Ready-made dilemmas make ethics exploration engaging and easy

Ethics-Debate-VenturersPreparing young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes is central to the mission of the Boy Scouts of America. One way to achieve that goal is to hold discussions about ethical dilemmas in your troop, team or crew.

An ethical dilemma is any situation in which the “right” answer isn’t clear — more than one possible outcome might be valid. Imagine, for example, that a Scout’s lifelong friend starts making offensive comments about some of his newer friends who are of a different race. Should the Scout maintain his relationship with his old friend, hoping to change her mind? Or should he cut ties to be fair to his new friends?

The Venturing Advisor Guidebook (No. 34655) offers a simple process for discussing ethical dilemmas like this. Here’s an overview.

First, find or make up an ethical dilemma. Ethical controversy activities help your troop or crew discuss issues in an interesting, organized and active way.

A good source is Venturing’s “Ethical Controversies Vignettes,” available at You can find other situations online or in the newspaper. Write out the situation and two possible solutions.

(Although many dilemmas have multiple possible solutions, for this exercise you should limit yourself to two.)

Next, form teams of four Scouts or Venturers and have each team break off into pairs. Give one pair solution 1 and the other pair solution 2.

Once you’ve formed the teams, have them walk through the steps described below. The entire activity could take from 45 minutes to two hours.

1. Learn the position. With your partner, develop as many arguments as possible to support your assigned position.

2. Present your position. Share your arguments with the other pair. In turn, listen closely to their position, making sure you understand their arguments. Clarify your understanding by restating what others say.

3. Discuss the issue. Defend your position and critique the opposition. Try to persuade the opposing pair that you are correct, and then listen to their defense and critique. Remember to be critical of ideas, not people.

4. Reverse positions. Switch positions with the other pair. Take a few minutes with your partner to review your new position. Present and defend your new position as if you really believe in it.

5. Try to reach consensus. Work toward finding a position that all four believe is the correct one.

Finally, bring the entire group back together to reflect on the process. Your Scouts or Venturers might not reach a consensus, but they will reach a new level of decision-making ability. And they will be better prepared to handle real-life dilemmas in the future.

Sample Dilemma
Taken from the Venturing “Ethical Controversies Vignettes.”

The scenario
You are the chief of a fairly large combination fire department — mostly volunteer, but partly paid. You recently acquired new OSHA-approved equipment, replacing your older self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs) with new ones.

For many reasons, including space limitations, you want to get the older equipment out of the station. A smaller local all-volunteer department has requested your older gear and SCBAs.

You know that your old equipment is no longer OSHA-approved or reliable, but you remember what it was like to try to equip a group of volunteers with extremely limited funds. You decide to throw the equipment out in the large trash bin but let the other chief know when and where so they can make a midnight raid and recover it. Is your action ethical?

Position 1: Donate the equipment. While it is true that the old equipment does not meet current standards, it is better than nothing. You are completing your obligation by putting it in the dumpster. If the other department chooses to pick up the equipment, they are taking any responsibility for its use.

Position 2: Don’t donate the equipment. The equipment doesn’t meet current standards, so it might be more dangerous to use it than not to have any. Also, you might be liable for damages or injury if the equipment fails in a critical situation. The responsible thing to do is to make sure the equipment gets thrown away.

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