Ethical Decision-Making in Greek Mythology

Students at UT Austin will never face the winged or eight-headed monsters from Greek and Roman mythology. But many of the ethical dilemmas these mythical heroes faced still resonate with students today. Classics Professor Deborah Beck uses the timeless quality of themes in Greek and Roman mythology to challenge how the students approach current controversial topics students’ assumptions about controversial topics in the present.

In her Introduction to Classical Mythology course, Professor Beck uses Greek and Roman cultural lenses to explore ethical dilemmas and norms in our society. Her course carries both the Ethics and Global Cultures Flags, and it uses aspects of each Flag to help students think about the multiplicity of ethical outlooks. Understanding the cultural perspectives of the heroes in the stories they read allows students to understand their ethical reasoning. Discussing ethical issues through these cultural lenses also helps the students critically engage with ethical issues relevant to their lives today.

Although ancient Greek and Roman cultures are distant from UT students’ daily lives, many of the ethical issues that arise in that literature are familiar for students. Initially the situations and choices the characters make seem alien, unethical, or puzzling to the students. But, as they learn more about the characters’ cultural contexts, the decisions they make don’t seem as foreign.

One of the examples Professor Beck uses is the story of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. As the Greek army was about to set sail for Troy, the goddess Artemis stopped all the winds as a punishment for Agamemnon. The only way to appease the goddess and launch the fleet was to sacrifice his daughter. Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice his daughter for his military campaign is understandably shocking to students in the class. As the students read these stories, they reflect on the readings and answer questions on online discussion boards to help them prepare for in-class discussions.

In class, Professor Beck challenges the students to put aside their own cultural lenses so that they can see the character’s decisions through different cultural perspectives. Professor Beck wants each of the students to be able to look at an ethical question and think about the multiplicity of perspectives in that situation. Understanding the character’s cultural values and views is essential to entering into their thought processes in the story. If they can understand the context of these ethical dilemmas, the students can then begin to analyze the ethical questions in the stories.

Professor Beck ties themes in the classical myths to current ethical dilemmas with which students can connect. Most parents today will never be forced to choose between killing their child and their career. But the story illustrates the difficult choice Agamemnon had to make and the consequences of that decision. Agamemnon choose his community obligations over his family relationships, and he faced the consequences when he returned home from war. Students in the class are familiar with the choice between careers and family that many parents have to make on a daily basis. By looking at the cultural context of Agamemnon’s decision and discussing parallel decisions today, students gain a deeper understanding of Ancient Greek perspectives on public and private responsibilities.

Discussing the extreme story of Agamemnon also helps Professor Beck discuss ethical questions that are difficult to address head on. Using mythical stories to discuss ethics gives a level of separation from the ethical issues today. Having that separation helps students to discuss the topic less personally and feel more comfortable giving their opinions when it is framed in the context of a myth, rather than in a real-life situation.

Engaging the students in discussions on ethical issues through storytelling is annother key way Professor Beck helps the students deepen their analytical thinking. In each reading, Professor Beck challenges her students to use the details in the story to support their argument about the characters’ decisions. Across the myths, many similar themes are repeated, allowing the students to explore them more deeply. Low-stakes repetition of the same themes helps students to see patterns in and across the myths and to conduct more in-depth analysis. Professor Beck also helps strengthen these analytic skills by showing students how to closely read the text and use examples to support their arguments. In discussions online and in class, the students practice using details from their readings to support their arguments and observation about the myths.

In Professor Beck’s Introduction to Classical Mythology course, students are challenged to put themselves in the heroes and heroines’ positions, even as they recognize how those positions are informed by a cultural perspective very different from their own. Over the course of the semester, the students learn about the cultural contexts of these myths and how these contexts shaped ethical decision-making within the stories. It can often be difficult to discuss ethical issues analytically because of students’ tendency to view dilemmas through the lens of their personal experiences. Analyzing ethical decision-making through mythology helps students to engage in ethical discussions and analysis. Through classical mythology, Professor Beck gives students the tools to discuss ethical issues analytically and understand multiple perspectives on an issue.

By Abby Attia, Graduate Assistant at the Center for Skills and Experience Flags

The Center for the Skills & Experience Flags provides resources and support for the general education shared by all undergraduates at UT Austin.

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