The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl is an organized national event in which collegiate teams competitively debate ethical dilemmas. In the words of Robert F. Ladenson, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and founder of the Ethics Bowl, it is “an activity that combines a valuable and distinctive educational experience for students with the excitement and fun of a competitive team game.” Here, young Platos can let their moral nerd flags fly and test out the analytical skills they’ve been honing in philosophy classes, over heated debates with their parents and everywhere in between against others who thrive in intellectually energetic settings.
The topics of these ethically-charged discussions are widespread; to quote the online database of Indiana University, home of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics that hosts the Ethics Bowl, they can include questions of “the classroom (e.g. cheating or plagiarism), personal relationships (e.g. dating or friendship), professional ethics (e.g. engineering, law, medicine), or social and political ethics (e.g. free speech, gun control, etc).” Before each Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, the Ethics Board releases 15 cases of ethical dilemmas spanning these issues, all of which competing teams much analyze in the weeks leading to the competition. Once there, they are given a single case with a specific question to debate in front of a panel of judges.
Lecturer in Philosophy and Chair of Public Health Julie Pedroni created and coached a team at Indiana University. When she started teaching here at the College, she introduced Williams to the Ethics Bowl in the form of a Winter Study course in 2004. From there, the club blossomed into a full-fledged team. The Williams team was very influential in the intercollegiate system, as the Ethics Bowl established a regional competition necessary to qualify for nationals. “We started the Northeast Regional Ethics Bowl system here,” Pedroni said, and the Williams team ended up hosting two competitions. The team proudly represented the ethical consciousness of Williams, and has had great success in the competitions it has held.“With one or two exceptions, we have made it to nationals every year that we’ve gone to a regional Ethics Bowl, and we’ve won at least a couple of the regional Ethics Bowls,” Pedroni said, “[At nationals], we’ve made it to the quarterfinal round.”
After a few years, the Williams Ethics Bowl lost its generous funding from the Dean’s Office, and Pedroni didn’t have the time necessary to organize and lead the team. As a student-run organization funded by College Council, it lost some of its momentum, as is a common danger for projects set loose and no longer tied to their former leadership or without their backbone of funding. Two years ago, however, Pedroni put out a call to bring back the club, and interested students like John Chae ’16 answered and began to build a new Williams Ethics Bowl team. This time around, the club is in the hands of ethically minded students like Chae, although Pedroni is still an active advising professor.
Now as a primarily student-run organization, the Williams Ethics Bowl is undergoing some reconstruction. After a less than positive experience at the Intercollegiate Competition they attended two years ago, members have decided to redefine the club’s structure and aim. They always thought the most valuable parts of their competitive setup were the preparatory discussions analyzing the 15 released ethical cases in an intimate environment before the competition. Therefore, as Chae said the Ethics Bowl’s new model will concentrate on “[talking] about different cases [and] talking about different philosophical standpoints to analyze each case” rather than training for a competitive atmosphere.
For her part, Pedroni appreciates the value of the intercollegiate competitions that the club was founded upon, but also understands and supports a new, discussion-based approach. “I hope that they will again decide to go to the competition, but the truth is the real fun of Ethics Bowl is the preparation,” she said, “It really is not about the competition – it’s about thinking through really interesting cases and debating with other people.”
In the future, the club will likely hold bi-weekly meetings where members can interpret the Ethics Board cases together and foster diverse ethical thinking in the Williams community. The club currently has between 10 and 15 members, and they encourage anyone who’s interested to come to a meeting. Chae advocated this, saying, “I’m a senior so I’ll be graduating … But I’m hoping that more people will be interested in doing this activity next year.” Ideally speaking, most students at the College have at least adequate moral compasses and are interested in living ethically sound lives, and many are perfect candidates for joining the Ethics Bowl and exploring moral dilemmas in a fun and intellectual way.