Ethics smack down! UNL team in national philosophy competition


February 27th, 2014

Omaha, NE – What kind of person does battle using theories of ethical philosophy as weapons?

The team’s coach calls Kate Miller “a ninja.”

Walker Edwards compared his competitive style to Thor in The Avengers comics. The reference was sarcastic, but the attitude was not.

UNL Ethics Team practices before national competition. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

UNL Ethics Team practices before national competition. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The team takes ethics very seriously.

Another 32 teams do as well.  All are headed to Jacksonville, Fla. to take part in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl organized byThe Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.  Their opponents are formidable.  Several schools in the running are past national champions.

Placing philosophical discussions in a competitive setting seems an unlikely mix.  In tournaments, the organizers supply teams with fictionalized versions of real-life ethical dilemmas.  Topics are drawn from government policy, the application of technology, and conflicts between religious beliefs and community practices.

When two teams meet for a competitive round, there is a structure similar to traditional collegiate debate, but using the philosophical theories of ethics as the foundation for their proposals and counter-proposals. A team earns points for presenting a philosophically solid and clearly-presented case, while effectively responding to different points of view presented by the opposing team.

On a recent Monday night the UNL team gathered on the tenth floor of Oldfather Hall. Support for the activity is coming from the university’s Kutak Center for the Teaching and Study of Applied Ethics. In a cramped and cluttered conference room, five team members sit at a battered table across from a pretend opposing team made up of graduate students.  At a second table a pair of stand-in judges offer suggestions on how to strengthen arguments and sharpen delivery.

For this practice, team coach Clare LaFrance, an instructor in the UNL Philosophy Department, gave them ten minutes to make their case, followed by a response from their grad student opponents.  The team will conclude with a quickly prepared rebuttal.

“Ideally it’s a thoughtful conversation between the two teams that they really are taking each other seriously and really weighing the dilemmas,” LaFrance said before practice began. She likes the idea that competitors can present their cases with “sincerity and appreciation for the work that the others put in.  That’s an ideal scenario.”

LaFrance selected three of the ethical case studies developed by the Ethics Bowl organizers to test the team this night. (Read the ethics problems used in competition here.) In one case, competitors weigh the conflict in the state of Washington, where state law requires hospitals getting Medicare funds to provide reproductive health services and accept end-of-life choices for terminally ill patients.  That conflicts with the moral beliefs governing hospitals run by Roman Catholics.  In another, they must untangle ethical issues of online publishing. The third, also inspired by real life events, asks competitors to consider the ethical implications of a French law forbidding head coverings that conceal one’s identity, which outraged the Muslim community.

“The goal of Ethics Bowl is to hash out all the important aspects of the moral conundrums of our time,” explained team member Walker Edwards of Ogallala, Neb.  He’s a philosophy major and likely law school student.  “It’s sort of like debate, but much nicer.”

Notes taken during a practice round. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Notes taken during a practice round. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

A lot of the topics presented during Ethics Bowl are not too much different from issues that get people all worked up during dinnertime conversation or a bar room debate.  Edwards says it’s just the pompous sounding philosophical concepts used by academics that separate some of their discussions from what’s talked about outside of their competitions.

“The difference is in personal debates you want to win.  And definitely we want to win in Ethics bowl, but (during private conversations) sometimes you forget about the other person’s views and forget about them,” Edwards said. “In Ethics Bowl we do care about the other person’s views. We want to be cognizant. We want to answer their questions, instead of just winning.”

In each case teams narrow their presentation to a specific aspect of the ethical dilemma. For weeks they have poured over background materials and made choices on which theories of the philosophy of ethics to use as a foundation for their arguments.

The research is demanding and challenging and, for Kate Miller of Elkhorn, Neb. it has even altered the senior year philosophy student’s view of the world.  “Once I start to dig for justifications and looking for facts” to justify an assumption she had about a topic “it will suddenly flip and I come up with something completely different.”  Putting some of her most basic believes to the test. “That is the cool thing about Ethics Bowl.”

When the team reached the third test case, a discussion of France’s law banning head coverings, it provided a good example of how teams organize arguments as a group, and apply the strengths of individual members.

Oliver Tonkin, ethics team member, listens during a practice session. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Oliver Tonkin, ethics team member, listens during a practice session. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Oliver Tonkin, a global studies and political science major, starts each round with the formality of a prosecuting attorney in court, outlining how the presentation will be organized.

Kyle Kettler sets out building the philosophical foundation for the case, explaining the team’s choice of T.M. Scanlon’sTheory of Contractualism as the appropriate way to examine the pros and cons of the issue. It is the section of the round most confusing to anyone who’s not a philosophy major.

Next teams must explain how the complex and heady theories they select apply to the real world case studies. Two team members, Sarah O’Neill and Miller, split that responsibility in this round.  “Kate is pretty much a ninja,” Coach LaFrance said.  “She can stay calm cool and collected in incredibly difficult competition.”

There is much scribbling and whispering among team members throughout the round as they work out the specifics of a case matching their chosen approach. Edwards contributed bullet points, but did not present in this round.  Making practical use of complex abstract theory is the part he most enjoys.

“What I try and pride myself at is bringing those concerns into the real world. And that is something philosophy is really bad at sometimes, is bringing the real world into the theoretical realm.  I guess that’s my power,”  Edwards said. (I had asked him what super power he brought to the team, like The X-Men.  He corrected me and said he the team was more like The Avengers.  He laughingly compared himself to Thor.)

Once the opposing team, in this case made up of grad students, makes its counter claims defending the public benefits of improved public safety, it’s time for Team UNL to respond. Here’s where Miller the Ninja hits her stride.  “I really like to rebuttal,” she said. “Clare says I make really aggressive faces when I think someone is saying something stupid.  I’m the attack dog.”

Walker Edwards listens as ethics team member Kyle Kettler presents (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Walker Edwards listens as ethics team member Kyle Kettler presents (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Miller responds by pointing out there is a greater loss of dignity and liberty to individuals, such as those with their differing cultural and religious beliefs.  After an opposing team raises their own alternate views, there’s an opportunity for rebuttal.  Team leader Tonkin wraps everything up at the end.

Coach LaFrance has also seen things go very badly.  Sometimes even seasoned ethics team members unexpectedly freeze up.

“My biggest fear is contradiction,” LaFrance said. “If they’ve laid out a case and someone (on the team) chimes in and completely contradicts what has been said so far, that is the nightmare scenario because you can’t un-say it.”

There were two and a half more weeks left before nationals when the team broke up practice.  Everyone agreed there was lots of work left in polishing both substance and style.  There was also a confidence in a group that knows they are underdogs, but feels there is a real shot at top honors in Florida.

When the rest of the team had drifted away, Walker Edwards said he finds the entire process exhilarating.

“It’s fun for us to agree to disagree.  It’s fun for us to be wrong and to learn that maybe there is another way of looking at the world.”

He paused and added with a smile:  “But it’s also very fun to be right.”

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