Moral Dilemma

Critical Thinking English Lesson

This English lesson encourages students to think critically by analyzing choices that involve conflicting values. The challenge is to argue that one warrant (i.e. assumed value system) is better than another when faced with a moral dilemma.


Students will respond to moral dilemma with a thoughtful, well-argued and balanced response. In this assignment, the response will be a written paper and a short, time limited oral presentation.


Responding to a moral dilemma provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to write a well-reasoned argument supported by a warrant and present those ideas in an oral presentation.

Both of these writing and thinking skills are essential for students who wish to write academic papers or dissertation because they are, in essence, the building blocks of a thesis statement. Without a solid thesis, it’s hard to imagine how a student can be successful in any academic writing project.

What is a moral dilemma?

A moral dilemma has several characteristics.

  • There are two or more choices that involve some action.
  • You (or the person in the situation) are able to do each of the actions.
  • You must choose one action.
  • You cannot do both at the same time.
  • Choosing one option means you cannot do the other at a later time.
  • One value system may conflict with another; finding a way to argue why one is better than the other with a thoughtful argument is the challenge.


The project has two parts: a written paper and an oral presentation.

  • written paper (10%)
  • oral presentation (10%)

The paper should be 2 to 4 pages (12 point font, typed, double spaced, clean presentation). The paper should present your best work by reflecting the 6+1 writing traits.

The paper is due on the day when you present your oral presentation.

The oral presentation will be 8 to 10 minutes; certainly not more than 10 minutes and not less than 5. The challenge is to condense your paper and turn it into a powerful presentation which gets to the heart of the matter: why one set of values is more important than others.


The organisational structure of the written paper is flexible, but I suspect it may include these parts:

  • A summary of the problem.
  • A description of the options.
  • An argument that describes your decision/choice.
  • A warrant to support your argument.
  • THIS IS CRITICAL: A fairly comprehensive review and critique of a different option, or options, (e.g. warrant or value system) and a description of why it is less desirable. This is the counter-argument.
  • A detailed analysis of why your choice is morally correct.

Preview Language

It might be helpful to preview a few basic concepts and terms which students might use when explaining their own answers.

Definition of Moral

  • ideas about what is right and wrong

Morality based on Consequences

The consequences are more important than action.

  • Utilitarianism: achieve the greatest good for the greatest number
  • The end justifies the means.

Morality based on Action

Decide if the action is right or wrong. That is more important that the consequences of the actions.

  • Right action follows some rules or social norm.
  • This type of thinking often talks about the duty or obligation people have.
  • If you have a duty to do something then it is right.

Here’s an example:

  • Meritocracy: a rule or social norm that says awards, power and wealth are given to people based on achievement, especially test scores.

Morality based on Character (Intentions)

  • Virtue ethics: the character of the person (or intention) is more important than the action or the consequences.
  • Compassion, kindness, caring and the like.

Morality based on Divine Action

  • We can decide right or wrong if the action follows the will of god.

Moral Relativism

  • There is no universal moral truth for all people and all places.
  • Right and wrong can be different depending on cultural and social differences.

Here’s an example:

  • Will to power: what I want is just, and so I will take it; altruism and self-denial are for weak people, there is no good and evil.

Moral Dilemma Questions

1 Bank Robbery

While standing on the street, you see a crime: a man steals money from a bank. Instead of keeping the money, he gives it to an orphanage. The money is used to buy clothes, food, and books to help the kids in school.

You know the name of the bank robber. If you go to the police, there’s a good chance the orphanage will have to return the money to the bank, which means the kids will continue to live a hard life and little chance to improve at school.

What do you do?


2 Streetcar (a)

A streetcar is driving downhill on a track. The streetcar can’t stop because the brakes were damaged by a crazy man. Down the track, six old, poor, homeless people are waiting in a fear. They were tied to the track by the same crazy guy.

Here’s the good news. You can save the six people from death by turning a switch, which will send the streetcar down a different track. Unfortunately, there is one person, who happens to be a world famous doctor, tied to that track.

What do you do: turn the switch or nothing?


3 Conflicting Values

During World War 2, a young French man lived with his mother. It was a terrible time because the German army controlled France. One day, the man’s brother was killed by German soldiers.

The young man wanted to do something. He had two choices: stay at home and take care of his mother (poor and alone because her husband was killed in the war) or leave her and join the Free French army to fight German soldiers.

What would have been the best moral choice for him?


4 Streetcar (b)

This situation is similar to other streetcar problem with one difference.

A streetcar is driving downhill on a track. The streetcar can’t stop because the brakes were damaged by a crazy man. Down the track, six old, poor, homeless people are waiting in a fear. They were tied to the track by the same crazy guy.

Here’s the good news. You can save the six people by turning a switch, which will send the streetcar down a different track. Unfortunately, there is one person, which happens to be you, tied to that track. If you save six people, you die.

What do you do: turn the switch or nothing?


5 Hospital

There is a doctor in a big hospital. She has six patients who are sick. Five of them need an organ transplant. If they get new organs, they have an 80% chance of living a long life. She can’t help them right now because there are no organs available.

The sixth patient is in serious condition, but might be saved if given a special drug. The doctor is not sure if the drug will save the person’s life; it’s 50-50. Without the medicine, the patient will die in a couple of hours. If the sixth patient dies, the doctor could take organs from the body and save the other patients.

What should the doctor do?


6 Fat Man

A group of people are inside a cave near the sea. The tour guide says it is time to leave because the tide is rising. At high tide, the cave fills up with water.

A fat man leaves the cave first, but there is a problem. He gets stuck in the hole that leads to the outside. He can’t move. There is no other way out of the cave. In a short time, the tide will come in and the cave will fill up with water. Everybody will die except for the fat man.

A 911 team arrives and says there are only two choices: use dynamite to make a bigger hole or wait. If they use dynamite, the fat man will die but the others will be saved. If they do nothing, the fat man can be saved, but the others will die.

What should the rescuers do?

Save time. Teach well.

Cut your lesson prep time with this colossal collection of ESL resources that stimulate language learning and critical thinking. Simplify your lesson planning because teaching should be a joy, not a chore.

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2 thoughts on “Moral Dilemma”

  1. Thank you very much for this great ideas! As an EFL teacher in Rosario, Argentina, I appreciate these Moral Dilemma activities to engage students in meaningful discussions. And as an advocate of the integration of technology into Language Learning, I’d use Images for the introduction of the topics, maybe in a Google Site or a Doc, depending on the groups, their needs and my aims. And perhaps I’d allow them to write their responses in Padlet.
    Just an idea!

  2. Hi Rita,

    Thanks for the kind words and great ideas.
    You are right, some pics might help students grasp the ideas more concretely.


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