Ethical Dilemmas for Classroom Discussion

by Charis Denison
Updated January, 2009

This is #31 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 whenever Charis comes across something new and interesting. 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)

Georgia’s hands were sweating. She was fifteen minutes into her math final when she began to panic. This exam was worth most of her grade in the class. She understood  math—even liked it—and usually did really well. Her constant problem was that she wasn’t a strong test-taker. Her grades never reflected her understanding of the material she studied.

Now, here she was, once again stuck on one problem worth twenty-five points on the test, and she was drawing a blank. She put her head down on the desk and concentrated as hard as she could. She remembered doing a similar problem in class and explaining it to her friend Jessie, but now she was so stressed out by the test, she couldn’t even remember how to begin the problem.

She lifted her head and stared at her test. She listened to the clock tick on the wall and imagined her parents’ expression when she receives her report card. Jessie was sitting right in front of her. He is always a good test taker and had already solved the problem. The teacher had his backed turned and was on the other side of the room. Georgia could look over Jessie’s shoulder, get the answer, and no one would know.

Georgia needed to think quickly. She thought about how unfair it was that she regularly does badly on tests even though she works so hard in class and understands the material, too.  She thought about how often she helped Jessie in class throughout the semester. What should she do?

She prided herself on doing what was right. But how right is it that she has to work in a system that doesn’t reward such hard work?

Finally, she took a deep breath. She looked to see if the teacher was still on the other side of the room, and glanced over Jessie’s shoulder just long enough to get the final answer to the question. Then, she figured out the rest of the problem on her own. In the moment, she felt great about her decision. She felt she had sort of created an ethical compromise.

But on the way home on the bus, Georgia’s good feelings started to fade. “What exactly is an ethical compromise anyway?” she thought to herself. Should she tell her teacher what she did or move forward and forget about the whole thing?

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)

I know I have talked about “situational ethics” before. Often we are tempted to rationalize our (un)ethical choices by tweaking them just enough to make them seem okay. Two authors, Miriam Schulman (Cheating Themselves) and Kirk Hanson (Nation of Cheaters) have each published books on cheating and situational ethics. Generally speaking, there are five reasons why students cheat:

  • Denial of Injury: “No one’s hurt by it.” Twenty-nine percent of students polled in one of Schulman’s studies said cheating was justified if the student learned from it.
  • Denial of Victim: Blame the teacher for their behavior or say the work was meaningless anyway.
  • Appeal to Higher Loyalties: Seventy-five percent of students polled cited a need to please their families, or they felt peer pressure.
  • Denial of Responsibility: “Everyone does it. If I don’t, I’m left in the dust. Good guys finish last.”
  • Fear of Failure: Student doesn’t cheat to get ahead—student cheats because of fear of embarrassment or failure. “I have to go to an Ivy League school. I have to win.”

So, in other words, the reasons above make it okay for me to cheat in THIS circumstance. I am sure many of us have had conversations about cheating before. I simply never get over it when I ask my students to raise their hands if they have cheated in school before. (Most raise their hands.) Then, I ask them to raise their hands if they believe cheating is morally and ethically wrong. They all raise their hands. THEN, they proceed to come up with the most creative ways to have a conversation using situational ethics.

It is worth it to ask students exactly what Georgia asked: “What is an ethical compromise?”

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

  • Can you answer Georgia’s question at the end? Is there such a thing as an ethical compromise?
  • Can you think of a time when you did something you knew could be considered ethically wrong, but decided it was worth it? What was the situation?
  • What do you think about Georgia’s point about how it is unfair that she works so hard but isn’t rewarded for her work? Do you feel she should be given more leeway for making the choice she did?
  • Have you ever had someone cheat off of you? What did it feel like? How did you handle it? Would you handle it the same way if you could re-live the same situation?
  • Given the list of five reasons (above) that U.S. students say they cheat, which make more sense to you than others? Can you relate to any of them personally?
  • What should Georgia do? Should she tell her teacher what she did?
  • What would you do in this situation? Would you cheat? If so, could you do it and feel okay given the situation?

© 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.


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:



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© 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.