Ethos Education

Looper: How do we decide whether it is right to do morally questionable things for good motives?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Reflect on influence of worldview in making moral decisions.
  • Awareness of how students make their own moral decisions.
  • Assess the value of Christian moral decision making.
  • Evaluate how to make moral decisions.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon what makes some decisions difficult to make.
  • Reflect upon the moral implications of a life and death choice from the film Looper.
  • Analyse six different approaches to making moral decisions and apply each to the dilemma from Looper.
  • Apply the six ethical approaches to one or more other hypothetical moral dilemmas.
  • Analyse Bible passages to determine some of the factors that Christians might consider when making moral decisions.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a discussion between characters from Looper, debating the moral justification for actions from the film.


Ask the students to think about the hardest decision they have ever had to make. If possible, get some of the students to tell the class about those decisions, and to say what made the decision difficult. Draw out the fact that sometimes decisions are hard because we know what we should do, but don’t want to do it, whereas other times we cannot even tell what is the right thing.


Tell the class that you are going to show them a clip from the film Looper (e-one, 2012, certificate 15). Click here to buy Looper online.

Explain that Looper is set in the near future, shortly before the discovery of time travel. Criminal gangs in the future have set up a way of eliminating their enemies: tying them up, putting a hood on them and sending them back in time thirty years to be killed by hitmen (known as ‘loopers’). Eventually, the looper is sent his older self to kill, closing the loop. Once the looper discovers that he has killed himself, he is retired and knows that he has approximately thirty years to enjoy the wealth he has built up from killing people, before the gang grabs him and sends him back to die at his own hands.

In this clip Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper who has failed to kill his older self (Bruce Willis) and who now has to kill him to save his own life from the gang he works for. He has arrived at the farm of Sara (Emily Blunt), which was marked on a map that he got from future Joe. Ask the students to pay particular attention to future Joe’s plan to outwit the criminals in the future.

  • Start time:       0.59.11 (beginning of chapter 11)
  • End time:         1.04.00
  • Clip length:      4 minutes and 49 seconds

The clip starts with young Joe waking in the barn. The first line of dialogue is Sara talking to her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), saying, ‘Morning Monkey. You want something to eat?’ The clip ends with future Joe firing his gun. Please note that the clip includes a few instances of swearing. If you think that these are not appropriate for your students, you might not want to use the clip. In the clip young Joe explains to Sara that future Joe is intent on killing a child in their time, knowing that the child will grow up to be the future gang leader who orders Joe’s death. Future Joe has discovered that his target is one of three children born in the same hospital on the same day. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know which child he has to kill, and one of the children is Sara’s son, Cid.

Ask the students whether Joe’s motives for killing the children are understandable, and whether he is trying to achieve something good (draw out that he is not merely trying to save his own life, but also the life of his innocent wife, who was killed by the Rainmaker’s men when they came to capture him. Also, by ridding the world of a criminal overlord, there is a chance that society will be changed for the better as a result of his actions). Does the fact that Joe is acting on good motives mean that what he is doing (killing up to three innocent children because one of them will commit evil acts in the future) is morally defensible? Who is morally better – future Joe or young Joe, whose only interest is in killing his older self in order to save himself from the gang’s retribution?

You could compare future Joe’s situation with classic philosophical dilemmas about whether it would be right to kill Adolf Hitler as a child, in order to prevent the horrific events for which he was responsible.

Give out the What Should I Do? worksheets and explain the different approaches to moral ethics that are outlined there. Ask the students to consider how someone with each of the worldviews described would be likely to respond to future Joe’s dilemma. This activity could be done either as a whole class exercise led by you, or in small groups. You could also ask the students whether they can recognise their own approach to the dilemma in any of the descriptions on the worksheet.

Ask the students to apply the ethical frameworks from the worksheet to one or more of the following moral dilemmas:

  • In a difficult time for the economy, your parents have lost their jobs and have little or no money coming in. They are struggling to pay household bills and your whole family is going very short of food. You are in a shop and notice that the shop assistants are all too busy to see you. Do you steal some food?
  • You are in charge of the points on a railway line. A train is out of control and is hurtling towards a bus full of passengers, which has stalled on a level crossing. The emergency doors of the bus have jammed making it impossible for anyone to get out. If you switch the points, the train will miss the bus, but will go down another track where a car containing your family is stuck. Do you send the train to kill your family or the bus full of strangers?
  • After a party, a friend of yours who has been drinking heavily all night offers to drive you home. What do you do? Do you try to persuade your friend not to drive? Do you physically restrain him from driving? Do you decline the lift but say nothing? Do you accept the lift?
  • Your next door neighbour is an elderly widow with cancer. You are working as a security guard at a local pharmaceutical company which produces a cancer drug with a high success rate when used to treat this particular form of cancer. Sadly, your neighbour cannot afford the drug and you are unable to raise enough money to pay for the treatment on her behalf. You would be able to create an opportunity to steal sufficient quantities of the drug for her treatment. What should you do?

Ask the students what problems they can see with any of the ethical approaches on the worksheets – which ones tended to produce solutions that the students were particularly unhappy with? Which ones were hard to apply to different situations? Do the students feel that any of the approaches provided a consistently good and useful response to moral decision making?

Ask the students how they think a Christian might work out what God wanted in a situation like the one in the film. It may be helpful to explain that Christianity is an example of a Theistic approach to ethics, although not all Theists are necessarily Christians. Divide the class into six groups, with each looking at one of the following Bible passages. This will mean that each passage is considered by two different groups, allowing for a variety of perspectives. The Bible passages are: Romans 12:1; Genesis 22:1-19; Mark 10:29-31. Once they have read their passage, each group should answer the following questions:

  • What does the passage mean?
  • How is the passage relevant to the dilemma in the film clip.

The Romans passage talks about the need for Christians to put God’s priorities first, rather than following the practices and principles of everybody else. Genesis 22 is primarily about trusting God. Chapter 17 makes it clear that God’s Covenant with Abraham’s descendents will be reckoned through Isaac. Not only is Abraham asked to kill his son but also, from his perspective at the time, to forsake everything that God has promised him. Nevertheless, Abraham is willing to trust God and this trust is rewarded when God does indeed ‘provide the lamb for the sacrifice’. A similar theme is also picked up in the passage from Mark’s gospel, where Jesus challenges the listeners to make sure that their first responsibility is to be faithful in following him, even at the expense of painful personal sacrifice.

Each group should then feed back their responses to the whole class and their ideas should be noted on the board. Now ask the class as a whole whether they think that the passages agree on what a Christian should do in the situation from the film clip (encourage the students to discuss different points of view on this point – this will enable them to demonstrate an understanding of Christian perspectives and to apply them to the situation under discussion).


As a final exercise, ask the students to write a discussion between future Joe, young Joe and Sara, arguing about the moral basis for what future Joe is planning to do.


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