Ethics Bowl Going to Nationals

Written by Tina Potterf

February 21, 2024

Photo featuring Ethics Bowl at regionals
This year's Ethics Bowl team showcasing the big win at the Northwest regionals.

After sweeping regionals in the fall, SU’s award-winning Ethics Bowl team will compete among the best in the U.S.

For the seventh consecutive year, Seattle University’s Ethics Bowl team, after sweeping regionals this past fall, are headed to nationals where they’ll go head-to-head with some of the best teams from colleges and universities across the country.

The road to the national competition, which is February 24-25 in Cincinnati, began in the Northwest at the regional competition where SU bested teams from Washington State University, Gonzaga and the University of Portland. In past appearances the team has made it into the semifinals, facing teams from ivy league schools and some of the nation’s top institutions such as the University of Chicago and Stanford, along with military academies including West Point. (The SU team has beat the latter two schools in the past at nationals.)

Thirty-six student teams from colleges and universities will compete in matches using a set of prepared cases that are drawn from real-life or current events. For nationals, teams will be assigned various topics pulled from more than a dozen subjects, often involving hot-button or controversial issues, and make their case. Subject matter can range from judicial cases to education, artificial intelligence to health care and everything in between.

Benjamin Howe, PhD, teaching professor and director of the Matteo Ricci Institute, is in his 11th year as the Ethics Bowl coach. 

“People who come to nationals say they come away feeling better about the state of the world” after hearing the students’ presentations, says Howe. The presentations are grounded in fact and logic—with biases left at the door. 

“Ethics Bowl is designed not to put people into ideology camps,” he continues, noting that one of the positions the team defended at regionals was around the expansive scope of parental rights. 

The Ethics Bowl is an extension of a two-quarter class, “Applied Ethics Workshop,” and the team is comprised of six to eight students, from freshmen to seniors. The competition is the culmination of the collective work—and presentations on various topics—covered in class. 

“You have to be open to analyzing really divisive topics,” explains Howe, “and coming up with a strong position.” 

To be clear, Ethics Bowl is not a debate club—it’s about public speaking and making your case. At nationals, the team needs to be prepared to state their position on any one of the 14 possible options. The team spends many hours preparing for competition outside of class and personal beliefs are excised from an argument or position. “We are fact-based and won’t do well if we entertain things that have no credible defense in the academy. Everything is grounded in science and fact,” says Howe, “and you must consider alternative points of views.”

Here’s how the competition will work at nationals: Small groups within each team will be in a room with students from other universities. A coin flip determines who goes first and the team is then handed an envelope with the chosen topic. The Ethics Bowl members of course are well-prepared to present but it still requires the ability to think on your feet. Occasionally, notes Howe, there will be a curveball question, something not covered in the list of questions or scenarios given to all teams in advance. The presentations go back and forth at different time intervals while the opposing team tries to poke holes or demonstrate flaws in the other team’s position. 

Lindee Cutler, ’26, is in her second year with the Ethics Bowl. While largely unfamiliar with what it was before joining—Cutler’s dad competed at the University of Washington and a family friend was a team captain for SU’s Ethics Bowl—she was looking for an extracurricular offering that was like debate but with a different culture.

The team forms a tight bond as they spent countless hours inside and outside a classroom setting studying and going over topics to craft what they hope is a winning position. They also do practice runs—called “scrimmaging the cases”—and conduct individual research that is brought back to the full team. 

“Being part of Ethics Bowl has been the most enriching part of my educational experience here,” Cutler says. “It helps me apply what I am studying in some of my classes to complex issues, providing more context and perspective. Our differences (as a team) present themselves as strengths to us. Also, my teammates are really inspiring, intelligent and are critical thinkers and I learn a lot from them. I’m surrounded by really cool people.”

Ethics Bowl alumna Hana Stodder, ’17, looks back at her time on the team with great fondness.

A history major it was her minor in philosophy that had her looking for a way to engage with the subject matter in a setting different from the day-to-day coursework. Though unfamiliar with Ethics Bowl she learned about it and her interest piqued when she met with Howe, who at the time was looking to build out a team. 

“Overall Ethics Bowl was such an important experience to me, both personally and professionally. We’d look at cases, get our thoughts together, make up arguments and test how they sound, with all of us debating the ideas collectively,” says Hodder, who would eventually serve as team captain. “Being able to formulate how to solve challenges helped me grow in an experience you can’t get in a classroom.”

The professional and personal impacts of Stodder’s Ethics Bowl experience reverberates beyond her time at SU. While at nationals in Chicago she decided in her downtime to tour the University of Chicago, solidifying her plans to go to law school there (she was considering a school in her home state of California). On a personal level, Ethics Bowl connected her with a fellow student and team member who she would one day marry (alumnus Garrett Hodder.) Today a litigator at a major law firm in Los Angeles and former clerk for the 9th Circuit Court, Stodder recommends any student even considering joining Ethics Bowl to take the plunge.

“It helps you get out of your comfort zone. It also allows you to make connections with students and professors that you might not otherwise get,” she says. “I will always remember that when I was at nationals that my dad came to watch. … Ethics Bowl can really expose talents and interests you might not realize you have.”

Ethics Bowl alumnus Jon Cantalini, ’18, was drawn to participate through his interest in exploring more about what it means to be human and the ethical dilemmas that arise from defining something or someone as “good” or “bad.” 

To this day, Cantalini, who double majored in Humanities for Leadership and Political Science, looks back on his experience as transformative, from the engagement with other team members to the thrill of competition. 

“Ethics Bowl was one of my most memorable experiences at Seattle U,” says Cantalini. “From getting to compete against other schools to getting to debate my classmates and educate each other on the ethical dilemmas of the year, I not only learned so much but I also gained memories that I will cherish forever.”

Post-graduation, after working in local politics and policy work Cantalini, who today serves as the Executive Director of the Maple Valley Food Bank, finds himself still exploring some of the issues that his Ethics Bowl team were debating all those years back. 

“I found myself continuing to try to understand the human experience, grappling with the common ethical problems of today and using the skills that I learned in Ethics Bowl to drive both my personal and professional career forward,” he says. “I continue to be drawn into professions and subjects that are striving to understand how we can best help our communities in a more ethical and service-oriented way.”

The Ethics Bowl not only equips students with the intellectual tools to discuss an often serious or complex topic with confidence and aplomb, but they are also often transferable skills that can prove beneficial post-graduation. Their critical thinking can come in handy at a job interview, for example. Their ability to think rationally in a high-stress environment could help diffuse a challenging situation. 

“We have an incredibly successful group of alumni and their work in the Ethics Bowl has sparked interest in a variety of careers,” says Howe, who notes alumni who have led political campaigns, are in law school or engaging in research and fellowships. “I think the mission of Seattle U is a mission that can sustain students after graduation. And I think the Ethics Bowl is a way to show that.”

Learn more about the national Ethics Bowl competition.