How Can You Decide among Competing Responsibilities?

This lesson is taken from the Responsibility section of Foundations of Democracy: Authority, Privacy, Responsibility, and Justice.

Purpose of Lesson

This lesson introduces you to several additional intellectual tools useful in making decisions about responsibility. When you have completed the lesson, you should be able to use these ideas in evaluating, taking, and defending positions on issues of responsibility.

Terms to Know

  • urgency
  • resources
  • compromise

Considerations Useful in Deciding Among Competing Responsibilities

At this point in your study of responsibility, you have learned to

  • identify responsibilities and their sources

  • identify rewards for fulfilling and penalties for not fulfilling responsibilities

  • identify the consequences, including both benefits and costs, of fulfilling responsibilities

Each of these intellectual tools is helpful in deciding whether or not to fulfill a particular responsibility. There are some other things to consider, however, that can help you to make decisions about responsibilities. The six ideas which follow will help you when you have to make a difficult decision about carrying out responsibilities and protecting other values you hold. In the critical thinking exercise, you will use these intellectual tools to make a decision in an imaginary situation.

  1. Urgency: When choosing among competing responsibilities, it is important to decide which responsibility is more urgent, that is, which one should be fulfilled first. Example: Lennie thought to himself, "I know there are two things I'm supposed to do tonight--read that story for my English class tomorrow and ...what was the other one?" Suddenly Lennie saw his dog, Max. "Oh," thought Lennie, "I promised my parents to give Max a flea bath."

    • Which responsibility do you think is more urgent? Why?

    • What situations can you remember in which you have considered urgency in making a decision about responsibility?

  2. Relative Importance: How important is each responsibility compared to the others?
    Example: The next day, Lennie was riding his bike home from school. As he turned the corner near Mrs. Ferndale's house, he saw two-year-old Walter Ferndale right in his way. The only way to avoid hitting him was to steer the bicycle directly into Mrs. Ferndale's flower garden.

    Which responsibility is more important?

    • Which responsibility is more important: to avoid hitting Walter or to avoid running over the flowers? Why?

    • What situations can you remember in which you have considered the relative importance of responsibilities in making a decision?

  3. Time Required: The time required to fulfill a responsibility often is important to consider in determining which responsibility to fulfill.
    Example: After Lennie went to Joe's Pizza Parlor, where he had seen a "Help Wanted" sign, he spoke to the manager. The manager said, "We need somebody to work behind the counter from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. every weekday evening." "I just don't have that much time to work and do all the other things I have to do," said Lennie. "Couldn't I just work from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.? You could get someone else to work the rest of the time." "Sorry," the manager replied.

    • What time was required to fulfill the responsibility of the job? Why was this a problem for Lennie?

    • What situations can you remember in which you have considered the time required to fulfill a responsibility in making a decision?

  4. Resources: The fulfillment of some responsibilities may require certain resources such as money, equipment, physical strength, or a particular skill. Whether or not you possess the necessary resources can be important in deciding whether to take on a responsibility.
    Example: "Of course," the manager of Joe's Pizza Parlor continued, "We do need someone to deliver pizzas in the evenings. Do you have a car?" "I'm not even old enough to have a license," said Lennie.

    • What resource did Lennie lack? How did this affect his decisions about responsibility?

    • What situations can you remember in which you have considered the resources required to fulfill a responsibility in making a decision?

  5. Competing Values and Interests: Consideration of other things you might be interested in doing, or of other values important to you, can be significant when deciding whether to fulfill a responsibility.
    Example: Lennie got a job at Leonardo's, another pizza parlor. He worked as a waiter, taking orders from the customers, collecting their money, and cleaning the tables. One day, Lennie's friend, Tom, came into Leonardo's. He ordered a pepperoni pizza, but when it was ready he said to Lennie, "I don't have any money. But I'm really hungry. You're my best friend, Lennie. Please let me have the pizza. I'll bring the money in tomorrow."

    • What value or interest was in conflict with Lennie's work responsibilities? What should he do? Why?

    • What situations can you remember in which you have considered competing values and interests in making a decision about responsibility?

  6. Alternative Solutions or Compromises: Sometimes we do not need to decide between competing responsibilities, values, and interests, because we can think of alternative ways to solve a problem.
    Example: Lennie told Tom, "Look, I can't let you take the pizza without paying for it. But since you're my friend, I'll loan you the money until tomorrow. I'll put my own money into the cash register today, so that the receipts will balance the orders." "Thanks, Lennie. You're a real friend," said Tom.

    • How did Lennie's suggestion solve the problem? What other solutions can you think of?

    • What situations can you remember in which you have considered alternative solutions or compromises in making a decision about responsibility?

Use these six ideas to help you make decisions about responsibility:

  • urgency
  • relative importance
  • time required
  • resources available
  • competing values and interests
  • alternative solutions or compromises>

In many cases, only two or three of these ideas may be of any importance. But you should consider all six before you decide that any do not apply in a particular situation. That way you can be sure you haven't accidentally overlooked anything.

Critical Thinking Exercise
Deciding Among Competing Responsibilities

Read the story and then work in small groups to complete the intellectual tool chart that follows this lesson. Be prepared to share your ideas with the rest of the class.

Short of Funds

"Why do these things happen to me?" Stacey Clayton asked herself as she counted out her savings  -  $100 exactly. Just this morning she found out that her favorite band, Marley's Ghost, was going to perform in concert at the sports arena. Tickets would go on sale tomorrow for $30. The show was expected to sell out in a matter of hours.
The trouble was, last week Stacey promised to loan $100 to her best friend, Nikki, so that she could get her car fixed. Now Nikki needed the money to pay the repair bill and get her car back.

Stacey sat down to make a chart like the one following this lesson to help her reach a decision. After she had answered all the questions on the chart, she asked herself these questions:

  • What should I do?
  • Why?

What do you think?

  1. Review the information you have written on the chart. What do you think Stacey should do? Why?

  2. Your decision will show that you consider certain values or responsibilities to be more important that others. What are those values and responsibilities?

  3. Why might another person, using the same information you have considered, arrive at a different conclusion?

Using the Lesson

  1. Read a newspaper or magazine and identify a situation in which a person has faced competing responsibilities, values, and interests. Report your findings to the class.

  2. Work with a small group of classmates to perform a skit in which the characters face competing responsibilities, values, and interests, and have limited resources. After presenting the problem ask the audience how they would deal with the situation.

Note: Sometimes questions 7, 9, 10 or 11 may not be applicable
in the situation you are trying to resolve. If this is the case, write "not applicable" or "NA" in the appropriate box.
2. What are their sources?    
3. What are the rewards for fulfilling them?    
4. What are the penalties for not fulfilling them?    
5. What are the benefits of fulfilling them?    
6. What are the costs of fulfilling them?    
7. How urgent are they?    
8. What is their relative importance?    
9. What is the time required to fulfill them?    
10. Do I have the resources needed?    
11. What other values or interests are involved?    
12. What alternative solutions are possible?    

©Center for Civic Education. All rights reserved.
Permission is granted to freely use this information for nonprofit educational purposes only. Copyright must be acknowledged on all copies. This text was originally prepared under Grant #85-JS-CX-0009 from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

ISBN 0-89818-150-X


CCE LogoThis site is brought to you by the Center for Civic Education. The Center's mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. The Center has reached more than 30 million students and their teachers since 1965. Learn more.

Center for Civic Education

5115 Douglas Fir Road, Suite J
Calabasas, CA 91302

  Phone: (818) 591-9321


  Media Inquiries:


© Center for Civic Education