I regularly teach introductory courses on normative ethics, political philosophy, and bioethics. In the spring of 2021, I gave a course on the ethical issues of the COVID-19 pandemic. I occasionally also teach a course on moral relativism.

Ethics and Science Fiction

I like to teach ethics using classical science fiction short stories. Here are some I found useful. If you have any recommendations, let me know!

  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” by Ursula K. Le Guin, is probably the best-known philosophical sci-fi short story and it’s often used to illustrate the main objection to consequentialism. But once you find out what Kant would have said about the story, you realize consequentialists are not the only ones that have a problem.
  • The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin, needs to be changed only slightly – by assuming that the EDS can return to Stardust with Marilyn, leaving the people on the planet to die – to make it an illustration of the numbers problem and the ethics of saving lives.
  • Liar!,” by Isaac Asimov. is perfect for asking students: if Herbie could be fixed, what sort of “moral module” would you add to his positronic brain? Would you make him a utilitarian? A Kantian? Virtue ethicist? Or perhaps a contractualist? Which is the best ethical theory?
  • Fat Farm,” by Orson Scott Card (Omni Magazine, January 1980), can be used to explore whether we have any duties to ourselves.

Bioethics through Documentaries

I teach an introductory course to bioethics that is built on documentaries. Here are some great documentary films in no particular order that I have used or plan to use in the future. Some of them are available online. If you have any additions to this list, let me know!

  • Who Shall Live?, a 1965 NBC documentary, is the story of the infamous “God Committee,” tasked with deciding which patients with renal failure can get life-saving hemodialysis treatment. This is the case that is said to have started modern bioethics. Great for the first class on your syllabus.
  • Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die documents the fantasy writer’s quest to decide whether he would choose physician-assisted suicide before his Alzheimer’s disease progresses to a critical point. Warning: for some students, this film may be difficult to watch. (IMDb link)
  • The Price of Life, Adam Wishart’s documentary, is a thoughtful introduction to the problem of health care rationing and the work of NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), one of the institutions tasked with making priority-setting decisions in health care.
  • On Being a Scientist, although not a documentary but a (fictional) drama, has a lot to teach about research ethics.
  • As an example of unethical research, Three Identical Strangers is mind-blowing (website).
  • Human Nature is the best introduction to CRISPR-Cas9 technology and the ethical issues of human genome editing (website).
  • Sound and Fury follows two families who are trying to decide whether to give Cochlear implants to their deaf children. It can be used for a class on the philosophy of disability, disability culture and the ethics of parenting. It is also a wonderful film.
  • Don’t Panic — The Truth About Population is Hans Rosling’s documentary about demographic change. It can serve as an introduction to classes on demography, the ethical issues of population policy, or global justice.