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The interesting thing about ethics is that it helps students apply moral principles to deal with various personal and social issues or case.

Through guiding students in their discussions of moral reasoning, teachers not only test students’ understanding of theories, but also learn what kind of values students possess. Teachers can guide students to reflect on their personal values and pursuit of virtues, and review personal attitudes towards certain important values, such as human rights, justice, fraternity, and dignity.

The following cases are classic stories in introductory ethics. They are mostly fictional, but each contains certain important ethical issues or key concepts. Teachers may select materials from the appendix based on students’ interest and abilities, which aims to help them understand the interesting aspects of ethics and have basic understanding of it.

New Senior Secondary Ethics and Religious Studies Introductory Learning and Teaching Materials

for the Secondary 3 Ethics Studies


★Case 1★

You are a doctor in Accident and Emergency Department of a hospital when six victims in a traffic accident are brought in. All of them are severely injured but one is much worse off than the others. You do not have enough time to save all the six people. You can either save the five less seriously injured people or the most

seriously injured person. Either way, patient(s) not getting urgent treatment will die.

What would you do? How would you choose? What are your reasons?

Case 2★

You are a doctor. A family of five has just been submitted to the hospital. All are dying from serious injury and each is in need of an

organ transplant. You know that there is a patient in the hospital who has been in a coma for years and is certified in a vegetative state. His blood type matches with those of the family members. His organs fit the needs of all the injured persons and are suitable for transplant. This coma

patient has no family and would certainly die from having his organs removed. You can only save these five patients without the coma patient’s consent; or you can choose to do nothing and let the five victims die.

What would you do? How would you choose? What are your reasons?

Organ transplant



In the first case, most people would not hesitate to choose to save the five patients with less serious injuries. The reason is that the consequences are better. The doctor has no moral obligation to the patient who suffers more serious injuries. He has done nothing that leads to the death of the patient. The patient dies naturally. As

compared to the first case, most people would find the second case more difficult to deal with. The moral judgements the doctor has to make involve more complex

considerations. First, if the doctor decides to save the five persons, he must kill the patient in coma. Therefore, it is his action that directly leads to the death of the patient, rather than the patient dying naturally from lack of medical attention. Secondly, whose life is more important, the life of a coma patient or lives of five patients who are

conscious? This is not a simple mathematical problem. It involves judgements about the value of life. Can we put a price on human life in the way we value things? Such act means devaluing human life. We are disrespecting people as human. Many would consider this morally unacceptable.

Similar to the patient in room 418 (described in Lesson 3), it is not the intention of the coma patient to sacrifice himself. Taking away his life, even if a coma patient is incapable of making his own decisions, will damage our confidence in the medical system, leading to a profound consequence

Suppose the coma patient has written a will while he was still conscious, specifying that his organs will be donated if they are needed, would the doctor still hesitate? Obviously he would hesitate less because it was a voluntary decision by the patient. A doctor would still be reluctant to perform such an operation because taking away a life obviously violates the values and code of practice of most doctors. Doctors are meant to save people, not to kill them. Even if patients make an active request, it is very difficult for a doctor who has moral standard to violate his own values and take away a patient’s life.

For doctors, no matter what the scenario is: saving five and killing one; or letting the five die, both scenarios would weigh heavily on his conscience. So which scenario is better? This dilemma is hard to resolve. Different people from different backgrounds will make different moral judgements. So there is no model answer. If the doctor has already thought thoroughly about ethical issues of this kind, he would be able to make rational decisions instead of rushed ones. He would be able to keep his peace of mind and continues to work and save lives.

Organ Transplant


An ocean liner was sinking in the middle of the ocean.

Some of the passengers got on the lifeboat in time and were waiting for rescue. Fai, who was the temporary captain of the boat, said, “We have 12 persons on this boat. It is quite desirable, as the boat can accommodate at most 20 persons and there is still eough space after stocking on food and water.

See, we have enough food to support us until the rescue team comes. We shouldn’t need to wait more than 24 hours before they come. So I think we can enjoy at leisure the extra

chocolate biscuits, and each of us can share a sip of wine. Any objections?”

“It is certainly good to enjoy the extra biscuits,” Ms Ma said, “But isn’t it more urgent to rescue the poor drowning woman over there? She’s been calling out to us for help for half an hour!” Some of the survivors dropped their heads and stared at their feet with shame; others shook their heads in doubt.

“I think that we already had a consensus,” said Fai. “Her drowning isn’t our fault. If we save her, then we cannot enjoy the extra biscuits. Why do we spoil our existing comforts?” The survivors on the boat murmured in agreement.

“We have the ability to save her. If we don’t, she will die. Isn’t this reason enough?”

“Life is cruel. I am not responsible for saving everyone who is drowning!” answered Fai. “Even if she died, it’s none of our business. Anyone wants more chocolate biscuits?”

Source:’Lifeboat Earth’ by Onora O’Neill, republished in World Hunger and Moral Obligation, edited by W. Aiken and H. La Follette (Prentice-Hall, 1977)

She’s drowning, but why should I care?



From a global perspective, if we equate the lifeboat to rich western nations, then the drowning woman is the people from the poor regions who are dying of malnutrition and illness. From this perspective, the developed

countries are just as indifferent as Fai. We all have sufficient food and

medicine, but we rather enjoy our luxuries and let others die, unwilling to share our “extra biscuits” with others. If those on the lifeboat are unethical, we are no better.

Another analogy highlights such moral deficiency even more clearly: the lifeboat represents the entire earth. Some people refuse to share food to others on the boat. If it is cruel not to rescue another drowning person, it is even crueller to refuse to share the food to someone who is already on the boat.

This image is highly stunning, and the message conveyed is equally shocking. But, are such analogies really valid? In the real world, food and other resources are not simply stored somewhere, waiting for distribution. Wealth is created and earned. Even if I refuse to share my surplus to others, it does not mean stealing other’s resources. I am only keeping what originally belongs to me.

Nevertheless, even if we modify the analogy to reflect this reality, we still cannot claim to be completely innocent. Let us imagine that all food and supplies belong to those on the boat. Even so, once we are on the boat and find a drowning woman calling for help, can we still say, “Let her die, the biscuits are mine”? If there is sufficient food on the boat to share with this woman, to save her from death, we should rescue her and share with her the food and supplies that we own.

The United Nations recommends that developed countries should donate 0.7% of their Gross National Product for overseas aid purposes. No country, however, meets this recommendation. For most, donating 1% of their income to help the poor will have very little effect on their quality of life. The lifeboat analogy shows us that helping the poor will not make us good people; but if we do not, we are making a serious mistake.

She’s drowning, but why should I care?


Before Keung, Ming, Yan and Ling began their round-the-world trip, they each promised their mothers that they would write home regularly to inform them their location.

Keung wrote letters and gave them to someone else to mail. No one took his order seriously. Keung’s mother ended up receiving no letters at all.

Ming wrote letters and mailed them himself. However, he either put them in abandoned postal boxes, or paid insufficient postal few, or made other mistakes. None of those letters got to his mother.

Yan wrote the letters a d mailed them properly. However, the postal system let her down every time and Yan’s mother never heard from her.

Ling wrote the letters and mailed them properly. She even called home to make sure the letters arrived. However, none of the letters


Among the four children, who have kept their promise to their mothers?

Source: The moral philosophy of H. A. Prichard, as critiqued by Mary Warnock in What Philosophers Think, edited by J. Baggini and J. Stangroom (Continuum, 2003)

Who is the good kid?



This is a classic question in ethics! When can we say that we are free from the moral responsibilities placed on us? This question applies not only to writing to parents but also to nuclear disarmament.

The crucial debate lies in that if the expected outcome is not achieved after action, can we say that we have already completed our responsibility? Generally speaking, if the answer is negative, it would seem that the rules are too strict.

Ling has done all she can to ensure that the letters arrived home. However, the letters did not arrive. If Ling has tried her best, how can we ask her to take responsibility for the failure? This is why we do not blame those who have tried their best for failure.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean we forgive those who have not made their best efforts. Keung and Ming have neglected to fulfil their obligations. We can say with good reason that these two have not fulfil their promises.

Yan’s case is most interesting. On one hand, she could have done more to ensure the letter arrives home. On the other hand, she has done everything she should within our reasonable expectations.

Here, the concept of reasonable expectation is very important. If we are talking about nuclear disarmament, we should have higher expectation on the required inspections and additional measures. Based on the importance of the consequences, we are assigned different levels of expectation so as to ensure that the expected outcomes will indeed come true.

The issue of the letters touches upon one of the most fundamental issues of moral judgements: when making judgements one should not focus only on the motive or the consequence. If ethics care only about consequence, it would lead to absurd conclusions: even if Ling has done her best, so long as her actions fail to result in the desired consequence, she is still wrong. However, if ethics cares only about motives but not the consequence, it would result in another kind of absurdity: no one cares about the consequences of our actions. In this way, ethics will have no contribution at all to the well-being of people!

The various problems generated in mailing the letter might be trivial and insignificant, but the issues involved are not to be overlooked.

Who is the good kid?


“I succeeded!” Wah shouts. His computer has finally been connected to a new broadband network. In the past, he was used to using only dial-up internet. Now he can be online all day and enjoy fast browsing and downloading speeds. Best of all, it is all free.

It might be somewhat misleading to call it ‘free’. Wah can

enjoy free internet simply because he is using the wireless network (Wi-Fi) of his neighbour. Wi-Fi allows any computer within a limited area (as long as the computer is equipped with the correct software and hardware) to access the internet without subscribing to broadband service. Wah’s home is close to that of his neighbour,

which allows him to share his neighbour’s Wi-Fi network.

Wah does not consider it stealing. Anyway, his neighbour will be able to use the internet, and he is just taking advantage of the excess bandwidth. Wah believes that this allows him to conveniently access the internet while doing no harm to his neighbour’s interests. If it does not cause any inconvenience, where is the harm?

It’s just sharing – it’s harmless!



Many people own laptop computers or palm digital devices that have Wi-Fi internet access. They would sometimes ‘borrow’ the bandwidth of others. They would use the Wi-Fi network of other companies or personal networks without informing them; it causes no harm on the performance of these networks in any way.

Wah’s actions are more systematic. He uses his neighbour’s Wi-Fi to access the internet every day. He enjoys what his neighbour pays for – this would seem quite unfair, but his actions do not bring negative impact to his neighbours.

Whether or not Wah uses the internet, his neighbour would need to pay the same internet charges. His usage would not affect his neighbour. From this perspective, Wah appears less like a thief than a passer-by enjoying the shadow of a tree planted by his neighbour.

This example relates to the issue of ‘taking advantage’ of others. Those

‘taking advantage’ benefit from other’s behaviour, but do not contribute anything.

Sometimes, such acts of ‘taking advantage’ diminish overall benefits. In these occasions the drawbacks are apparent. However, sometimes, only the excess benefits are ‘taken advantage of’. Nothing is taken away from anyone.

Such examples of ‘taking advantage’ are common. A community organises a fund raising concert in the park, and someone passes by and listens at the

outer-most corner. No one is affected. However, when the collection box is passed to him, he donates not one cent.

If taking advantage is an act of crime, the damages caused by this criminal act are minimal. If so, what is wrong about ‘taking advantage’? Perhaps, the key is not in individual cases in which advantage is taken, but the behaviour of ‘taking advantage’. For example, we may not care about when someone uses our Wi-Fi network, given that under similar conditions we can use the Wi-Fi network of others. In Wah’s example, he only takes but does not give. Wah has no plan to share his Wi-Fi network in the future with others in the same manner. His act of

‘taking advantage’ is not based upon a spirit of mutual benefit, so his action is intolerable. Also, his behaviour shows that he is extremely self-centred. However, although we find his action somewhat selfish, we cannot deny that the damage that he causes is not significant.

It’s just sharing – it’s harmless!


Wing and Ki are buying Christmas presents for their 3 children. The parents love their children, and try to treat them as equal as possible. This year, they plan to give each child an annual pass (regular membership) of a theme park, which costs

$600 per pass.

When they are ready to pay, Wing discovers a discount offer: if one buys two annual passes (gold membership) that worth $900 per pass, he would get one annual pass (regular membership) for free. The gold pass holder can

enjoy more special offers. Wing and Ki can get better goods for the same amount of money.

“We can’t do that,” says Ki. “This is unfair, because one child would be getting a worse present than those of the other two children.”

“But Ki,” says Wing, excited that two of his children can get presents in birthday months as well as free tours to the park during Halloween and Christmas,

“How would this be unfair? They are not getting a present worse than the original one. Two of them will be getting an even better one. If we don’t join this offer, two children would be getting a gift worse off than the free offer.”

Ki says, “I hope they can have the same presents.”

Wing says, “Won’t it work even if some would get better presents?”

Ki says, “Fairness comes first – I don’t care about anything else!”

Wing says, “Is being fair means being equal?”

Source:A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (Harvard University Press, 1971)

Fairness comes first – I don’t care about anything else!



Many believe we should pursue equality. But rarely would people think we should pursue equality at all costs, particularly the one-size-fits-all equality would lead to a distorted society. We can easily create equality for everyone. We simply need to make everyone as poor as the poorest people in society. However, this is

obviously rather foolish because this would not improve anyone’s life. The poorest are still as poor as ever, and others will be victims.

Although we agree that the one-size-fits-all equality does not work, it does not mean we should accept all kinds of inequality. We should ask under what situations inequality is acceptable. Wing explains to Ki why they should treat their children differently, and this is one answer: if it is harmless, and someone gains benefits, inequality is acceptable, as someone achieves greater happiness.

Therefore fairness as a result of equality may take a lower priority.

This is very similar to the ‘Difference Principle’ as advocated by some political philosophers. The principle states that different treatments should be allowed only if it benefits the least advantaged. However, we are not sure if this principle can be applied to the 3 children. According to the original plan, the three children constitute a society with no hierarchy. Everyone enjoys the same wealth in this society. But the gold membership would surely make the two children richer, but the poverty of the remaining child would not be alleviated. Can we say that this plan is, overall speaking, beneficial?

Of course, applying the Difference Principle is on the social level would be very different from applying it on a family level. Socially speaking, Wing’s argument is intuitively convincing. On family level, we have reason to give equality higher priority, as in small group, people are more inclined to feel inequality by comparison, thus leading to tensions.

Similar thinking can be applied to the political realm. One reason of

opposing to inequality is that it has a negative effect on social harmony and on the self-esteem of the poor. Social psychologists point out that materially speaking, people may not become poorer because their neighbours have grown richer; but psychologically, they would suffer from negative emotions when there is a larger gap between their wealth and their neighbour’s. Therefore, whether in the realm of politics or family, one should not simply consider fairness from a materialistic perspective.

Fairness comes first – I don’t care about anything else!