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Using scenarios to teach ethics

Alison Dempsey (University of British Columbia) uses scenarios to allow students to learn about and engage in ethical decision making in real life situations. Below Alison outlines the background to the development of the scenarios, explaining their context and application, and providing general guidance on the use of four scenarios she has contributed to UKCLE.

The scenarios:

  • scenario 1 – based around a public/private sector relationship and the activities of a multi-stakeholder working group in relation to regional development; raises issues of confidentiality and conflict of interest
  • scenario 2 – (lengthy) scenario again centring on collaboration between the public and private sectors, and the issues that can arise when processes are not truly transparent and diverse interests may have come into conflict; the multi-stakeholder working group set up is involved with infrastructure projects
  • scenario 3 – concerned with issues arising from policies of openness and transparency in employee relations; an employer is moving away from a paper-based employee policy booklet at the same time as introducing a new benefits policy
  • scenario 4 – concerned with conflict of interest and confidentiality, based around the organisation of a charity event by a not-for-profit organisation and its sponsorship

Purpose and development

As with so many other subjects, ethics is best understood when its principles are applied in a practical context, and bridging the gap between theory and practice is one of the biggest challenges in teaching ethics today. For that reason, while working with a non profit foundation dedicated to ethics in leadership, I wrote a number of scenarios and introduced a facilitated group learning approach to supplement the foundation’s traditional methods of addressing groups on the topic of ethics. The scenario themes are based on experiences and observations during my years as a practitioner in various settings.

Using scenarios allows participants to learn about and engage in the relevance and challenges of ethical decision making by resolving the kinds of dilemmas that arise in ‘real life’ situations. Participants can tap into personal experience and have the opportunity to consider others’ perspectives through discussion and role play. In doing so, they can develop an understanding of the need and the ability to stand in another’s shoes – a critical component of developing sensitivity to ethical issues.

The scenarios present dilemmas to be resolved amidst multiple, often competing, considerations and interests, and raise the kinds of issues and internal and external pressures with which many participants could identify. The point of the exercise is not to arrive at any one ‘right’ resolution to the dilemmas, but instead to:

  • engage in challenging their own and understanding others’ perspectives
  • recognise that in reality there is usually more then one way to resolve a dilemma ethically, depending on the different factors and perspectives considered


Over the course of two years I adopted an applied learning approach to supplement more traditional presentations on the importance of ethics, using the scenarios with a variety of adult groups from business, not-for-profit and public sector backgrounds. I also used the scenario method in sessions with Canadian university students in policy studies, business, and not-for profit management.

The issues and dilemmas raised translate across sectors and, in some cases, involve an intersection between sectors. The scenarios I developed are best suited to adults in the workplace and university students.


The structure is intentionally flexible to allow for both individual reflection upon personal values and ethics and group discussion, where participants consider and reflect upon the perspectives of others.

The reflective element includes an emphasis on recognising attitudes and perspectives that differ from our own and understanding how these influence approaches to resolving ethical dilemmas. In the group setting, I focused on interaction with others in the group. The dialogue process is intended to increase awareness of the different considerations and perceptions influencing individual response.

In all situations, it is recommended that the participants first consider the scenarios individually (see below for the general guidance notes on the scenarios). When used in a small group setting (up to 15), participants can be invited to share their individual perceptions and approaches to the dilemmas with the group. In a larger group setting I found it generally most effective to have discussions in smaller ‘break out’ groups (ideally no more than five in a group, plus a facilitator/scribe if desired) and to reconvene in the larger group to exchange the ideas and highlights of those small group discussions – such as any resolution, consensus, particular points of difference or difficulty. If desired, particular roles or perspectives can be assigned to individuals or small groups to ensure that a range of different perspectives is canvassed in the exercise. This use of assigned roles also helps to encourage individuals who might otherwise feel intimidated by the need to reveal personal views to engage in discussions.
The scenario approach can also be adapted for an online learning environment. Further information on this can be found in the general guidance section.


Feedback from participants indicated that the scenario approach helped them to gain a greater understanding of the principles and practice of ethical decision making which, by its nature, involves engaging with issues and choices which are more often grey than black and white.

Participants consistently expressed surprise at and interest in the range of perspectives and approaches revealed in the discussions. This was particularly the case when the groups appeared to be relatively homogenous, for example members of the same department or individuals engaged in the same type of work.

In many cases the discussions became most engaging when individuals started to challenge their own as well as others’ assumptions and to embark on a process of constructing new solutions to those which they had originally presented.

Interestingly, I found that of the different groups students were the ones who most often used what I termed ‘open decision making’ – that is to say, they made decisions that left room for new information and further investigation. This contrasted with a greater tendency for other groups to want to resolve issues based on the facts known – perhaps a reflection of the realities and pressures of the contemporary workplace.

General guidance


  1. To stimulate discussion and ethical thinking.
  2. To highlight the challenges of ethical decision making, such as:
    • the importance of exercising judgment and discretion in ethically and morally complex contexts
    • choosing between equally valid but competing interests
    • using inclusive, sound, transparent and consistent processes, and recognising their value
    • recognition of the need for social and community consciousness and stakeholder accountability
  3. To provide a ‘real life’ context in which to ask four questions:
    • is it legal?
    • is it honest?
    • does it respect the rights of others?
    • is it the fair and decent thing to do?

Format of scenarios

The scenarios contain a number of ethical dilemmas intended as a practical illustration of the complexities and challenges associated with making ethical decisions in an applied context.

Each scenario consists of the following:

  • a set of facts outlining the situation to be considered
  • specific questions on the scenario
  • questions and considerations on which it may help to reflect – these will not automatically provide answers to the specific questions or solve the dilemmas, but they can help to frame analysis and any decision made on how to proceed

Suggested session outline


Participants should be given between 20 and 30 minutes to read each scenario.

While reading, participants should be encouraged to record briefly – in bullet points for example – initial thoughts and reactions to the situation and the considerations that come to mind as they deliberate on the ‘best’ way to proceed in the situation described. Both initial and more considered reactions should be captured, as these help to understand why we respond to situations in different ways since our views are often a hybrid of instinct and conditioning.

It is important also to make a note of any factors that particularly influenced thoughts or perceptions of the situation and challenges presented.

Group discussion of the different possible solutions, the good and bad consequences, and any further thoughts on reaching the ‘best’ solutions will take place after everyone has had sufficient time to consider the scenarios individually.

When discussing the dilemmas as a group, it is important to stress that other members of the group may have quite different perceptions of the same situation and that there is a need to be respectful of and willing to listen to others’ ideas and opinions. This is a particularly valuable aspect of the session, and it is important that everyone feels comfortable sharing his or her thoughts.

Whole group discussion:
Group discussion can take place face to face or online.

In the group discussion, everyone is encouraged to share their answers to the questions along with any assumptions made and issues that needed to be resolved to reach these answers.

Participants need to be aware that there may not be consensus on what would be the ‘best’ approach or solution (if indeed there is one). The main purpose of sharing different answers and approaches to the same problem is to provide an opportunity to consider different perspectives on the same situation.

Online group discussion allows for a number of interesting variations, including:

  • bulletin board based discussion
  • providing a non-threatening response medium
  • phased release of key information

Once everyone has submitted their individual responses to the questions they can be viewed on the group discussion site. In an online discussion forum you may wish to anonymise responses, for example if participants are required submit their answers.

Participants can be asked to comment on 2–3 responses other than their own which have given them insight into:

  • a different perspective from their own
  • a different approach to solving the dilemmas from their own
  • considerations or consequences different from those they took into account

Small stakeholder group discussion:
After consideration of individual responses, and before whole group discussion, participants could be given a further task. For example, they could be divided into small groups which will each take the role of a particular stakeholder. A list of questions similar to those in the scenario itself could be distributed to each stakeholder group.

These groups will discuss (face to face or online) the questions from their assigned stakeholder perspective. Each group needs to record briefly the thoughts and reactions to the situation and the considerations that arise when discussing the situation from their stakeholder perspective. They should also indicate for each response whether the group was able to reach consensus, and if not, what differences were encountered and how they were addressed.

It is important to note any factors that particularly influenced the group’s thoughts or perceptions of the situation and responses to the challenges presented in order to see how the particular context influenced them.

Whole group debrief:
After the small group discussion, responses should be shared with the larger group. Again, these discussions can take place online or face to face.

Finally, each small group could be asked to develop and submit a proposed approach to resolving the dilemma, outlining why the group believes it best addresses the interests of the different stakeholders.

Notes for discussion leaders: considerations for the participants

Some or all of the following questions and issues are intended to help guide participants’ analysis of the issues. Some have been included in the scenarios as drafted, but they may alternatively be posed in discussion, depending on the circumstances.

  • You need to be very careful what you do with information that you hold, and how you treat any confidences. While you may need or want to take decisive, timely action, this does not alter the fact that you want to resolve as many issues as possible in your own mind before deciding on the approach you will take.
  • If you withhold your concerns about the ethical dilemmas you identified, you avoid many of the deeper issues. However, is keeping quiet about these issues unethical? Is this approach no better than a cover up? What are the risks if a decision to keep quiet does not stand up to scrutiny at some point in the future?
  • A decision is strongest (and most easily defended if something goes wrong) if the decision making process is clear, ethical, takes account of all available information and involves a discussion with others to explore different perspectives.
  • If you decide to raise or take action regarding your concerns, what approach(es) will you take?
  • What are the potential risks or repercussions for you, and for others involved?
  • There is power in personal leadership and a need for individual actions to set the right tone by example. Compromising on commitments to ethical behaviour, accountability and openness can send out the wrong messages.
  • Is it your responsibility to make decisions at this stage that will influence direction, and are you willing to be accountable for any judgment calls this might entail? If not, who beyond those individuals necessary to implement your plan of action will you inform? How much detail can/will you need to provide?
  • What investigation, if any, will you undertake to identify those responsible for decisions or actions that have created or led to the ethical dilemmas? While it may be expedient to know at whose feet to lay blame, is it the right approach?
  • Is avoiding laying blame always the right thing to do?
  • Where do your loyalties lie – and do they conflict with the ethical approach?
  • Do some of the individuals involved have more at stake depending on the different approaches you might take? Should these have a greater influence on your decision and if so, how do you avoid the possible perception of any conflict?

Last Modified: 4 June 2010