- Topic 1 Being Greedy
- Topic 2 Is Lying wrong?
- Topic 3 Persuading – or getting someone to do something
- Topic 4 Being an ethical consumer
- Topic 5 Getting even
- Topic 6 Intention – ‘I didn’t mean to do it’
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Topic 1: Being Greedy
It’s Emma’s best friend’s birthday and it’s been a terrific party – lots of great games and tons of good food. Now the birthday cake is brought out, and it looks magnificent. The slices are passed around, and everyone agrees that the cake tastes even better than it looks. Emma eats hers quickly, and then notices that there is one piece left over. Although she’s feeling really full, she asks her friend’s mum whether she can have it.
Is Emma being greedy?
In the first topic for Stage 2, Being Greedy, we encourage students to think about what it is to be greedy and what, if anything, is wrong with it. Students are encouraged to think for themselves about:
- How to draw the line between ‘reasonable wants’ and greed
- Their wants (or desires) and some of the factors that shape them
- The extent to which resources are limited
- Whether it is important to reflect carefully on their wants if resources are limited.
Greed is a theme that features in many stories thoughout time. In this topic we consider the Ancient Greek story of King Midas whose touch turned everything to gold, the Magic Pudding who provided an endless supply of food for its companions, and Dr Seuss’ character the Once-ler, whose Thneed factory decimates the Truffula trees in The Lorax. These stories establish circumstances and a context which help children to discuss the abstract notion of greed.
By talking it through with their classmates, children can formulate reasons and listen to the reasons of others, and gain a deeper understanding of what might constitute greed and what are the possible impacts.
Topic 2: Is Lying Wrong?
What would it be like if everyone lied whenever they felt like it?
Is lying the same as not telling the truth?
This topic encourages students to think about what it is to lie and what, if anything, is wrong with lying, as well as to consider the role circumstances play in moral decision making.
Lying is wrong, or so we are taught. And yet we all do it, often without thinking much about it. Or perhaps we don’t tell an ‘outright’ lie, but simply withhold information and don’t tell the ‘whole’ truth.
Perhaps our lies are all ‘white’ lies, told out of concern for others rather than from any malicious intent. It is an interesting exercise to count the number of times in a day we engage in such practices; to think about which, if any, of them count as acts of lying and how, if at all, these practices differ morally.
And there is another question worth considering: What does our engagement in such practices reveal about the extent to which we value truth? This question might well be asked of public figures in our society, including politicians, prominent sporting figures and high profile lobby groups.
As is the case with other ethical concepts like stealing and greed, it is easy to point to paradigm cases of lying. For example, a detective asks a suspect, “Where were you at 8 o’clock last night?” and the suspect replies, “At home”, when in fact he was busy burgling a shop.
The suspect knowingly makes a false statement, with the intention of deceiving their questioners. And in the absence of mitigating circumstances, pretty much everyone would agree that in doing so, the suspect is doing something wrong.
But what do we say about the following examples? Jack’s mum calls out, “Are you out of bed yet?” and Jack, who is still tucked under the blankets, replies, “Who wouldn’t be out of bed when bacon and eggs are cooking?”
Is Jack lying? He hasn’t made a false statement – or indeed, any statement at all – but presumably his evasive response is designed to give his mum the idea that he is out of bed. His intention is still to deceive. And whether or not we call this lying, this question remains: Is there any moral difference between lying and evading a question?
Students begin the topic Is Lying Wrong? by considering consider two classic fables – The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Aesop’s tale Mercury and the Woodcutter.
Lying has a dire consequence for the boy who cried wolf. Having pretended to the villagers on numerous occasions that the sheep are under attack, the villagers choose to ignore him when eventually, terrified, he screams the truth about a wolf.
On the other hand, the Woodcutter prizes honesty so highly that he puts it before personal gain: he is such an honest chap that he gives up the opportunity to acquire an axe of gold and an axe of silver, just by truthfully denying ownership of them and happily laying claim only to his trusty old run-of-the-mill axe.
Students then turn their thoughts to everyday scenarios. Sofia thinks the bracelet Jo bought for her birthday is ugly, but what should she say when Jo asks her directly if she likes it?
Intan is embarrassed by the cupcakes she made for the cake stall as they didn’t rise properly and the icing looks messy. A couple of other children point to the plate, laughing, and ask “who made those ones?”. Intan shrugs her shoulders and says she doesn’t know.
Some people will hold that lying is permissible, or even the right thing to do, when it brings about more good than harm. Others will argue that lying is either always wrong or permissible only in very dire circumstances, such as when telling the truth would result in serious injury or death. In this topic we invite students to think for themselves about these issues, with the aim of encouraging them to engage in ethical reflection before taking a decision to lie.
FOR EXTRA FUN – PODCAST:
The ABC Short and Curly team explore these ideas in their podcast Is it ever okay to lie?
Topic 3: Persuading – or getting someone to do something
‘All the other parents think it’s okay for their kids to watch M-rated movies, so it must be okay.’
Heard this argument before? It uses the appeal to the crowd argument – one of the four main ‘fallacious’ arguments used when trying to persuade someone to make a certain decision or adopt a certain belief. The fact that a whole lot of people believe it is okay to do something, doesn’t mean that it is – a lot of people can be wrong.
When we try to persuade someone to do something or believe something, we use arguments – that is, we put forward reasons – in an effort to convince. Experimental studies of human thinking, as well as our own experience and observations, show that certain kinds of bad arguments are often more persuasive than appeals to reason and truth. In relation to persuasion, fallacious arguments very often succeed where good arguments fail.
And of course, advertisers, politicians and probably all of us at one time or another, capitalise on this fact, despite the realisation that in doing so we are, in some way or other, tricking someone else and not respecting that person’s right to make an evidence-based decision.
In the scenarios presented in this topic, students are invited to think for themselves to:
- Identify some of the arguments they and others use in attempts to persuade people to do things
- Think about whether or not these arguments are logically flawed
- Recognise other arguments of the same kind when they come across them in real life situations
- Think for themselves about whether it is okay to knowingly use such arguments in an attempt to persuade someone to do something.
We work with children’s ‘feel for illogic’, as Mathew Lipman puts it – in much the same way that teachers work with children’s ‘feel’ for grammatical errors. Children say ‘that doesn’t sound right’ before they are able to identify the grammatical fault. And the same is true with logic. Here, we are aiming to help children begin to recognise some logical faults in the context of real life examples. For this age group, we are not expecting students to name these faults, or to be able to define them – just to recognise them.
Next time you are shopping, ask your child to point out any advertisements they can see around them. Ask them to describe what is happening in the advertisement. Do any of the ads exaggerate anything in order to make the product appealing?
Later, you could ask: How would you describe what an advertisement is to an alien who may not have a clue? What is the point of them?
Topic 4: Being an ethical consumer
This topic gives children a chance to explore ethical considerations around balancing human and environmental wellbeing.
Two main scenarios are used as bases for discussions in this topic. In the first scenario, students are encouraged to think for themselves about a local situation in which human interests and the interests of other animals collide.
Jack lives with his family in a house with a large garden. Jack loves the garden; it’s a rich habitat for blue tongue lizards, birds and all kinds of wildlife. One night, a man (a builder) arrives on the doorstep, offering to buy the garden so he can build public housing.
If your family was forced to make this decision, whose wellbeing would you need to consider? The members of your family? The wildlife? What about those needing housing, or even the livelihood of the builder himself?
Students contribute and compare ideas as the discussion builds.
Our next scenario is set in the heart of the Sumatran jungle, where a global appetite for palm oil is impacting the survival of species such as the orangutan, and bringing about big changes to the lives of those in local villages.
Environmental issues, especially those that impact on the welfare of higher animals, evoke strong feelings in children and adults alike. The facial expressions of orangutan infants, for example, seem very similar to those of human babies, and our initial response to the dire situation orangutans find themselves in is likely to be ruled by emotion. Additionally, the empathy we have for these animals is an important element in our ethical deliberations around issues such as the destruction of habitat.
But we must also exercise reason. There are almost always other interests to be taken into account, such as the local people who are making a living out of the clearing of the forests.
Environmental issues are complex. This topic attempts to introduce students to this idea and also to illustrate how ordinary people – children as well as adults – can influence broader outcomes by the purchasing choices they make.
Topic 5: Getting Even
Jen’s friends haven’t invited her to go with them to the movies; Jack is deliberately tripped by a classmate and sprawls on the ground in view of his friends; Jay-Jay’s sister hides his Tintin books just to annoy him. All three must decide how to respond to the annoyance or hurt they feel. Will they choose to retaliate?
In Getting even, students will think for themselves about when, if ever, it is appropriate to retaliate. They will also consider alternative ways of responding to hurtful behaviour. They will discuss:
- Whether feeling like getting even is a good enough reason to retaliate
- Whether the way you get even matters
- Whether getting even sometimes does more harm than good
- Whether getting even sometimes breaks the Golden rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you
- Whether getting even shows respect for others
- Whether getting even is something a good person does
- Whether there are alternatives to getting even.
Children very often feel that they have to ‘get even’; that their self esteem or standing with their friends depends on it. And they are then faced with the question of how to get even.
Jen could decide not to invite her friends to her birthday party, but she knows that would really upset them. And how would she feel about herself then?
Jack could wait for his chance and trip his classmate, but considering a virtue based approach to ethics, isn’t he better than that?
And what if the classmate ends up badly hurt? How will Jack feel then? It would be simple for Jay-Jay to hide his sister’s Dr Who collection, but then she’d call him a copycat, so he’ll try to come up with something else that will annoy her. But he knows that his sister is likely to keep the game going, perhaps even raising the stakes a bit – and then what will he do?
These examples bring out two difficulties with the idea of getting even. The first is that in doing the same thing – or the same sort of thing – back, we inflict the same degree of hurt or annoyance that we ourselves found upsetting, we don’t treat others as we believe people in general should be treated, and we stoop to the sort of behaviour we can’t be proud of. Is doing so likely to make us feel good about ourselves, or make others think well of us? The second difficulty is that when we retaliate it is likely that those we retaliate against will now retaliate against us, so that there is an escalation of bad feeling and hurt. Retaliation often carries with it a cost to ourselves and others. So it is important for students to think carefully about when, if ever, getting even is the right thing to do.
Aesop’s fables include a number with the moral surrounding the dangers of seeking revenge or getting even. You can read some of these to your children. We cover The fox and the stork in class, but you might also like to read The farmer and the fox to your child. These suggested questions might prompt a subsequent discussion with your child.
- Does the farmer want to stop the fox from eating the chickens?
- Is the farmer angry with the fox? If so, why?
- Does the farmer want to pay the fox back for what he’s done?
- When we are angry with someone, do we often feel like paying them back?
- If we do feel like paying them back, does that mean it’s the right thing to do?
- Does the farmer pay the fox back? If so, how does he?
- Does that do the farmer any good?
- Would the farmer have been better off if he had concentrated just on stopping the fox from eating his chickens, rather than on paying him back?
TOPIC 6: Intention – ‘I didn’t mean to do it’
‘I didn’t mean to do it!’ is an exclamation heard many times a day both in the schoolyard and at home. When Meg, for example, says, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt Penelope’, she shows she understands both that she has harmed Penelope, but also that her action will be judged depending on whether or not she is seen to have meant (or intended) to harm her.
On the whole, philosophers follow common sense morality in taking a person’s intentions to be morally relevant; that is, to have a bearing on how their actions should be judged.
However, there is ongoing debate about how much bearing intention has, and about what (if any) other factors we need to take into account in judging the moral worth of an action.
This topic aims to encourage students to think for themselves about:
- What it means to intend to do something
- How to identify people’s intentions
- The importance of identifying people’s intentions
- Whether causing harm intentionally is worse than causing harm unintentionally
- Whether intentionally bringing about good consequences is better than bringing about good consequences unintentionally
- How much weight we should give to unintended consequences when deciding how to act.
In one scenario, Jess tries so hard to grow some broad beans to surprise her visiting grandparents, who are no longer able to maintain a garden themselves. She waters them twice a day, but despite her good intentions, nothing grows (the pot is waterlogged). Her brother Max, meanwhile, who had also planted some beans, hardly waters or pays any attention to his but despite this, the plants flourish and many broad beans grow.
When their grandparents visit, they are delighted to see a bowl of broad beans on the kitchen table.
“Who grew the beans?” Grandma says.
“I did”, says Max.
“That’s so kind of you, Max,” his grandma says, “thank you!”
Their mum looks at Max, and then at Jess.
Jess looks away. And then she tells her grandma and grandpa how she planned to surprise them, and how it all went wrong.
Ask your child
Can you remember a time when you meant to do something – you had an intention – but things did not go as planned?