A “Wicked” Proposal

Friends, how have we already turned a corner into November? Fall, with all the trappings of Homecoming, Halloweekend, Voter Registration, and so much more, has flown by just as the Birds zooming across campus. From where I sit, my students are beginning to crane their necks to see ahead to final exams, presentations, and the respite of fall semester’s close.

As we look ahead, I’d like to bring your attention to the work of the first year Honors College students. Back in August, I shuffled onto one of several packed buses and caravanned with 200-some-odd, bright and shiny students to James Madison’s house. On that day, myself, Honors College faculty, and these fresh-faced students opened a loop. We began to ask what it means to be Madisonian in 2018 and what responsibility that might rest on the shoulders of this new Honors cohort.

Within the School of Communication Studies, we have spent the semester considering this question through the lens of persistent public problems. A symphony in three movements, our students have asked:

  1. What do I care about?
  2. So what am I going to do to about it?
  3. What can we do to help here?

First, we have asked our students to identify a particularlywickedpublic problem. Our definition of wicked in this case is not the stuff of Oz, but rather, problems that are hard to define, and even harder to identify solutions for. It took a little digging, but our students began the work of identifying diverse and complex wicked problems. Sexual Assault on College Campuses, Literacy, The Digital Divide in Education, Mental Health, and Binge Drinking are just a few of the persistent problems our students worked to articulate and flesh out.

Next, after sifting through the muck to find their wicked problem, our students worked with the Ethical Reasoning Educators to start the wobbly process of articulating solutions using the language of the 8 Key Questions. From this perspective, our students were able to start identifying the benefits and drawbacks of potential solutions. This month, in a forum style presentation, groups are sharing out potential solutions and deliberating with their peers to determine which solution best addresses their persistent public problem.

Finally, in an effort to close the loop we opened in August and bring these wicked public problems home, our students will develop Civic Action Plans to ask what we can do HERE to address this public problem. With the help of the Center for Civic Engagement, student groups will dream up how to make these incremental solutions come to fruition in specific and tangible ways. The gestation period for this project has been long, but we have operated under the hope that you, our students, will feel capable of addressing these looming, impossible problems floating just above you.

With that said, we want to share the fruits of this fall’s harvest with ALL of you! On behalf of the Honors College SCOM Faculty, I want to formally invite you to our December Symposium to see what wicked public problems JMU’s newest batch of Honors College students want to see SOLVED. We so hope you join us for compelling presentations, critical questions, and complimentary snacks.

Join us on Sunday, December 2nd between 1-4 PM in Harrison Hall. Schedules will be posted on the first floor of Harrison, just beyond the faculty lounge.

In Ethics + Empowerment,

Sarah Taylor Mayhak, MA

Instructor; The School of Communication Studies

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Tips for writing an ethical reasoning scenario

Writing an ethical reasoning scenario can feel like an overwhelming task, especially if you’ve never done it before. Once you begin, however, you will likely find that it is rewarding for the author(s) and for those who allow the scenario to prompt their own moral reasoning.

To help you get started, we offer a few tips to keep in mind while constructing an ethical reasoning scenario:

  1. Scenarios Evoke a Sense of Agency and Urgency

An ethical reasoning scenario places participants in a situation in which a decision urgently has to be made. Participants are agents immersed in the action rather than spectators standing outside of the action reflecting on decisions that have already been made. The agency-stance activates participants on the inside and puts them in the position of having to think for themselves about what should be done. This difference highlights the distinction between a scenario and a case. Think of what it is like to learn a new language; it is relatively easier to recognize what someone is saying in a new language than it is to produce conversational sentences in the new language partly because we experience our agency and the urgency of the situation. Conversations in which we participate actively have an aliveness about them. Ethical reasoning scenarios gain their vibrancy from a similar sense of aliveness. When we construct scenarios, we create a real-world, tension-filled situation that needs be resolved in the present.


  1. Identify a dilemma with multiple stakeholders, perspectives, and solutions

As you begin to construct a scenario, it is helpful to have identified a relevant moral dilemma in mind. Inspiration for dilemmas can come from multiple sources. It can be a personal experience, yours or a friend’s, or perhaps a story found in the news. Good dilemmas usually involve more than two persons, groups, or stakeholders in the scenario. Each person, group, or stakeholder offers a perspective from which the scenario is experienced, giving the scenario complexity and texture. Provide participants with enough information from each stakeholder so that it can reasonably support seeing things from that perspective. At the end of the scenario, you can offer participants the choice among a number of decisions or you can leave it open for them to come up with their own decisions to encourage creativity.


  1. Avoid scenarios with pre-established opinions

The most effective scenarios are ones that participants can enter into without a lot of pre-established opinions and bias. The desired outcome of a scenario is to promote the ethical reasoning habit of asking the 8 Key Questions. When participants have already established beliefs about a particular topic, they are unlikely to approach a situation with curiosity before making a decision. Ultimately, ethical reasoning helps us to become the kind of persons who are actively questioning all of our pre-established beliefs and bias, but the goals of a scenario—and especially the “It’s Complicated” scenario—are more modest. A scenario designed for first-year college students or people new to ethical reasoning should prompt someone to think about a situation in a way that they have never thought before. Examples of highly contentious topics where students have settled opinions include, but are not limited to, gun control, abortion, sexual assault, government spending, and alcohol consumption.


  1. Write a complicated scenario, not a confusing or obvious one.

Scenarios that invite participants in are ones in which there is sufficient information to be able to identify the dilemma and the perspectives of stakeholders, but not so much information that the scenario becomes either too confusing or too obvious. When facing difficult decisions in real life, we often do not have all the information we would like—that is what gives life a sense of risk. Information that is very technical or relies on a lot of background knowledge can also be confusing and require a lot of explanation. Information that rules out the perspective of a stakeholder can simplify the possible decisions so much that the scenario becomes too obvious. You want your participants to be able to understand just enough of what is going on to prompt them meaningfully to ask the 8KQ questions—to engage their ethical reasoning—because the scenario is complicated.


5. Send your scenario to Ethical Reasoning in Action for It’s Complicated! 

Ethical Reasoning in Action is looking for submissions for the new It’s Complicated scenario. The winner of the scenario submission will receive a $500 honorarium. After reviewing the submission guidelines and developing your scenario, share your idea using this form by December 3, 2018, 5:00pm EST. If you have any questions, email ethicalreasoning@jmu.edu.

Have fun writing!

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Reflection on Global Ethics Day

Last Wednesday, October 17th, Ethical Reasoning in Action helped JMU celebrate Global Ethics Day for the first time. Global Ethics Day is an event developed by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs where participants around the world hold fruitful discussions on ethics and encourages people to critically evaluate many questionable practices. Each university, business, or organization that participates in the event can tailor the discussions as they see fit, so long as it pertains to ethics in some way. We chose to focus our conversation on the question “What does an ethical campus look like?” Students, faculty, and staff were all prompted to think of various traits or characteristics that would be found on an ethical campus. Guided by the Character question from the 8 Key Questions, we essentially asked participants to think about what the ideal university campus values or what sort of qualities would be found at the ideal university.

We started off our day by using our social media accounts to highlight many groups around JMU who use the 8 Key Questions in their work. The Carnegie Council encouraged all participants to use #globalethicsday2018 to show the rest of the world what was going on throughout the day. We used this hashtag to not only highlight what activities we were putting on, but also to bring global attention to our efforts and mission. Among the groups identified through our posts were: the Ethical Reasoning Educators, Orientation, the Health Policy Summit, MYMOM, the Dux Leadership Center, JMU School of Nursing, JMU Ethics Bowl team, JMU IBECC team, and Kara Kavanagh from the College of Education. Thankfully, the groups we identified are only the tip of the iceberg. Ethical reasoning is prevalent throughout our campus already and many groups engage in discussions of this kind or share the same values embedded in the 8 Key Questions that weren’t explicitly mentioned on our pages. The social media campaign was successful at not only informing the JMU community about the ubiquity of ethical reasoning on campus, but it was also successful in showing other universities and organizations about our specific mission. The 8 Key Questions are an ethical reasoning framework unlike anything else we’ve come across. Global Ethics Day served as a great way to publicize this unique strategy. Our social media efforts were certainly successful in doing that by showing our framework to groups at universities and businesses around the country. Not only did we extend our message out to the public, but we also learned about a variety of groups around the country who practice somewhat similar activities as we do here at JMU. For instance, we learned about Georgetown University’s Ethics Lab, which is a facility at the university that works to develop creative projects for students to think about innovative solutions to ethical problems. Overall, the social media efforts during the day served as a learning tool for ourselves and the other participants of Global Ethics Day.

The first in person event we planned for the day was a video project that took place on the Commons. Aided by the Ethical Reasoning Educators and other Engagement Fellows, students were asked to respond to the question “What does an ethical campus look like?” We worked with JMU Marketing to compile a video of the responses where the students would should their answer on a white board. Students lined the Commons to take part in this video and stayed around to speak with one another about the topic. Often the answers revolved around common themes such as diversity, honesty, friendliness, and inclusivity. The 8 Key Questions served as inspiration for many who were struggling to put their thoughts into words. Unsurprisingly, many voiced some of the values embedded in the questions without directly referencing the questions at all. By and large, JMU students care about ethics. They believe that JMU is a fairly ethical campus, but many see ways that it can improve. Fostering conversations such as this one and prompting students to question their own set of values will inevitably lead to better moral reasoning around campus.

Finally, we ended the day with a discussion led by Dr. Tim Miller, Vice President of Student Affairs. Tim Miller spoke on his own experience with ethics in positions he held here at JMU and in the workforce many years ago. He began by asking students who helped shape their own moral compass and then shared with everyone an enlightening story about his father. While Dr. Miller’s mother was still pregnant with him, his father worked as an accountant for a large firm in Atlanta. Mr. Miller, Tim Miller’s father, noticed unethical practices occurring at his firm and spoke out against them. Mr. Miller ended up losing his job because of it and was forced to quickly find work in order to support his growing family. Dr. Miller also shared an experience that he had when he was working for JMU immediately after graduating from the university. He told about how he had to report an incident of hazing within the fraternity that he used to be a member of, which eventually led to serious actions being taken against that fraternity. Dr. Miller lost many friends because of his actions, but noted how he does not regret reporting their behavior. After speaking about his own personal experiences with ethics, Dr. Miller began to discuss how those experiences have shaped his values and then went on to discuss the values of JMU. When he finished his speech, Dr. Miller and I prompted the participants to think about what sort of values a university ought to have. Everyone broke into groups of about 5 to 10 people and spoke amongst themselves to determine which three values a university should embody. Though the discussion was not tailored around the 8 Key Questions as much as we would have hoped, the conversations still proved useful for those in attendance. Many voiced that a university should, among many things, uphold integrity, encourage accountability among students, and develop an equal playing field for all on campus. Dr. Miller’s discussion was a fascinating type of facilitation that was a bit unorthodox. Rather than focusing primarily on a case study, this session served almost as a brainstorming exercise where participants probed one another on what values we ought to take seriously and how we should go about actualizing them. For us here at Ethical Reasoning in Action, this discussion may serve as a stepping stone forward in how we think about developing ethical reasoning workshops. At bottom, ethical reasoning centers on one’s ability to ask an array of questions and uncover information that serves to better inform one’s decision. We recognize the pedagogical benefits that come from a case study, but if there are other ways to generate thoughtful questions then we would love to explore those avenues.

Having publicized our strategy and mission, learned about other similar programs around the country, and fostered meaningful discussions on ethics, Global Ethics Day was a successful endeavor for Ethical Reasoning in Action and the broader JMU community. Though Global Ethics Day only comes once a year, the conversations we had and questions we asked should continue to be regularly brought up. I hope that Global Ethics Day serves as an annual reminder to all that there is still much more ground to cover for each of us in the development of our own moral decision making. But I also hope that it continues to serve as a reminder that ethical reasoning is a skill that can be developed over time by exposing one’s self to challenging moral questions. By encouraging debates on ethical dilemmas and prompting people to ask better questions, we can individually develop our own moral reasoning skills through this collective effort.  Global Ethics Day serves as one of many ways that we can continue to nurture the character of JMU and develop enlightened citizens.

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Roots and Shoots of Fairness

The “F” in the 8KQ mnemonic “FOR CLEAR” stands for fairness. Experimental psychologists working with babies and children tell us that fairness is one of the first sensitivities to show up in our experience and expectations of the world. Already by the time we are fifteen months old, we show a preference for fair behavior and distribution. Later in life when we can talk and count, we show a preference for giving ourselves more and others less—cookies, erasers, and whatever else that needs parceling—but by the time we reach middle school, we have developed a socially nuanced internal “working model” of fairness. This working model allows us to take turns, line up in queues, and participate in complex games that have unwritten rules such as pausing the action to give an opponent time to reenter the game—fair play. Sometimes we even distribute resources generously.

The fact that a sense of fairness shows up so early in human experience raises the question whether other species show a sensitivity to fairness as well. In a recent article, researchers share their findings that a set of crows, who had been given the task of distinguishing between matched and unmatched pair of pictures based on the color of circles, were also keeping track of the number of elements displayed in the pictures. The crows had not previously been trained on a numerical task, so this was very surprising. Recordings of neuronal activity in the pallium of the bird’s brains, specifically the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL) which is considered to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex, revealed that activity in specific subpopulations of neurons in the NCL increased with the representation of specific numbers of circles. This suggests that crows may be born with the ability to keep track of quantity (number) and quality (color) in the world.

Although birds and mammals are separated by 300 million years of evolutionary history, we apparently share the ability of keeping track of the world in that way—kind and number—without which a sense of fairness could not get off the ground. Fifteen years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal published a famous article detailing an “unequal pay” study showing that we are not the only species with expectations about the division of resources and the outcome of cooperation. Their study involved brown capuchin monkeys in which one monkey is given a cucumber for performing a task whereas another monkey is given a grape for performing the same task—thus the unequal pay. The first monkey notices the inequality and subsequently rejects being paid cucumbers, even though cucumber is a perfectly desirable food under normal circumstances. The experiment has been replicated many times with apes, dogs, and rats—and recently also with crows. The roots of fairness, it seems, go back very far indeed.

The discovery that we are not alone in having a sense of fairness gives us confidence in saying that humans are born with that sensitivity. Remembering that our sense of fairness develops over time, however, a pressing question for us today might be how we can bring our internal “working model” of fairness up for review since we do not always register what others experience as unfair. We can begin to do this work, for example, by appreciating the distinction between equality (everyone receives the same) and equity (everyone receives what is needed). Here the 8KQ can help us to navigate the way forward—the new shoots, as it were—in our shared quest for fairness.

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Join the MC Educators!

Want a chance to connect with other students and learn more about the Eight Key Questions? Apply to become a Madison Collaborative Educator: http://bit.ly/WmBzi9.

A selfie of the Madison Collaborative Educators

The MCEs at their spring 2017 retreat

Learn more at http://www.jmu.edu/mc.

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