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

Have fun writing!

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