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Ethics Bowl team earns ASU's 1st bid to national championship

Goal of competition is to find ethical solutions for real-world problems

ASU team holding trophies

ASU's Ethics Bowl team took first and second place at the Rocky Mountain Regional Ethics Bowl Competition this November, earning them a bid to the national competition.

December 12, 2016

Should all drugs be legalized? Should doctors aid terminally ill patients who no longer wish to live? Should companies breach users’ privacy if it could possibly help others?

There is no clear-cut, right or wrong answer to these questions — the best answers will come from those who can best justify their reasoning.

The ASU Ethics Bowl team members have proven themselves as one of the best college teams in the country at finding ethical solutions for real-world problems, earning the Arizona State University's first-ever bid to the National Ethics Bowl championship after taking first and second place at the Rocky Mountain Regional Ethics Bowl Competition this November.

Ethics Bowl team members shy away from the yes/no, black/white responses and hardline stances more typically associated with debates. Here, you can agree with your opponent without undermining your argument. Instead, teams are judged on how well they understand and articulate the specifics behind a given case.

“What frustrates me about debate is that it comes down to the affirmative or negative side,” said Jennifer Brian, head coach of ASU’s Ethics Bowl team. “What Ethics Bowl gets you to do is to see that there aren’t ever just two sides, but a whole set of complexities and that reasonable people can see the case from many different ways. One of the things that’s interesting about all the cases is that there are no easy answers, and I love that.”

Using cases taken from real-life situations — like the FBI’s attempt to compel Apple to hack into the iPhone of the terrorists responsible for the San Bernardino shootings — teams of five use various ethical frameworks to justify their solutions to these dilemmas.

Each team gets a turn to make its point about a certain case, followed by the opposing team, and it concludes with a rebuttal from the first team. Afterwards, the judges select a new case and the opposing team gets a chance to make an opening argument and rebuttal.

Judges award teams points for their arguments, and the team with the most points after two rounds wins.

The ASU team has made impressive strides in short time. It was created in summer 2014 when Jason Robert, director of the Lincoln Center of Applied Ethics, asked Brian to head a prospective team. The team began competing the following semester.

“For the first two years we spent a lot of time discussing the cases and thinking about different ethical theories,” Brian said. “But I think what really helped is when we started doing the practice matches much sooner. Having them do more actual practices and then giving time to discuss what worked well or what worked less well, the points of weakness and the points of strength, allowed us to build up from there.”

The team practices two times a week to prepare for upcoming competitions, with each team member using their strengths in different ethical theories to contribute.

After two years of competing in Seattle, ASU sent two teams to the Rocky Mountain regional that swept the first- and second-place spots, guaranteeing the university’s first bid to the National Ethics Bowl competition taking place in Dallas in February 2017. 

“It was a really exciting thing to go in and see so much success even without too much experience,” said communications freshman and Barrett, The Honors College student Corbin Witt, a member of the team that took second place at regionals. “That’s a credit to Dr. Brian and [assistant coach] Isaac Dunn, just how well they prepared us. It was just a really cool thing.”

The ASU team will receive the cases that will be selected for nationals in January.

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