Working on WMD:
Inquiry in a science or social studies class

by Alan Shapiro


To the Teacher:

People often come into conflict over competing ideas about what is good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoralóthat is, over "values." Often these conflicts relate to scientific issues such as abortion, stem cell research, or the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet how many teachers of biology, chemistry, and physics offer students an opportunity to inquire into these issues? And how often do teachers encourage students to test their point of view for clarity and consistencyórather than simply to attempt to prove their point of view?

The following materials inquire into the values conflict over nuclear weapons. They are based on the "jurisprudential framework in teaching public issues" detailed in Donald Oliver and James Shaver's book, Teaching Public Issues in High School.

1. Before presenting a values issue to students for inquiry,you need to be sure that students grasp the essentials of the issueóin this case the nature of nuclear weapons. For that purpose, you might assign students to read and discuss Student Readings 1 and 2 in "Nuclear Weapons Controversy: Three Lessons on New U.S. Policy," available on this website.

Present the following potent values conflict to students: Should scientists, technicians, and other workers freely take jobs in any field where employment is legal or should they refuse work aimed at developing nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction? The values conflict: the rule of law vs. morality.

Consider definitions with students. What do we mean by "law" (e.g., "a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding and enforced by a controlling authority")? What do we mean by "morality" (e.g., "conformity to ideals of right human conduct")? For purposes of discussion, the class should agree to definitions and adhere to them. The definitions above come from Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.

4. Questions for discussion:

a. Can a law or a lawful act be immoral? Ask students for examples to consider (e.g., capital punishment, cloning human beings).

b. Can a moral act be unlawful? Again ask students for examples to consider (e.g., a civil rights or anti-war demonstration that blocks traffic on a highway, a refusal to pay taxes to protest a government policy one regards as immoral).

Points of view

Ask students to commit to a point of view on whether scientists, technicians, and other workers should take jobs whose purpose is to develop nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Assign students to write a one-paragraph response to this question in their notebooks. Then conduct a class discussion of points of view.


To sharpen perspectives and to test student positions for clarity and consistency, discuss analogous situations in which law and morality may be in conflict.

Situations in which students may favor law over morality:

  • As part of its religious and moral beliefs, a group does not believe in using antibiotics or other medical treatment for an illness. Public authorities learn that a child appears to be dying because his parents refuse such medical treatment. Should the authorities intervene, remove the child from his home, and provide him with antibiotics to save his life, thus violating the parents' religious and moral beliefs?

  • The country is at war and a draft of those aged 18-39 has been legally established. A man and a woman, both aged 20, declare to authorities that they do not believe in war and killing and refuse to accept a draft into military service. Should the draft board authorities have the police arrest these two people for trial and a likely prison sentence, despite their moral beliefs?

Situations in which students may favor morality over law:

  • The fugitive slave law of 1850 made it illegal in the United States to help a slave who had escaped from his or her master. A white married couple provides such help, and the authorities learn what they have done. Should they be arrested, tried, and imprisoned for violating the law, despite their moral beliefs about slavery?

  • Both domestic and international laws prohibit the torture of prisoners of war. In an effort to extract information about possible future acts of terrorism, soldiers torture a prisoner. Should the soldiers be arrested, tried, and convicted for violating the laws despite their moral beliefs about the sacredness of human life?

7. Assign a final paper and/or conduct a class discussion on this question: Have students changed their views at all on whether or not scientists and others should take jobs aimed at developing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction? If so, how have their views changed? If not, why not?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:


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