On Tuesday afternoon we had a “philosophy cafe” in the 5th grade. I brought cider and cookies, and told the students that in parts of the world adults went to cafes and had something to eat and drink and talked about philosophy. It created a really different kind of environment for our conversation, very relaxed and more intimate.

We talked about how for most of the year so far, we’ve been talking about questions of metaphysics and epistemology, about the nature of reality and about knowledge, as well as examining some aesthetics issues. I suggested that we now move into talking about ethics, and we spent a little time talking about what that is.

I like to begin a series of ethics sessions with Plato’s story of the “Ring of Gyges,” as it raises many fundamental ethics issues in an accessible way. I told the students the story, and then asked them what they would do if they found a ring that allowed them to become invisible. Some of their answers were:

Use it like a toy
Play tricks on people
Fight crime
Play hide and seek
Sell it on eBay
Disappear when my sisters annoy me
Put it on my dog
Sneak out of class
I would hope I wouldn’t find it, because I don’t need it & I don’t want it

I noted that none of them had suggested doing the kind of bad things that Gyges did. Why?

“I think some people do good things because they want to, not just because they’re scared of getting caught if they do the wrong thing,” suggested another student.

“But we might not do what we think we’ll do,” argued another. “We don’t really know what we’d do with the ring because we don’t know how we’ll feel once we have it. Most people get greedy eventually.”

“I think that’s right,” another student agreed. “At some time or other, if you keep the ring, you’re going to get a little greedy and want to use it.”

“I would feel wrong doing those kinds of things,” one girl volunteered. “I feel happier when I do the right thing. Like I feel better when I clean up my room and do extra things around the house.”

We talked a little about the idea that doing the right thing makes you happy, and how you know what the right thing to do is. I described for the students the following dilemma : you have plans to get together with a friend of yours who isn’t very popular. You run into another more popular friend, who invites you to go to a movie with a group of people, a film you really want to see and it’s the last day it’s in the theater, but they say that your unpopular friend can’t come. What’s the right thing to do, and why?

Most of the students said they would keep their plan with the first friend, because that was their first commitment and because the more popular friend wasn’t being very nice. We talked about the nature of promises and what it is that makes keeping them seem important. Many of the students seemed to think that we would have special obligations to the friend who had few other friends, and that we somehow owe less to our more popular friend.

“I’d say, ‘Uh uh dude,’” one student declared, “’you already have enough friends.’”

We talked about the idea a student voiced that the people with the most friends do not tend to be the truest friends. Can you have many friends and still be a good friend?

One student proposed that she would ask the first friend if it was okay with her if she went to the movies and they rescheduled their plans. “But I’d make sure to tell her that she didn’t have to say yes, and if she really wanted to be with me I wouldn’t go to the movies.”

“I know!” a student exclaimed. “Let’s make a skit of this.”

The students liked the idea and we divided up into groups of four, and each group acted out the scenario. Some of the students playing the more popular friend tried hard to talk the student facing the dilemma into coming to the movies and were offended at a refusal, and some of the students facing the dilemma tried to convince their less popular friends that it was okay for them to break their plans and go. It was interesting to see the varied ways the scenario played out, and quite fun to observe the students’ dramatic skills!

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