Teaching College Students How to Solve Real-Life Moral Dilemmas

An Ethical Compass for Quarterlifers

by Robert J. Nash (Author) Jennifer J.J. Jang (Author)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 212 Pages
Series: Critical Education and Ethics, Volume 8


Teaching College Students How to Solve Real-Life Moral Dilemmas will speak to the sometimes confounding, real-life, moral challenges that quarterlife students actually face each and every day of their lives. It will spell out an original, all-inclusive approach to thinking about, and applying, ethical problem-solving that takes into consideration people’s acts, intentions, circumstances, principles, background beliefs, religio-spiritualities, consequences, virtues and vices, narratives, communities, and the relevant institutional and political structures. This approach doesn’t tell students exactly what to do as much as it evokes important information in order to help them think more deeply and expansively about ethical issues in order to resolve actual ethical dilemmas. There is no text like it on the market today. Teaching College Students How to Solve Real-Life Moral Dilemmas can be used in a variety of ethics courses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One: Starting the Course: Key Ethics Concepts and Problem-Solving Tools
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: A Rationale for Teaching College Students How to Solve Real-Life Ethical Dilemmas in Their Personal and Professional Lives
  • Chapter 2. Getting Started: Our Course Syllabus—“Ethics of Helping Relationships”
  • Chapter 3. Four Moral Spaces = Four Moral Languages: A Conceptual Framework for Thinking About Morality and Ethics
  • Chapter 4. Our Nine-Question Problem-Solving System for Resolving Ethical Dilemmas
  • Chapter 5. A Glossary of Ethics Terms for the Non-Specialist
  • Part Two: Major Ethical Challenges Facing Quarterlife Students With Practical Tips on How to Understand and Resolve Them
  • Chapter 6. What Are Some Ethical Challenges in Sustaining Core Relationships, and How Can Students Resolve Them?
  • Chapter 7. What Are Some Ethical Challenges in Pursuing a College Education, and How Can Students Resolve Them?
  • Chapter 8. What Are Some Ethical Challenges in the Workplace, and How Can Students Learn to Resolve Them?
  • Chapter 9. What Are Some Ethical Challenges in Providing Service to the Community, and How Can Students Resolve Them?
  • Chapter 10. What Are Some Ethical Challenges in the Quest for Social Justice and Personal Identity Development, and How Can Students Resolve Them?
  • Chapter 11. What Are Some Ethical Challenges in Trying to Create a Life of Self-Care, Tranquility, and Balance, and How Can Students Resolve Them?
  • Part Three: Finishing Up the Course: On the Way to Becoming Ethically Empowered
  • Chapter 12. The End of the Semester: Our Students Share Their Learnings via Narrative Self-Evaluations
  • Chapter 13. How Can an Applied Ethics Course Be Empowering for Both Students and Faculty?
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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To the thousands of ethics students of all ages, backgrounds, and identities who have taken my elective ethics courses over the last several decades;

To these same students who are the major source of inspiration for everything that I have published on the topic of ethical problem-solving;

To my current ethics co-author and co-teacher, Jennifer J. J. Jang, who brings an invaluable quarterlife perspective, and a fresh, innovative approach, to the teaching of ethics to both undergraduate and graduate students;

To the courageous student contributors in our book who are willing to go public with challenging ethical dilemmas that they have personally faced and resolved;

To my wife of 53 years, Madelyn, who supports me in everything I do as a professor, and, more importantly, who actually personifies what it means to live an ethical life in every single way.

Robert J. Nash

To our ethics students, who are the inspiration to our creative thoughts;

To my parents, Celia and Jason Jang, who instilled the compass to my moral North Star; ← vii | viii →

To Robert J. Nash, my co-author, who provides an ongoing, ingenious foundation for ethics in our field and supportive collaboration in our co-teaching adventures;

To the contributors, who offer real-world narratives that bring our concepts to life;

To all of you, I give my gratitude, appreciation, and joy as we share stories to touch hearts, insights to inspire thoughts, and wisdom to influence actions.

May all aspects of our lives be morally and ethically aligned with our values.

Jennifer J. J. Jang

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In part 1, as in the start of our “Ethics of Helping Relationships” course, we introduce our conceptual approach to ethics. We present some of the more technical ethical vocabulary in an updated, real-world way. We redefine the term moral compass, a phrase that has found its way into the ethics literature lately. We develop our preferred phrases—moral narratives or an ethic of character—that we believe are truer to our way of teaching students to think about their moral identities, and to develop their understanding of ethical ideas, as lifelong works-in-process. We introduce our course syllabus as a way of showing what we do, and how we do it, in teaching a semester-long course in ethics. Our course, by the way, is one of the original, and longest-standing, courses in a professional school in the country. And, of most importance, we introduce, as well as explain and exemplify, our Four Moral Languages approach to analyzing and resolving ethical dilemmas. Finally, we close out part 1 with a down-to-earth glossary of key ethical terms, the first time we have ever done so in print.

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A Rationale for Teaching College Students How to Solve Real-Life Ethical Dilemmas in Their Personal and Professional Lives

Quarterlife college students are more than ready to do some serious thinking about the world of ethics. We currently co-teach an elective course for quarterlife (as well as midlife and laterlife) graduate and undergraduate students called “Ethics of Helping Relationships” in a professional school at the University of Vermont. For many years, this course has been one of the most popular electives at the university. Robert created this course in the early 1970s, and it was the first applied ethics course ever offered in a college of education and social services in the United States. He has now taught this course more than one hundred times to thousands of students representing a variety of majors and professions. He also authored a book in 1995/2002 that has gone through several printings (and two editions) called “Real World” Ethics. Again, this was one of the first books of its kind for a professional school, and it has become a best seller throughout the country. Twenty years later, however, the book is to go out of print. Unfortunately, other than for a number of highly philosophical (theoretical) books on ethics written through the years, as well as a growing number of overly simplistic, “how-to” ethics primers for high school and some pre-professional college students, there are few, if any, intellectually rich—yet still accessible and practical—works currently available. ← 3 | 4 →

We believe that the time has come for a new and different ethics text—this time written for students as the primary audience as well as for faculty scholars/teachers—the intended readership for Robert’s earlier volume. Ethics for Quarterlifers is both student friendly and faculty useful. It is less theoretical and more applied. It covers a number of personal ethical challenges confronting students as they engage in the lifelong work of meaning-making. It also covers a number of practical school- and work-related ethical challenges that students must deal with constantly. Our book actually speaks to students of all ages, stages, majors, educational levels, and career interests wherever and however they might choose to live their everyday lives. In fact, we address each and every chapter to students first and foremost.

To Whom and What Does Our Book Speak … and How?

This, therefore, is why we wanted to write a book that is student friendly (minus the “put-off” technical jargon and philosophical abstractions) yet still intellectually rich and eminently practical. For us, the term morality entails background beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong; the term ethics refers to the actual application of these beliefs to everyday practice—in the home space, school space, relationship space, and work space. Morality is the backstory of meaning; ethics is the actual application of the backstory to the main story of analyzing, and resolving, real-life moral dilemmas. We intend for our book to present a general way of thinking about, and resolving, ethical dilemmas of one kind or another. We want our book to motivate quarterlife students to dig deeply into their moral and ethical background beliefs. We wanted to write a book that encourages students to create, and sustain, a “moral meaning-making narrative” that will stay with them throughout their lives—one that will serve them well as they struggle to resolve the inevitable ethical dilemmas they will encounter each and every day in the real world.

Our book speaks to the sometimes confounding, real-life moral challenges that people actually face each and every day of their lives. It spells out an original, all-inclusive approach to thinking about ethical problem-solving that takes into consideration people’s acts, intentions, circumstances, principles, background beliefs, religio-spiritualities, consequences, virtues and vices, narratives, communities, and the relevant institutional and political structures. This approach doesn’t tell students exactly what to do as much as it evokes important information in order to help them think more deeply ← 4 | 5 → and expansively about ethical issues. This is the kind of book that Robert, a pioneer in the teaching of applied ethics, has been wanting to write for several decades, based upon his vast experience in teaching this content.

Our book is both pragmatic and theoretical, applied and thoughtful. We write for both students and faculty, pre-professionals and professionals, and for anyone else who is starting to think seriously about creating a “moral compass” in order to deal more insightfully, and authentically, with the ethical challenges in their lives. This is not a strictly academic textbook. It is a clear, down-to-earth rendering of what a moral life and ethical decision-making by ordinary people are all about. We write to all those students who wonder whether there can ever be any satisfactory basis for moral judgment and ethical behavior in the pluralistic, often nihilistic and relativistic, society in which we all live. We write for those quarterlife, midlife, and laterlife students who refuse to abandon their real feelings and intuitions about morality and ethics and who strive for something much more than a “fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants,” strictly instrumental, self-interested approach to resolving ethical dilemmas.

Constructing a “Real-World” Ethics Vocabulary

As real-world teachers and scholars, we feel that we have a dual responsibility in teaching applied ethics. We want our students to have at least an introductory understanding of the technical vocabulary that philosophers and theologians have used throughout history when writing about morality and ethics. Knowing the etymological, historical, and disciplinary origins of specialized language and how a discipline’s vocabulary changes over time is one of the hallmarks of being an educated person. But, in our work with students, this is not enough. We also want them to know how to translate this specialized language into the real-world lives that they now, and will, inhabit. Our students must know how to use the vocabulary of applied ethics and morality as a tool and not simply as a rule. While the theoretical study of ethics provides a necessary conceptual backdrop for real-world practice, it is far from sufficient.

When Robert first began teaching his applied ethics course, he flooded the room with philosophical abstractions. Students memorized the vocabulary. Some even used it in their seminar conversations to explain a particular ethical point that they were trying to make. Some used the polysyllabic words as show-off chips to win an argument or to impress classmates. Few students, however, were able to apply the technical ideas and terminology ← 5 | 6 → to their actual day-to-day lives. Ethics remained an idealistic abstraction for them—at times a mildly entertaining form of intellectual exercise, but most of the time a painfully plodding journey of memorization and academic posturing without any realistic application. Sadly, the majority of students forgot the philosophical language, and the lofty ideas, soon after the final exam of the semester. In their evaluations of the course content, the most common phrases Robert heard were “too theoretical,” “totally impractical,” “why not say it in plain English?” and, perhaps the most disheartening evaluation of all: “Who really gives a shit about all the fancy words as long as I feel good about doing what I think is right?”


VIII, 212
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Moral religion,spirituality ethical issues Students
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 212 pp.

Biographical notes

Robert J. Nash (Author) Jennifer J.J. Jang (Author)

Robert J. Nash is Professor and Official University Scholar in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Creative Arts at the University of Vermont, where he is the founder and director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in Education. He has published 16 books, several of them national award winners, as well as over 100 scholarly articles, chapters, and monographs. Jennifer J. J. Jang is Associate Director of Diversity and Instructor of Mandarin Chinese at Champlain College in Vermont. She is the co-author (with Robert J. Nash) of Preparing Students for Life Beyond College: A Meaning-Centered Vision for Holistic Teaching and Learning (2015). She also co-teaches Ethics of Helping Relationships and Philosophy of Education at the University of Vermont.


Title: Teaching College Students How to Solve Real-Life Moral Dilemmas
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214 pages