptimal consequences. In this variation of our case, doing anything other than saving Bobby will have suboptimal consequences. (It is essential that this feature of the case be preserved here.) And the question is whether there is some threshold at which the cost to the agent justifies—that is, makes it permissible for—the agent to forego saving Bobby.

Note that permissions must be distinguished from excuses. Permissions justify—that is, make permissible—acts that would otherwise be wrong.

Excuses mitigate the blameworthiness of agents who act wrongly. And what the agent in this case needs to know (or decide) is what she may do, or what she is justified in doing, not what she would be blameworthy for not doing. Thus, the question here is not whether there is some threshold at which the cost to the agent would make it inappropriate to blame her if she foregoes saving Bobby. Rather, it is whether there is some threshold at which the cost to the agent would make it permissible for her to forego saving Bobby.

Concept 6: Consequences

Now we will make a different alteration to our original case (Bobby).

First, suppose that saving Bobby will benefit third parties. Suppose, for example, that Bobby is a famous violinist whose live performances bring joy to millions or a trauma surgeon who saves hundreds of lives every year.

Does that change things, morally speaking? And, if it does, how does it change them? Do you now have an obligation to save Bobby where before you did not? Are the rights of the boat’s owner now outweighed or overridden where before they were not?

Now, suppose that saving Bobby will harm third parties, albeit indirectly. Suppose, for example, that you have traveled back through time to 1938 and that “Bobby” is, in fact, Adolf Hitler. You could save Hitler, thereby enabling not only the Holocaust, but also the most destructive war in all of human history. Or you could let him drown.

Does that change things, morally speaking? And, if it does, how does it change them? Do you have no obligation to save Hitler? If you do, is it outweighed or overridden by the harm that others will suffer if you do? Do you have an obligation not to save Hitler, to let him drown? Do his would-be victims have rights against you that you not save him?

Instructor note: These variations get at the point that the consequences of actions and, in particular, the goodness or badness of those consequences may be morally relevant—especially if they are unusually good or bad. Indeed, act consequentialist theories claim that whether an act is right or wrong depends only on the non-moral value of its consequences (the consequences of the act itself). And important categories of consequences are the benefits and harms that result from a given action.

Concept 7: Moral Agents vs. Moral Patients

Now we will shift our focus by altering our original case (Bobby) in a different sort of way.

Suppose that Bobby’s drowning in the lake is no accident. Smith, knowing that Bobby cannot swim, took Bobby out to the middle of the lake and pushed Bobby overboard.

Can we hold Smith morally responsible for trying to drown Bobby? Moral agents are those entities we can (appropriately) hold morally responsible for their actions. Such an agent is one capable of knowingly acting with reference to some standard of right and wrong. We generally think that adults of sound mind are moral agents, while young children, and those with significant psychological impairments (e.g., psychosis), are not. Being a moral agent entails having moral standing (or moral status).)

Central to moral agency is the ability to perform actions, rather than mere behaviors. An action is a behavior that is done intentionally. To act intentionally, the actor does something in order to bring about a particular, consciously identified, end. The difference between actions and mere behaviors explains why we think that you are clearly morally responsible for things that you choose to do and for the foreseeable results of your actions, but are generally not morally responsible for involuntary movements of your body (e.g., epileptic seizures) and the unforeseeable results of your actions.

Moral patients are those entities who are not moral agents, but who nevertheless possess moral standing. We do not hold very young children morally responsible for their actions, as we do not think that they really understand the consequences of their actions or the difference between right and wrong. However we do think that the way we treat young children can be moral or immoral: they have moral standing. In contrast, an inanimate object (or the way we treat such an object) has moral significance only if and to the extent that it is related in morally significant ways to an entity that has moral standing. For example, your mother’s dining table (or the way we treat it) has moral significance only insofar as it is related in morally significant ways to (e.g.) you or your mother.

Instructor note: Questions about moral status and the grounds thereof are central questions in numerous branches of applied ethics, including bioethics and environmental ethics. A fairly common mistake (one not infrequently made by students) is to argue that animals cannot have moral status (or moral rights) simply because they are not moral agents. This argument not only implies that young children lack moral status (that they are not even moral patients), but also begs the question of what the grounds of moral status are.

Concept 8: Morally Relevant Significant Factors

The foregoing exercise illustrates a crucial point: “Whether a given action is required, permitted, or forbidden is typically a function of several different morally relevant factors.”6 Each alteration of our original case (Bobby) introduces an additional factor that may (or may not) be of moral relevance and asks the student to consider whether, and if so how, it is morally relevant. For instance, whether Bobby is related to you may well be morally relevant, as may be any substantial risk that rescuing Bobby poses to you.

Precisely which factors are of genuine moral relevance is an open question in ethical theory, as is the further question of how those factors combine and interact to make right acts right and wrong acts wrong7. But the immediate and equally crucial point is that developing a considered view about the moral status of a particular action, practice, etc. requires developing a considered view not only about which features of it or the circumstances of the case are morally relevant, but also about how those features are morally relevant. This is not a simple task, but it is one that no one engaged in ethical inquiry can avoid.

Lesson 2: Connecting ethics to the area of inquiry

By the time you reach the second lesson in this series, you will already be tailoring its content to your area of inquiry, so it is impossible to give a universal lesson plan here. What we can offer is a generic outline for a lesson that engages the students in the moral issues and theories that are central to your area of inquiry.


These steps have been roughly broken down for a 50 minute class, but you really can take quite a lot of time over these steps, and we think that 80 minutes is even better.

1. Present an “anchor” case. An anchor case is one that is clearly controversial and lends itself to analysis using the primary ethical theories, codes and principles that you intend to cover in your class. [10 minutes]

2. Break students into small groups to discuss the case, asking them to list any issues that arise in the discussion. [10 minutes]

3. In large group, solicit the issues that arose in the small group discussion and list on the board, consolidating ideas as much as possible. [5 minutes]

4. Go through the list, and distinguish the moral issues from the empirical issues, making sure that you emphasize this distinction clearly. You do not want to get bogged down a discussion about the facts of the matter. [10 minutes]

5. Elicit the underlying moral principles, codes and theories that are driving the moral issues, and list these on the other side of the board. You may have to expand things a bit to get all of the elements of the toolbox you want in this list – this is where choosing your case well becomes evident. [15 minutes]

By the end of the class, you will have taken your students through the process of discovering for themselves why the elements of the toolkit that you have chosen to cover in your course are relevant to your area of inquiry, and why they should care about them. This list sets the groundwork for the moral theories, codes and principles that you will be introducing in more detail over the next few class sessions.

Sample Anchor Case

The following is an anchor case is from a course in bioethics:

Myriad Genetics and the Patenting of Genes

Myriad Genetics, Inc., a molecular diagnostic company that specializes in the genetic bases for disease. Its business is the development of molecular diagnostic products for predictive and personalized medicine. Predictive medicine is the assessment of an individual's risk for developing particular diseases. Personalized medicine includes the identification of a patient's likelihood of responding to a particular drug, the optimization of drug doses, and assessment of a patient's risk of disease progression and disease recurrence. Myriad’s flagship product is BRACanalysis, a predictive medicine test for a genetic predisposition to breast cancer. The test is based on the identification of two genes, BRAC1 discovered in 1991, and BRAC2 discovered in 1995. Myriad genetics charges $4000 for the test, which is equivalent to the cost of sequencing a whole genome. This is the test that was cited by actress Angelina Jolie in her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. Mutations in these genes increase the predicted risk for breast cancer from 12% to 50%-80%, and ovarian cancer to 20%-50%. Patents were granted on the two genes in 1997 and 1998 respectively. These patents were the subject of an extended legal battle culminating in the landmark Supreme Court decision Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (No. 12-398). On June 13, 2013 the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that, "A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated," invalidating Myriad's patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The Court allowed that if a gene was manipulated to create something ‘not found in nature’ it could still be eligible for patent protection. In the weeks immediately following the Supreme Court decision Myriad Genetics and its partners filed suit for patent infringement against Ambry Genetics and Gene by Gene Ltd. for offering tests for BRAC1 and BRAC2.

Prior to class, you want to have, for your own use, a list of the morally significant factors, and the theories, principles and codes you have chosen from the toolkit. Your aim will be to draw the student’s discussion to these points, guiding where necessary. Although generally they get to most of them on their own. In this case, the Morally Significant Factors are: ownership of genes; prevention of harm; rights of companies; incentives for private development; the general good; patient’s rights to access their own genetic information; the purpose and limits of intellectual property rights.