Ethics in Class

My sophomore English major students are fairly advanced in their language skills, compared to the students many of my friends have at their schools. There are differing levels in each class, of course, but by and large they can converse fluently on a variety of concrete and abstract topics and have fairly vast vocabularies. As an experiment with just how far I could push them, I wrote a lesson plan dealing with ethical dilemmas–introducing the concept of hypothetical problems like, which group would you save on a sinking ship, and encouraging them to debate it. Some of the classes did well and seemed to get really into the class, and others were much more taciturn about the whole thing. There’s one interesting story to relate, though, that I think actually taught me a lot about what Chinese people tend to value.

I told them a story that I had gotten from a class I took at American University last spring. In the story, there are five characters, and after hearing the story, students must rank the characters in their notebooks from most good to most evil, or, whose actions they most agree with, then second-most, etc, down to the character whose actions they most disagree with. I’m not sure about the original source of the story, and I made up the names and paraphrased it, but here it goes:

John and Mary, boyfriend and girlfriend, live in a village by a dangerous river. Mary lives on one side of the river with her mother and John lives on the other side. There used to be a bridge across the river, but it was destroyed. Being apart was very hard for them, and one day John told Mary she had to figure out a way to get across the river to see him or he would break up with her. Mary went to the ferryman, Paul, to ask him to take her across the river, even though she had no money to pay the fare. Paul said he would take her across only if she would sleep with him. Confused, Mary asked her mother for advice, but Mary’s mother would offer neither advice nor help. Mary decided, therefore, to take Paul’s deal and slept with him. The next day, Paul took Mary across the river and she met John. But when John learned that Mary had slept with Paul, he broke up with her. Upset and angry, Mary told her friend Peter what had happened. Peter beat up John and hurt him severely. Peter and Mary were happy that John was punished.

So, rank your five characters. Got them? Now, class, talk about it in small groups, then we’ll vote on which characters we found most and least good, and then we’ll discuss it as a class.

If I were doing this exercise, I’d say that Paul the ferryman is the most good–that is, none of the characters are totally “good,” but at least Paul is a straightforward man of his word. He says what he wants in exchange for granting a favor, and he follows through. He never forced Mary to take his deal. Peter is the most bad, for me–to beat John up severely, and then be happy about it, when, really, he had no business being involved with this whole mess. Mary, Mother, and John fall somewhere in the middle. Mary is perhaps a bit misguided but not evil (although her being happy her friend beat John up doesn’t sit well). Mother could have helped set her straight, but didn’t. And John was a jerk for making her be the one to come to him, and then breaking up with her straight off–although, he has a right to do what he feels, and if he couldn’t be with her after the Paul incident, then so be it.

A handful of students, in each of my classes, found Mary to be either most good or most bad. Some were very critical of Mother for not doing anything to help. A few favored John for doing what he felt he had to. But the most interesting, and dominant, patterns were that the strong majority in each class felt Peter, the friend, was the most good character, and the worst character was either John–it’s his responsibility, as the man, to take care of the relationship–or, more dominantly, ferryman Paul, for taking advantage of a girl in need. Not a single student among my 200+ thought Paul was the best.

What does this show? First off, the Peter thing makes sense. I think there’s a bit of romanticism around such concepts as honor and revenge, and there are great Chinese epic stories (don’t ask me for names) that highlight a hero who kills tons and tons of people, but all for, you know, honor and stuff. Mob justice, or something. So Peter, doing dirty work on behalf of his silly friend Mary, is doing a good thing. This doesn’t sit well with me. And the sex thing–Paul sleeping with Mary in exchange for a favor–certainly didn’t sit well with them. To take advantage of a woman like that! And for a woman to make that choice!

When we did this exercise in my class at AU, I remember there being not one set pattern but a lot of contrast. A couple people I remember being on my side, but certainly not everyone. A couple of my classes asked me how I would answer and I was honest, but tried to emphasize that those were my own opinions and were not representative of all Americans. Not sure if they believed me. Comments, where do other readers weigh in on this exercise?

I’m not sure that I’d do this lesson again–some of them really seemed to like it, but others definitely not so much. We’ve now finished our unit on values and are moving into the unit on cultural differences. A couple people have asked me about thoughts on the recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient. I’m thinking about discussing it, in brief, in class, during our unit on critical thinking and reading the news, but we’ll see….

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2 thoughts on “Ethics in Class

  1. I like the way you are encouraging your students to think critically, without imposing your views on them. I suspect that this is something not common in their educational experience.

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