Ethos Education

X-Men: Days of Future Past: What makes a particular decision morally right or morally wrong?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understand different concepts of right and wrong.
  • Understand the Christian worldview, as it relates to making moral decisions.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon students’ responses to different scenarios involving violence against others.
  • Analyse a film clip, identifying the reasoning that led one character to an unexpected moral decision.
  • 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 writing a further scene from the film, where a variety of characters seek to justify their actions with reference to different worldviews.

STARTER:

Ask the students to stand up, and to remain standing if they agree with the statement you are about to read out. After each statement, allow a few students to give reasons for their agreement (or disagreement, if they chose to sit down) then stand everyone up again for the next statement.

  • I would happily squash and kill an insect without any guilt.
  • I would happily squash and kill an insect without guilt if I knew that doing so would prevent a deadly disease from spreading.
  • I would happily inflict physical pain on a stranger without feeling any guilt.
  • I would be willing to inflict physical pain on a stranger if by doing so I could prevent him from hurting someone else.
  • I would be willing to kill a stranger in order to prevent them killing other people.

Ask the students what made the difference between the scenarios (assuming that some or all of them answered differently to the various scenarios about people and insects). Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about how people decide right and wrong when making moral decisions.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox, 2014, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online. Explain that Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has been sent back in time to the early 1970s to try to change the course of history. In his world, the mutants are on the verge of losing a bitter war against the Sentinels, machines with artificial intelligence who have wiped out mutants and non-mutated humans alike. The Sentinels’ key strategic advantage comes from their ability to adapt to the individual powers of the mutants they encounter. They gained this ability because, back in the early 1970s Dr Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels, gained access to the DNA of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a mutant with the ability to shape-shift. Wolverine has recruited the younger versions of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Lehnsherr – also known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender) – and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to ensure that their friend Mystique remained safely out of Trask’s clutches. Ask the students to pay particular attention to how the attempt to rescue Mystique works out, and to consider the thinking that leads one character to make a dramatic change to the plan.

  • Start time:       0.55.29 (beginning of chapter 19 of the DVD)
  • End time:         0.59.51
  • Clip length:      4 minutes and 22 seconds

The clip starts with an establishing shot of Paris. The first line is a news reporter saying, ‘Diplomats from all around the world are arriving…’ The clip ends when Mystique lands after jumping out of the window. Make sure to keep the clip running long enough to see Magneto’s bullet hit her in the leg.

Ask the students why Erik decided to kill his friend, Mystique. If necessary, remind them of Erik’s answer to the question, ‘What are you doing?’: ‘Securing our future. Forgive me, Mystique. As long as you’re out there, we’ll never be safe.’ Draw out the logic of Erik’s reasoning: the Sentinels were able to destroy the mutants because they used Mystique’s DNA. If Erik and the others rescue Mystique, they can avoid this, but there would still be the possibility that she would one day be recaptured and her DNA harvested. Once she is dead, the danger can be removed completely. Taking emotion and friendship out of the equation leads Erik to the conclusion that he has to kill his friend for the greater good.

Once the students have grasped Erik’s thinking, ask them whether he is doing the right or the wrong thing? Is it possible to argue that he is doing the right thing, since his betrayal of his friend will result in a new and better future for all of humanity, mutant and non-mutant alike? Or is it wrong because he’s betraying his friend by killing her in cold blood?

Explain that when we think about right and wrong, our conclusions will often depend upon how we are defining right and 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:

Egoism
‘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.

Utilitarianism
‘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.

Naturalism
‘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.

Emotivism
‘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.

Theism
‘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. Arguably, from a Utilitarian perspective, Erik’s actions are entirely defensible. Beast and Professor X, on the other hand are perhaps motivated more by Emotivism (while Wolverine, in the clip, is just freaking out and not really making any decisions). Dr Trask could either be said to be acting on a Utilitarian basis – the purpose of his Sentinels is to keep humanity safe from the growing mutant threat – or from an Egoist one: he is a human, so his safety is tied up in ensuring that the humans overcome the mutants.

Ask the students to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of the six approaches, 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 (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 make moral decisions.

  • 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 validity and value of using this basis for determining right from wrong.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to rewrite the scene from the film, adding a longer debate between the characters about the rights and wrongs of what Erik has decided. Students should feel free to add further characters to the discussion to ensure that all six of the philosophical models on the sheet are explored. The rewritten scene should also include reference to a specifically Christian approach to making moral decisions.

YOU WILL NEED:

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