Earlier this month, over the weekend of March 3, Stanford sent its very first Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl team to the national tournament in Chicago. It was a whirlwind experience after months of preparation, and a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved.
The Ethics Bowl is everything debate should be. Teams of three to eight students are given fifteen cases dealing with practical ethics, and, in the two months before the competition, they work together to create a proposal about what should be done in each case. This year, Stanford’s team faced cases about when it is appropriate to engage in nuclear weapons development, how individuals should participate in social media, whether we should work on technology to revive the brain-dead (given that they are an important source of organ donations), and who should prepare for natural disasters, among others. These cases revolve around real-world, real-time problems, and there’s a sense that the conclusions we come to ought to inform our actions outside of the competition as well: how can I argue that people ought to cultivate virtuous social-media habits while I continue to scroll mindlessly through Facebook?
Stanford’s team this year consisted of seven undergraduate students of various years: Connor Stubbs ‘19, Eliza Wells ‘19, Amanda Orbuch ‘20, Noah Howard ‘21, Nitish Vaidyanathan ‘21, Ravichandra Tadigadapa ‘21, and Alexander Lam ‘21. With support from the Center for Ethics in Society, we qualified for the national tournament after regionals in the fall. To prepare for the competition, we conducted hours-long discussions that pushed both our intuitive and theoretical stances. Often we came from vastly different places when it came to problems of government obligation or the value of athletics. Our different stances gave our conversations a real intensity, as personal value sets were at stake in our collective decisions.
Philosophy was the way to resolve our problems: our work was to see which practical commitments came from which theories, which ideas conflicted with which deeply held intuitions, and, ultimately, which stances could be articulated coherently from just principles. Luckily, we had the invaluable help of Lily Lamboy, a PhD candidate who worked with us on theory and strategy. With her help, we invariably managed to find compromises that were acceptable to everyone, with the understanding that these issues deserved more discussion. Approaching everything with an open mind and an honest desire to find the best answers helped us to probe and sometimes even overturn our own convictions. One member of our team, a libertarian, ended up defending universal basic income in our final round.
Finally, after weeks of discussion, we boarded an early morning flight to Chicago and made our way to the Ethics Bowl. Teams came from all over the country (snowstorms on the East Coast canceled some flights, so one team drove all the way from Boston). There were Computer-Science majors and Accounting majors, and judges were both Philosophy professors and Business Ethicists. Each round has two teams and three judges, and each team presents on one of the cases and responds to the other. At the end of each case, the judges get to ask questions to the presenting team, making quick thinking imperative. Judges score teams on different components of the presentation and add up the scores at the end, so the team with the most points wins the judge, and the team with the most judges wins the round. Winning isn’t about being right, since teams don’t have to disagree with each other. Instead, it’s about being thoughtful and understanding multiple points of view.
Stanford’s team competed in four rounds, winning two and losing two. We argued that colleges should create an athletics major, that governments should provide universal basic income and restructure the education system to respond to job losses from automation, that corporations ought to adopt a virtue ethics model to think about good business, and that inflammatory political art contributes to healthy democracies. These are questions we all continue to consider—perhaps even more rigorously! -- even now that the event has finished.
For everyone on the team, Ethics Bowl was one of the most meaningful and fun experiences we have had at Stanford. The opportunity to engage with other students on difficult questions, to take the time to think things through, and to discover theoretical grounds for long-held intuitions has all proved fruitful. Having such earnest conversations with peers from across the country was exhilarating. We are grateful to the McCoy Family Center for its support, and we are excited to continue working with the Center to continue our ethical explorations.
ELIZA WELLS is a junior from Utah studying Philosophy and Religious Studies and writing an honors thesis with Ethics in Society.