Moral and Ethical Issues

The study of history provides many examples for providing students with opportunities to reflect on moral and ethical dilemnas faced by people in the past and the decisions they made at the time. These issues may raise questions for teachers about the role of history and whether it should enable students to draw conclusions about moral lessons from the past. When investigating moral and ethical issues in history students need to be made aware

  • of the complexity of the world in which choices were made and decisions taken
  • that  people’s  actions need to be judged within the context of their own time.
  • with  hindsight we can expect more moral behaviour of people in the past and we need to challenge our own assumptions that people in the past  failed to make the right moral decisions.
  • of the importance challenging stereotypical views of human behaviour for example  perceiving some groups  of people as always victims and other as always perpetrators.

In their R.E. classes students study Christian ethics and the principles underlying a Christian way of life. This provides young people with opportunities to explore ethical standards of behaviour and the governing principles by which people

  • lead their lives,
  • develop their understanding  of rights and responsibilities
  • develop and use language of right and wrong.
  • Understand what makes a good moral decision.
  • What would I do?  Teachers of R.E often use this strategy to engage students in thinking about the moral dilemmas facing human beings when witnessing someone in trouble. These discussions develop the students sense of moral  reasoning discussions and understanding of the choices which people made when faced with a dilemma. These strategies provide students of history with insight into what may have influenced how decisions were made in the past and the underlying principle which governed how people led their lives and interacted with their particular situations.

The following strategy can provide opportunities for teachers to go beyond what was right or wrong in a particular situation dilemnas which people by building into enquiries questions which require students to consider aspects of about human behaviour for example

Bystanders – this means those people who observed what was going on but did nothing about it (sometimes for a variety of motivations such as fear of reprisals, indifference etc)

Perpetrators – this means those directly involved in the process of persecution itself

Victims – this means those people who were made victims by persecution

Rescuers – this means those people who were directly involved in helping victims of persecution, such as hiding them, smuggling them out of the country etc.

Activities based on these perspectives of human behaviour are designed to help students discuss difficult issues, while also recognizing that they likely represent different perspectives. Asking students to look for any attributes each group shares  before they discuss issues on which they may differ, reveals aspects of behaviour which may be common to different groups…

Questions to be asked are

  • If someone is perceived to be a perpetrator could that person also be seen a victim?
  • It is easy to condemn the actions of people in the past with the benefit of hindsight. Would people today have acted differently?

The following strategies  have been adopted from Facing History

  •  Iceberg
    This strategy which helps students to investigate the underlying  issues which underpin major historical events. Students can explore  the multiple factors and issues surrounding past events and how they were acted out by individuals involved, by using an iceberg diagram. The “tip “ of the iceberg focuses on the students’ existing knowledge of the event and they are asked to write about What happened? Where did the event take place and when? What choices were made and by whom? Who was affected by these choices?
    The “beneath the surface” part of the iceberg is where the students begin to think deeper about what caused the event. They can explore more complex questions about the factors which influenced the particular choices of individuals and groups of people involved in the event and write their ideas in the bottom half of the iceberg diagram. Some of these factors might be political for example a law being passed or the outbreak of a war, or they could be economic for example unemployment or job loss.  Other factors may be concerned with aspects of human behaviour such as conformity, obedience, fear and opportunism.

In the discussions which follow students could be asked to consider

  • what could have happened if different choices had been made?
  • Could anything have been done to prevent this event from happening?
  • Can anything be done today to prevent similar events from happening? 
  • Barometer
    A barometer is a  walking debate which can be used to present different perspectives of historical figures. This teaching strategy helps students to physically take a stand by lining up along a continuum to represent a point of view. It is especially useful when trying to discuss moral and ethical questions raised by historical situations about which there is wide range of perspectives.
    Teacher uses a space in the classroom where students can line up .Statements Strongly Agree and Strongly Disagree are placed at either end of the room and students will be asked to stand on the line at either extreme or in the middle , depending on how much they agree or disagree with the statement.
    Teacher then assigns students a perspective to represent and then give them time to research or study the ideas of this person or group as it relates to the question being studied. Teacher then makes a statement, ask students to stand on the line that represents how their assigned individual or group would respond. Students explain their stand and can be encouraged to use evidence when offering their explanations.  As the activity progresses teacher uses statements which concentrate on the choices facing the different historical figures and the existing factors which may have constrained or assisted their decisions.
    The discussions will enable the students to confront and explore any assumptions they may have about the moral choices made by different groups of people in the past. Teacher can extend the discussions by asking the students to investigate how their chosen group may have responded if they had the benefit of hindsight  and to explain their choices.
    Using a barometer strategy allows students to explore ways of constructively disagreeing with one another when different groups in the class offer their. explanations in defence of a particular position.