Top view of group of students sitting together at table. University students doing group study.

Bioethics Forum Essay

Teaching Ethics to Adolescents

For the past few months, I have been leading a weekly ethics class for middle- and early-high school-aged youth at a local church. The idea for the class was still half formed when I was inspired by a Hastings Bioethics Forum blog post about a high school bioethics club that successfully sparked debate and discourse over important bioethical issues. Reading that post encouraged me to move forward with my idea. Adults often underestimate youth, and I wanted to challenge my own assumptions as well as challenge my prospective students.

In each class, we learn about a different ethical theory and compare it to other theories we have discussed. The week we discussed utilitarianism, we read Aubrey Davis’s A Hen for Izzy Pippik in which a girl named Shaina finds a lost hen and decides to care for her until Izzy Pippik, the hen’s owner, returns. Pippik does not return in a timely fashion, but Shaina insists upon continuing to care for the hen and her progeny, much to the disapproval of the community who want to use the chickens for food and income. Many generations of chickens later, Pippik finally returns. I asked my students who they thought owned or should own the chickens:  the original owner, the current and long-time caregiver, or the townspeople who had eventually grown to love and care for the chickens as a part of their community.

My plan was to use the answers as a starting point of a discussion of how utilitarianism might help with decision-making. One student went in a different direction and argued that none of the people owned the chicken because animals have intrinsic rights and cannot be owned. This led to a lengthy debate about animal and human rights. 

This deviation from the general discussion of utilitarianism was impressive for several reasons. First, a student used critical thinking to look beyond the supplied choices and consider another option. Second, he was clearly and logically able to express his point of view. Third, the other students listened to his point of view and offered counterarguments while maintaining respectful discourse. I don’t think anyone fully changed their mind, but the students did practice respectful debate and critical thinking, which, to me, was the most important outcome.

As our classes have progressed, the students have significantly improved their understanding of ethical dilemmas, other peoples’ points of view, and ethical theories. I have also deepened my understanding of the students’ points of view, particularly when we discuss ethical issues related to technology. Having grown up with much more advanced technology than my cofacilitator and I did, the students are more open to possible changes in societal norms and even to having these changes happen quickly.

 Last fall, I facilitated an intergenerational class on the science and ethics of DNA for a homeschool cooperative. We conducted an in-class opinion poll on various ethical aspects of the use of DNA technology, such as Crispr gene editing. The adolescents in my class were much more accepting of it than the adults and were more likely to indicate they would use it. The younger generation is just a few years from becoming leaders in science and society, so it is important that they learn to consider the ethical implications of technology.

As an ethicist, I am happy to see my students learn about different theories, deepen their understanding of ethics, and apply this information. But our class has also been successful in other ways. My preconceived assumptions about the abilities of our students were dispelled by the depth and nuance of their insights. Some parents told me the discussions often continued at home. I hope that the students will apply the skills they’ve acquired in the bioethics class — of respectful debate, listening to others’ points of view, and practicing critical thinking — to other areas of their lives and that more adults will be inspired to have deeper discussions with adolescents. My goal is to foster constructive communication and better understanding of others, capabilities that will help my students evaluate new technologies and strive to use them for the good of future generations.

Pageen Manolis Small is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in health care ethics at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin.  She facilitates ethics classes for local home-schooled students and for the religious education program at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society.

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