It's Complicated

Left to Right: Christian Early, Lori Pyle, ethical reasoning in action associate chair, Bill Hawk, Scott Ingram. All of whom encourage students to submit ideas.

The three-year lifespan of the Contagion scenario — a mock moral dilemma in which students envisioned themselves as a prevention team with vaccines to stop the outbreak of a deadly virus — is over. The ethical reasoning in action department is looking for a new scenario for its “It’s Complicated” program, in which students collaborate and brainstorm ideas about an ethical problem. A contest is underway to determine which submission is best suited to continue its goal of challenging students to collaborate on difficult, moral dilemmas.

Bill Hawk, chair of the ethical reasoning department, is responsible for the program. He wrote the first scenario six years ago that was modeled after Hurricane Sandy. It was used for three years before the introduction of Contagion.

Contagion made students a part of a prevention team responsible for maintaining the exposure of Meningitis B. Vaccines were available to help, but there were only enough for two out of five groups to receive treatment.

The vision statement of the ethical reasoning in action program is to “transform JMU into a community recognized for producing contemplative, engaged citizens who apply ethical reasoning to confront the challenges of the world.”

Although it’s a fictitious scenario, the goal is for freshmen to brainstorm solutions together to an immediate problem during 1787 August Orientation.

“We are looking for a scenario that students would find interesting,” Hawk said. “That would generate multiple moral considerations or ethical considerations. We are trying to come up with one that is complicated, where people might have differences of opinion.”

Scenarios have a short time frame so that the program can remain relevant and engaging to the students. The department focuses on both developing the scenario and preparing their facilitators, who oversee the students as they reach a solution.

“One thing is we have to have 160 trained volunteer faculty and staff, and that isn’t easy — they all have to go to workshops in the summer to prepare them for that,” Hawk said. “In some respects, making them go through a new topic every year, we’d probably lose support from faculty and staff.”

Multiple students submitted similar ideas for the “It’s Complicated” scenario in 2016 that resulted in Contagion, and prizes were given to all of them. The author(s) of the selected case will receive a $500 honorarium.

The ethical reasoning department, along with the engagement fellow, will determine the new scenario. Engagement fellows serve JMU to develop their understanding of a specific field and give professional experience to new graduates.

Scott Ingram is the ethical reasoning engagement fellow and conducts the department’s ethical reasoning workshops. He also coaches the ethics bowl team, and went through “It’s Complicated” as a freshman four years ago.

“I’m helping author the scenario whenever we get ideas for it, and leading the publicity for a call for the case,” Ingram said. “I helped send out a mass email, and talked to a lot of faculty and staff on campus getting people to know that we are looking for a new case.”

The department wants to build on the success of Contagion by allowing student discussion to be at the forefront. It’ll also work with the authors of the submitted case to tailor it toward incoming freshmen.

“Contagion was good because it was interesting enough where people wanted to stay engaged, but it was also distanced enough to where people could really ask questions and take a position,” Ingram said.

The department makes sure that the scenarios stray away from politically charged topics. Students would come in with in their minds made up, and they want students to think of new ideas through group deliberation.

Christian Early is a visiting associate professor in the ethical reasoning department who sees the benefit of the “It’s Complicated” program. He wants students to see the reality that everyday life is moral.

“Learning to become curious and ask questions helps us to identify some of the blind spots that we have,” Early said. “What I like about the eight key questions is that we all come from different stories, different histories, different backgrounds, different perspectives. The eight key questions don’t assume or presume that you come from a particular kind of point of view, it’s getting you to simply ask questions.”

The deadline for submissions is Dec. 3. So far, two have been submitted, and the winner(s) will work with ethical reasoning in action to encourage application of all eight key questions and create urgency for a decision.

“Ethical reasoning exists outside of ‘It’s Complicated’ too,” Ingram said. “We make decisions every single day that involve the same considerations that you do in ‘It’s Complicated.’ These cases are meant to be really big and grand, but ethical reasoning is something that is very personal as well. You’re building a skill that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your life.”

Contact Mitchell Sasser at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.