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Ethics Gets Competitive

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Modern life presents endless ethical tangles. Is it acceptable for police to use deception during interrogations? When should stem cell use be permissible? Is it ethical to genetically engineer a bunny to glow in the dark? 

Granted, that last question doesn’t come up very often. But all of these ethical conundrums were debated at this year’s National Ethics Bowl, an intercollegiate competition in ethical analysis for teams of undergraduates.

The 2005 Ethics Bowl team poses with the  championship trophy.

The 2005 Ethics Bowl team poses with the  championship trophy. Media credit: David Alexander

This year’s ethics champions? The University of Washington team. It was the team’s second win at the national competition in five years.

The team, coached by Department of Philosophy graduate students David Alexander and Ali Hasan, spent one month intensely preparing for the competition. 

"We received 15 possible cases involving a host of problems in applied ethics, 12 of which would be included in the competition,” says Alexander. “We met every Sunday for four hours to discuss the cases, focusing on about three cases each meeting. We mined them to identify as many morally relevant details as possible, then divvied them up so there would be an expert on each case.”

Sometimes the assignments were obvious, since the students on the team—Cliff Borjeson, Sahar Manavi, Ron Belgau, Dane McCartney, Scott Brauer, and alternate Jeannette Tran—each had areas of expertise. “I like to take the bioethics cases, probably because of my science background,” says Manavi, a double major in philosophy and biology. 

Ethics team coaches Ali Hasan (left) and David Alexander.

Ethics team coaches Ali Hasan (left) and David Alexander. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

Between meetings, the “expert” for each case would do background research, returning the following Sunday with a presentation. “The students were not just developing a position on the case,” says Alexander. “They were also developing the ability to anticipate possible positions, weighing those to decide which would be most important. That was the bulk of the work.”

Adds Borjeson, “It does take a long time to get your argument down. First it’s very rough. As you tweak it, it gets tighter and tighter.”

By the time the students headed to San Antonio, Texas for the competition, they felt well prepared. Even lost luggage and a six-hour flight delay—which led 
to a midnight arrival in Texas, with the competition starting early the next 
morning—did not deter them. 

Well, not much. “When we arrived at the hotel for the competition that morning,” recalls Alexander, “the two coaches were immediately struck with a feeling that might justly be described as terror: there in the lobby were 35 of the most impressive Ethics Bowl teams from around the country, polishing their cases and looking equally polished. In contrast, due to half the team’s flight being delayed, a loss of luggage, and a serious lack of sleep, the UW team was denied the advantages of both last-minute preparation as well as intimidating attire.”

Manavi also noticed the disparity in attire but chalked it up to Northwest culture. “A lot of the competitors were in suits and we were in much more casual clothes—west coast casual,” she says, adding with a shrug, “Living here, you forget that other places have dress codes.”

None of that mattered once the competition began.

Each round in the Ethics Bowl has the same format: teams pair off for two cases, with each team serving as presenter for one case. A moderator indicates the case to be discussed and poses a question to the presenting team. After conferring for up to one minute, the team has ten minutes to state its position. 

The UW team listens to its opponent’s arguments.

The UW team listens to its opponent’s arguments. Media credit: David Alexander

“The students are not allowed to have any notes in front of them,” says Alexander. “It’s all from memory. But many of the questions are general enough that the students could anticipate them.”

After the presentation, the other team has five minutes to respond, either poking holes in the presenters’ argument or simply pressing them on difficult or neglected questions. The presenting team then has five minutes for its own rebuttal, after which it must respond to questions posed by a panel of three judges.

“Our team worked really well together,” says Manavi. “We covered each other. When the judges asked their questions, we’d let the person whose case it was talk most, then let others jump in at the end to cover anything that might have been missed.”

The team went undefeated during its three preliminary rounds, and proceeded to move onto the quarter finals, the semi-finals, and then the finals, which were held in a massive ballroom.

“It was this huge double-level auditorium with balcony seating, and the whole thing was filled,” recalls Manavi. “It was pretty nerve-wracking. I couldn’t look at the audience. It made me too nervous.”

Borjeson, who presented one of the final cases, had the opposite reaction. “It made it a lot more fun to look out and see everybody listening to you,” he says. 

In the audience were the team’s coaches, who were trying to maintain their cool—not always successfully. “I was a wreck,” admits Alexander. “There the students were, in this huge space, on stage with microphones. It was a big deal. I felt like a soccer dad. But the students evolved so much over the time of preparation to having really sophisticated positions. To watch that made me really proud.” 

UW Ethics Team members (from left) Jeannette Tran, Ron Belgau, Cliff Borjeson, Scott Brauer, and Sahar Manavi phone home with news of their championship win.

UW Ethics Team members (from left) Jeannette Tran, Ron Belgau, Cliff Borjeson, Scott Brauer, and Sahar Manavi phone home with news of their championship win. Media credit: David Alexander

After a very long day of competition, the team aced the final and received the first-place trophy. They were thrilled—in a low-key, philosopher sort of way.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” says Manavi. “But it was past ten by the time we got back to our hotel to change, and most of the restaurants were closing, so we didn’t do much partying.”

Adds Borjeson, “It took a while to sink in. Plus we didn’t want to gloat.” 

But there was one fan that Borjeson made sure to contact right away. “After we took pictures,” says Borjeson, “I called my mom.”