The Moral Spectrum Exercise

In this exercise, students are introduced to “the moral spectrum”—seven different perspectives on the right thing to do, seven different questions to ask themselves to determine whether a particular course of action is right or wrong. These questions are drawn from the dominant moral theories in Western philosophy over the past 2500 years or so. They are presented, however, in a form that is quite accessible; the focus is on questions to ask rather than principles to follow. The questions explore issues of liberty, duty, compassion, community, happiness, virtue, and self. They thus mirror the central concerns of, respectively, existentialism, Kantian deontology, an ethic of caring, Humean communitarianism, utilitarianism, Aristotelian virtue theory, and ethical egoism.

We refer to these questions as different “moral prisms” to emphasize their function as different perspectives on the right thing to do, perspectives that, together, form what can be called a “moral spectrum.” The prisms and their questions are as follows:

• The Existentialist prism asks: “What course(s) of action will set people most free?”

• The Deontological prism asks: “What would I do if everyone in the world were to do as I did?”

• The Ethic of Caring prism asks: “What course(s) of action will best sustain and nurture a caring relationship between myself and others?”

• The Communitarian prism asks: “How would I act if everyone in my community knew exactly what I were doing?”

• The Utilitarian prism asks: “What course(s) of action will best maximize total happiness in the world?”

• The Virtue Ethics prism asks: “What would the most virtuous person I know of do in this situation?”

• The Egoist prism asks: “What course(s) of action will most effectively ensure that my short- and long-term goals are reached?”

Explain to the students that the way to use the moral spectrum model is, in keeping with the many-hued theme, as a palette. When considering a moral issue, most of us tend to paint with a limited number of colors. Using the moral spectrum model enables us to expand our palette and see different perspectives that we can then bring to the issue. For instance, if we generally gaze through the Deontological prism, we’re apt to be focused less on results than on outcomes, which may lead us to making choices that underplay their effect on people’s happiness. It may be worth our while, therefore, to gaze through the Utilitarian prism and see if our judgment of what we ought to do changes. Considering the issue from this new point of view won’t necessarily change our mind, but it will bring new options to the table. In short, the moral spectrum model enables us to expand our moral perception and with any luck, choose more wisely.

Students are then given a variety of moral dilemmas to work with. For example, they might be asked the following:

“You are spending the afternoon with a friend of yours who isn’t very popular. You run into a group of your friends who invite you to go to a movie but they say that your unpopular friend can’t come. What is the right thing to do?”

Asking different questions about this scenario may yield different judgments. For instance, an existentialist, focused on liberty, may say that a person ought to do whatever maximizes freedom in this situation—probably leaving the friend behind. But other perspectives—notably utilitarianism, an ethic of caring, and communitarianism—would, for different reasons, judge that the right thing to do would be to stay with the unpopular friend.

You can also do this part of the exercise as a game. The class is broken into two teams and teams are given 8-sided dice. A dilemma is presented and then a student on the team rolls the dice. Depending on the number rolled, the student has to answer the dilemma from a different perspective. For instance, if a 1 is rolled, the student has to answer from the Existentialist perspective, 2 Deontological, and so on. (If an 8 is rolled, the answer has to be an amalgamation of all seven perspectives.)

In any case, exploring scenarios like this from different moral perspectives enables students to flex their moral reasoning abilities in surprising ways.

When the exercise works well, students come to see that bringing a wide variety of perspectives to bear on an issue tends to result in choices that are more consistent with their deepest values. That is, by examining issues from a variety of viewpoints, they are able to engage in the sort of self-reflection that makes it more likely that their moral positions are congruent with their authentic feelings.

For example, one group of students was working on a dilemma that had to do with choosing between breaking a promise to a friend and going to see a much-loved musical group perform. Initially, one student, a pretty boisterous and not particularly reflective 11-year old boy named Joshua, said that he’d ditch his friend to go hear the band. But when he worked through the moral spectrum, he came to realize that, as a matter of fact, he didn’t really feel that way he thought he did. His initial response was a vaguely Utilitarian one: he said that it would make him happier to go to the concert than it would make his friend sad to be left alone. However, when he thought about it in terms of the so-called “Ethic of Caring prism” and asked himself what would best sustain and nurture his relationship with his friend, he began to think about it differently. And when he considered the situation from the “Communitarian prism” and wondered about how he would act if everyone know what he was doing, he changed his mind about what he thought was justified. Afterwards, he said he was glad he had the chance to look at things in different ways; if he hadn’t, he said, he probably would have gone to the concert and then felt bad about himself later.