October 26 2020

Imagining the Lives of Others in the High School Ethics Classroom

Christine Ortega Gaurkee, Berkeley Preparatory School, Tampa, Florida

Empathy by John Edward Marin

The very first scene of the Trial and Death of Socrates takes place on the steps of the King Archon’s court when Socrates runs into Euthyphro, who one may imagine sauntering out of the courthouse proudly. The men exchange initial pleasantries, and through those simple hellos, Euthyphro discloses that he is at the courthouse prosecuting his own father for murder because he believes it is the pious thing to do. This news immediately shocks my students, and, frankly, it appears to be of great surprise to Socrates as well. After twenty years of exploring this dialogue with my students, I imagine their outrage comes from Euthyphro’s lack of empathy for his father’s accidental situation. How could he possibly believe that the righteous or faithful thing to do is to prosecute his own father? 

My class, which I have taught many times over the years, is a moral philosophy and ethics course required for all students to graduate from high school. It is a semester-long course that meets four times a week at our affluent PreK-12 independent day school in Tampa, Florida. Moral philosophy, or ethics, strives to guide our ideas about, and behaviors in, society and the world. This course, in particular, encourages students to synthesize and apply what has already been established throughout their educational journey to hone decision-making skills in contemporary life by consistently looking through the perspectives of others. Imagining what life may be like for someone else is one of the most effective ways for students to increase empathy, and so, in our class, students engage avidly in class discussions to learn how to articulate their moral ideals. Over our time together, they are encouraged to engage in the consistent and intentional application of philosophical ideals while also defending the moral worth of those ideas to their colleagues. Together, these activities promote an empathetic and critical approach to the world beyond their previous experience.

Traditionally, I begin the course with Plato’s Trial and Death of Socrates because it provides the scaffolding to some important parts of the study of ethics. For example, it introduces the great Western thinkers Socrates and Plato. It further demonstrates the Socratic Method, the search for meaning, and a bit of radical questioning of religious authority in Socrates in trial. For many of my students, it is the first time they have also questioned the authority of religion, of God, or of faith. The Trial and Death also allows my students to engage with conversations about justice in Crito and the afterlife in Phaedo. All these conversations help my students consider the cornerstone question to my ethics course: “How do we live a good life?”

Ethics courses utilize moral dilemmas with the goal of creating an authentic opportunity for students to consider how to respond in various situations and to use the moral principles they’ve studied to consider potential best outcomes. It is this process of putting themselves in the shoes of others that I would call “empathy,” and in my course students do this by attempting to understand why Euthyphro has chosen to prosecute his father. Engaging in the moral dilemma presented in Euthyphro shows my students that, for centuries, humans have been on a quest to understand the other. It is in our very nature to attempt to discern why humans behave as they do, at first perhaps for survival purposes, but now for the social and emotional survival of navigating the modern world. 

Education in ethics and morals offers the unique opportunity for learners to bolster their understanding of themselves so they can become the best version of themselves. However, it also offers students an opportunity to develop skills of relating to the world around them. These skills are exactly what Daniel Goleman, in the Harvard Business Review, identified as a fundamental element for leaders to adopt in order to create collaborative, safe environments that directly impact overall success. Empathetic leaders establish inclusive environments in which each individual is valued, and this produces higher levels of productivity and engagement among workers.1 In other words, ethical education provides an opportunity to become more empathetic.

I have identified three key principles from Michele Borba’s UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World that I believe are essential for my ethics courses.2 I hope to have my students 1) establish emotional literacy which will lead to better communication skills; 2) clarify a deeper sense of moral identity by constructing their understanding of inner values and perspective taking, and 3) take into account another individual’s journey in order to understand others and boost pro-social action. These practices have also resulted in higher academic success which is critical to self-esteem and greater desire to positively impact the community at large.

Emotional Literacy

In my courses, we discuss moral dilemmas and ethical theories spanning from religious ideologies, to Greek philosophy, to modern philosophical concepts in the hopes of providing an adequate ethical foundation for developing the skills necessary for a student to develop emotional literacy. For example, I attempt to illustrate to my students that ethical decision-making can be messy. There isn’t always a clear “right” answer. I share with them the story of Joe Jackson, a father and truck driver that has to make the decision between trafficking methamphetamine across state lines in an effort to provide expensive medical treatment to his child or letting his child die. We listen to his real story on NPR’s Snap Judgment, “The Ultimate Sacrifice”.3 After listening to Joe Jackson’s story, we discuss issues with our healthcare system, the severity of the punishment by the courts and the impact of drug trafficking. These dilemmas offer students a chance to evaluate the ideas developed in civilizations while also developing the analytical skills necessary to navigate a complex modern world. I encourage independent thinking with all students and required them to support their ethical reasoning through written analysis and reflection in the form of a weekly current-event philosophy journal, collaborative group work often resulting in class presentations, and informal debate (also considered the art of dialogue). In many ways, this last skill is the most important skill that I hope my students develop throughout their journey in the course, and empathy is at the heart of it. 

A recent study conducted on groups of middle school students made a clear correlation between “children who were away from screens for five days with many opportunities for in-person interaction improved significantly in reading facial emotion, compared to those in the control group, who experienced their normal media exposure during an equivalent five-day period.”4 The UCLA study claims that children’s social skills are diminishing due to fewer face-to-face interactions. One of the researchers of the study stated, “decreased sensitivity to emotional cues—losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people—is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”5 At the same time, we are currently living in a more “connected” society, more so than ever before in history. New studies are telling us that there is a direct correlation between social media and an increase in the diagnosis of mood and anxiety disorders as well.6 Another recent study showed a correlation between the amount of time spent on social media and the increased feeling of social isolation.7 With this being the current social reality for many students and their parents, there has also been a noted decline in the capacity to engage in intellectual dialogue that may have multiple points of view. My students struggle with being able to articulate what they think, not always because they aren’t able to do the analysis, but rather because they fear push back. They fear upsetting someone in person and having to sit in the discomfort of not having a tidy solution to our society’s greatest ethical quandaries such as abortion, death penalty, euthanasia, and gun control. Students aren’t aware of what that looks like or feels like. Their emotional literacy seems to have atrophied with limited face-to-face interaction. 

One way that I have seen for students to increase their emotional literacy, aside from moral dilemmas, is in the pedagogical practice of graded discussions of ethical texts. My community of learners is very driven by grades, and that is, at times, at the heart of their understanding of academic success. As we explore ethical concepts such as justice, morality, and the social contract, students are asked to find current event articles that connect the central idea that we are studying at the time. For example, after we have analyzed Plato’s Crito, we evaluate Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail and then consider John Rawl’s “Veil of Ignorance” from his work Theory of Justice, as three unique perspectives on the meaning of justice. Then, students are asked to look for instances in our modern world that connect to what they have discerned to be justice. I have created a format for the graded discussions that stems from students finding and analyzing a current news article that they perceive has to do with justice—whether it is justice as fairness, justice as a break in the social contract, or even retributive justice. Students are graded on several levels, first on their level of analysis, then on their contributions to the discussion. Do they make specific references to the article and a concept of justice that we have learned without simply restating what someone else said? Are they attempting to contribute consistently and effectively, by staying on topic, but also by not attempting to dominate conversation? Are they showing respect for the speaker by actively listening, not multitasking? Do the students’ comments take the conversation further, or do they repeat the same idea over and over?

On the day of the graded discussion, students sit in a Harkness format and begin to share summaries of their articles. The “Harkness format” is the term given to an approach in which students work as a learning community wrestling with materials, exercising their voices, and collaborating to make meaning curriculum materials whether those be a primary source text, a science experiment, or a math problem. The role of the teacher is redefined as a curriculum planner and, in the classroom, a co-learner. The role of the student is equally redefined to be an active participant in class discussions, engaging with peers to create meaning from materials. This approach promotes equity, and it values the contribution of all voices in the classroom; it is grounded in the belief that “none of us is as smart as all of us”.8 This definition by Katherine Cadwell makes the Harkness format the ideal structure for the graded discussion in my course. Students pose two questions regarding the theme of justice, and then they discuss. Similar to most Socratic seminars, students ask questions of each other as they explore, evaluate, and examine the issue presented.

The conversation sometimes gets heated and at times loud, but my role as an educator is to facilitate students to lean into the discomfort. Prior to our first graded discussion, I show them a clip from a BBC program called Big Questions. The clip shows several bad practices of group discussions. The moderator is extremely biased, only a few people are able to speak, and at times, some of the people demean the ideas of others. My students watch the clip and identify the practices that they think didn’t work well. We then as a class establish norms for discussions. Since they take ownership of how the flow of conversation should look, my role often is to keep the pace. I make sure that students who would like to add their ideas but are struggling to jump in are heard, and I ensure that in their excitement, students are not devolving into side conversations. It is my practice to not add my own perspective to the discussion. I have found that once students think they know my point of view, they are reluctant to continue to iron out their own. Depending on the flow of the discussion, learners share information about their families, parents’ occupations or illnesses, struggles of cousins with addiction, or grandparents with Alzheimer’s; what may begin as a simply-posed question leads to complex conversation in which each student strengthens their capacity for empathy. It is my objective through the repeated exercise of graded discussions that we see the beginnings of the evolution of students’ moral identity and the growth of their emotional intelligence. 

In their paper, “The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Building Interpersonal Communication Skills,” Amalia Petrovici and Tatiana Dobrescu outline the following regarding emotional literacy:

Interpersonal intelligence involves verbal and nonverbal communication skills, relating and collaboration skills, conflict management skills, promoting team spirit, respecting others and being respected. On a complex level, this type of intelligence translates into the individual’s ability to distinguish among the various interpersonal relationships and the ability to respond efficiently to the respective situations, as well as to guess and interpret the hidden reactions of others.9

Iterative opportunities to engage others where they are, regardless of what they believe about how we should live in the world and why they believe it, allows for students to become deeply aware of their emotional understandings and those of others. This is critical to the development of empathy.

Moral Identity

As educators, we must recognize that humans are not fully formed beings. We learn as we grow. We never arrive at a moment of time when we finished, complete, or defined. With this in mind, the educator has the moral obligation to assist students in their moral-identity development. This is achieved through exposure to a variety of different ideas. Just as an English teacher might select William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Toni Morrison works as required reading to represent very different styles, voices, and intentions, as an ethics teacher, I must do the same. It is important for students to read ancient texts such as pieces from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or Jean Jacque Rousseau’s Principles of Political Rights, but it is of equal importance for them to read bell hooks or Ayn Rand.

Students must engage the voices of the other in order to create new and multifaceted questions about their own value systems. The more variety of in the points of view they engage as authorities, the greater their aptitude for empathy. For example, my students read a chapter from Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, entitled “Go Hitler!” In this piece, Noah tells the story of being a DJ in South Africa and having a friend named Hitler. He explains that there was very little teaching of western history, and as the story unfolds, the reader learns shockingly the truth of that. My students deeply empathize with Noah even as they are shocked by the outcome. We discuss cultural differences and how they may shape the way others see the world. As this occurs, topics of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economics and ethnicity come up.

We also read an excerpt from Cornell West’s Race Matters, and another from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Both provide insight into ethical questions and demand an empathetic response. As a class, we consider whether we believe society has changed much since these publications and what role we believe they have in our understanding of morality. It is in these discussions that students construct their own moral identity; developing moral identity is about process. Consequently, students are asked to engage in various metacognitive strategies. For example, students are asked to consider what they already think about a concept such as “justice” and who or what has informed that thinking. In my classroom, learners are also asked to consider what they do not understand, whether it is in a discussion or lecture, which allows them to become more self-aware.10 Self-awareness is one of the fundamental elements to possessing a deeper sense of moral identity and, ultimately, empathy.

Perspective-Taking

In addition to the traditional and often more esoteric pursuits of this ethics course, students also engage in various simulations such as Spent.11Spent is an online simulation created by the Urban Ministries of Durham that allows students to see how the practicalities of life can lead to extremely difficult and stressful life choices for the majority of Americans today. It walks students through making various life events such as obtaining a job, paying monthly expenses, and choosing health care. The simulation invites students to consider potential food and/or housing insecurity and unexpected occurrences that can negatively impact an individual's ability to work and live. These types of simulations allow for students to understand others in different life circumstances. This is especially important for my students because they come from a very affluent population. The idea of having food insecurity, housing insecurity, or lacking proper access to healthcare are not concerns for any of my students. Therefore, this type of simulation allows for them to manipulate possible choices, some circumstances, and potentially intellectually understand the experiences of others whose reality is very different from their own.

Whether through the Spent simulation, the classic Heinz dilemma posed by Lawrence Kohlberg, or more modern-life scenarios, students in my classes are asked repeatedly to consider what it may be like to be in someone else’s shoes through perspective-taking exercises. As with Euthyphro, many of these exercises take the form of moral dilemmas that invite students to imagine the inner struggles of others. For example, one dilemma in their textbooks tells the story of a father who euthanizes his own daughter because she is in constant pain from Cerebral Palsy. She was a twelve-year-old girl with the capacity of a three-month-old, and after years of surgeries and medications didn’t improve her condition, her father took it upon himself to end her life. The mother’s response appears to be relief, and when he is taken to court the initial jury believing this was an act of mercy sentences the father to only one year in prison. The Canadian Supreme Court intercedes, stating the minimum sentence must be at least ten years.12 This true story usually shakes the students in my class to their core.

I always start our conversation with a series of survey-style questions, looking at the case piece-by-piece in hopes of giving them an opportunity to organize their feelings. I begin by asking for a show of hands: how many of you understand what the father did?; How many of you agree with what the father did?; How many of you agree it was an act of mercy? And so on. We define certain terms such as Cerebral Palsy. We discuss the range of effect of the disease on the brain and a person’s ability. We discuss how a typical three-month-old communicates. I try to paint the picture so we can sincerely imagine why this father would have committed such an act. We empathize. We may not agree. But we empathize.

This moment also allows me to remind my students that the study of ethics isn’t filled with millions of perfect answers so we can all live correct lives, but rather it provides small glimpses into the lives of many so we can each be a little bit better. Most things in life are not black or white, this or that, right or wrong. Instead, they are filled with ambiguity and discomfort and at the very heart of that is the true human experience. Helping our students be more empathetic people directly connects with our purpose as educators, which is to create a better future for us all. 

Socrates does not walk away with an ideal definition of piety, but he does walk away with a better understanding of Euthyphro. He knows that Euthyphro believes he is being fair because prosecuting the wrongdoer regardless of your relationship is the right thing to do. Socrates learns that Euthyphro frames his understanding of right conduct based on what all the gods love and, whether that may be confusing or questionable to Socrates, it seems to make sense to Euthyphro. Similarly, my students engage in moral dilemmas and other exercises to clarify their own emotional literacy, moral identity, and perspective-taking so that they might understand the other —so that they might develop empathy.


1 Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review (January 2004).

2 Michele Borba, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-about-Me World (New York: Touchstone, 2017).

3 Listen online: https://www.npr.org/2014/08/15/340632144/the-ultimate-sacrifice.

4 Yalda T. Uhls et al., “Five Days at Outdoor Education Camp without Screens Improves Preteen Skills with Nonverbal Emotion Cues,” Computers in Human Behavior 39 (October 2014): 387–392, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003227.

5 Stuart Wolpert, “In Our Digital World, Are Young People Losing the Ability to Read Emotions?,” UCLA Newsroom, August 21, 2014, last accessed January 3, 2020, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions. Reprinted on August 22, 2014 in ScienceDaily, last accessed January 3, 2020, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140822094240.htm.

6 Jean M. Twenge et al., “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among US Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time,” Clinical Psychological Science 6 no. 1 (2018): 3–17, https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617723376.

7 Brian A. Primack et al., “Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation among Young Adults in the US,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 53, no. 1 (2017): 1–8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010.

8 Katherine Cadwell, “Transforming the Classroom,” Strategies for Classroom Dialogue, last accessed January 3, 2020, https://www.katherinecadwell.com/transforming-the-classroom.

9 Amalia Petrovici and Tatiana Dobrescu, “The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Building Interpersonal Communication Skills,” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 116 (2014): 1405–1410, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.406.

10 Nathaniel S. Eckland et al., “A Multi-Method Investigation of the Association between Emotional Clarity and Empathy,” Emotion 18, no. 5 (2018): 638–645, https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000377.

11https://umdurham.org/spent.html

12 Stuart Rachels and James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2019).


Christine Ortega GaurkeeChristine Ortega Gaurkee teaches religious studies and serves as the diversity coordinator at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida, where she has been for the last seventeen years. While earning a master of theology degree at Emory University, she worked as a researcher for the Center of Ecumenical and Multicultural Studies at Candler Theology School. With a love for learning, Christine has earned over forty hours of graduate credit in educational psychology. In 2012, Christine coauthored All You Want to Know But Didn’t Think You Could Ask: Religions, Cults and Popular Beliefs (Thomas Nelson, 2012), a reference text for teen and young adults about world faiths.