Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl brings hard topics and ‘collegial discussions’ to Portland

By OPB staff (OPB)
Feb. 28, 2023 2 p.m.

One competitor says ethics work has made them a better listener.

Students from Tufts University participate in the 2018 Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl held at Santa Clara University. Portland hosts the event this week from March 2-5.

Students from Tufts University participate in the 2018 Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl held at Santa Clara University. Portland hosts the event this week from March 2-5.

APPE Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl


This coming weekend, 36 college and university teams from around the country will gather in Portland to compete in the APPE Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.

Over the course of two days, judges will score matches between opposing teams based on how they respond to thorny issues that require ethical reasoning and decision-making. The competition, which has never been held in Portland before, is part of the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

OPB “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller recently talked to John Garcia, a professor of philosophy at Harper College in Illinois and chair of the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Council, and Eleanor Jeffers, a competitor and junior at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington.

Here are highlights from that conversation. You can listen to the entire discussion by using the audio player at the top of this story.

Dave Miller: Can you explain the basic mechanics of an ethics bowl?

John Garcia: The easiest way for people to begin to understand it is that it looks at first a little bit like a debate, but it’s different in some significant ways. In contrast to debate, rather than teams taking opposite sides of an issue, each team presents on a case that they’re assigned. For instance, there’s a case this year about whether we’re spending too much time and energy on saving the pandas as opposed to other endangered species. And then, they present an answer to a moderator’s question about that. Instead of the other team offering a rebuttal, they give a commentary. So they might say they even agree with the team’s position but say, “Well, we’d like to hear you say more about this or could you explain more about that?” And at the end of that back and forth, judges have an opportunity to ask questions of that presenting team to try to push the conversation to a deeper level.

Miller: And what does it mean to call this an ethics bowl? How does ethics factor into the way that you and your teammates are supposed to be making your points?

Eleanor Jeffers: The way that our team approaches it is typically by using some philosophical grounding for our ethical backgrounds. And so we’re not just interested in what we think is right or even how we might agree or disagree as a team, but in finding a grounding principle for these issues. I think that’s really valuable — to be able to articulate not only your position and what you think is the best solution to these really difficult moral issues but a really grounded and well-thought-through reasoning behind that.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the cases in this competition? John mentioned one, the question of resources going to saving one particular charismatic furry species, pandas, as opposed to others. My understanding is that there are a number of cases that you and your teammates, and all the other teams, have to be ready for?

Jeffers: Two of the ones that I’m most interested in are a case on a tattooed portrait of Miles Davis where the original photographer of the portrait was not consulted or asked for permission for his piece of artwork to be tattooed on somebody. And so there’s a question there about the morality of tattooing and the morality of derivative art.

Then there’s also a case about the use of AI in the court system and whether or not artificial intelligence could replace human judges for determining the outcomes of different criminal cases. I’ll be interested to see how both of those go. And I certainly have my own opinions on how those might be run.

Miller: For the first one, it seems like, among other things, that is about intellectual property law or copyright law. I don’t know that there’s a cut-and-dry issue because I imagine there might be different legal arguments both ways. What do you see as the ethical component that’s maybe separate from a dry legal question?

Jeffers: One thing that our team really underscores is that it’s ethics bowl and not legal bowl. And so we want to actually analyze the laws and see what ethical grounding even these laws have and whether or not they’re just and fair.

What our team has really been focusing on is the fact that because this is a previously existing work of art that was tattooed, it seems as though some of the original artists, this photographer, his rights have been damaged in some way by not being asked whether his work could be used as a derivative piece of art. He wasn’t credited in the making of the tattoo; it was posted by a pretty famous tattoo artist to social media and his name was not mentioned anywhere. Our team has been really curious to see how this question about his rights, his own artwork, will play out.

Miller: This is one of the cases that you’re most excited about, maybe that you’ve done more prep work for. Is it just luck of the draw if the judges choose that as one of the cases that you can actually make your presentations for?


Jeffers: It’s absolutely luck of the draw. Another thing that complicates it is that we’re not given the question that the judges will ask in advance, and so we sort of have to brainstorm what do we think would be a question that somebody would ask on this case? There’s always the possibility that they’ll throw a question out of left field, so to speak. And then we may or may not be able to formulate a case in that two-minute prep time.

Miller: John Garcia, what are the hallmarks of a good case? What makes a subject ripe for this kind of exercise?

Garcia: What makes for a good case speaks to the hallmarks of the value of the bowl actually, because we’re not an advocacy organization. What we’re really trying to do is push students to think very carefully about both sides of moral issues. It’s tougher than you might think to come up with cases that are framed in a way where you could see reasonable people disagreeing. Sometimes the moderator questions will be aimed to try to get students to wrestle with that question in a way that might take a case that seems tilted in one direction and make it seem more something that reasonable people could disagree about.

Miller: Can you give us an example of that? Maybe the way to sharpen this is, too, if you could give us an example of some kind of contentious issue that isn’t quite right for this venue?

Garcia: The thing that comes to my mind the quickest is the issue of contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. So it wouldn’t be a very good ethics bowl case to just sort of say, “Look at this obvious outrage, What do you think of this?” It’s not about pointing out things that everybody would think are good or everybody would think are bad; it’s about trying to find a way instead to really foster a sense of, I always want to say the debate, but it’s more collegial discussion is what we’re trying to foster among the students.

Miller: “A collegial discussion” is not the way I would describe the norm in terms of the kinds of conversations we see on, say, cable news, or the kinds of back-and-forth we see in comment threads or on social media. How different are the versions of debates or conversations that you’re trying to have than the usual way that people yell at each other in the rest of society?

Jeffers: It’s funny that you say that because if you sat in on one of our early practices trying to wrestle with these cases, you might hear some of that not-so-polite rhetoric when we’re disagreeing pretty extremely over a case. But I think what I respect so much about ethics bowl is that there’s this real emphasis on politeness and being cordial to the other team.

We’re not supposed to see them as opponents; we’re supposed to see them as our conversation partners and working together with us to really try and decipher these issues. It’s been invaluable, and it certainly made me a more empathetic arguer, I guess you would say, in my day-to-day life.

Miller: John Garcia, I guess I’d like to ask you a version of that same question. If you can put this in the context of where we are societally, where does the ethics bowl fit into the the way these hot-button issues are often talked about?

Garcia: I think it serves a really vital role. Sometimes we actually talk about this as a group, about whether we’re still serving the good that we intend to serve, because there are increasing numbers of people out there that say, “This is not the time to deliberate these issues. This is the time to fight as hard as you can for certain causes.” And of course that’s true.

But I think there’s room for both sets of virtues. It’s become increasingly rare but also therefore all the more valuable to see students like Eleanor really working on just being more ethically aware, being more ethically sensitive — even beyond that, being capable of seeing people with whom you disagree as conversation partners instead of opponents or, even worse, enemies. It’s something we believe in very deeply.

Miller: Has this competition changed as public debates have in some ways gotten more rancorous?

Garcia: I don’t think so. I think one thing that we pay attention to, as a group of organizers, is the fact that there are a lot of cases that can cut very close to competitors’ identities. If you have cases about abortion or sexual assault or immigration, these are issues that might be relevant to students in a very deep and personal way. We’ve been increasingly attuned to be being sensitive to student discomfort with some of these issues while also realizing that they’re still issues that need to be discussed and thought about together

Miller: Eleanor, you mentioned earlier that working on this, being a member of this team and going through this process has changed the way you think about or approach issues in your non-competitive life. What do you mean?

Jeffers: I’m pretty predisposed to be argumentative, and I hold pretty strong political and moral beliefs in my personal time. Prior to ethics bowl, I would enter an argument or a debate about these tough societal issues, kind of more on the defensive, thinking about how best to argue my point rather than listening to the other side. The great value of ethics bowl is learning how to listen to another side and not only think about what they might have changed in their argument or what they might have done better, but also to commend them for the great deal of thought and reasoning that they’ve put into preparing these extraordinary cases.

Miller: That reminds me actually of one of the cases, if I’m not mistaken, that’s happening this year, which is the tension between sportsmanship and gamesmanship. I can actually see versions of that tension in this competition itself because in the end, you do also want to win. So I imagine there’s a limit to how much you want to commend the people that you’re going against?

Jeffers: Yeah, we’ve talked about that a lot as a team, interestingly. That case has been pretty illuminating for how ethics bowl functions as a competition. And ultimately, I think what we’ve come to an agreement as a team is that of course we want to win. Every team wants to win ultimately. But I think if we can really invest ourselves in these cases with moral integrity and with a genuine care for the topic, then we’ll walk away satisfied no matter what happens.

Miller: Do you have to personally believe the arguments you’re making or can you be in a sense a passionate arguer for hire?

Jeffers: I think you could do either. Our coaches really encourage us to go with our own conscience. And sometimes that means compromising and coming to a solution that might not fit exactly with what we believe, but that we can all agree on. One of these cases I’m thinking of is we had a case in the fall for the regional competition about whether or not it’s ethical for businesses in states where abortion is outlawed to fund their employees who are traveling to receive an out of state abortion. We really differed on our opinions there. But we eventually came to this agreement that it’s ethical as long as it’s an act of civil disobedience on the part of the business. That allows for all of us to respect that decision. It allows for some autonomy on the part of the business. That was a really fascinating case for us to work through and come to this compromise.