Teaching about values? Moral Dilemmas are a brilliant way to promote critical analysis of the values positions that we hold. Read on …



Moral dilemmas: an approach for dealing with environmental issues in the classroom


What are Moral Dilemmas?


Environmental education is primarily about analysing attitudes and taking appropriate action.  As such, students should be involved in examining and thinking about the value conflicts inherent in Australian Society which influence our management of the environment.  They should also become aware that environmental issues are rarely simple and easy to resolve and often involve compromise. Moral Dilemmas are a useful strategy for handling environmental issues in the classroom.


A Moral Dilemma is a hypothetical situation where a central character is faced with two choices (both of which are feasible and produce a mental conflict or dilemma).  Students are asked to indicate, by a show of hands or by moving across a room, what they think the central character should do.  Individuals are then invited to explain their viewpoint.  The teacher can then introduce complicating factors to promote discussion and illustrate the alternative point of view. Individuals might then change their viewpoint and change their position in the room.


The technique provides a way of demonstrating that there are usually two sides to any issue, both of which are feasible and reasonable points of view.


It is important for each individual to respect the right of another person to have a different point of view and individuals should have appropriate opportunity to explain their views. Teachers should be careful in managing student interactions so that all views can be heard respectfully and without judgement. Stress that these are hypothetical scenarios and can be extremely valuable in discussions about actions and consequences.


Procedural and Substantive Values


The values we hold are fundamental to our individuality and also in shaping our behaviour.  Further, there is a range of values held across the community with regard to many issues, including strongly-held values positions regarding environmental issues. Dealing with values in classrooms can therefore be quite contentious.


The values that we might speak of in classrooms are often described in the following terms – procedural values and substantive values. There is little argument that we be involved in promoting such procedural values as honesty, tolerance of divergent opinion, co-operation, respect for individuals and equal rights for everyone in this generation and in the next. These are the values of democratic process, ecological sustainability and social justice. It is in the area of substantive values, what we as individuals and groups within a pluralist community believe about the nature of that community, that will vary. Our personal beliefs towards animal experimentation, duck shooting and logging rainforests are simply that, our personal beliefs. As environmentalists there is a greater degree of unanimity of opinion than there would be in the larger community, on at least some of these issues, but as educators we should be wary of our treatment of these issues in the classroom.


In general, we teach for procedural values, and about substantive values. We are unashamed in promoting the democratic process, for example. It is not OK to punch someone because you don’t like what they said, or to shout someone down when they respectfully oppose your assertion. We teach about the range of substantive values so that students can appreciate the continuum that exists, and with analysis and personal reflection, find their own position on that continuum. 


In our classes, we should use a range of material that presents a range of values positions. Students should be able to form their own views, free from undue influence in any direction. We do them a disservice otherwise. (Hunt, 1998)


I have used Moral Dilemmas in a  range of settings, from upper primary students, through secondary years and in teacher professional development programs. I present the chosen scenario, then ask participants to move to either the ‘Yes’ side of the room or the ‘No’ side of the room, depending on their view on the initial question. As subsequent information is revealed, one statement from each side in turn, they are invited to either remain where they are or cross the floor. I ask one or two why they have not moved/moved, inviting others to reflect on the positions taken. The role of dispassionate umpire is extremely important, there are no right or wrong answers and all views are worthy.  Be prepared to be a devil’s advocate to deflect the discussion if it becomes willing. That participants can react strongly makes this a wonderful exercise to delve deeply into the range of values that drive all of us. 





Example 1


A Moral Dilemma:  Should John shoot the Kangaroos?


John lives on a farm in Victoria.  Normally, during late summer, there is a shortage of food for the native animals which live in the surrounding bushland.  Often a small number of kangaroos come to John’s property and feed on his crops.  While he finds this annoying, particularly when they damage his fences, John and his family enjoy watching the kangaroos and like having some native animals near their home.  So he is willing to put up with this situation.


But this summer has been different.  Major bushfires burned through much of the surrounding bushland early in the summer.  Now many more kangaroos have come to his farm in search of food.  They are likely to eat most of his crops and have extensively damaged his fencing.  Other farmers in the area have the same problem and several have applied for permits to shoot kangaroos on their properties.


Assuming he obtains a permit, should John shoot the kangaroos on his property?


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•       Most of the female kangaroos are carrying joeys.


•       The species of kangaroo is not very common in Victoria.


•       John owns several other farms in Victoria which are not affected by kangaroos.



•       John’s application for a permit is denied by the wildlife authorities.






•       The bushfire was deliberately lit by a member of John’s family.


If the majority say no then introduce these factors:



•      Many of John’s neighbours are already shooting kangaroos.


•      The species of kangaroo is very common in Victoria.


•      John is deeply in debt and will have to sell the farm if he doesn’t get a good crop this year.


•      The number of kangaroos has greatly increased over the past few years.  As a result there won’t be enough food for them in the surrounding bushland even after it regenerates from the bushfire.


•      Instead of kangaroos, rabbits are threatening his crops.


Example 2


Moral Dilemma:  The Brumbies


Bill runs a cattle station near Alice Springs.  It is a very dry year and the station is carrying hundreds of brumbies which are competing with the cattle for what little grass there is.  The brumbies are also destroying station fences and causing long-lasting soil erosion.


Should Bill shoot them?


If the majority say yes to introduce these complicating factors:


•     It is through Bill’s poor management that there is little grass cover because he has overstocked his property for years.


•     Most of the soil erosion is caused by the cattle and not the brumbies.



•     A Sydney University veterinary research team has been studying this group of brumbies for the past two years.  Their valuable research work will be set back considerably if the brumbies are now destroyed.


•     Bill will incur the wrath of the powerful Animal Liberation group if he shoots the brumbies.

If the majority say no then introduce these complicating factors:


•     Bill is deeply in debt and will go bankrupt if he cannot get a good herd of cattle to market this year.



•     The Government has threatened to terminate Bill’s lease if the soil erosion is not stopped.


•     Horses drink large amounts of water.  A large number of native animals will die if the brumbies remove all the water from the natural waterholes.




•     The brumbies are damaging neighbouring properties . Bill’s neighbours will become quite agitated if he doesn’t shoot the brumbies.



Example 3


A Moral Dilemma:  The Insecticide


Anne owns a house in town.  She has a native garden and is very conscious of environmental problems.  However, she has a major problem:  her yard is being taken over by ants.  There are nests everywhere, making life outdoors unbearable.  Even hanging out the washing is an ordeal.  She has tried all kinds of “natural remedies” but none have been successful in eradicating the ants.  One day, in desperation, she tried an insecticide called ANT KILL recommended by her next-door neighbour.  It worked!  However, it contains a dangerous chemical, chlordane, which is like DDT. She is in a quandary.


Should she continue to use this dangerous chemical.


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•     While the insecticide is initially very effective, it only gets rid of the ants for 3-4 weeks.  New nests then appear in other parts of the yard necessitating the use of more insecticide.


•     The insecticide is considered so hazardous that the Victorian Government has just banned it in that State.


•     The insecticide is manufactured by a company that is notorious for its exploitation of workers.

If the majority say no then introduce these factors:


•     The ants have invaded the chook house and are causing the chooks a lot of trouble (crawling in their eyes and up their legs).




•     All of Anne’s neighbours are using it.  Her not using it will have little effect on the overall amount of environmental damage being done.


•     Anne’s husband is fed up with the ants.  As a result there is a lot of tension in the house which is threatening the marriage.



Example 4


Moral Dilemma: Dog Baiting


Mrs Cooper is at the end of her tether.  The dogs next door bark, howl and whine incessantly while the owners are out.  The owners are out nearly every night of the week and, although fed regularly, the dogs are never exercised.  Mrs Cooper has a 3 month old baby that is easily disturbed and an elderly mother-in-law who suffers from migraines.  Mr Cooper works out bush and only comes home weekends.  For the past month he has spent his weekends at a mate’s house because he can’t stand the noise.  One night, Mrs Cooper sees the man across the street throw meat into the dog’s yard.  The following morning the dogs are dead.


Should Mrs Cooper reveal the identity of the baiter?


If the majority say yes then introduce these factors:


•     The baiter has, in effect, done her a great favour by killing the dogs.  Her baby is now sleeping well; her husband now stays home on the weekends and helps her.


•     The neighbours are not very upset about the death of the dogs.  They have bought a cat.


•     The baiter would receive a hefty fine if police discovered his identity.  He is quite poor and his wife and family would suffer.


•     The baiter is her brother.

If the majority say no then introduce these complicating factors:


•     The dogs suffered horribly.






•     The neighbours believe Mrs Cooper poisoned their dogs.



•     Mrs Cooper also has a dog.  While it doesn’t yap, it frequently poohs in the baiter’s yard.  It could be in danger.



•     The baiter has killed other dogs in the area.  Children finding the baits could be poisoned.



Example 5


A Moral Dilemma:  The New Housing Development


On the edge of town is a large area of sewerage ponds.  These ponds are a site of major significance to bird lovers because they support a diversity and abundance of waterbirds found nowhere else in the area.


A local land development company has submitted an application to the Town Planning Authority to drain the ponds and rezone the land as residential so that they can develop a new housing estate.


Should the Town Planning authority allow the new development to go ahead?


If the majority say yes then introduce the following complicating factors:


•     The development will destroy a unique habitat that supports 63 species of waterbirds, including several rare species.


•     The Aboriginal Development Corporation wants to landscape the ponds and promote them as major tourist attraction.  Market research indicates that this will be a major dollar generator and dramatically reduce Aboriginal unemployment in the town.


•     Many local groups such as the Showground Trust and Town Council rely on the treated water for irrigation of parks and gardens.


•     The road past the ponds is the main road used by tourist operators and visitors to the nearby national parks.  Urban development along this road will detract from the scenic aspects of this tourist route.



•     Relocating the ponds to a new site will cost the Government $16 million.  The only way this money could be found would be through welfare and education cuts.


If the majority say no then introduce these complicating factors:


•     The waterbirds are the major carrier of the disease, Murray Valley encephalitis.  As such they are a significant health risk.


•     There is a shortage of housing blocks in town.  A large consortium is interested in developing a multi-million dollar film industry in the district.  However, they will go elsewhere unless they can buy 200 building blocks so they can construct staff housing.


•     While the ponds are unsuitable for mosquito breeding, the swamp next to them is the breeding site for 70% of the mosquitoes that plague the town.


•     Motel and caravan park operators nearby are up in arms about the stench from the sewerage ponds.  At night there is a prevailing westerly wind that carried the aroma of sewerage down the valley into their area.


•     Water from the ponds is seeping into the local aquifer and threatening the town’s water supply.


Example 6


A Moral Dilemma:  The Clearing of Our Forests


Forestry is Australia’s second largest manufacturing industry.  It directly provides over 100,000 jobs and indirectly another 200,000 or more.  The monetary value of forest industries to Australia is over 3 billion dollars annually.  This is more than wheat or wool.


The Yakimoto (Australia) Chip and Pulp Factory has applied to the Australian Government for a licence to clear-fell an area of native hardwood (eucalypt) forest in southern New South Wales.  The forest in question is a wilderness area that is home for many native animals and plants.


Should the Government permit the forest to be cleared?


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•     Since Europeans first settled in Australia 200 years ago, we have cleared more than half of the country’s native forests.



•     It is highly unlikely that a forest area, once clear-felled, will ever recover all its original structure, variety of life and richness.  This is because a forest is more than just a crop of cellulose.  It is a complex ecosystem of interdependent plants and animals.


•     The forest in question is used, each year, by thousands of bushwalkers, picnickers, campers and field naturalists.  Their quality of life will deteriorate if the forest is cleared.




•     What if, instead of eucalypt forest, the company wanted to clear an area of rare rainforest?

If the majority say no then introduce these complicating factors:


•     Adequate forest areas, representative of all habitat types, have been conserved for future generations in national parks.  No logging is permitted in these forests.


•     Trees are a renewable resource.  This means they can be grown and harvested just like wheat is.






•     Many people will lose their jobs and family income if the company is not given a licence.  Even though these people will be eligible for Government-paid job retraining, it is doubtful if they will all obtain alternative work.


•     What if, instead of clear-felling, the company intends removing only half of the trees (so that regeneration is very likely)?



Example 7


A Moral Dilemma:  The Injured Bird


On their way home from school one day, Kylie and Kim find a small bird with an injured wing.  Mary suggests that they kill it (by breaking its neck) to put it out of its misery.  However, John (whose father is a member of the RSPCA) has doubts about this.


Should John stop her from killing the bird?


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•     The bird is in a lot of pain and it is doubtful whether it could be nursed back to health.


•     This species of bird is a bad pest to local fruit growers.


•     Both John and Mary come from poor families.  Neither could afford the vet’s fees.


•     It would take some time to nurse it back to health.  In that time it would become very tame and probably lose the ability to fend for itself in the wild.

If the majority say no then introduce these factors:


•     The bird does not appear to be in any pain.



•     The bird is an endangered species.



•     The bird has an injured wing because John threw a large rock at its nest on the way to school that morning.


•     The bird is a mother with young ones in her nest.  These could not survive without her.


Example 8


A Moral Dilemma:  The Cicadas


It is November and many cicada nymphs are emerging from the ground.  They cling to the bark of River Red Gums where, over the course of a couple of hours, they undergo their final moult.  Mary-Lou has noticed that the cicadas on one particular tree are being attacked by ants while they are at this helpless stage (undergoing the moult).


Should she try to keep the ants away from those cicadas?


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•     What is happening is just part of nature where only the fittest survive?


•     Adult cicadas only live for a short time once they moult, and even if they survive and mate, there is no guarantee their offspring (eggs) will survive.


•     At best Mary-Lou would only be able to save a few cicadas.  Many more, on other trees or at other times, will be killed by the ants.

If the majority say no then introduce these factors:


•     The ants are causing the cicadas a lot of pain.


•     The cicadas on this tree are very rare species.





•     What if, instead of cicadas they are newly born calves being attacked by dingoes?


Example 9


A Moral Dilemma:  Introduced Birds


A species of European bird, common in Queensland and other states, is currently moving into the Northern Territory.  For a couple of years they have been getting caught in container trucks travelling from Mount Isa to Tennant Creek.  They are now established in Tennant Creek and expected to appear in Alice Springs soon.


Should any birds appearing in Alice Springs be exterminated?


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•     These birds, though not native, are no less worthy of preservation than any other type of animal.




•     Besides, other introduced (and potentially destructive), animals such as cattle and cats are tolerated.



•     The birds are known to be very effective predators on insect pests and cockroaches.


•     The only really effective method of eradication is baiting.  This would threaten other birds, including some endangered species.

If the majority say no then introduce these factors:


•     The presence of introduced birds would detract from the tourist image of the town:  viz as one of the few places where tourists can experience “the real Australia”.


•     The birds will compete with native birds for food and nesting sites, driving all the native birds away from the town.


•     The birds are believed to carry parasites and spread disease.


Example 10


A Moral Dilemma:  Closure of a National Park


Littering and vandalism in a popular national park close to town has reached chronic proportions.  The picnic tables, barbecues and toilets are continually being wrecked, at great cost to the Conservation Commission.  The Commission is considering the closure of the park to all visitors except those participating on organised tours accompanied by a ranger.


Should they take this drastic action?


If the majority say yes then introduce these complicating factors:


•     Responsible locals and group such as the Field Naturalists Club will be denied access.


•     Because there are only two rangers stationed at the park, only a limited number of ranger tours would be possible.  This could threaten the tourist industry which is a major money spinner for the town.


•     The Conservation Commission is partly responsible for the problem because there are insufficient bins and the rangers rarely patrol the park.


•     There is evidence that most of the littering and damage is done by school groups using the parks for supposed “educational excursions”.

If the majority say no then introduce these factors:


•     Other national parks in the district will still be open to the public.



•     The Conservation Commission may have to cut research programs (such as its endangered animals re-introduction program) because of the escalating costs of repairs and maintenance.


•     The fouling of waterholes by picnickers and swimmers is threatening the wildlife.



•     The park contains many sites of significance to Aboriginal people who have been seeking its closure for years.





1    Hunt, Greg,  1998  Educating students for effective decision making, STAVCON, Conference of the Victorian Science Teachers Association


2    Example 1:  Should John shoot the Kangaroos? Is from a workshop conducted by Randy Brouillette at the 1984 A.A.E.E. National Conference.  All other examples were written by C.O.O.E.E. members in 1987.


3    These scenarios are fictitious.  Any resemblance to real characters or situations is coincidental.