Ethos Education

12 Years a Slave: What makes something morally right or wrong?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Consider the purpose and value of morality.
  • Understand different concepts of right and wrong.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on the process of determining whether something is right or wrong.
  • Analyse a film clip, considering the difference between legal and moral rights and wrongs.
  • Reflect on actions that would be morally right if they weren’t illegal, and others which would be morally wrong even if they were legal.
  • Analyse the strengths and weaknesses of six different approaches to making moral decisions.
  • Analyse a Christian perspective on making moral decisions, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses.
  • Synthesise learning by identifying something that is morally wrong regardless of its legal status, and another thing that is morally right even if not permitted, and by summarising the basis for making such a judgement in each case.


Explain that you are introducing a new social rule for the class, and that they have to work out what it is. Ask the students to take it in turns to say something that they have done in the last week. For each statement, tell them whether that action is allowed or not allowed under the new social rule. If students think they have worked out the basis of your decisions, they can suggest the possible rule. It’s up to you whether to have them do this by writing down their answer so that only you can see it, or whether they should just say it out loud meaning that the game has to end as soon as one student works out the rule.

The social rule is this: if the first word of the description began with a vowel, the action described is morally right. If the first word began with a consonant, it is morally wrong.

Explain that it is ridiculous to brand perfectly harmless activities as ‘wrong’ just because of the letter at the beginning of the first word someone says when describing it. Explain that in this lesson you are going to be thinking about what makes something morally right or morally wrong, and considering whether there is more to determining right and wrong than simply whether or not something is illegal.


Introduce the clip from the film 12 Years a Slave (e-one, 2013, certificate 15). Click here to buy the DVD online.

  • Start time:       1.37.36 (beginning of chapter 30 of the DVD)
  • End time:         1.40.54
  • Clip length:      3 minutes and 18 seconds

The clip starts with Bass (Brad Pitt) and Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at work building a summer house. Solomon is a slave, whereas Bass is being paid for his work. The clip ends with Solomon’s owner and Bass’s employer Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) telling Bass, ‘…You most assuredly do not.’ Please note that this clip contains the expression of racially offensive opinions, as well as multiple uses of the n-word as a description of ethnicity. The scene itself features a discussion of slavery and the relative worth of black and white people, and the language used reflects the way that such an issue would have been discussed in the middle of the 19th Century. However, we recommend that you warn your students about it before showing the clip and make it clear that repetition of that word will not be in any way acceptable.

Ask the students to summarise the basis of Bass’s argument. Help them to draw out the following points:

  • It makes no sense for Epps to show concern for Bass, a hired hand, working in the hot sun while having no concern whatsoever for the wellbeing of the slaves working in the same conditions.
  • Just because the law gives Epps the right to own slaves, that doesn’t mean that Epps has a moral right to do so.
  • Whatever standard of right and wrong applied to one person should apply to all people.

Why do the students think that Epps was so hostile towards the views that Bass put forward?

Point out that while we are fortunate to live in a time where slavery has been made illegal and people of all races are offered the same legal protection as one another, the clip still raises an interesting question about the difference between something being legally right and something being morally right. Ask the students if they can explain the difference between morality and law. How would they define each of those concepts?

Ask whether there are any crimes that the students would happily carry out if they were not illegal. Now ask them to think of things that would always be morally wrong, even if the law permitted them.

If the students are struggling, the following leading questions may help them to grasp the point. Ask students to put their hands up to indicate whether they would answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following:

  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong to steal food if you were hungry?
  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong to steal money from a rich person if your own need was desperate?
  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong to steal money from a poor person who needed it just as much as you did?
  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong to kill somebody?
  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong to cheat somebody out of their life savings?
  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong to sexually assault someone?
  • If there were no law against it, would it be wrong for an adult to have sex with a child?

Expect some of these questions to divide the class, while others are likely to meet with unanimous agreement. Develop the discussion and try to draw out what makes the difference. If anybody believes that as long as something is legal, it must be morally OK, spend some time exploring this view and allowing other students to challenge it (or vice versa).

Having established a difference between something being legally acceptable and morally acceptable, ask the students how they decide whether something is morally right or wrong.

Give out copies of the What Should I Do? worksheet and explain that the sheet summarises six different philosophical models of determining the right or wrong course of action when faced with a moral decision. Talk through the worksheet with the class, making sure that they understand the key factors of each approach to morality. Here are the six approaches:

‘I will do what is right for me’.
Right and wrong is decided by working out what will give me the most good things and the least bad things.

‘I will do whatever gives the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’.
Right and wrong is decided by calculating what will give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

‘I will do whatever comes naturally’.
Right and wrong is decided by working out what is natural for us as human beings; if it is natural it is right; if it is unnatural it is wrong.

Cultural Relativism
‘I will do what everyone else around me is doing’.
Right and wrong is decided by looking at the way that others in my culture are behaving and fitting in with it. This will be different for different cultures and at different times.

‘I will do what my emotions tell me to do’.
Right and wrong is decided by following our emotions; whatever our feelings tell us is the right thing to do.

‘I will do what God tells me to do’.
Right and wrong is decided by finding out what our creator tells us we should do.

Ask the students which of these worldviews seem to be represented in the clip. Which worldview is the best description of the views put forward by Bass and Epps respectively?

Ask the students to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, either working together as a whole class, or discussing in small groups and reporting back to the rest of the class.

Explain that Christianity is one example of Theism (although it is worth pointing out that not all theists are Christians). Ask the students how they think a Christian would go about discovering what God wants them to do in any given situation. Draw out that the main source of authority for many Christians is the Bible – particularly the life and teaching of Jesus. Other Christians also regard the past pattern of Christian tradition (i.e. the historical practice of the Christian church), reason and personal experience as important sources of authority.

Ask the students to look up the following Bible passages and to write a short statement for each, suggesting what relevance the passage has to the issue of how Christians might approach the task of determining what is morally right in a given circumstance.

  • Exodus 20:1-17
  • Mark 12:28-31
  • Matthew 5:1-12
  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Take feedback from the students and encourage them to discuss the positive and negative aspects of using this basis for determining right from wrong.


As a final exercise, ask the students to choose one example of something that is morally wrong, regardless of whether the law permits it, and one example of something against the law (or against school rules, if you prefer) which is not morally wrong. For each, they should write a short summary of how they came to the conclusion that it was morally right or wrong.


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