Nation and World

Ask the right questions

by Jan Gillis ('07)

Photo of JMU students discussing ethics

Interrogating our intuitions leads to better decisions

By William J. Hawk, chair, Madison Collaborative

From Winter 2016 Madison.

Ethics are taught all around us. We learn morals from parents, peers, religious authorities, mentors, and in college courses. In traditional ethics education courses, moral concepts are unpacked, ethical theories introduced and case studies analyzed. Colleges and universities also offer programs in ethics and many are home to prominent centers for ethical research and scholarship. So, it is reasonable to ask: What distinguishes JMU’s ethics program, The Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action? The short answer is: We begin our instruction with a different question.

It is fairly easy to identify poor ethical decisions. Bad moral choices are all over our television, computer and cellphone screens. More difficult to recognize is that our own decision-making skills could be improved. As is true with critical thinking and effective writing, we overestimate our moral reasoning abilities. The reality is, we make ethical mistakes; some of them serious.

‘Cross-examining our moral first-impressions results in better-informed actions.'

JMU’s program on ethical reasoning begins with the question: How can I (or we) make better ethical decisions? Answering the personal improvement question leads us beyond determining the moral merit of another’s actions to researching how we decide to act. More specifically, JMU’s program incorporates teaching ethical considerations that alter our choices.

Briefly summarized, emerging decision scientists find that our actions typically follow quick intuitive judgements. Moral intuitions are products of a person’s moral training and background which oftentimes dictate moral actions. To improve ethical decision-making, it becomes critical to interrupt the intuition-action link. One way to do so is to introduce additional ethical considerations when making an important decision. These additions effectively slow cognition into a process of deliberative reflection. JMU’s Eight Key Questions ethical reasoning framework prompts us to ask theory-based ethical considerations in order to interrogate our intuitions. Cross-examining our moral first-impressions results in better-informed actions. As a bonus, practicing reflective interrogation actually improves critical thinking. It is JMU’s emphasis on decision-affecting, action-guiding, reflective interrogation that distinguishes our program from the rest.

In this issue of Madison, JMU’s community and worldly engagement is exemplified in multiple and diverse ways. In each of these instances, whether it be the risky business of rebuilding nations or Dukes Stepping Up; the gracious professionalism of hospitality (the Hart School), Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, or firefighting; or the transformative learning at the Washington Center, the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue, or INU, important decisions will be better informed if we all stop to ask the right questions — Eight Key Questions.

About the Author: As chair of the Madison Collaborative, Bill Hawk works directly with faculty, staff, students and administrators to build the conceptual and practical framework for ethical reasoning at JMU and beyond. Learn more at

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Published: Friday, December 11, 2015

Last Updated: Thursday, May 17, 2018

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