Ethos Education

Lincoln: Should right and wrong ever be compromised?

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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 difficulties of knowing how to respond to moral dilemmas, even when it is easy to tell what is morally wrong or morally right.
  • Analyse a film clip and determine the difference between moral compromise and making sure that change can be effected.
  • Analyse Bible passages to determine a Christian understanding of the relationship between compromise, morality and wisdom.
  • Synthesise learning by suggesting different courses of action in response to a moral problem.


Ask the students to say whether the action described in each of the following scenarios is morally right, morally wrong, or neither.

  • Well-paid people find ways to legally avoid paying their full tax burden.
  • Welfare payments are being used by some people with no intention of finding paid employment.
  • A democratically elected leader is using chemical weapons on his own citizens.
  • A democratically elected leader is making economic choices that some of his citizens disagree with.
  • Fox hunting.
  • Human slavery.

Explain that as the last example shows, a lot of the time it’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. However, it isn’t always so simple to decide what to do in pursuit of objectives that are morally right. This is particularly true for politicians attempting to decide how to respond to issues where the moral values are clear, but the best way of responding to an unwanted situation is less so. In today’s lesson you are going to be thinking more about what Christians believe about this.


Introduce the clip from Lincoln (20th Century Fox, certificate 12). Click here to buy the film online.

Explain that the film takes place towards the end of the American Civil War. President Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) is trying to pass a Bill in Congress to get slavery made illegal, because he knows that once the war ends he will no longer have the political support to pass such a Bill. In this scene he discusses tactics with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a radical Congressman who wants to go much further on the issue than Lincoln does. Ask the students to pay particular attention to what Thaddeus says living with slavery has done to white people, and to Lincoln’s response.

  • Start time:       0.53.54 (in chapter 8 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.57.07
  • Clip length:      3 minutes and 13 seconds

The clip starts with a servant carrying a tray downstairs, then turning back when he sees Lincoln and Stevens talking. The first line is Lincoln saying, ‘Since we have the floor next in the debate…’

Please note that the clip includes some swearing. If you feel it is inappropriate for your students, don’t use this clip. You should also point out that the film uses racial terminology that was commonly used in its time, and which is not included here with any intent to offend.

Establish whether the students have understood what Stevens meant when he said, ‘…the inner compass that should direct the soul towards justice has ossified in white men in north and in south unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery.’

Ask the students whether they agree that people have a moral compass, whether generally speaking they are able to determine right from wrong. If so, is it possible for them to lose track of moral issues through compromising and accepting something as obviously morally wrong as race-related slavery and inequality.

Now draw the students’ attention to Lincoln’s response:

The compass I learned when I was serving. It’ll point you true North from where you’re standing. But it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts, chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead headless of obstacles and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the point in knowing true North?

What do the students think Lincoln means? If they are struggling, you could give them these options and ask the students to indicate which of these represents Lincoln’s position and which are missing the point:

  • There’s no such thing as moral right and moral wrong (incorrect).
  • Right and wrong have nothing to do with matters of geography (incorrect).
  • Knowing what’s right and what’s wrong is important, but it isn’t the only important thing (correct).
  • Knowing the difference between right and wrong isn’t important (incorrect).
  • To achieve morally good objectives, you have to combine knowledge of right and wrong with wise tactics (correct).
  • In order to achieve the right result, sometimes you have to settle for less than you want rather than end up with nothing. (correct)

Do the students agree with Lincoln? Should Stevens hold back in the debate and avoid mentioning further freedoms for black Americans, for fear of putting off Congressmen who are less committed to racial equality? Or should Stevens speak his mind and say everything that he believes?

Give out the Right and Wrong and the Bible worksheets and some Bibles. Ask the students, working individually or in pairs, to look up each of the passages and summarise what the passage has to say about right and wrong, and about the best way of achieving moral objectives.

Here is a list of the passages cited on the worksheet, with brief notes on their relevance to this discussion:

  • Luke 10:25-28 (the starting point for knowing how to live is to love God first, and then to love neighbours as ourselves. If those two things are happening, our actions are likely to be morally right).
  • Matthew 5:13-16 (the importance of not becoming compromised – how can salt that loses its saltiness become salty again?).
  • Matthew 10:16-20 (the importance of being shrewd, but also being innocent).
  • 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (this doesn’t say that Christians should change what they believe to suit other people, but they should change how they present their beliefs in order to help any given person to better understand God’s truth).
  • Ephesians 5:8-21 (Christians should live pure lives, wisely discovering God’s will for them and following it).
  • Philippians 4:8-9 (put into practice the things that are morally good, pure and noble).

Once everyone has had the chance to complete the worksheet, bring them back together as a whole class and discuss their answers. Ask whether the students think that the Bible supports Lincoln’s view that in order to achieve their common goal, Stevens would be well advised to hold back on some of his true feelings.

You might want to play a subsequent clip from the film, which shows what Stevens does as a result of his conversation with Lincoln in the previous clip:

  • Start time:       1.16.22 (beginning of chapter 11 of the DVD)
  • End time:         1.21.43
  • Clip length:      5 minutes and 21 seconds

The clip begins with Congressmen and spectators taking their seats, and the caption, ‘House of Representatives, January 27’. It ends with Stevens being criticised for not saying what he truly believes, and responding, ‘…it seems there’s nearly nothing I won’t say.’


As a final exercise, ask the students to identify a situation where it is simple to see what is morally right or wrong, but harder to identify the best way of responding to the situation. They should write a brief summary of the problem and then suggest one or more appropriate responses, explaining how each response is based on principles of Christian living.


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