Ethics Bowl provides setting for students to consider implications of philosophy

Members of the Tufts Ethics Bowl Team are pictured. (Courtesy Jeremy Caldwell)

Ethics Bowl is a class housed within the Department of Philosophy that is available to students during the fall semester. The course is unique in that it includes an ethics competition between students. According to Susan Russinoff, a senior lecturer in the department which has hosted the Ethics Bowl class since it started six years ago, teams of students study and prepare arguments based on a set of 15 cases written by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. During competition, judges ask specific questions about the cases, and in teams of five, students explain their viewpoints on the case and critique the other team’s argument.

“The class culminates in an ethics bowl on the Tufts campus, which is timed to precede the regional competition, which is typically in late November or early December … Then we send the team that wins our bowl to the regional competition, and in the last four years, we’ve won or come in second, which gives us a spot in the national competition,” Russinoff said.

According to Tufts alum and Ethics Bowl coach Abigail Feldman, two Tufts teams did well enough at the regional competition to participate in the national competition, but only one team from each school is allowed to attend nationals. This year, seniors Reece Wallace, Ria Mazumdar, Benjamin Hewitt, Christopher Wingard and Noah Weinflash attended the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl competition in Baltimore, Md..

“[The] teams [at nationals] have thought about these questions so hard that you don’t have to deal with surface level [thinking] … You get to the really deep philosophical aspects quickly,” Feldman said.

“One of the really interesting things about nationals is the cultural and regional differences you encounter … At regionals, you have a lot of New England schools, [and] they’re uniformly left-leaning … so it’s a challenge for us and other teams in this area to go to nationals because when you’re going up against teams from all over the country and being judged by people from all over the country, not everyone comes from the same ideological background,” Wallace said.

Second-year graduate student and Ethics Bowl coach Dana Horowitz agreed that an important part of Ethics Bowl is considering the people to which the team is presenting.

“An important skill Ethics Bowl teaches you is that you have to know your audience, and when you’re presenting something, [you need to] be aware of what they know and how you can best present information and have it come across in a way that’s clear, concise and meets your goal,” Horowitz said.

The cases that Ethics Bowl participants debate include a variety of topics ranging from politics to culture to environmental issues. According to Feldman, the majority of the cases are extremely complex and require students to develop a thoughtful, nuanced view of the case that takes into account multiple arguments.

“That’s how all of these cases operate. They tend to pit fundamental values [against] each other and force you to choose in that situation which [value] is more important,” Feldman said.

According to sophomore Sarah Wiener, one of the most interesting cases she’s argued had to do with the question of whether or not being transracial is analogous to being transgender. The case used Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president who claimed to be African-American despite being of only European descent, as its reference point.

“I had a really gut instinct answer of ‘Well of course they’re not analogous, there’s so much history tied to race’ … But the more we started debating the philosophy and the logic of it, it became harder to articulate that … [and] it really forced me to substantiate my beliefs more than a lot of other cases and other philosophical arguments have,” Wiener said.

Another case centered on a law which was recently passed in Belgium that requires animals to be stunned prior to their slaughter, which would violate halal and kosher practices.

“It’s really interesting [to weigh] religious freedom against animal rights,” Feldman said.

Sophomore William Youman highlighted another important aspect of the case regarding the reasoning behind the legislation.

“Those … practices were important to a number of Jewish and Muslim people, and no one was sure of the intentionality of that legislation … Does it change if the people who are pushing the [legislation] have bad intentions even if it may create good consequences?” Youman said.

In the structure of a typical debate competition, opposing teams are expected take up opposing stances on an issue. However, according to sophomore Indigo Naar, Ethics Bowl is different in the sense that it involves greater collaboration and exploration of the cases being debated.

“[Two teams] can agree on an answer to a question and just nitpick the reasons why, and that can foster a really interesting competitive environment because … there’s no showmanship [and] a lot of it is very much authentic,” Naar said.

Senior Jeremy Caldwell also emphasized the collaborative nature of Ethics Bowl.

“You will never get anywhere in Ethics Bowl by putting your opponent down … You need to focus on the conversation at hand about addressing what’s being said. It’s very much about making people understand [and] not sounding impressive, but understandable,” Caldwell said.

Ethics Bowl also seeks to make the general subject matter of philosophy more accessible. According to Naar, no formal philosophical knowledge is necessary to participate in the class or the competition.

“There’s no real introduction to ethics for Ethics Bowl; you don’t really need that … You can go entire rounds without dropping a single bit of philosophy phrases and have one of the strongest arguments in the bowl. That’s something I really value about the class itself, it doesn’t presuppose any of knowledge of philosophy or of philosophical theory or ethical theory. There’s some advantage to having it, but by no means is it necessary,” Naar said.

According to Russinoff, there are no prerequisites for the course, which makes it easier for non-philosophy majors to get involved.

“We’re happy that it brings students into the philosophy department who might not otherwise take a philosophy course,” Russinoff said.

Caldwell notes that another unique aspect of Ethics Bowl is that the cases are based in the experiences of real people rather than theory.

“[Philosophy] isn’t some intangible thing … It’s rooted in something that someone somewhere is going through, and I think Ethics Bowl does a good job of connecting to that. If you want to learn more about any of the cases, you can find someone talking about how the case has impacted their life,” Caldwell said.

Second-year graduate student and Ethics Bowl judge Monika Greco also noted that Ethics Bowl helps to tie philosophical theories into reality.

“You can really engage in more grounded discussions about ethical decisions when you’re given situations that are closer to everyday life, and in this case, they’re actually happening,” Greco said.

Part of Ethics Bowl is also recognizing that because philosophy is rooted in everyday life, everyone can engage with philosophy. As part of an initiative started this year by Visual and Critical Studies senior lecturer Hilary Binda, members of Tufts Ethics Bowl have been working with incarcerated students at MCI-Concord and plan to run an Ethics Bowl competition within the prison in the coming weeks.

Naar and Greco have introduced the cases for the competition to the prisoners at MCI-Concord and said that despite many of them not having any formal education in philosophy, they made articulate arguments about the cases.

Greco argued that this was an example that anyone can be a philosopher and that the field has been unnecessarily rarefied.

“The subject matter of philosophy is the subject matter that people care about. They’re already thinking about it. Questions of philosophy are things everyone is already interested in,” Greco said.