Moral Philosophy and Genocide

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Area: History and Social Studies
Grade Level: Middle School
Topics: ethics, genocide, moral philosophy, morality
Estimated Time Necessary: Several weeks

Lesson Plan


Talking About Moral Philosophy and Genocide with Middle School Students

Middle school students often face difficult moral choices. We can help students approach these choices thoughtfully by introducing them to philosophical inquiry, and inviting them to consider such moral issues as the consequences of inaction and silence, the difference between inaction and indifference, and whether obedience to authority is always right. This set of lesson plans on “Moral Philosophy and Genocide” is designed to help students think for themselves about some of the difficult questions raised by the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. Discussions touch on issues meaningful to students, including peer pressure, bullying, and the rights of students.

This lesson plan was originally inspired by an online course on “Holocaust and Human Behavior” taught by Facing History.

Unit 1: Identity and Perception

Main Themes of Unit

  • Why do some people act to help others and other people become bystanders?
  • What keeps people silent in the face of moral wrongs?
  • Is indifference morally wrong?
  • Can inaction, or being a bystander, be a morally acceptable choice?
  • Do we have a moral obligation to help others?
  • What is a community? What shapes its identity?
  • How does knowledge of past wrongs affect our moral responsibilities?
  • Is it morally permissible to resist authority in certain situations? Is it ever morally obligatory to resist?
  • Who has the power to forgive oppressors? Is forgiveness always possible?
  • What is courage?

Key Questions:

  • What is a community?
  • How is a community formed?
  • What shapes its identity?
  • Can I keep my individuality and still belong to a group?
  • Are communities necessarily exclusive?
  • How does a community determine who belongs to it?
  • What is our “universe of obligation?”

Watch the film A Class Divided (see the “video” tab to watch the film). A Class Divided involves a 1970 PBS documentary about third grade teacher Jane Elliott’s classroom experiment about discrimination with her students, and her meeting with them 15 years later to discuss the effects the experiment has had on their lives.

Discussion Circle Questions:

  1. What happened to the children in the class?
  2. How did Jane Elliott create division in the class in such a short time? What was effective about what she did?
  3. What effect did the “us and them” mentality have on how the children felt about themselves and the other students in the class?
  4. How do you think the classroom community changed after this activity?
  5. What makes a group a community? How does a community determine who belongs to it?
  6. Are communities necessarily exclusive?
  7. Can I keep my individuality and still belong to a group?

Unit 2: Exploring Conformity and Obedience

Key Questions:

  • What forces influence people’s moral choices?
  • Why do people choose to obey orders rather than resist authority?
  • What keeps people silent in the face of moral wrongs?
  • Is it ever right to defy authority? Under what circumstances?
  • How did conformity and obedience affect the way people responded to oppression?

Film: Obedience (not rated)

This documentary describes the Milgram experiments at Yale, which tested the willingness of several volunteers to obey orders requiring them to inflict pain on others. In actual fact, pain was not being inflicted on the supposed “victim,” but the volunteers did not know this. The experiment and the results raise many disturbing questions about the capability of people to obey orders, even immoral ones.

Discussion Circle Questions:

  1. The subject in the experiment is asked, “Why didn’t you stop?” He answers, “He wouldn’t let me.” The person running the experiment said he would accept all responsibility for whatever happened. If the person hooked up to the machine had died or been seriously injured, whose responsibility would it have been?
  2. Why did the subject laugh as he was giving the shocks? Did the subject have a choice? What could he have done?
  3. Why do you think so many people “went all the way” in administering shocks? What encourages obedience? Is it fear of punishment? A desire to please? A need to conform to the group? A belief in authority?
  4. Did the subject have a choice? What could he have done? Do you think most people usually obey the person or persons they think is the authority? Why or why not?
  5. When we conform to what is expected of us (by parents, teachers, peers) are we obeying authority?
  6. Is it ever right to defy authority? Why or why not? Is it ever wrong to obey authority?
  7. Why do people choose to obey orders rather than resist authority, even when they sense or believe that what they are doing is morally wrong?
  8. What forces influence people’s moral choices?

Unit 3: Participation in the Holocaust

Key Questions:

  • What is a choiceless choice?
  • What are the conditions that lead to genocide?
  • What can we learn from the experiences of Holocaust survivors?
  • How is it that people living in the same place at the same time could have completely different responses to moral crimes?
  • How does knowledge of the Holocaust affect our moral responsibilities?

Film: Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth (not rated)

In this in-depth interview, Alfons Heck recalls how he became a high-ranking member of the Hitler Youth. He talks about the importance of peer pressure and propaganda to Hitler’s ability to recruit eight million German children to participate in the “war effort,” some as young as twelve participating in murder.

Discussion Circle Questions:

  1. What motivated Heck to join the Hitler Youth before he was 10? Why do you think many young people were attracted to the Hitler Youth?
  2. Were the Hitler Youth children responsible for their actions? What does it mean to be responsible for what you do?
  3. What could have happened to a parent who tried to keep a child from joining the Hitler Youth? What should the Hitler Youth parents have done?
  4. Is Heck guilty, as he says he is, of mass murder? Why or why not?
  5. What do you think influenced Heck’s loyalty to Hitler and the Nazis? Is loyalty always a virtue?
  6. Heck said that when he became part of the Hitler Youth, he felt as if he belonged to something very important. What did he belong to?
  7. What does it mean to “belong” to something? When you belong to something, do you give up some of your individuality?
  8. Do you think Heck can forgive himself for joining the Hitler Youth? Should he? Should he be forgiven? Who has the power to forgive him?
  9. At the end of the film, Heck says that the story of the Hitler Youth could happen again, because “the world has not changed all that much.” Do you think this could happen again? Why or why not?
  10. How does knowledge of the Holocaust affect our moral responsibilities today?
  11. Are there groups or group pressures similar to those of the Hitler Youth in today’s society? What are our moral obligations with respect to such groups?

Unit 4: Resistance and Rescuers: Taking A Stand

Key Questions:

  • Why do some people become rescuers? What motivates them?
  • Why do some people resist? What did resistance mean during a time of genocide, a time of diminished choices?
  • What makes someone a hero?
  • Is forgiveness possible?
  • Who has the power to forgive?
  • What small moral choices did people make in their everyday lives that led to them becoming either resisters or bystanders?

Film: Hotel Rwanda (PG-13)

Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of one man’s courage in the midst of genocide. When the film opens, Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Belgian-owned luxury hotel in Kigali, is doing his job pleasing the hotel’s (mostly white) guests, the Rwandan army officers who frequent the hotel bar, and the local businessmen with whom he deals. Paul, a Hutu, is married to a Tutsi, and his children are considered mixed. When the genocide begins, Paul’s Tutsi neighbors show up at his house, seeking refuge. Reluctantly, Paul takes them in and bribes a Rwandan army officer to allow him to bring them to the hotel. This is the beginning of Paul’s acts to save people during the genocide. Through his connections and courage, he saved not only himself and his family, but also 1,268 innocent people.

Discussion Circle Questions:

  1. At the beginning of the genocide, Paul is focused on protecting his family and doesn’t want to get involved in protecting his neighbors. But over time his sense of obligation to his neighbors and others deepens. At one point, rather than abandon the people he is sheltering, he tries to send his family to safety while he stays behind. Is his decision the morally right one? Do we have greater moral obligations to our family members than to others?
  2. Why didn’t the international community intervene in Rwanda? Why did the foreign troops get all the foreign citizens out of Rwanda but didn’t help the people who lived there? Should governments value the welfare of their own citizens more than that of people from other countries?
  3. The UN Colonel tells reporters that his troops are “peace-keepers,” not “peace-makers.” By UN mandate, UN troops were permitted to use their weapons only in self-defense. If the Colonel had disobeyed orders and authorized his troops to fire on Interhamwe fighters, would he have done the right thing?
  4. Was Paul a hero? What is a hero? What makes some people, regardless of risk, act to prevent moral wrongs, and others don’t?
  5. Many people who did not take part in murdering Tutsis did not help them either. Do you think they were all indifferent? What is indifference? Is indifference wrong?
  6. What might be some other reasons that people did not act to help during the genocide? Is everyone who doesn’t act indifferent?
  7. What can we learn from the experiences of genocide survivors?
  8. What small moral choices do people make in their everyday lives that can lead to them becoming either resisters or bystanders?

Unit 5 (Final Class): Engagement in the World

Key Questions:

  • What are the consequences of refusing to confront the past?
  • What is the moral cost of indifference, both personally and collectively?
  • Are we morally obligated to make a positive difference in the world?

Film: Not in Our Town (not rated)
This episode of the PBS television program We Do the Work focuses on Billings, Montana, which came to national attention in 1993 when anti-Semitic hate crimes during Chanukah were met by solidarity from the primarily non-Jewish community, who placed menorahs in their windows to show support for the targeted Jewish population. The community pulled together a broad coalition to demonstrate to the Neo-Nazi groups that hate would not be tolerated in their town.

Discussion Circle Questions:

  1. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
    What do you think this quote by the philosopher Edmund Burke means? How does it relate to what the people in Billings did?
  2. Do you think people were scared to put up menorahs in their windows? Why or why not? If they were scared, why did they do it anyway?
  3. The sheriff in the film comments that, “These hate groups have learned through experience that if a community doesn’t respond, the community accepts. Silence is acceptance to them.” Does the fact that hate groups see silence as acceptance mean that we are morally obligated to act when acts like the violence in Billings occur? Why or why not?
  4. Can one person make a difference? Can you make a difference? How?
  5. Are we morally obligated to be engaged in the world? Is it acceptable to take care of ourselves and our families and ignore what goes on outside our immediate communities? Why or why not?
  6. What would you most like to change about the world? This can be about school, your neighborhood or community, the country or the larger world. Students individually write down at least one thing they would like to change. Break up into small groups (3-4 students). Each group chooses one of the ideas, and brainstorms ways to make this change happen.


This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Jana Mohr Lone.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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