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Arts & Letters Daily


6e. Justice - English teacher


Several conditions must be met


Duty. “Do I have any obligations beyond my responsibilities to teach my English classes?” pondered Mrs. Wall, a second year teacher at Jason Secondary School. “I’m quite clear about my responsibilities; they are outlined in the contract I signed with my school district. But, I’m not so clear about my obligations. Can my Principal obligate me to assume tasks not covered by my contract? I get the feeling he can. It’s a somewhat delicate question; that’s why I am reluctant to ask her about it. Who can I ask?”

Rights. This issue came up at a staff meeting recently. The History teacher, Mr. Beatty, argued that it was not legitimate for the Principal to assign unilaterally whatever duties to any staff person. He had neither a legal or moral right to do so. Needless to say, this created some tension between the teacher and the Principal who felt he could use his discretion in assigning duties since he was responsible for managing all school affairs.

Motive. Mr. Beatty, including the rest of the staff, never doubted the Principal’s motive. His actions clearly reflect moral virtues such as honesty, respect and thoughtfulness. In other words, he is motivated by a tendency, or disposition to do what is the right thing to do. On this one issue, some staff members felt the Principal was somewhat misguided.

Desert. Ms. Wall recalled one occasion last year when the Principal had assigned Mr. Beatty to ‘staff parking lot’ supervision during the year-end school dance. These dances, which brought people from across the city to Jason Secondary School, had resulted in some vandalism to staff cars. To avoid this from re-occurring, the Principal had asked Mr. Beatty to monitor the staff parking lot. Mr. Beatty had refused and the Principal backed off. Ms. Wall wondered whether this incident should have been reported to the Teachers’ Society or the Superintendent even though the Principal had withdrawn his decision.

Justice. Why did the Principal back off? Maybe, on second thought, he was not so certain that he could arbitrarily assign duties to his staff. For his decision to be just, he would have to have a duty to make the decision. Or, was he motivated by personal and career considerations?


  • Do you think this incident should have been reported? Explain.
  • Discuss other situations where people use this kind of straight thinking.
  • Discuss how each judgement ( duty, rights, motive, desert, justice) contributes to a more thorough understanding of a moral dilemma.

You may want to discuss other dilemmas.

Consider this view about ‘a distribution to be just.’

  • Crooked thinking

For a distribution to be just, all that is required is an impartial judgement.

  • Straight thinking

For a distribution to be just, several conditions must be met. The distributor must have the right to make the distributions. It is wrong of someone to distribute something if he does not have the right to do so. The distributor must have a duty to make a distribution. Since only moral agents can have a duty to make an impartial judgement, the distributor must be a moral agent.

Moral principle value tests

An application of the moral principle value tests probably illustrates most clearly what is entailed in evaluative reasoning. They are:

It is important to emphasize that the moral-value principle tests are not designed to resolve issues (guarantee right answers!) but to assess the ‘justification’ for moral value decisions.

To view the Dilemma from the perspective of Duty, Rights, Motives, Desert and Justice, click the following:

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