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Ethics Bowl is an intercollegiate competition in which teams comprising 3-5 students analyze morally complex cases in a debate-like format, but with a number of twists.
Several weeks in advance of the competition students receive a set of fifteen case descriptions (1-2 pages each). Some scenarios are hypothetical but most depict real situations, and the cases cover a broad range of contexts, including medicine, journalism, law, business, public policy, academia, and personal life. Team members meet together to analyze the cases and develop consensus positions on each one. The day of the competition teams compete in pairs, tournament-style, addressing two cases in each match-up. A moderator announces which of the 15 cases will be discussed and poses a question – unknown to all until that point – about the case. The lead team has up to ten minutes to respond to the moderator’s question, and the opposing team has up to 5 minutes to comment. The lead team then has another 5 minutes of rebuttal before fielding spontaneous questions from a panel of three judges. Following this, the teams switch roles and repeat the process with a new case and question. After the match is over judges calculate their scores for each team, evaluating their arguments in terms of their clarity and cogency, coverage of relevant issues, avoidance of irrelevant issues, and sensitivity to alternative viewpoints and counterarguments. The teams with the best records in three round-robin matches advance to quarterfinal matches; from that point on all matches are sudden elimination until a winner emerges.
By providing the case descriptions in advance but not the questions that will be asked about them, the Ethics Bowl program encourages students to explore all facets of the cases so that they can respond to any question that may be posed. Moreover, the system fosters intellectual honesty: because teams don’t know in advance what questions will be posed they are not forced to develop – indeed, aren’t able to develop – a position intentionally contrary to the one that their opponent advances. Rather, the system encourages teams to develop what they think really is the most defensible view. Sometimes opposing teams disagree, but often times they concur. Because the cases are sufficiently rich, however, even when teams concur they generally present very different rationales for their positions.