Students in Gr. 9 often see issues in black and white, so what better way to introduce the ambiguities and complexities of everyday moral dilemmas by covering the political spectrum through debates on controversial topics? Debate forces students to take a side (even when they don’t agree with it) and focuses on the reasons behind decisions rather than simply individual opinion. And, it’s often fun, especially when you have an excuse to hammer the tables in agreement.  My first go at it was OK, but next time I would prepare more examples in current events and think more about the 4 dimensional quality of the spectrum, rather than placing libertarian and utilitarian on a right/left scale….

Understanding the Political Spectrum Through Moral Dilemmas

Big Idea:

Civil discourse is enhanced by finding that you agree with your opposition in some areas. Taking stances on various moral dilemmas will give us a greater understanding of our common belief in the competing claims of freedom and equality across the political spectrum. It also enables us to foster democratic discussion by building:

a) agreed upon vocabulary
b) opinions supported by reasons
c) a willingness to be convinced by good reasons

Unit Overview:

(I used a version of this for Gr 9, but you could adapt this for any SS course)

1. Watch Michael Sandel’s “Justice” dilemmas clips and discuss/journal

2. Introduce the Political Spectrum and vocabulary

3. Research and Debate pros and cons for three current issues

4. Use informed opinions and common vocabulary to kickstart an inquiry project, discuss multiculturalism, or start a Gov. unit

1. Michael Sandel – Harvard “Justice” course videos (Youtube)

Sandel’s Harvard course is a great exemplar for students of civic discussion among young people. Each example from the episodes below might take 25 min to watch, discuss, and then journal.

  • Episode 1 lecture 1 0-12 min mark

Introduces trolley car example
Forces students to choose between rights of one person or the good of many (would you kill 1 to save 5 people?)

  • Episode 1 lecture 2 28-40 min mark Cannibalism case

Students asked whether if shipwrecked, they would kill and eat a sick crew member in order that 2 others might survive (real law case – R v Dudley & Stephens, 1884).

These clips set up the vocabulary of utilitarianism and libertarianism which are helpful keys in understanding the difference between Canadian and American politics. The Canadian tradition of the “common good,” in its conservative or liberal forms, is contrasted with individual liberty enshrined in the US constitution.

2. Political Spectrum:

The political spectrum is often portrayed as a spread between economic equality (communism) and freedom (neoliberalism) on one plane, and social equality (authoritarianism) and freedom (libertarianism) on the other.


There are many versions of political spectrums with political agendas, (such as the libertarian “Smallest Political Quiz”). Be sure you know what it is saying. The above spectrum comes from Political – it would be good to know how the Canadian Conservative party was placed much farther up the “authoritarian” scale (perhaps Harper’s personal leadership style?).

In any case, the goal is to focus on what unites the disparate views. I focus on Modern Liberalism as our “common denominator”:

The current view of justice in Western society, based on the idea that we have rights by nature. Liberalism emphasizes the rights and duties of individuals. You have the right to liberty and equality, in return for your allegiance to the state.

To understand how liberty and equality are often at odds with one another, I use the vocabulary of utilitarianism and libertarianism, following Sandel. While students will want to pick one or the other as a point of identity, the idea is to introduce students to the spectrum in between these extremes, which will come out in the debates.

Utilitarianism: a view of justice in which the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few (maximize utility, ends justifies means, etc.).

Libertarianism: a view of justice in which individual rights are the most important. Government should not infringe on individual liberty.

eg. Modern Liberalism

Equality  – Utilitarianism – Health Care

Freedom – Libertarianism – US gun laws

3. Debate

Debate forces students to take more than one side of an issue. They must argue for resolutions they may not agree with. It also makes them think about how to define the terms of discussion. (Info on how to set up a debate, and exemplar videos can be found on the Manitoba Debate website.)

I introduce examples of liberty and equality which create controversy in current affairs:

Social equality: Quebec Charter of Values, illegal euthanasia

Social freedom: censorship, legal marijuana, freemen on the land

Economic equality: Health Care, Social Assistance

Economic freedom: Bangladeshi sweatshops

Formulate three resolutions.

Be it resolved that:

“this house would legalize euthanasia”

“this house would force religions to be equal”

“this house would censor the Internet”

Form groups of three – two debaters and one “brains of the operation” researcher. Place them in debate teams for each resolution. You may have two pairs of teams for one resolution. Government must define the resolution terms.

In order of speaking:

1.PM Alex,  2. Leader of the Opposition Joe,  3. Deputy PM Sharon,  4. Shadow minister Amanda, 5. L. Opp rebuttal, 6. PM rebuttal.

Each team must come up with 5 arguments for, and 5 arguments against their resolution. Use a day or two to research.

Debate sets up the Government unit well, and you can show clips of Question Period. Once they get their feet wet, students enjoy the controversy and understand better the challenges of being an MP.

During debates, I act as the Speaker and ham it up with dramatic introductions for speakers.  During each debate I write the main arguments on the board as they unfold. Engage all students by encouraging them to stand and give Points of Information during the debates. Students are very interested in who wins, and this will motivate them to research both sides of the argument. As an exit slip, all students must judge each debate and give reasons why the teams won, and whose arguments were better.

One of my goals is also to have students incorporate some of their journal material into their final paper on Canadian identity.  (For more on why writing academic papers may be a good thing, check out this Atlantic thread: