Is it ethical?

Annie Salamone

Common knowledge has it that people should never discuss politics and religion with people they don’t know. And yet, in spite of such hesitations, the National Ethics Bowl Competition, a collegiate event where students from all over the country gather to argue ethical issues, proves to be one of the most rewarding events among participants every February.

Thirty-six teams competed this year in Charlotte, North Carolina, with Villanova placing an amazing fourth among its competitors. Prior to the event, members received 15 ethical case studies, and over the course of preparation the students developed answers they felt to be ethically sound. This year’s Villanova team, which was composed of members Kristen Carey, Columb Higgins, Kathryn Rutigliano, Meghan Snow and Jennifer Tran, met twice a week to discuss their questions and develop supports for their answers.

Although the questions were divided among the members for individual preparation, it was a “collaborative effort,” as Kristen Carey said. “We all had input about the cases. However it was up to us how we wanted to present our individual cases.”

Questions are comprised of issues from all ends of ethics, including plagiarism, medicine, international law, gun control, personal relationships and public policy. The teams earn points “based upon the strength of their presentation,” Dr. Sarah-Vaughan Brakman, director of the ethics program and Ethics Bowl Coach, said. “This includes depth of ethical analysis, relevance of their arguments, and breadth of their reasoning and presentation skills.  The judges are instructed not to award points based upon whether they agree with the team’s position.”

Ethical dilemmas are difficult if not impossible to decide in an appropriate manner. Dr. Brakman mentioned that “early on in the team’s discussion, there is a great deal of arguing about the position that the team will defend on each case.” This discussion, however, proves to be exactly the kind of fuel the members need to generate the best argument.

“These sessions are very intense and interesting,” added Dr. Brakman. “The students learn a great deal from each other and truly engage one another about what it means to act well and to strive to be a good person.”

As Kathryn Rutigliano put it, “when we all don’t agree on an answer, I think it helps the team to create a better argument, and also to prepare for a counterargument.  Disagreement generates new ideas and opinions.  In some cases, one of us would come in with what we thought was a final opinion, and then change it based upon the ideas of the rest of the team.”

When it comes to deciding on the answers to the ethical questions, the team members initially go with their heart, and build support as time goes on. “You have to believe what you argue or you will not sound sincere,” Carey said. Indeed, the team members encourage each other to express their opinions, understanding the value of different attitudes and outlooks.

“[Differing opinions] actually made our arguments better, because then whatever case we presented reflected an understanding of both sides of the issue,” said Carey.  Everyone’s opinions were always respected.”

The competition itself is just the tip of the iceberg. Helping to coach the team were Dr. Mark Doorley, assistant director of the ethics program, and Dr. Brett Wilmot, Catherine of Siena ethics teaching fellow.

Moreover, they helped to inspire a passion for ethics that led Rutigliano to declare a concentration in ethics as soon as she got back from the trip. “I like philosophy, [and] I like public speaking,” she mentioned. “My favorite part, however, was getting to work with my teammates and Dr. Brakman, Dr. Doorley, and Dr. Wilmot – I learned a lot from all of them.” Carey has very similar feelings. “Meeting different types of people and talking with them is so fascinating, and we met some really great people,” she said. “I would do it again in a second.”