Ethics Bowl: “What I Thought College Was Going to Be”
This past December, Stanford's Ethics Bowl team, sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, won the California regional competition for the second year in a row. That win qualified the team for the national competition in Portland, Oregon. Congratulations to team members Natalie Feldman, Cameron Loughney, Georgios Mikos, Ursula Neuner, JD Pruett, and Allison Yun, as well as to co-coaches Collin Anthony Chen and Sarah Yribarren.
What Is the Ethics Bowl?
The Ethics Bowl is a debate-style competition where teams make ethical arguments about real moral dilemmas encountered in current events. For instance, who’s responsible for capping abandoned oil and gas wells, do minors’ have the right to make their own medical decisions and do we have an ethical obligation to extend legal personhood to nonhuman animals?
But unlike in most debate competitions, “there is no direct clash between the teams where you have to completely destroy your opponent with oppositional commentary. Instead, you can also agree with many of their points, ask for further clarifications, or respond to a part of their argument you thought was interesting,” explains Georgios Mikos. As a result, teams win based on the clarity of their presentations, their ability to answer judges’ specific questions, their use of ethical theory, and for their capacity to consider alternative views.
The Joy of Membership
Cameron Loughney, Stanford’s team captain, attributes the team’s success to our “rigorous practice discussions and attention to detail.” This rigor means that they have rarely been surprised by another team’s arguments or had their minds changed during competitions. Rather, the really mind-blowing discussions “happen in practice when we're all bouncing ideas off of each other,” Ally Yun says. And because Collin Anthony Chen, Associate Director for Undergraduate Outreach and the team’s primary coach, encourages them to embrace disagreement, they are prepared for the possibility that their views will shift. “I was told that we were going to disagree a lot, and not to feel bad if I say something that someone immediately disagrees with,” Ursula Neuner explains. “Collin has set a norm where disagreement isn’t personal,” JD Pruett continues, “you disagree with the premise or logic of a teammate’s argument. Plus, he will tell us when he thinks our reasoning is flawed and we do the same with him.”
Geogios Mikos thinks the team also does well in competitions because of the “huge emphasis on returning members teaching new members like me all the ethical frameworks, argumentation, logic, etc. Everything you need to be a successful team member is taught here.” So even though four of the team’s members participated in some form of debate in high school anyone who’s interested in discussing ethical questions can participate. In fact, the team members’ majors span chemistry, data science and social systems, linguistics, economics and material science, which bolsters their ability to consider varied perspectives.
Despite the huge time commitment and the zero units of credit team members earn for participating, each of the six team members love being on the Ethics Bowl team. Both Yun and Ursula Neuner credit being on the Ethics Bowl team with bolstering their confidence. Yun went from feeling like she didn’t belong at Stanford after attending her very first Structured Liberal Education (SLE) lecture, “given by an awesome but completely intimidating political philosophy professor,” to realizing through the team that “I’m capable of more than I expected.” Neuner now finds that she “considers more sides and questions and comes up with more ideas,” which has changed the way she participates in her classes. Mikos enjoys Ethics Bowl as “a foil to STEM-related activities on campus and an ethical way of considering the decisions being made in industry.” And Loughney has become more skilled at effectively guiding discussions.
Even more broadly, Pruett believes that trying out for the team was “the best decision he’s made in college,” because Ethics Bowl is “what I thought college was going to be.” He and his teammates explain that the disagreement cultivated in the Ethics Bowl allows them to have more deeply nuanced, humorous, analogy-rich, open conversations than those they typically have in classroom discussions. Loughney surmises that classmates who are really passionate about a topic may have a hard time discussing opposing views, or they (him included) are worried about stirring up conflict and having their peers react negatively to what they’re saying. Changing your mind is also rarely modeled in classes, Pruett thinks, so it can “be perceived as unintellectual. But in Ethics Bowl, I change my mind all the time, because of the positions my teammates have presented. And that feels much more like learning.”
While students in philosophy classes can simply ask a variety of questions or propose different considerations during discussions, for the Ethics Bowl, team members must reach conclusions. “Outside of college,” Natalie Feldman contends, “we have to come up with the best solution, so doing that in Ethics Bowl practice is very satisfying.” Of course, it’s also really challenging. Pruett explains that “we had a case about litigation financing, and figuring out what’s ethical when you're trying to balance competing values of justice in the criminal justice system with practical concerns reveals just how hard it is to solve actual problems.” Fortunately, Ethics Bowl helps members both discern complexity and provides tools to address it.
“So if you’re someone who’s passionate about social issues that are facing the world and are interested in increasing your engagement, knowledge and relationships,” Feldman urges you to join the Ethics Bowl team. Tryouts will be held again next fall, but in the meantime, Loughney hopes you’ll check out the Practical Ethics Club and/or get on the mailing list, while Yun invites you to reach out to Ethics Bowl team members with questions.
Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a PhD in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.