- Topic 1: A Fair Society
- Topic 2: Human Rights: Do other animals have them?
- Topic 3: Fatalism
- Topic 4: Beliefs, Opinions, Tolerance and Respect
- Topic 7: Teasing
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Topic 1: A Fair Society
This topic follows a structure that is designed to guide students to think about the big question, ‘What constitutes a fair society?’
The first lesson introduces a stratified fictional society, Liguria, which has two distinct social classes; the comfortable city people and the Outsiders who lack basic needs like food and shelter and for whom life is pretty tough.
Students are invited to consider the degree to which this society could be considered fair.
The next two lessons raise the notions of discrimination (or imposed inequalities) and equal opportunity. These notions are introduced using real life examples.
The final lesson returns to the fictional society, asking students to consider whether it is fair that people are denied opportunities through no fault of their own and if so, whether the fictional government should act to make the society fairer. In addition, students are asked to consider whether a fair society is possible.
At this stage of the topic, after students have had the opportunity to think in a structured way about the notions of fairness and equal opportunity, we return to the questions with which we began, this time looking for more nuanced reasoning, incorporating empathy, and formulating concepts of fairness and applying those concepts, looking at the whole picture, and making judgements about practicalities and strategies. Although the questions in lessons 1 and 4 are the same, it is likely that the students’ responses will be significantly more developed by lesson 4.
You might like to read this scenario and have a discussion with your child, using the following questions as prompts.
Discussion: Real opportunities
Ms Davis, one of the year 5 teachers, is also a talented musician. She likes to do a music activity with her class each day, whether it’s rhythm and percussion, studying musical notes and harmonies, playing the recorder or exercises to help improve their singing voices. None of the other teachers do this with their classes, although they do other interesting things; Mr Fitzpatrick’s class does a lot of digital art and Miss Maria often does science and nature study in the playground before home time.
The principal has decided to put on a musical at the end of the year. There will be auditions next Thursday lunchtime in the hall and anyone can try out. There will be a panel of judges (who are also teachers) and whoever they decide are the best at singing or playing an instrument will be chosen to be part of the cast and orchestra.
- Does every student have an equal opportunity to attend auditions?
- Which students are most likely to do well in the auditions? Is that fair? Why, or why not?
- Is there anything the school could do to make the audition fairer? If so, what?
- Do you think the school should try to make the audition process fairer?
Topic 2: Human Rights: Do other animals have them?
Philosophical ethics is, at least in large part, about human wellbeing. This raises the question of what human beings need in order to live decent lives.
In this topic we consider the important notion of human rights – what they are, where they come from and how they can be justified, and what obligations they impose on governments and citizens. And then we raise the question whether there are human rights that also extend to those animal species closest to us, namely the other great apes. And we ask, ‘If there are, should these rights be protected in law?’
Students consider the idea that humans need to have our basic needs met, to feel relatively safe and secure.
Lesson 1 begins with the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee born in a US research facility and raised by scientists. He was the subject of an experiment to determine whether chimps are capable of learning human (sign) language. When the experiment finished, Nim was relegated to a solitary existence in captivity. Of course, if a human were to be treated like this we would condemn the treatment as a violation of fundamental human rights; rights that are enshrined in US law. In response to cases such as Nim’s, in 2008 the Spanish government granted certain human rights to chimpanzees and the other great apes. This tale provides the backdrop for the topic’s big question: Should other governments follow Spain’s lead in granting certain human rights to chimpanzees and other non-human great apes?
Topic 3: Fatalism
This topic invites students to think about the ancient notion of fatalism – the idea that our futures, our fates, are predetermined and that whatever we do, whatever action we take, we cannot change them.
This topic aims to help students to:
- develop an understanding of the notion of fatalism
- question the idea that what we do today has no effect on what happens in the future
- think about how a belief in fatalism might affect the way we act.
It seems a natural human impulse to turn to the idea of fatalism when faced with what appear to be overwhelming difficulties. We may say that what is happening is unavoidable, that there is nothing we can do to prevent it. If we don’t get the job we really wanted, we may say “Oh well. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
The topic starts with a journey back through time to Ancient Greece and the Oracle of Delphi. The Greeks, the Persians too – in fact everyone living around the Mediterranean at this time – had such faith in the Oracle that for hundreds of years no important decision was made without consulting her. She uttered advice on where to build cities, which laws to pass and whether to go to war. People queued for months, and paid huge sums of money for a chance to speak with her. Often the prophesies she offered were ambiguous, such as this example:
It offered two very different outcomes, depending on how it was interpreted. One way or another, her prophesy was likely to be correct.
Do you think it is possible to tell the future? Why or why not?
Scenario for discussion
Micha is giving a speech tomorrow on Germany for her geography assessment. She thinks “Well, I’m either going to do a good job or stuff it up. There’s no point practising the speech. I’ll play Minecraft instead.”
Do you think that Micha has a better chance of doing well if she practises her speech tonight, rather than playing Minecraft? Or won’t it make a difference whatever she does?
Topic 4: Beliefs, Opinions, Tolerance and Respect
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, right? But suppose we come across someone who believes mental illness is caused by demonic possession, or someone who maintains that people with paler skin are of superior intelligence to those with darker skin, or that physical violence is the best way to solve disputes?
This topic focuses explicitly on one of the skills necessary for engaging fruitfully with the ethical views and reasoning of others. The skill of disagreeing respectfully underlies the dialogical community-of- inquiry approach embedded in Primary Ethics. Such an approach requires participants not only to listen carefully to the views of others, but in addition to think seriously about others’ views and reasons in relation to their own and to be prepared to question others’ views on the basis of logic and evidence. This is (at least in part) what respectful disagreement amounts to. And a key message here is that we can disagree respectfully with someone while still trying to change their mind.
Lesson 1 of this topic encourages students to think for themselves about:
- Whether (and in what sense) people are entitled to hold a point of view that lacks evidence or runs counter to (scientific) fact or is dangerous, and
- The link between beliefs and actions.
In Lesson 2, we encourage students to think for themselves about the extent to which we should respect or tolerate beliefs that are harmful.
The third and last lesson of the topic focuses on the questions:
- What does it mean to respect another person’s beliefs?
- Should we be prevented from publicly voicing beliefs that are unfounded and dangerous?
You may like to read this scenario to your child/ren, along with the questions that follow, in order to stimulate a discussion.
Monty lives in a small town surrounded by tropical forest. Recently, there has been an outbreak of an infectious disease – a disease that spreads easily and is dangerous, especially to older people and young children.
Health authorities discover that the disease can be traced back to contaminants in the water supply. The issue would be solved quite simply if people were to boil the water before drinking.
The Mayor holds a meeting and invites all townsfolk to come along. Monty goes along to listen to what is said. Firstly, the Mayor explains that all water must be boiled before use, to prevent the spread of this dangerous disease. One of the health officials is then invited to the stage to explain how they tracked down the cause of the disease and the tests that were run.
Once the official has been seated, one of the townsfolk, Billie, stood up to speak.
“We’ve always used fresh water from the creek for our food and drinks,” she said. “Boiling will destroy the freshness and vitality of the water. My family won’t be doing it.”
After Billie spoke, there were a few murmurs of support from those sitting near her.
Then a man, Lloyd, stood up.
“Billie’s right. I’ve been running the town restaurant for 40 years. Our creek water is crystal clear – I can’t see anything in it. I’m not going to be boiling it either. And besides, it would take me twice as long to make the orders if I have to boil all the water I use.”
At this point, the Mayor stood up.
“Your opinions are dangerous,” said the mayor. “You are not to speak any more about this.”
“We are entitled to our opinion,” they said.
Then the Mayor said, “I will pass a law making the boiling of water compulsory. Any shop owner found not boiling water will need to close their shop, and fines will be issued to any one else that doesn’t comply. We need to work together to remove this disease from our town.”
Questions for discussion
- Billie and Lloyd say that they are entitled to their opinion. Are they right? Are they entitled to their opinion? … What makes you think that?
- The Mayor says that Billie and Lloyd’s belief about the water is dangerous. How is it that a belief can be dangerous?
- Should the mayor and the heath authorities try to change the opinion of these villagers? … What makes you think that?
- Is it fair for the Mayor to make boiling the water compulsory and to fine those who don’t comply?
Topic 7: Teasing
This topic gives students an opportunity to apply their moral reasoning skills to a topic they are all familiar with: teasing.
What exactly is teasing, though? Rather than begin by giving students an abstract definition, we work with their intuitive notions of teasing and support them to work together to formulate criteria that distinguish teasing from other practices, such as threatening or criticising.
Teasing would seem to involve making fun of other people. Is, then, it ever ok to tease someone? Sometimes we might tease a friend lightheartedly about something we know doesn’t really matter to him/her, and in such cases our friend is likely to laugh along with us. On the other hand, sometimes people are teased about things they already feel bad about, like a low grade, a perceived lack of ability in some area, a shortage of friends, or an aspect of their appearance. In these cases the effect, and sometimes the intention, of the teasing is to erode the self-confidence of the victims, and make them feel embarrassed or ashamed.
Teasing is an important issue, because the different behaviours it encompasses form a continuum ranging from arguably harmless and friendly ‘ribbing’ between friends to deliberate attempts to hurt and humiliate.
Students can sometimes find it hard to know where the line is to be drawn. And when students cross this line, whether deliberately or not, it is important that they are encouraged to reflect critically on their own motives, as well as on the way their behaviour affects others. The notion of teasing is obviously a slippery one, and its boundaries need to be drawn as carefully as possible.
It’s a good opportunity to open up conversation – say when a child tells you about an event at school, or if you see something on TV – about whether that action could be described as teasing, and to discuss why you might think of it in those terms. Try to pick broad examples, not just what appears to be clear cut cases, and know that it’s perfectly fine for one or both of you to change your minds during the conversation.