This morning I taught the second class of the "Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust" unit to two eighth grade classes. This class is an introduction to moral philosophy, a way to give the students some background before we launch into the issues raised by the Holocaust. We began by talking about Plato's Ring of Gyges story. I asked the class what they would do if they had a ring that allowed them to become invisible, and whether they thought Plato was right that there would be no difference between what a morally good person would do and what a person who was not morally good would do.
Most of the students seemed to think that although many people might do things they wouldn't do otherwise if they knew there would be no consequences, they thought that there would be differences among what people would do. One student noted that she would never kill anyone, no matter what, because her conscience wouldn't let her and she knew if she did, she'd be wracked with guilt for the rest of her life. Other students mentioned rules against killing and stealing, for example, that were so ingrained into their thinking that they couldn't imagine violating those rules.
I gave the students a problem to consider: You have a friend and you know this friend has been robbing houses and using the money for himself. You are worried about him, feel badly about the people from whom he has stolen, and you are trying to decide what to do. Should you tell someone?
The students felt very strongly about this scenario, in widely varied ways. One student said that no matter what, “you don’t rat out your friends.” Another student argued that you also have some obligation to help the people being robbed, because what would the community be like if no one helped other people? Others thought that you needed to look at what would happen if you told: your friend would end up in juvenile prison, your friendship would be over, and other students would dislike you for telling on your friend, versus people’s homes no longer being robbed and your feelings of feel relief about that.
I pointed out to them that they were using several perspectives that philosophers talk about when analyzing moral issues. Most of the time, we tend to look at moral questions through a particular lens, whether it be rules-based, an examination of the likely consequences of our moral choices, our intuition or conscience telling us what is right, etc. What can be helpful about moral philosophy is that it can help us to widen the lens through which we view moral problems, and help us to make better moral decisions.
“But you can’t judge someone else’s moral choice!” one student declared. “Everyone has the right to make their own decisions, and you can’t really say that those decisions are good or bad.”
“But aren’t some decisions better than others?” I asked. “For example, if I was walking by a pond with water no deeper than my waist, and I saw a toddler drowning, and I decided not to wade in and lift the child out of the water because I didn’t want to get my jeans wet, wouldn’t you be correct in saying I made a poor moral decision?”
“No!” the student insisted. “I could say you did a nice thing if you saved the child, but I couldn’t say you were obligated to do that.”
This resulted in a very lively discussion about what moral obligations we might have, and where they come from, and if they always apply. Do we have obligations to help other people? We talked about bullying in the hallways and whether students have an obligation to intervene, and whether being a bystander is morally acceptable. What is the right balance between our obligations to ourselves and our obligations to others?