Philosophy Department

Ethics Bowl

Union College fielded its first Ethics Bowl team in 2003. In its inaugural outing Union’s team won two out of three matches in the preliminary round and advanced to the quarterfinals of the competition, where Union was eliminated only by the U.S. Naval Academy, the eventual winner of the event. Numerous participants, judges, and event organizers remarked that Union’s success in its first outing was remarkable, and Union’s performance was noted in a professional newsletter. Union improved upon its record in the 2004 Ethics Bowl. At this event, Union was one of only six teams out of 40 to go undefeated in its preliminary round matches, and the team again advanced to the quarterfinal round of the competition. Since then Union College has a continued to do remarkably well. On more than one occasion Union College as risen to second place in the fall regional competition, securing them a spot in the National Competition during the winter. The Ethics Bowl provides students an innovative and effective learning experience and gives the College a significant forum for advancing its reputation as a center for outstanding undergraduate academics and research.

Ethics Bowl is a team competition that combines the excitement and fun of a competitive debate with an innovative approach to education in practical and professional ethics. In an Ethics Bowl match, each team is asked to analyze in detail a complex and controversial ethical issue arising out of a case study. The team is questioned by members of an opposing team and a panel of judges, who are drawn from academia, the professions, and public life. The team is evaluated on the basis of clarity and intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant factors, avoidance of ethical irrelevance, and deliberative thoughtfulness.

The case studies that serve as the basis for the Ethics Bowl are distributed to all teams roughly two months prior to the competition, and the most valuable educational experience for the students occurs in the preparation for the competition. Over the years, students have debated issues concerning the rights of surrogate mothers to their embryos, whether or not eating certain animals, like horses, is morally different from eating animals like cows and chickens. They have argued about whether or not pharmaceutical companies should be allowed to hold patents for life-saving medicines. They considered whether or not scientists should try to bring back species that have long been extinct.

The Union College team typically meets two or three times a week, every week, during the weeks prior to the competition. The average meeting is two hours long. During these meetings the students engage in productive moral dialogue aimed at establishing moral consensus on the case at hand. The faculty advisor plays a directive role, helping students to clarify and critically evaluate their positions.

The Ethics Bowl program is firmly anchored in and advances the curriculum of the Philosophy Department. The Ethics Bowl program supplements a number of other philosophy courses, including: “Moral Problems: A Case Study Approach to Ethics”, “Ethics: An Introduction”; “Buddhist Ethics”; and “Biomedical Ethics”. Although students are not required to enroll in these courses in order to participate in the Ethics Bowl, these courses operate as feeders for team members. The Philosophy Department strives to offer an educationally beneficial balance between theoretical and practical ethics, and the Ethics Bowl program is central to that mission.

Students in these philosophy classes are encouraged to participate in the Ethics Bowl program by way of announcements in class, and students from the broader campus community are invited to participate by way of general advertisements in campus mailings and publications. All interested students will be encouraged to participate in research and the preparation of case studies. The five most qualified students are selected to travel to the national Ethics Bowl competition.

The educational value of the Ethics Bowl program is considerable. Participation in the program develops students’ intellectual abilities, deepens their ethical understanding, and reinforces their sense of ethical commitment. The process of developing a team position on complex and controversial cases hones the students’ abilities to discern, analyze, and evaluate. It requires each student to develop and evaluate his or her own viewpoint and thoughtfully consider the viewpoints of others. The team members must engage in productive moral dialogue and ultimately achieve moral consensus, if they are to be successful in the Ethics Bowl competition.

The Ethics Bowl is held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. After competing in the Ethics Bowl, students have the opportunity to meet undergraduates, professionals, and scholars for discussion of issues in practical and professional ethics by attending conference sessions and social events. The APPE has organized a number of meeting sessions specifically for undergraduates. Attending the APPE meeting allows students to continue discussing moral issues with their peers from other institutions, and also provides students with a view of what academics do outside of the classroom.

The Ethics Bowl program represents an innovative and effective approach to practical and professional ethics education, and offers Union College national and regional platforms on which to showcase its students.