Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 19, Issue 3, pp 1323–1339 | Cite as

An Experiential, Game-Theoretic Pedagogy for Sustainability Ethics

  • Jathan SadowskiEmail author
  • Thomas P. Seager
  • Evan Selinger
  • Susan G. Spierre
  • Kyle P. Whyte
Original Paper


The wicked problems that constitute sustainability require students to learn a different set of ethical skills than is ordinarily required by professional ethics. The focus for sustainability ethics must be redirected towards: (1) reasoning rather than rules, and (2) groups rather than individuals. This need for a different skill set presents several pedagogical challenges to traditional programs of ethics education that emphasize abstraction and reflection at the expense of experimentation and experience. This paper describes a novel pedagogy of sustainability ethics that is based on noncooperative, game-theoretic problems that cause students to confront two salient questions: “What are my obligations to others?” and “What am I willing to risk in my own well-being to meet those obligations?” In comparison to traditional professional ethics education, the game-based pedagogy moves the learning experience from: passive to active, apathetic to emotionally invested, narratively closed to experimentally open, and from predictable to surprising. In the context of game play, where players must make decisions that can adversely impact classmates, students typically discover a significant gap between their moral aspirations and their moral actions. When the games are delivered sequentially as part of a full course in Sustainability Ethics, students may experience a moral identity crisis as they reflect upon the incongruity of their self-understanding and their behavior. Repeated play allows students to reconcile this discrepancy through group deliberation that coordinates individual decisions to achieve collective outcomes. It is our experience that students gradually progress through increased levels of group tacit knowledge as they encounter increasingly complex game situations.


Wicked problems Professional ethics Group tacit knowledge Experiential pedagogy Sustainability Ethics Game theory 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1134943. The Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University also provided support. For fruitful conversation we thank: Andrew Berardy, Ben Hale, Amy Befeld, Bert Cohen, Bill Guschwan, Jackie Isaacs, Larry Nies, and Liz Martin. Two anonymous reviewers also gave valuable comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jathan Sadowski
    • 1
    Email author
  • Thomas P. Seager
    • 1
  • Evan Selinger
    • 2
  • Susan G. Spierre
    • 3
  • Kyle P. Whyte
    • 4
  1. 1.School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built EnvironmentArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Philosophy and Graduate Program, Faculty in the Golisano Institute for SustainabilityRochester Institute of TechnologyHenriettaUSA
  3. 3.Global Institute of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  4. 4.PhilosophyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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