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Using ethical frameworks in the classroom

Ethical frameworks provide a structured approach to exploring controversial issues with students. Here, we describe five commonly used ethical frameworks and questions to help scaffold student thinking.

Supporting students’ ethical thinking

Before using the ethical frameworks, it is recommended that you explore the ethical issue and ethical thinking with your students to establish a foundation for informed decision-making. It’s also important to establish a classroom environment that supports students in sharing their perspectives and listening to others with respect.

Introducing ethical frameworks

There are five common ethical frameworks, but depending on the age of your students and their prior experience in ethical thinking, you may wish to begin by using only one framework. You may set the framework(s) for students to use or have them choose which ones they feel are appropriate for the issue they are working with.

Using ethical frameworks: scaffolding ethical thinking

Five commonly used ethical frameworks are described below with focus questions to guide students’ thinking and decision-making. You can also access these frameworks and questions as a downloadable student worksheet or use them online in the Ethics thinking tool.

Get student worksheet: Using ethical frameworks

Get thinking tool: Ethics thinking tool

Consequentialism
Rights and responsibilities
Autonomy
Virtue ethics
Multiple perspectives
Considering student responses to an ethical issue
Reaching a justified decision
Explain your decision

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is to do with the consequences of actions. Using this ethical approach, we weigh the benefits and harms resulting from our actions.

  1. Who/what is affected by this issue?
  2. What are the possible benefits for those affected?
  3. What are the possible harms for those affected?
  4. Which option(s) will produce the most good and least harm?
  5. If one is harmed and another benefits, how do you decide who or what matters most?

Rights and responsibilities

Rights and responsibilities are closely related: the rights of one imply the responsibilities (or duties) of another to ensure those rights.

  1. Who/what is affected by this issue?
  2. Which groups have rights associated with this issue? What are their rights?
  3. Do these same groups also have responsibilities? What are their responsibilities?
  4. Do we value some rights more than others? Whose rights do we want to protect?
  5. Do any codes, declarations and/or conventions relate to this issue?

Autonomy

Autonomy recognises the right to choose for yourself.

  1. Who/what is affected by this issue?
  2. What effects might my choice have on others?
  3. What effects might others’ choices have on me?
  4. Does everyone have to do the same thing? Will this cause problems?
  5. What is informed consent? Is it important here?

Virtue ethics

A virtue is something that the community accepts as being ‘good’, such as honesty, kindness and patience. Virtue ethics emphasise decisions that are in line with these characteristics.

  1. Who/what is affected by this issue?
  2. What qualities make someone a ‘good’ or virtuous person?
  3. What decisions/actions in relation to this issue would make you a ‘good’ person?
  4. What people would agree that these decisions/actions are ‘good’?
  5. What people would disagree that these decisions/actions are ‘good’?

Multiple perspectives

Ethical decisions are viewed differently by different people. When considering an issue, it is important to explore a range of world views and respect diversity, for example, cultural, socioeconomic, and spiritual or religious diversity.

  1. Which groups have opinions about this issue? What are their opinions?
  2. Why do groups of people think this way? Have they always thought this way?
  3. Which groups voice opinions about this issue? (Not all groups that have an opinion voice them in a public forum.)
  4. Do the opinions of all groups have equal weighting? How do you decide?
  5. Can all the groups agree, and do they need to?

Considering student responses to an ethical issue

After exploring an issue using an ethical framework, you could then encourage students to list five possible responses (actions/decisions) to the issue and rank them from 1 (the one they think is most important) to 5 (the one they think is least important).

Reaching a justified decision

Ethical issues are often complex, with no ‘right’ answer, but ethical deliberation can help us make informed, justified responses. With this in mind, students should explain why they have reached a particular response to an ethical issue and justify their approach. The following questions can be used to prompt student decision-making and compare their response with others:

Explain your decision

  • What do you think?
  • The reason for my decision is…
  • The ethical approach I have given priority to is…
  • Three reasons why others might not agree with me are…
  • The ethical approaches they may be using are…

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