Alumni Forum Recap


Bluffton alumnus shares ethical reasoning strategy to revive democracy

As chair of the Madison Collaborative at James Madison University, Dr. William Hawk, a 1972 Bluffton graduate and native of Lima, Ohio, is heading up a major effort to revive democracy on the Harrisonburg, Va., campus and beyond. The project, with the goal of putting ethical reasoning into action, is structured around Eight Key Questions (8KQ) developed at JMU for evaluating the ethical dimensions of a situation before making a decision.

“A lot of people are in favor of teaching critical thinking, but no one has a good idea of what critical thinking actually involves. What our program is committed to is asking questions that challenge your underlying assumptions and intuitions,” said Hawk, who explained the 8KQ concept during a Forum presentation for Bluffton students, faculty and staff. “Our Eight Key Question skillset is designed to do just that.”

Hawk explained that most people believe they are better at ethical reasoning than they actually are. Instead, studies show people typically rely on intuition rather than reasoning when they are in ethical dilemmas and use moral reasoning, not to make a good decision, but instead to justify their impulses.

“There are momentous decisions that make a difference in our lives,” said Hawk. “What we need is more reflection in the process so we can have better, more informed information to make those decisions.”

The 8KQ process links decision science to ethical decision making in order to achieve better outcomes. Hawk compared 8KQ to similar processes that have improved outcomes such as the APGAR scoring protocol for newborns. The APGAR score provides nurses with a quick and simple measurement for determining the physical condition of a newborn and has reduced infant mortality rates.

Similar to APGAR, which stands for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration, the 8KQ uses the acronym FORCLEAR to make the questions easier to remember in an ethical dilemma.

FORCLEAR stands for Fairness, Outcomes, Responsibilities, Character, Liberty, Empathy, Authority and Rights. Each word is linked to a question that should be debated such as: “How can I act equitably and balance all interests?” for fairness.

Hawk, along with a team of faculty and staff at JMU, has been promoting the use of the 8KQ for the past five years. The goal is to integrate the idea across campus so that it becomes so engrained in faculty, staff and students minds that “we can breathe these key questions.”

Hawk explained the team is getting a lot of buy in because the 8KQ questions are non-partisan. Instead, they invoke a wide range of shared values.

“Every culture we could find has a notion of fairness, every culture is worried about outcomes, every culture has notions of responsibility,” said Hawk. “We’re using universal values that are applied differently depending on a person’s background, but that’s okay because the idea is to ask questions in a diverse group so you get different perspectives and improve your own capacity for solving a problem.”

Hawk’s presentation explored similar questions to ones Bluffton students, faculty and staff have been asking this academic year through Bluffton’s Civic Engagement theme of Integrity, Truth, Virtue: Bluffton’s Honor Code in the World. The theme marks the 100th anniversary of Bluffton’s Honor Code. Bluffton will celebrate Civic Engagement Day on April 11 with a daylong exploration of the topic including class presentations, student research and guest speakers.


Dr. William Hawk
There are momentous decisions that make a difference in our lives,” said Hawk. “What we need is more reflection in the process so we can have better, more informed information to make those decisions."