Silent Discussion on Ethical Dilemmas

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Area: Other Areas
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School
Estimated Time Necessary: 40-50 minutes

Lesson Plan

Explore ideas and questions regarding ethical rules and principles.
Carry on a philosophical discussion in an alternative way that encourages all students to participate.
Students who are traditionally more quiet cannot be crowded out of the discussion by students who love to talk.
Encourage students to think about the principles that they truly believe are correct to live by.

Materials Needed:

  • Several very large sheets of butcher paper or poster boards (especially with younger students, writing is big and fills up the paper quickly).
  • A few good ethical dilemmas.
  • Various colored markers/pens for each student.


  • Write or glue one ethical dilemma onto each sheet of butcher paper or poster board, and perhaps a small picture illustrating the situation. A list of some sample dilemmas appears at the end of this lesson plan.
  • Arrange desks/tables into several small groups (3-4 students per group).


(Optional) Warm up to help students gain a sense of their intuitions about the topic, either by presenting anecdotes, questions, or connecting to previous discussions.
You can begin by asking everyone to write down a list of “the most important rules to live by.” “Treat others how you want to be treated” (the Golden Rule) is really popular, and “do not kill” shows up occasionally. These sorts of rules are interesting to examine in the context of some ethical dilemmas, and afterwards the students may think twice about the rules they’ve chosen.

Clearly outline the rules for Silent Discussion (for more information about silent discussions, see the Alternatives to Large Group Discussions tab on the Toolkit home page):

  • It is just that–a Silent Discussion. Absolutely no talking is allowed. All conversation happens in writing.
  • Everyone will have about 5-10 minutes to respond to the ethical dilemma in front of them by writing on their group’s piece of paper.
  • Responses can include thoughts, ideas, questions, and drawings, as well as lines which show connections between different responses, so that students begin commenting on and connecting to each other’s thoughts.
  • Every 5-10 minutes each group will switch to the next table to respond to the next dilemma and/or the thoughts of the previous group.
  • Everything written or drawn should relate to the question. The anonymity of a silent discussion sometimes motivates students to write things that are completely silly, inappropriate, or off-topic.

After everyone has had a chance to respond to each dilemma, and each sheet of paper is full of thoughts, questions, drawings and lines, ask everyone to circle one thought, drawing, or question that they find particularly thought-provoking.

As a large group, use the remaining time to discuss one or more of the “circled” thoughts, either by going through them one by one or by voting. This is also a good chance to think about whether the “rules” that everyone created could still apply to the ethical dilemmas that were discussed, as well as to debrief the experience of a silent discussion.

Connects to:

Sample Dilemmas:

You’re standing by the side of a track when you see a runaway train hurtling toward you; clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead are five people, tied to the track. If you do nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily you are next to a signal switch. Turning this switch will send the train down a side track just ahead of you. On the side track, you spot one person tied to the track; changing direction will inevitably result in this person being killed. You do not have time to untie the victims. What should you do?

You’re on a footbridge overlooking a railway track. You see a trolley hurtling along the track; clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead of it are five people tied to the rails. There’s a very large man leaning over the railing watching the situation unfold. If you were to push this man over the bridge and onto the tracks, his size would be enough to stop the train. This would kill the large man– but it would also save the lives of the five who are tied to the track. What should you do?

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the pharmacist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000, half of the drug’s cost. Heinz told the pharmacist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it to him at a lower price or let him pay the remaining funds owed later. But the pharmacist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” Heinz is desperate, and is thinking about breaking into the pharmacist’s laboratory to steal the drug. Should Heinz break into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Dustin Groshong and Janice Moskalik.

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

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