Faculty Share ‘Ethical’ Reading, Watch Lists for Summer

Seminar in Ethical Values Uses Books, Films To Spark Student Dialogue
Book and movie covers
June 8, 2020

From Alfred Hitchcock’s mysteries to Toni Morrison’s novels, University of Virginia School of Law instructors use literature and films to discuss ethical and moral responsibilities in the school’s Seminar in Ethical Values courses. Sampling the classes’ syllabi also offers a thought-provoking summer reading or watch list.

In a typical year, the Law School offers more than a dozen one-credit seminars, which often meet at the professors’ homes and resemble a book or film club. They are often taught in teams, and sometimes feature UVA faculty and students outside of the Law School.

Seminar instructors provided a sampling of material assigned to their students this past academic year.

Julia Mahoney
John S. Battle Professor of Law; Class of 1963 Research Professor in Honor of Graham C. Lilly and Peter W. Low

Marcia Childress
Associate Professor of Medical Education (Medical Humanities); Director, Program in Humanities, University of Virginia

Mahoney and Childress’ class enrolls a mix of six medical students and six law students, and is co-sponsored by UVA’s Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life.

“Our seminar was inspired by our belief that being a physician or an attorney has a strong moral component and that medical and legal education should include opportunities for students to reflect together on the personal and professional challenges and choices they may face in practice,” the pair wrote.     

First performed in Athens in 409 B.C. and one of Sophocles’ last plays, “Philoctetes” “resonates strongly with today’s students. Its themes of professional duty, illness as exile, and how best to recover and go forward are both timeless and timely.”

William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” about the use and abuse of power and disorderly generational succession “also raises questions about old age and, possibly, dementia undermining a leader’s fitness. Interestingly, Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a plague year (1606), when London theatres were closed because of infection and social unrest.”

Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” a stream-of-consciousness novel, “follows the lives and thoughts of several characters on a single day in London, June 1923, and explores how memory underpins one’s identity over time. The doubled stories of a society hostess and a shell-shocked veteran attest to the societal and personal transformations wrought by World War I.”

Paul Kalanathi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” is a memoir by a young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer just as he was finishing his training. “Completed by the author's widow, the book inspires students to reflect on what makes a good life.” 

Thomas Nachbar
Professor of Law; Senior Fellow, Center for National Security Law

Nachbar shows a number of films to his Seminar in Ethical Values class, “but most of them are pretty grim.” He focuses on “the ethics of subgroups,” particularly war and crime. “Not very happy stuff.”

“But I think I can recommend unreservedly the films ‘Casablanca’ and ‘Starship Troopers.’ Both of them raise a host of issues that are interesting to lawyers, and specifically (in ‘Starship Troopers’) questions of what it means for one to have a commitment to society rather than to oneself.” 

Nachbar says the book “Starship Troopers,” by Robert Heinlein, is even more interesting in this regard.

“Although some people are uncomfortable with its nationalistic tone, the movie does a pretty good job and is essentially a light-hearted romp, at least as war movies go.”

Daniel Ortiz
Michael J. and Jane R. Horvitz Distinguished Professor of Law; Director, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic

David Gies
Commonwealth Professor of Spanish, University of Virginia

Ortiz and Gies focus on noir films in the Hitchcock vein, including the following titles.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” “murder, tennis and the perfect crime all collide in Hitchcock’s classic tale of deception, arrogance and betrayal.”

With “Psycho” also on the list, the pair also explore hidden insights on the infamous shower scene.

“Volver,” “one of Pedro Almodóvar’s best films,” is also on their list. The film involves “three generations of Spanish women and a dead (but maybe not?) mother.”

J.H. “Rip” Verkerke
T. Munford Boyd Professor of Law; Director, Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies

Verkerke’s reading list hits on a variety of ethical concerns.

“We began the year with ‘Sula’ in honor of Toni Morrison, who died shortly before the semester began at the age of 88,” Verkerke said. “The novel brilliantly evokes a small-town community, The Bottom, and two best friends, Nel and Sula, who become antagonists.”

Edwin Abbott’s “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” a “tiny novel, explores the metaphysical implications of simple geometrical principles through the device of a remarkably compelling parable.”

He also includes the classic “Animal Farm”: “George Orwell’s allegorical novel entertainingly skewers the deep hypocrisy of the Soviet regime, though the narrative is even more interesting if we recall that he was a lifelong socialist who equally abhorred the Tory vision of capitalism.”

Framed as a child’s story, Natalie Babbitt’s “Tuck Everlasting” “raises deep questions — though it provides few answers — about what gives life value and how we should think about immortality.”

Verkerke ended the seminar with Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” a dark novella about a dying judge who struggles with his mortality. “Our discussion explored some of the many paths to finding meaning in personal and professional life.”

Lois Shepherd
Peter A. Wallenborn, Jr. and Dolly F. Wallenborn Professor of Biomedical Ethics; Professor of Public Health Sciences; Professor of Law, University of Virginia

Bradford Worrall
Professor of Neurology, University of Virginia

Shepherd and Worrall’s class also includes both law and medical students. Their assignments included books that follow the theme “integrity and identity.”

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s “My Sister, the Serial Killer” is a short comedic thriller about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a habit of killing her boyfriends.

In “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir,” author Thi Bui documents her family’s escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the obstacles they faced after immigrating to the United States.

Combining science, history and anthropology, Adam Rutherford’s “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes” explores mankind’s genetic past.

Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” follows the life of an African American man, Macon “Milkman” Dead III.

The film “Private Life” is about a couple coping with infertility and struggling to keep their marriage going.


Find more suggestions for reading — including books by faculty and alumni — on UVA Law’s GoodReads page.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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