Module Teaching Notes
This is the first of the “put tools in the toolbox” modules. It is meant to introduce general models for
processing ethical dilemmas, which you can refer back to (if you wish) throughout the course.
The opening module was meant as a first-day-of-class, no-prior-study required exercise. This module starts
to present specific ways for handling ethical decisions.
I find it useful to define an ethical dilemma as one in which the law does not require or prohibit any particular
action. Ethics is the “fuzzy area” beyond law in which decisions may not always be clear-cut. Decisions
that are made to comply with the law are not questions of ethics.
Now, many would argue that there is much more to ethics than to define it as “not-law”, and I would agree.
But, especially as a starting point, a “not-law” centered definition is the best way to focus the students'
(If you like, by all means spend some time discussing the boundary between law and ethics. To me, it
seems ever shifting. Sometimes ethics drives law, and sometimes law drives ethics.)
Once you have defined ethical dilemmas, it is time to define the two basic models for navigating ethical
dilemmas that are presented in this module.
Utilitarian thinkers tend towards “the end justifies the means”. If the amount of “overall good” - whether the
good thing is happiness, opportunity, money, or anything else - is increased as much as possible, then an
ethical dilemma has been properly navigated. A choice that helps several people is better than a choice
that helps a few people in the same way, for example.
One can criticize this model by arguing that ethics can't be so mechanical or mathematical, and also by
arguing that it allows for “bad” or “harsh” decisions, so long as things turn out well.
I usually stop here (but not for too long) and ask the students to comment generally on their first impression
of the principle of utility.
An alternative way of thinking through ethical dilemmas is to follow a deontological model. Kant's ideas can
be summarized here, if you wish, although two of the following three modules will look exclusively at his