Strategies for Teaching Ethical Case Studies

The "solutions" of many case studies often seem obvious to any one individual. In teaching the development of ethical thinking, however, the teacher must focus primarily on the process, and refrain from establishing his or her own view as the measure of "correct" thinking. One must ask for the reasons, or justification, based on general principles, that support the view -- not just personal opinion, feeling or religion. Careful listening is the first skill for teacher and student alike. The student must then use any opposing view as a touchstones for developing a more effective argument.

Here is a list of questions that often help in leading novices to start thinking productively. They are not ways of simply deciding right and wrong. Rather, they provide a framework for building a consensus along ethical dimensions:

Note that many cases are not simply problems in articulating "right" and "wrong." Ethics also involves creative problem-solving. Ethical analysis also introduces the often difficult problem of deciding how to act. For example, when one becomes aware of lapses in scientific integrity, how does one expose them without endangering one's job, career opportunities, credibility, possibly even friendships? How does one negotiate the desired endpoint: that individuals take responsiblity for the consequences of their own actions? How does one's available options vary with a person's position? What creative alternatives can your students generate?

What is the teacher's role? Focusing on the process for the students themselves does not necessarily mean disguising one's views. A strong example is set for students by someone who offers their views, give reasons, and then actively seeks the opinions of others. The teacher may serve as an important model for listening to alternative positions--and giving authority to their justifications. At the same time, the teacher--who traditionally carries unquestioned authority--must be careful to guide discussion based on good reasons. A "good" reason, here, is one powerful enough to persuade a critic by appeal to general principles on which all agree.

Teaching of cases studies can be managed on several levels:

Of course, the appropriate strategy (or combination thereof) will vary with the case and the social dynamics of the class.

The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.