There is one big bowl game in late winter that has nothing to do with football but everything to do with academics. Instead of one opponent, there will be 35, with a team from Seattle University in the thick of it.
It’s the 22nd Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl in Chicago, March 3-4, 2018. This is the first time the university’s ethics bowl team qualified for the national contest. To get there, the team won its first regional Ethics Bowl in November. The seven students coached by Benjamin Howe, PhD, a philosophy professor in Matteo Ricci College bested players from teams representing nine other Northwest schools, including multiple former national champion Whitworth University, as well as previous national contender Whitman College.
Just what is an Ethics Bowl? According to the organizers at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, “teams argue and defend their moral assessment of some of the most troubling and complex ethical issues facing society today. Questions address a wide array of topics in business and professional ethics, in personal relationships and in social and political affairs.” Students demonstrate their ability to understand the facts of the case, articulate the ethical principles involved, present an effective argument on how the cases should be resolved and respond to challenges put forth by the opposing team as well as a panel of expert judges.
There are several reasons Seattle U did so well, including intense preparation and dedication by the students and their coach. Underlying that is the benefit of a Jesuit education.
“Ethics Bowl embodies some of our Jesuit educational ideals. Jesuit universities across the country require classes in philosophical ethics and sometimes other philosophy classes like we do,” says Howe, who has coached the team for four years. “If you ask someone outside of a Jesuit university ‘why study philosophy? It’s impractical’ my answer is the Jesuit idea of education has been that ‘no, reflective academic thinking is practical.’ Having a crisp understanding of the different ways we conceptualize right and wrong, duties and responsibilities and obligations is practical.”
Leadership, experience and diversity also played key roles. Three of the students are returning team members, two of whom, graduating seniors Hana Stodder and Garrett Solberg, are co-captains solidly grounded in ethics and philosophy. They are also veterans of seven bowl competitions collectively. The students also represent diverse backgrounds and majors, including computer science, English, business, math and the humanities
The diversity provides perspectives and academic expertise ideal for tackling difficult contemporary issues.
“When I built the team I was looking for a variety of academic disciplines,” explains Howe. “For example, if we get a case about biomedical ethics and genetics, you really need a student with some science background. Because the students all have their own academic disciplines, it really lends itself to genuine teamwork. You never have case where one student can do it all.”
During the regional competition, the Northwest teams tackled issues such as a 2016 Dutch case of a man who asked to be euthanized because he could no longer live with his chronic alcoholism; the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why about teen suicide; a 2107 U.S. Center for Disease Control proposal to quarantine people, without due process, suspected of being ill with an epidemic infection; the proliferation of fake news on social media channels; and the case of a University of Oregon professor who donned blackface at a Halloween party.
Teams will learn in early January the cases that will be presented at the national competition. The judges’ questions are only revealed the day of the competition and Howe says he expects students will receive a list of up to 15 cases.
Solberg and Stodder, close friends from their years on the team, are both applying to law school. Solberg says Howe got them interested in the Ethics Bowl team when they were sophomores.
“Dr. Howe’s knowledge about ethics and the issues is so enormous and his enthusiasm is so great that he'd had us reading the most relevant and effective sources since we started years ago,” says Solberg. “By the time this year came around we had so much experience and so much knowledge that we were able to take in the new people and hit the ground running on day one when we got the cases.”
The co-captains ran clinics on ethical theory, teaching patterns of reasoning and everyone had assignments to do before competition. Team members create detailed “playbooks” for each case and scrimmaged as part of their practice and preparation.
The Seattle U team was already preparing for the March finals as the fall quarter wound down. “I’m making sure everybody is up to date on certain theories in ethics that we may want to add to our toolkit,” says Howe.
“Our project leading up to nationals is to help the other teammates take on more theory,” says Stodder. “What’s great is they are very enthusiastic about it. I got a text at 12 midnight one night from (team member) Serena Oduro saying, ‘I just read a bunch of stuff about virtue ethics and let me know if you have any other articles.’ We’re like a big tight-knit family.”
Oduro is a sophomore history student and one of two Sullivan Scholars on the team. It’s her first year on the Seattle U team.
“I love ethics,” she says. ”It pushes you farther in your thought process to think not only why you believe in things but being able to explain why.”
Don’t confuse the Ethics Bowls with a debate competition.
As Howe explains, “In ethics, you do not have to object to the opposing team. You can agree with their position but can challenge the way they are defending that position. Ethics Bowls reward teams for being thoughtful and considerate, not necessarily being antagonistic toward each other.”
One third of the score is based on how well the team articulates the opposing point of view and responds to it in a nuanced fashion.
“So as a team you have to imagine all sorts of questions you could get. Then at competition you must listen with an open mind and answer exactly what’s been asked of you. It’s a combination of being very well prepared in advance and then being able to listen in the moment and respond effectively on your feet.”
The Ethic Bowl prepares students to be analytical and to think about values in a rational way.
“It gives them the opportunity to talk over and over again about stuff that’s a little uncomfortable,” says Howe, “and I think putting students in a public event and having students from different racial backgrounds talk about blackface, for example, is very important because these are issues that aren’t going away.”