Cases Before the Court
Topic: Laws, morality of sacrifice, government duties to citizenry, governmental legitimacy, risk, duties of beneficence
Grade level: Middle School
Time: 50 Minutes
Objectives: To raise questions about the relationship between risk, government action, killing vs. letting die
Materials needed: Piece of paper and writing utensil
First ask the students to imagine that the class is in a city-state and that the members of this class are the rulers of the city. We make the laws, rules, and judge cases. Often, cases are brought to our court and we make decisions on those cases. When we decide on a case, our legislature makes laws and rules extracted from our decisions. Explain that we will vote on cases after some discussion, when a student calls for a vote. The call needs to be seconded and then we’ll operate by majority rule. Explain that you will not vote, as you are merely the advisor to the rulers and that you have all the information about the case.
This lesson plan is malleable in that you can invent cases or use classic ones from the history of philosophy. A good place to start is the Surgeon/Transplant case from Judith Jarvis Thomson, where five people need organ transplants of a special kind and its been hard to find donors. In fact, these five people will die today unless we do the transplant. As it happens, a person came in to the doctor for a minor operation and has healthy organs that we could use to save all five people. However, the donor would die in the operation. Give the students a few minutes to ask you clarification questions about the case, then open up the discussion, asking for reasons about whether we should allow the transplant or not. Before taking the vote, have the students write down their personal view on what should be done. After the vote (most likely to not do the transplant), ask about what kind of laws will be made based on our decision.
A second case that goes well with this one is an original one called “Disease.” In this case, there is a disease, Disease-X, that has been plaguing the world recently. It is undetectable until it kills you, within a week of getting the disease. There is no cure and no outward symptoms. It is highly transmittable. 1 in 10 outsiders to our city has the disease. Luckily, no one in our city has the disease. One day, someone comes to our locked city gates begging for admission because some outlaws are chasing him and will kill him if he is not let in. Just as in the last case, allow for questions, then open up the discussion to arguments. Before taking the vote, have the students write down their personal view on what should be done. After the vote (most likely to not let the person in), ask about what kind of laws will be made based on our decision. If no student brings it up, ask how it was permissible to let five people die in order to preserve one person, not risk the city to save one person.
Have the students hand in their papers to you or their teacher.
This lesson plan was contributed by Dustyn Addington.