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Morally Upright Essay Outline

This is the third post in our marvelously marvelous series of 10 10 SAT Essay Theme Guides. Make sure to leave a comment with any questions at all! We’re not that scary! 

This week’s essay theme is Morality. Morality is, by definition, the very thing that most teenagers lack. We are all evil beings. Essays on this theme will focus on the conscience, responsibility, individual desires versus the greater good, and so on and so forth.

The awesome part about this prompt is that it’s extremely applicable to the great majority of literature. Inner conflicts breed outer conflicts, and many conflicts in books and movies can be traced down to morals—or the lack of them. There are tons of examples you can use which can be analyzed from a more psychological perspective.


Past Prompts

  • Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame, or power?
  • Is deception ever justified?
  • Should individuals take responsibility for issues and problems that do not affect them directly?
  • Is it often difficult for people to determine what is the right thing to do?
  • Are the consequences of people’s actions more important than the motives behind the actions?
  • Does every individual have an obligation to think seriously about important matters, even when doing so may be difficult?


Recommended Reading

*Note: All of the books listed below are classics and fairly well-known; these are far from the only books you should use as examples, though! They aren’t even the best. The books below were chosen because morality is a major theme in all of them; but, even if that isn’t a major theme in an example you’re considering, ultimately, it’s the depth and maturity of your analysis which matters.  You can take “morality” and analyze almost any novel under its scope.

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five is an absurdist classic by one of the greatest and wackiest 20th century writers on morality, Kurt Vonnegut. Though Vonnegut’s style is one you’ll have to get used to, the genius and insight of the novel is well worth it. The story is about Billy Pilgrim, a man who is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Much of the story focuses on Pilgrim’s terrible experience as an American POW who witnesses the Dresden firebombing. The book is a poignant critique on war and a perfect example of literature which explores the depths of our morality.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is yet another famous classic—one which analyzes discrimination in the backdrop of Depression-era Alabama. This is the perfect novel to analyze under the lens of morality, as the entire book is an exploration of right versus wrong, individual beliefs versus the status quo. The book is a light read and easy to understand—and better yet, it’s applicable to a wide range of SAT themes…not just this one!

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This book is a notorious classic. The Scarlet Letter follows the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a child out of adultery and struggles to deal with the consequences, including humiliation, public alienation, and guilt. The themes explored in the book are very compatible with a prompt concerning morality, as the entire book centers around the questionable morality of one woman and how other people react to it.

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This one’s a controversial book, which makes it perfect for an essay on morality. It centers around an unreliable narrator, a middle-aged professor who takes a *coughextremelycreepycough* interest in a 12-year-old girl. Victimization, assault, guilt, and justice are all major themes in the book, and with its ethically questionable main character and contentious themes, this book would make for interesting source material in an essay about morals.

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding

This is a fantastic book about a group of boys who get stranded on an island…and the social degradation and behavioral devolution which ensues. These boys undergo severe moral transformations as societal rules fall way in the wake of raw survival instincts. This is a wonderful example of the different manifestations of “morals” in different kinds of people…and it’s fun and easy to read, too.


Common Mistakes

Morality is a complex issue, and as with all mental topics, this is something that is far from black-and-white. When addressing morality, it’s important to address all sides of the debate. Don’t over-simplify!

Since morals and ethics aren’t necessarily concrete topics (like prompts in the “Challenges” category for example), it’s all too easy to provide vague arguments. Make sure to support your ideas with specific details. Concrete examples will back your thesis and solidify your work.

When addressing such hefty topics as “conscience” and “the justification of deception,” it is very easy to come off as a pretentious know-it-all. While you should definitely retain a strong, firm argument, there is a line between “This is what I believe” and “I am the one who defines all morality. Bow down to me, ignorant peasants.” Your essay reader will be more inclined to give you a better score if you aren’t talking down to your audience.


Sample essay outline

Here is a basic outline of how you might want to organize your SAT essay. This is not at all a concrete form to follow; you can use different numbers of examples or quotes or do any number of things differently. It’s very helpful for essay readers, however—and you yourself—if you have a clear, easy-to-follow structure.

I. Short intro

  • Intro sentence (something gripping, preferably)
  • Thesis

II. Example 1

  • Quote 1 and analysis
  • Quote 2 and analysis
  • Quote 3 and analysis

III. Example 2

  • Quote 1 and analysis
  • Quote 2 and analysis
  • Quote 3 and analysis

IV. Example 3

  • Quote 1 and analysis
  • Quote 2 and analysis
  • Quote 3 and analysis

V. Conclusion

  • Link to examples
  • Draw conclusions/big picture/ask questions/note patterns
  • Concluding sentence


Example Essay

And alas! There aren’t many resources online with sample essays centered around morality, but here is one to take a look at. It’s provided by Scholastic. The article even includes tips on how to successfully brave the essay-writing process.



Morality can be a complicated topic to write about, but don’t let that scare you away! It’s very doable, as long as you prepare well and keep an eye out for those common errors.

And of course, if you really don’t have any material to write about, you can always resort to talking about… your own questionable morals…We’re all evil inside, you know. Some people just hide it better than others.

Until next time!


About Maddi Lee

Maddi is currently a high school junior in southern California. She is an avid freelance writer and has been featured in multiple literary publications and anthologies. When she isn't writing, she loves traveling, doodling, and most of all, sleeping. Through her own experience and passion, she hopes to help guide fellow students through the roller coaster that is SAT and college admissions...that is, as long as she survives the journey herself!

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!


Embedded systems are often called on to perform safety critical tasks in aide of, or independent to, human operators. Creating these systems, as in all engineering disciplines, causes engineers to consider their actions and the ethical implications of the systems they create. Engineering as a profession encourages the view that the public good must outweigh all other factors when determining the course of action for an engineer. Unfortunately, not all situations are morally well defined and engineers will be called upon by themselves, their company, or society to make profound, or more often, personally conflicting decisions.

In this section we will discuss some possible conflicts that may occur in everyday engineering along with some possible situations that may not occur in everyday engineering. Every engineer will have at least some morally perplexing events in their career. We will discuss some resources that may be of use to engineers as a reference. In the end we will conclude with a brief overview and the realization that ethics are as personal as each engineer's moral code.

Related Topics:



Ethics are of special importance to practicing professionals, including engineers.  Professions such as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and engineers have a greater responsibility to society to do their jobs ethically.  In order to accomplish this though, it is important to understand what ethics really means.  The actions that society finds acceptable versus the actions which society does not accept create the ethics by which a member of society must abide.  From this definition, ethical action on the part of engineer can be partially simplified, (as it is in most codes of ethics from engineering organizations,) as the simple mandate that an engineer's greatest responsibility is to the public good.  The following discussion is centered around what responsibility comes with being an engineer, the challenges an engineer faces, and some resources for helping an engineer fulfill his responsibility to do the public good.

To further motivate the discussion of ethics, we will present some more in depth discussion on just what ethics is, including some alternate definitions.  We will then present some hypothetical situations in which the right and wrong are not so clearly defined.  Concluding the discussion, we will talk about some existing engineering and related fields codes of ethics, and what help they may be to the practicing engineer.

Key Concepts

  • Ethics are a personal code of behavior.  They represent an ideal we strive toward because we presume that to achieve ethical behavior is appropriate, honorable, and desirable --- both on a personal level and within the groups we belong to. [Dakin96]

    Ethics requires accountability.  For the religiously inclined, accountability is to a God.  For the irreligious, accountability is to society. [Plenert97]

These two definitions give a lot of insight into the complexity of what makes up ethics.  In order to understand ethics, we must accept the responsibility and accountability of our actions.  Further, we must have a right and wrong, a moral code.  Most religions have a moral code of conduct, and most cultures have a minimum code of conduct also.  In the case of society's code of conduct, its laws, it is usually a reflection of the moral values of a super majority of its population.  Moral codes define our rights and wrongs, and are usually cultural specific.  This combination, of determining right and wrong and being responsible for our actions, creates the standards for ethical behavior.

Unfortunately, knowing what is right and wrong may not always be that simple.  Most of the time, knowing the right thing to do is easy.  Engineers are faced with many ethical decisions every day, and most often the morally right answer is simple.  For many engineers, this simply involves being honest and upright.  There are times, however, when knowing what the right thing to do is not so simple, and the responsibility to society may not be enough of a guide.  When these occasions occur, and we demonstrate some hypothetical ones, some based on real life problems, the answers aren't so simple and the resources we discuss may be helpful.

Examples and Resources

Is Lying Wrong? (Or Orderly Dissent)

How wrong is it to lie?  Take the hypothetical situation where you are in charge of the software for the launch of a rocket that will put a satellite into space.  The launch director requires that various people, including you and a meteorologist "sign off" on launching the rocket.  The weather is very overcast, and lightning has been detected in the distance.  The meteorologist gives the "OK" to launch the rocket.  You, however, have serious doubts that the weather is suitable for a launch, but you are not a meteorologist.  The software checks all complete successfully, and the software is in perfect working condition for launch.  Do you make something up that says the software is not ready to delay for another day with better weather?  Do you say yes the software is "OK" and go for launch? [Ward90]

It is important to have process in organizations which encourage objections to bad decisions, but still allow decisions to be made and progress following those decisions.  For example, the US military allows subordinates to ask "Are you sure?" to an order to give the superior officer the opportunity to rethink the decision.  If the officer says yes, the order must be carried out, but the simple questioning of the order is not insubordinance.  This allows the safety of the organization to be increased by allowing dissenting opinions without causing work to come to a standstill.

You say "yes" to the rocket launch.  The range officer, the person responsible to make sure the rocket doesn't deviate too far from its course and leave the rocket launch area, is forced to destruct the rocket as it quickly takes the wrong trajectory.  Later investigation determines that the rocket was indeed hit by lightning. [Ward90]  The satellite and the rocket were both lost costing hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.  In the end, which would have been worse, lying and saving the rocket and satellite, or not lying and having the rocket and satellite be destroyed?

Designing Safety Critical Devices

How much is the cost of saving a life?  Embedded engineers are often called to design systems which are safety critical.  For example, another hypothetical engineer is designing a medical system.  This medical system administers medication to an intravenous drip at a specified amount and for a specified period of time.  You are the engineer on the design of the control system for this medication system.  You have added many safety screens to the user interface in order to make sure that the doctor or nurse has appropriately set the dosage.  You also add a safety feature in which the device stops working after a certain period of time to make sure that it has been calibrated in order to not deliver the incorrect dosage.  Your manager puts a lot of pressure on you to remove the extra safety time-out.  He believes that the company could sell more units if the safety lock out wasn't installed in the unit; the unit would cost less, and the users won't have to confront a possibly annoying time out.  What do you do?  Do you remove the lockout and simply advise in the documentation to calibrate the unit periodically?  What if you know that the unit will drift out of calibration eventually?  What happens if you leave the safety lock out in the device, and it stops working when it is supposed to be delivering medication to a patient?  It is difficult, especially when creating safety critical systems, to know what is the right thing to do.

Non Safety Critical Systems, Are There Any?

There are many systems which engineers design which are not primarily safety critical, but are secondarily safety critical systems.  For example, what if you are the design engineer for a pager system, and you know that the pager system is not 99% reliable, that it occasionally loses pages.  The company you work for makes a sale of the system to a local hospital.  You know that surgeons and doctors will be relying on the pager system in order to get to the correct patients when an emergency happens in order to save their lives.  The system was never designed to be used in order to save lives.  What do you do?  Will you try to stop the sale of the system?  What if it means your job and many millions of dollars to the company that hired you?  It is important for engineers to realize that even systems that aren't envisioned for use in safety critical systems will be used in a safety critical system may be used in a safety critical system.  The design of almost any embedded system may be used in a situation in which the loss of property or lives may result.

Real World Examples and Codes of Ethics

What if you are an engineer placed in the position of signing off on a safety critical system, such as an antilock brake controller, and you have your doubts about whether the system should actually be built due to some possible flaws? [Unger98]  Many engineering societies, including IEEE and ASME have codes of ethics which they require their members to abide.  The ACM also has a code of ethics for its members and the ACM and IEEE have recently produced a code of ethics for software engineers.  All of these various societies make their first priority that an engineer's first responsibility is to the public good.  The codes of ethics then go on to enumerate other moral rules which their members must abide by, including honesty and integrity. [ACM92] [IEEE90]

The codes of ethics from the various professional societies have some interesting similarities and even more interesting differences.  Primarily, various codes of possible interest to the reader all stress the same first principle, obligation to the public good or society.  The IEEE Code of Ethics, (see [IEEE90] for more information,) is relative short and direct.  The IEEE Code of Ethics does not give an explanation, details, or implications of its set of ten rules.  The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, (see [ACM92] for more information,) is a large complex set of rules which offers full and detailed explanations of its rules.  In fact, the ACM rules go into too much explanation, often offering times when it is acceptable to break the rules, including breaking the law.  The ACM rules, however, do stress that if a member decides to violate the rules (or break the law,) that he must accept the responsibility of his actions.  The most lucid code, with practical examples and discourse on the rules is by a joint task force of the ACM and IEEE.  The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice is the clearest with the most detail. [ACM/IEEE99]  The software engineering rules are simple so that they do not get mired down in the particularly gray arrays of ethics while still offering sufficient guidance for engineers with a dilemma.  It is a good practice for all engineers to be familiar with their relevant code of ethics.

These codes of ethics may provide some moral guidance, but they are not the final answer in ethical dilemmas.  Members of the ethics committees may be willing to talk to you anonymously, but they cannot help you professionally or legally.  It is important to know that in general, the professional societies will not defend their members.  The professional members may help prosecute their members, and force their members from their societies, but it is very unlikely that they will come to your defense.  So while you may find some unofficial consoling from your respective professional society, do not expect official help from them.

The professional societies can be a big aide to the practicing engineer though.  Professional societies often create standards and guidelines for designing many components in systems.  By using these standards, it is very difficult to hold an engineer responsible for incorrect standards.  Standards are considered to be the best practice known, and by using these practices, an engineer gains some protection from the society at large without the society's explicit support.

Relationship to other topics

Profits and Business Models and Social and Legal Concerns

It is important to have an ethical organization in order to have ethical engineers.  For example, Ford after having discovered that the ill fated Pinto may cath fire in an accident, decided not to change the design of the car.  Ford had decided, from a business and legal perspective, that the value of a human life, was cheaper than the design change.  Ford later realized that the cost of goodwill and brand image was much more expensive than the cost of a human life for them.  While this example relates how Ford made a single design decision, it is important to understand the relationship between the organization and the engineer.  An engineer in an organization that can make an ethical decision not to change an unsafe design will not support an engineer trying to add cost to a design simply for safety's sake.


Every engineer will be faced with an ethical dilemma sometime during his working career.  Engineers also make ethical decisions every day during the regular course of engineering work.  It is important that engineers strive to make their systems functionally correct and safe.  While no person can solve all ethical dilemmas, it is important to know that there is support and resources available for engineers in need.  Rarely in any engineer's career is there an incident like the Challenger disaster where the explosion of a launch vehicle with people on board occurs, but it is always a possibility.  Because engineers create systems which have a profound effect on society, they are responsible to society to make their very best efforts at safe and ethical design.

Annotated Reference List

  • K. J. Dakin, "Are Developers Morally Challenged?", IEEE Software, vol.13, no. 4, IEEE; New York, July 1996.

  • An interesting discussion about the lack of ethical behavior that is accepted in the software industry, written by a lawyer.
  • G. Plenert, "Are Ethical Considerations Culture Specific in International Technology Transfer?", Portland International Conference on Management of Engineering Technology, IEEE; New York, July 1997.

  • A very brief discussion about some culture issues in ethics.
  • W. W. Ward, "Damned if You Do and Damned if You Don't", IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE; NewYork, September/October 1990.

  • A good hypothetical situation for ethical exploration based on a real rocket crash.
  • S. H. Unger, "Reality check: ethics and air bags", IEEE Ethics web site,, August, 1998.

  • A point case which discusses the an actual case about pressure while building airbags and what the IEEE will do about to help an engineer.
  • ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct,, ACM, September, 1992.

  • The somewhat inconsistent ACM Code of Ethics online at the ACM web site.
  • IEEE Code of Ethics,, IEEE, August, 1990.

  • The IEEE Code of Ethics, along with other IEEE ethics information.
  • Software Engineering Code of Ethics,, ACM and IEEE , March 1999

  • The most consistent and complete code of ethics related to embedded systems; the Software Engineering Code of Ethics on the ACM web site.
  • Codes of Ethics Online,, Illinois Institute of Technology

A good online resource with the codes of ethics of very many professional organizations.

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