Debating Ethics with Literature

Use group discussions, analysis, and ethical dilemmas to build critical thinking and an empathetic perspective.

By Elijah Ammen

right/wrong sticky notes

It seems like the general public, despite having gone through school, has a distorted perception of what English teachers actually do; as if their English classes were the live action equivalent of Charlie Brown's teacher. Particularly in high school, people have a fuzzy idea of the point of English classes—don't the kids already know how to read? (On a side note, the answer to that is no). Many people are under the impression that English has no purview beyond comprehending what you read and writing about it.

If you're an English teacher, you can release a sigh of pent-up anger. We know that our classes are about building critical thinkers who not only comprehend a text, but analyze and evaluate multiple viewpoints to synthesize and create their own worldview (all the good Bloom's words). Reading isn't a collection of information, but a way of entering into another person's perspective and developing the empathy to understand his or her point of view even if you disagree. Reading literature is essential to the study of ethics, because without the ability to understand multiple points of view, debate becomes demagoguery. Today's learners need to be able to intelligently and empathetically discuss ethical issues just as much as any other academic subject. 

Naturally, this makes our jobs much more difficult than sitting back and having our classes write reports on all of our favorite books. It takes student engagement and a variety of texts and learning strategies. Here are a few classic strategies for practicing ethical discussions in class.

Analyze and Pose Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical decisions are usually easy to make when they are decontextualized. Many of us will have pretty clear answers about lying, cheating, or killing, until it is lying to protect someone, cheating to save from public humiliation, or killing to save someone from pain. Contextualizing ethical decisions with stories is integral to debate. There are several ways you can do this:

  • Make the issues personal by rewriting the situation to be about yourself. If young writers have to rewrite an ethical dilemma with themselves at the center, they are more likely to be empathetic to the situation.

Think about Thinking with Metacognition

Many high schoolers (not to mention adults) refuse to think from a different viewpoint, because they confuse empathy with acceptance. Critical thinkers should be able to understand and empathize with a variety of perspectives; not because they are all correct, or equally valid, but because empathy is crucial to critical thinking. Your classes need to be able to think metacognitively in order to know how to switch perspectives when thinking from other points of view. Here are some exercises to practice:
  • Understand the difference between emotional and logical appeals in order to be discerning in a variety of emotionally charged issues. 
  • Write a pro and con for the same issue to emphasize that all sides have reasons, and being a critical thinker is about more than defending your viewpoint—it's about understanding the other perspectives.
  • Allow learners to think before entering into whole-group discussion. If you jump into structured discussions, you will just get the most opinionated or loudest voices. People need time to develop and vocalize their opinions. Before you begin discussions, have each person prepare a notecard with three things to say so that everyone can have an opinion.

Use Structured Discussion Strategies

Running structured discussions is a book in itself, but suffice it to say that these structures are essential to class discussion. Without boundaries, a classroom can get as unruly and offensive as a YouTube comments section. These methods help by setting limits, establishing a way of treating each other, and giving respect to others. Follow the links for examples on each of these strategies:

  • Socratic Seminar: This use of open-ended questions encourages a variety of opinions in a less formal context than a debate. There are levels of control you can have in guiding the conversation, but it is primarily student-led, which encourages buy-in.
  • Fishbowl Discussion: This is a variation of Socratic seminar that allows half of a group to look on while the other half models the discussion. This is especially useful when initially teaching Socratic seminar.
  • Philosophical Chairs: This strategy has the participants up and moving with each posed question. The young philosophers choose where to sit in a spectrum of agree and disagree chairs, and have to defend their choice of seat.