21 The Challenges of Living an Ethical Life


Taking action and being accountable are two of the greater challenges we face in trying to live an ethical life–the willingness to do what we believe to be right or wrong, but also to be fully culpable for the decisions we make and actions we take.History, for example, has shown us how difficult this can be.

During WWII, a majority of people in Germany and the conquered countries of Europe were bystanders, trying to get on with their lives the best they could. Many did not speak out against Nazi oppression or risk their well-being by aiding those in need. After the war, some denied knowing the true nature of Nazi persecutions. Or they claimed they were just following orders. Or following the law. Or following the crowd.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation, that succinctly captures the lack of action taken by some, as well as the potential consequences of indifference:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The term “genocide” did not exist before 1944. Writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that (specifically referring to the German genocide of European Jews) that human history “has known no story more difficult to tell.”  Even today, both Niemöller’s and Arendt’s statements remain relevant. They can be altered to fit differing political or social agendas, and still stand as a universal call for ethical action and vigilance in the face of oppression and injustice.

College students may struggle in understanding the ethics of issues like war and genocide due to the unfamiliarity and/or complexity of the topics. For many as well, they are still developing a sense of empathy towards others. Perhaps the basis of our ethical inquiry in our classrooms, then, to making ethical decisions, taking action, and being accountable focuses on two fundamental questions we can pose to students: “Is that the way I should treat someone else?” and “Is that the way someone else should treat me?”

Most people would indeed like to live an ethical life and to make good ethical decisions, but there are several challenges. Some will  get caught up in debate about terms, definitions, and theories about ethics, preventing authentic and practical strategies from being implemented. Some might reason that “It won’t really make a difference” or “I don’t have time.” We should ask ourselves and our students to consider, though, if we were the ones in need of help, if these challenges would still be valid.

 A Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

A Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an international document that states basic rights and fundamental freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. The Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Motivated by the experiences of the preceding world wars, the Universal Declaration was the first time that countries agreed on a comprehensive statement of inalienable human rights.



Read this document, and watch one of the following films to write about the connection between the two.

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)
This autobiographical film about two French boys in a Catholic boarding school during Word War II. One of them is secretly Jewish, being hidden by the priests from the Nazis.

The Killing Fields (1984)
This film is the true story of reporter Sidney Schanberg, and his colleague and friend, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. Like most Westerners, Schanberg fled Cambodia after the murderous Khmer Rouge regime seized power in 1975, but Pran could not. For the next four years, Pran labored in rice paddies as the genocide unfolded around him.

Casualties of War (1989)
The story of a five-man patrol in Vietnam that kidnaps and eventually kills a young girl and the one soldier in the group who refuses to participate.

A Civil Action (1998)
Based on a real-life case, a lawyer agrees to represent eight families whose children died from leukemia after two large corporations leaked toxic chemicals into the water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts, even though the case could mean financial and professional suicide for him.

Snowpiercer (2013)
In a future where an experiment to halt global warming kills most of the humans on Earth, the survivors are on a train called the Snowpiercer that travels around the planet. A class system is installed, with the elite in the front and in the poor in the rear, and rebellions soon follow.




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