Ten Brief Cases With Ethical Issues

Vincent S. Cronin, Baylor University


Ten brief descriptions are provided of cases in which there appear to be ethical issues in the practice of geology. Most are drawn from engineering geology, but no detailed prior knowledge of applied geology is necessary. The intent of these descriptions is to nucleate discussion about ethical decisions that must be made in the practice of geology.


This activity is probably best suited for a majors' course, in which the students have some basic knowledge of geology. With a bit of explanation, some of the brief case studies could also be used in introductory courses.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Some basic knowledge of geology (typical of students who have completed a course in physical geology) would probably be helpful.

How the activity is situated in the course
These brief case studies could be used in a group, or students could be asked to choose one to focus on, or they could be used singly at different times in a course to provide an opportunity to discuss ethics in applied geology.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The primary goal is to provide student geoscientists with opportunities to confront and work their way through examples of ethical issues that they might encounter as a professional geologist.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
There is an apparent ethical issue involved in each of the brief case descriptions. Recognition of the ethical issue, identifying any ethical dilemmas, defining competing interests, settling upon a strategy to use in trying to mitigate the problem, reference to prominent ideas in moral philosophy (e.g., utilitarianism, virtue ethics, etc.) are all important thinking skills that might come into play in considering these cases.

Other skills goals for this activity
The teacher will control how this material is used, and hence which of many skill goals might exist. Some might include the following:
  • Discussion
  • Debate (dividing a case into parties with different perspectives)
  • Written analysis

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Each of the ten brief case descriptions appears to involve an ethical issue. Most will elicit an immediate reaction from a student, which can then become the basis for discussion: why did you react as you did? What ethical principal do you discern in this case?

The simplest approach with these case studies is to use them as the nucleus for a discussion about ethics in applied geoscience. At the end of each such discussion, the class participants can attempt consensus on an ethical rule or rules they would hope to follow if placed in the same situation. Over the course of the term, consideration of several cases might lead to the development of a student-defined list of ethical principles that they feel are important.

Description and Teaching Materials

The ten short case descriptions can be used in many different ways, singly or as a group. A single case can form the basis of a classroom discussion, or a classroom discussion either preceded or followed by a summary writing assignment. A case can be used as the basis of a mock debate in class, followed by a verdict. Students in a class might be asked to choose one from among the cases listed, and then write a reflection on the case. However the exercise is structured, the intent is to have students confront authentic ethical issues within the safety of a course so that they can develop intellectual tools for working through ethical issues they will confront in their careers.

It is inevitable that people who read these scenarios will want access to the full case study. In most if not all instances, the people who were involved in these cases are still alive. Some of these cases involved significant litigation resulting in sealed settlements. A few are still in litigation. Many of the case files are proprietary and unavailable for duplication. It is prudent to keep these descriptions non-specific.

Short descriptions of cases involving ethical issues (Microsoft Word 39kB May29 14)

Case Study Scenario

The case descriptions are in the document "MiniCases.doc (Microsoft Word 39kB May29 14)," created in Microsoft Word to facilitate their adaptation.

Teaching Notes and Tips

We all have a tendency to jump to the most obvious conclusions when given short summaries of ethical issues. It is important to dig deeper, to recognize that there might be valid but different sides to issues. In some (most) situations, there are multiple (but perhaps mutually exclusive) ethical "goods" that are in competition with each other.


Assessment and evaluation are entirely dependent on how a teacher chooses to deploy these small case-study descriptions.

References and Resources