Ethical Dilemmas for Classroom Discussion

by Charis Denison

This is #19 of an ongoing series of moral and ethical discussion starters from the case files of Charis Denison. These situations are very real and are changed monthly. Please try them out with your students and share your results with us. You can find the complete archive of dilemmas here.

(present this to your students)

was facing a dilemma. It was spring term, senior year and he was getting a new car. It doesn’t sound like a dilemma but things weren’t that simple. Archer and his parents had a great relationship. He respected them a lot and felt they returned that respect. They had their problems now and then but were always able to listen to each other and talk through those problems. Back during Archer’s sophomore year, his mom and dad told him that if he maintained a B or higher in his classes and followed the rules of the school and the family and never got involved in anything illegal, they would buy him a car for graduation. Supposedly Archer had done just that and his proud parents were rewarding him next month with the promised car. The problem was the “supposedly” part. Archer had a secret, and if he shared it with his parents, he would lose the car he wanted so badly.

Two months ago Archer had borrowed his parents’ car, had a few beers, and driven off the road into a fence. Instead of telling his parents what happened, he called and told them he was staying over at a friend’s house. He then slept off the beers and headed home in the morning. When he got home he told his parents a deer had jumped into the road on his way home that morning. Archer’s house was in a rural area and it was common for deer to be in the road, so his parents bought his story. At first, Archer just felt relief. But, after a few days he felt pretty guilty. He considered telling his folks about the real reason he had messed up the car, but he didn’t for two reasons. The first reason was that he didn’t want to let them down. They thought he was an amazing kid who always did the right thing. The truth was that he drank every weekend and this last one had finally caught up with him. The second reason was that he wanted a car. Badly.

Now that getting the car was moving from an idea into reality, Archer felt pretty bad. He wondered if every time he got into that car he was going to have to think about how he got it. Despite his weekend of partying, Archer felt like he had worked hard for his achievements and rewards. The idea that he would have gotten his car based on dishonesty and disrespect made him feel sick. Quite honestly, if he could just know whether that sick feeling was going to stick around or not, that would help him decide how to handle this dilemma. If he was only going to feel awful for a while, keeping the car was still pretty viable. If he was going to have this “pit” in his stomach forever, he didn’t think he could keep it. The worst part of this whole thing was imagining his father’s face if Archer told him what really happened. He had no idea what to do, but he had to do something soon.

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.

© Copyright Elkind+Sweet Communications, Inc. All rights are reserved. The material in this website is intended for non-commercial educational use. It may not be republished on the web or anywhere else without written permission of the publisher. Please see our terms of use.

(this is for you)

This is a good case for discussing the role that guilt plays in ethical decision making. Often, we do the wrong thing for selfish reasons, and we correct that wrong for selfish reasons as well. Guilt is a great motivator to do the right thing. At the same time, starting at a very early age young people are eager to talk about their own conscience and how it does or doesn’t guide their behavior. I find a case like this is a great opportunity to talk about one’s “inner compass” and where that comes from. When do we discover it? How do we discover it? How often do we see the direction it is pointing us, yet do something else? What motivates us to do such a thing? Some adolescents talk about a “pit” they get in their stomach when they feel like they have done the wrong thing. Others say, “As long as I don’t get caught, my conscience is fine.” To get those two types of young people in one room having an authentic dialog is pure gold.

Here, Archer has a dilemma between two ideas of reward and punishment. If he chooses to remain silent, his reward is the car and his punishment is his own conscience. If he fesses up to his parents, his reward is easing his conscience and his punishment is no car. In both cases, he is keenly aware of disappointing his parents. While the nuts and bolts may be different, most students in my classroom not only relate to this dilemma but have faced an ethical dilemma with a similar tension between reward and punishment.

On a final note, I find it interesting to see if anyone raises the point mentioned about how often Archer is “partying.” The case alludes to weekly drinking. I watch to see if any of my students bring up this fact and ask what is up with that? He has been hiding more aspects of the truth from his parents than just how he wrecked a car. Some students see this as no big deal. Some wonder aloud what motivates him to escape every weekend and what his life might be like that would make that a temptation. If I manage to remain silent when this topic comes up, those two sides usually wind up having a pretty interesting conversation about how we choose to take care of ourselves and the pressures young people feel in order to be considered “good kids.”


(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.)

  • What should Archer do? Is that what you would do?
  • What role do you think guilt is playing in determining whether or not he tells his parents?
  • Archer says that if he could be sure that keeping his secret wouldn’t make him feel bad for very long, he wouldn’t talk. Have you ever been in a situation where the degree of guilt you thought you’d feel made a difference in deciding whether or not to do something you believed was ethically wrong?
  • Is a person still ethical if the only reason he/she is doing the right thing is to avoid feeling guilty? Is there ever a “bad” reason to do the right thing?
  • Have you ever lied to your parents because you thought that telling them the truth would change how they looked at you?
  • Do you respect Archer? Why, or why not?
  • Have you or someone you know ever felt like you had to hide parts of yourself in order to still be seen as a good person in the eyes of others? Why do you think that is?


SHARE YOUR RESULTS WITH US. How did your students resolve this dilemma? Did anything surprising happen? Tell us about your discussion and we may publish your comments. Click here to send us an email.


For some very helpful articles about conducting productive, lively, meaningful classroom discussions (including Socratic method), click here.


For an archive of ethical dilemmas, click here.


For some excellent character education videos and DVD’s that will give your students a lot to think about, talk about, and write about, visit Live Wire Media.


haris (KAIR-iss) Denison, founder of Prajna Consulting, is an expert in Community Involvement, Human Development, and Ethics.  She has built her experience primarily by working with schools and non-profits for the past 15 years.

After initially teaching middle and high school English and Creative Writing, Charis began to develop curricula and publish articles related to social justice, ethics, human development, community involvement, and experiential education.  She has received national recognition for her work in those fields, as well as for her community-based work with American teens and Tibetan refugees in Central Asia.

Charis co-wrote Tolerance for Others, a middle school human development text, with Leni Wildflower.  She currently works as the national Service-Learning consultant for the Durango Institute for Co-Curricular Education.

Charis also teaches at Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, and runs Prajna Consulting.  Through Prajna she consults with schools, parents, students, and businesses both organizationally and individually.  Charis also facilitates workshops and speaks on a wide variety of topics.

Charis can be reached at:



© Copyright Elkind+Sweet Communications, Inc. All rights are reserved. The material in this website is intended for non-commercial educational use. It may not be republished on the web or anywhere else without written permission of the publisher. Please see our terms of use.