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Undergraduates Hope to Enter Ethics Bowl

Ethics in Society
Jun 8 2017
Sara Button

A young couple marries, and soon after, the wife is diagnosed with an illness that might impact her ability to have children. Before she begins her treatments, she and her husband decide to undergo in vitro fertilization and ultimately decide to freeze the viable embryos, as well as some eggs and sperm. The marriage eventually ends in divorce a few years later, and the woman leaves her eggs in storage. When she dies in a car accident soon after, however, her parents--the beneficiaries of her will--lament the fact that they would never have the opportunity to meet a grandchild. The probate lawyer suggests they use the stored eggs for surrogacy to raise the children themselves. Should they? Should eggs be considered inheritable property (or property at all)? Would their daughter have wanted a child this way? Since they can never know for sure, are they doing right by her memory?

This is the sort of scenario collegiate Ethics Bowl teams from across the country face--along with no-kill animal shelter policies, drone warfare, artificial intelligence, and the refugee crisis (the above is summarized from one of the case studies teams had to prepare last year). This is the sort of scenario Stanford undergraduates Eliza Wells, 20, and Connor Stubbs, also 20, have been examining with fellow Cardinal undergrads as they prepare to enter the 2018 Ethics Bowl. If they are successful, it will be Stanford’s first entry into the competition.

The Start of SPEC

Forming an Ethics Bowl team to represent Stanford is the brainchild of Eliza Wells, a rising junior double majoring in philosophy and religious studies. She had started with debate in high school, but her coach turned her onto Ethics Bowl her sophomore year. Teams comprised of three to five students examine morally relevant issues presented in cases written and disseminated by organizers a few months before the competition. Students collaborate to present an ethical framework through which one might approach the scenarios, and earn points for presentation and thoughtfulness of their argument. For Wells, it stuck. “To discuss issues that matter to us instead of just being right all the time was so refreshing for me,” she says. “I gained a great deal of respect for my peers when I saw what sorts of things mattered to them.”

When she got to Stanford, Wells wanted to share what was for her a formative experience. So she started gauging interest and this past winter quarter began actively recruiting, asking friends to spread the word and reaching out to listservs. That’s how she caught the attention of Stubbs, a rising junior in public policy. He had never heard of Ethics Bowl before, but liked the idea of thinking deeply about such issues. At Stanford, “I’m being trained to be more powerful in all these different ways--to have an impact--but there’s very little on how we use this,” he says. “It feels like a really important part of my education that I’m not seeing in other places.” Stubbs is one of a handful of students who comprise the Stanford Practical Ethics Club (SPEC), which has filed for club status.

Becoming Bowl-Ready

Although official cases aren’t released for this year’s competition until the fall, SPEC has been gathering and practicing. For Ethics Bowl, that entails looking at situations and identifying relevant issues, possible philosophical approaches, and clarity of argument. Week to week they revisit ideas.

“Hopefully we’ll come to a greater sense of consensus,” Stubbs says.

“And maybe we won’t,” Wells interjects. “And that’s okay.”

Most important is that they gel as a team--they’re not allowed to bring notes in, so it’s important for everyone to know their own role.=

Moving Forward

For many of SPEC’s members, Ethics Bowl is at the heart of what they’re up to, but Stubbs and Wells hope the club goes beyond competition. “Our big goal is to have a conversation and provide a space where people can come in and grapple with ethics in a personal, practical sense,” Wells says. Stubbs hopes to encourage students to think about the ethical dilemmas they confront on a regular basis, like why they’re majoring in a certain subject or how they could deal with a roommate disagreement. “We want people to care about ethics even if they don’t care about the Ethics Bowl.”

If you’re an undergraduate student interested in joining the Stanford Practical Ethics Club or have any questions about Ethics Bowl, contact Connor Stubbs at cstubbs@alumni.stanford.edu or Eliza Wells at eliza22@stanford.edu.


SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.