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22 January 2019

Serial Killer Dexter Can Help Discuss Professional Moral Dilemmas

Teachers have recently turned to drama series that are situated in a professional setting for input in their classes on professional ethics. A study in Poetics provides insight into students’ moral evaluations of Dexter, a drama series with unexpected potential for ethics education. The results confirm this educational potential and demonstrate remarkable differences in moral evaluations of the series, varying by students’ professional experience and educational background. 

Take aways

The series Dexter is a fruitful launch path for discussing complex professional dilemmas.  

To achieve the greatest learning effect, the researchers recommend that teachers:  

  • make use of the moral deliberations in the show. For example, by stopping the show on choice moments of Dexter, and zooming in on the complexities of his moral dilemma and the various perspectives on this dilemma by other characters.  
  • make use of the differences in moral evaluations of different groups of viewers, by confronting students with moral interpretations of specific professionals with different backgrounds and experiences.  
  • incorporate morally ambivalent shows such as Dexter in the later years of the education program, because junior students lack the professional perspective and nuance to actually grasp the complexity of the moral issues at hand.

Study information

  • Who?

    61 students (age range: 18-27, year of education: 1 till >4, 64% female). Of the participants, 28 studied law, 23 psychology and 10 developmental psychology. 

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    The researchers conducted content analysis on the pilot episode of Dexter to map potential topics of discussion. Participants watched this episode before being interviewed. The questions in the interview enabled the researchers to learn about the moral judgments and reasoning of the participants. They checked differences between students based on their type of study and years of education.

Facts and findings

  • Students’ moral evaluations of Dexter differed according to students’ educational background. Remarkably, law students followed the unlawful reasoning of vigilante killer Dexter rather than their own moral beliefs. Conversely, (developmental) psychology students based their moral evaluations on a professional ground.  
  • Students’ moral evaluation of Dexter also differed according to students’ ‘professional’ experience. First year law students were in general guided by the morally ambiguous considerations of vigilante killer Dexter as presented in the show, and neglected the law as a system in their moral evaluations. However, senior law students had slowly developed a professional, strict and procedural, point-of-view during their education. (Developmental) psychology students proceeded from an idealistic to a more realistic and nuanced point-of-view.