By their nature, ethical dilemmas involve situations in which two or more values conflict. When you make a decision to hold tightly to one value, you necessarily have to let go of another value — at least temporarily.
That’s what makes ethical dilemmas so difficult to solve. That’s also what makes them useful as discussion starters for Scouts who’re trying to figure out how to live according to the values that Scouting teaches.
The dilemma described here will seem familiar to anyone who has led an organization: How do you affirm the contributions of group members without letting those contributions push the group in the wrong direction?
Note: Although this dilemma uses Boy Scouting terms, you can easily adapt it for Venturing. Substitute “crew president” and “crew officers’ meeting” for “senior patrol leader” and “patrol leaders’ council,” and talk about the Ranger Award’s wilderness survival requirements instead of the Wilderness Survival merit badge.
Tommy Pirelli is one of those Scouts the leaders of Troop 923 secretly wish would play baseball instead. At 13, he’s a classic kibitzer. He’s happy to offer his own strong (and usually negative) opinions about the decisions the patrol leaders’ council makes, but he’s not at all interested in being a leader.
That attitude doesn’t change much after he’s elected patrol leader of the Pedro Patrol. He skips the annual
program-planning conference and barely contributes at a string of patrol leaders’ council meetings. Along the way, the Scoutmaster counsels Senior Patrol Leader Ben Malden to find opportunities to kindle even the smallest flame of Tommy’s involvement.
Ben gets his chance when planning the troop’s annual wilderness survival weekend. Suddenly, Tommy comes to life, making suggestions straight out of TV’s “Man vs. Wild.” Rather than build shelters with downed branches, he proposes felling a few trees. Rather than eating trail meals, he suggests trapping some rabbits.
Now, Ben is stuck. Does he shut Tommy down or approve activities that run counter to Scouting’s outdoor ethics? Or is there a middle path?
To simplify the discussion, set aside the issue of Tommy’s sudden interest in being a leader and focus on outdoor ethics. Explore these questions with your Scouts or Venturers:
- Who or what defines Scouting’s outdoor ethics? Answers should include the Outdoor Code and the principles of Leave No Trace.
- Where can the PLC find guidance in making ethical decisions in the outdoors? A good resource is Chapter 7, “Leave No Trace,” in the Boy Scout Handbook. Other resources would be the Scout who serves as the troop’s Leave No Trace trainer and any adult experts.
- How do Tommy’s suggestions go against or support Scouting’s outdoor ethics?
- When (if ever) is it permissible to go against Scouting’s outdoor ethics?
- Does realistic training, such as what Tommy proposes, make it more likely that Scouts would survive in a real emergency? If so, does that make the violation of outdoor ethics appropriate?
- How could the troop structure survival training in a way that best balances effective teaching with honoring outdoor ethics?
Now, explore these questions about Tommy Pirelli:
- Do you think Tommy has any real interest in being a leader, or is he just being provocative by suggesting the alternate activities?
- Should Ben and the PLC take Tommy’s suggestions more seriously or less seriously because this marks the first time he’s engaged in the planning process?
- If they reject Tommy’s suggestions, he might never contribute ideas again. Is that OK?
- Has Ben caught Tommy doing something good, as the Scoutmaster suggested? How important do you think it is now to kindle the flame of his involvement? How does Ben balance that need with the needs of the group?
- Can Ben affirm Tommy’s contribution while rejecting his specific ideas? How?
- Could the PLC reject Tommy’s ideas without discussing outdoor ethics? Or is it important to address the underlying issues?
- Could the PLC shift responsibility for rejecting Tommy’s ideas to the adult leaders (for example, by letting the Scoutmaster take the heat for not allowing rabbit snares)? Does doing so lessen the youth leaders’ authority?
Have your Scouts or Venturers role-play the planning process for the survival outing. Encourage them to find a resolution that affirms Tommy’s contribution, preserves their own positions as youth leaders and honors Scouting’s outdoor ethics.
FIND MORE ETHICAL DEBATES AT SCOUTINGMAGAZINE.ORG/ETHICS.