Ethics Bowl Challenge

The USF Ethics Team is in St. Petersburg this weekend to match wits with other institutions in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.

The USF Ethics Team researches case studies for the upcoming competition at St. Petersburg College on Nov. 10.   Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 1, 2012) – The University of South Florida’s Ethics Team is competing in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl for the southeast region on Nov. 10, a "super" bowl event where the sport revolves around words rather than footballs.

Opposing points of view on hot topics involving ethics can be as thrilling as any sporting event. Every team member has to play at the top of his or her game. In the case of this competition, the team that comes up with the best ideas, expressed with the greatest skill and clarity, wins.

Strategy is key.

Saturday's event is at St. Petersburg College, with top winners in the 10 regional bowls advancing to the ethics championship competition in February in San Antonio, Texas.

This is not debating where individuals are combative or teams have to disagree with their opponents. There’s one key difference. Competitors in this match of wits can actually agree with the opposing team, if they so choose. And if they do, they simply have to best the competition by being better at presenting and defending the position they take.

Practice sessions and research help get the team in shape. As with any group of people who come together to win, coaching plays a major role.

The ethics team’s coach, Carter Hardy, is a graduate student earning his PhD in philosophy. It’s not unusual to see him walking across campus staying in intellectual shape with a volume under his arm by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty or Shaun Gallagher.

Hardy’s love of ethics goes back to his earliest interest in philosophy. He knew he wanted the subject to be his major from the start, particularly after taking AP classes in psychology during high school. But he almost changed his mind.    

“One of my sisters talked me out of it,” he said. “I was convinced to major in creative writing, but as soon as I took my first philosophy courses for my minor, I was hooked for good. I realized I had to decide what was best for me.”

He’s happy he challenged her view that philosophy is not a practical major. 

“Ever since I discovered that ideas and beliefs are open to question and that there are different ways of looking at the world, I’ve wanted to continue learning everything I can about philosophy. I’ve never been disappointed.”


Now even as he’s enjoying coaching the ethics team, he also gets to fulfill another interest – teaching. Working as a teaching assistant and being a guest lecturer are preparing him for a career sharing his knowledge about the great thinkers and the great ideas of the past and present, as a professor. The joy for him in teaching and coaching is, “helping students understand something they didn’t understand before,” Hardy said.  “I just find it fun.”

For him, the fun is in delving into the phenomenology of emotions and philosophy of mind, and of course, ethics.

The subject of ethics, especially in an era when a lack of ethics can lead to serious consequences – whether personal or on a national or global scale – will never go out of style.

“Some people think ethics can be relative to the situation in question,” Hardy said. “For example, they might say, ‘It’s the law, therefore it’s ethical.’ But some laws can be found to be quite wrongheaded. Take the laws upholding slavery or that kept women from voting. You have to look deeper and go further in your ethical arguments. During these times, there are even more complications for ethicists. Nothing is as simple as it might first appear. A course on ethics is something every student should take.”

When it comes to the Ethics Bowl, not everyone gets out on the field, so to speak. Each team is allowed a maximum of five members onstage per session. The other team members are in the background. 

They can score points by effectively disagreeing with the other team’s reasoning or by doing a better job of arguing the same position. Substance goes a long way, but so does style. The aim is to reach an “ethical standard,” Hardy says. 

Though he says he’s not competitive by nature, the Ethics Bowl brings out his desire to win. Hardy brings  experience to the game after competing in two Ethics Bowls himself at his alma mater, the University of Central Florida, and he has served as a moderator. Moderators guide the rounds and enforce time restrictions to keep them going smoothly. Judges get to ask questions after teams present their arguments. These can be make-or-break moments.

“All teams have to be careful not to make contradictory statements,” Hardy said. “And the judges hate generalizing. Never say ‘never’ or ‘always.’ The key to winning is preparation, consistency and delivery.”    

The teams get to see what the cases are – 15 in all – ahead of time but don’t know which ones they’ll be asked to take on until they face off during the competition rounds. That means there’s a lot of research and a lot of preparation when shared among USF’s 10-member team.

The cases range from “’Street Art’: Vandalism or Philanthropy?” and “Rape Jokes and Popular Culture” to “Paid Maternity Leave” and “North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.”  Other subjects look at “Gay Conversion Therapy” and “Indian Family Law.” 

Preparation of the cases falls to the chair of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, Rhiannon D. Funke and a team of case writers. Footnotes in the case packet help lead researchers to some sources, but the teams need to marshal as much evidence in support of their ideas as possible.

At the competition, once the topic is announced, there can be no substitutions and the teams then have two minutes to determine who will do the presenting and to line up their best points – no books or notes allowed, except those jotted down during the proceedings. One person can make all the arguments, or the whole team or any combination of members can take turns making points, aided by the real-time notes passed from teammates. After the first half all notes must be discarded. Teams can use up to 10 minutes to make their cases.

The opposing team gets one minute to huddle and five minutes to respond. The judges then have up to 10 minutes to ask questions. To make things even more interesting, the two teams reverse roles taking on an entirely different question for a the second round. The team with the highest score wins.

Because USF’s team has traditionally been led by a professor from the Philosophy Department – this year Assistant Professor Michael Morris and last year Associate Professor Brook Sadler – there are always philosophy majors on the team. But it is open to all majors. This year’s team has three philosophy majors, Paul Clarke, Ryan Jones and Areins Pelayo. Three members are political science majors – Colton Canton, Jonathan Fernandez and Gabrielle Sanandajian. Of the final two members, Kris-an Hinds is majoring in international studies and Alexander Rivera is majoring in psychology.  Philosophy graduate student Steven Starke serves as assistant coach.


“We have a strong team,” Hardy said. “Everyone has their own strengths.”


Sanandajian, Hardy said, has experience. “She’s good on the pick-up and defense.” Also on defense, Fernandez brings creativity and original concepts. On offense, Rivera and Clark make strong points. Hinds is “good at criticism and research.”

During practice sessions, the members who will be up front learn how to strengthen their arguments by enduring critiques from their teammates. 

“All of the extra time they put in is voluntary and it’s surprising how committed they are,” Hardy added. “Even those students earning one credit hour put in time above and beyond what would normally be required of a one-credit course.”


As strong and confident as they become, there’s no chance for a home court advantage.


“It can be pretty nerve-racking and there can be a lot of anxiety,” Hardy said. “The unfamiliar faces of the opposing teams and the judges in a new environment make the experience quite a bit different from our practices. And as the coach, I have to stay behind them and refrain from helping them in any way.”


Win or not, participating, researching and practicing develop the “muscles” needed to become good at public speaking and arguing a case. 


“Because a lot of the cases are political, we all get to learn a lot about subjects we might never have thought about before, which is one of the main goals of philosophy and ethics. If nothing else, it should make us think,” Hardy said.


Sanandajian, a senior, was captain of her debate team in high school and learned about the ethics bowl team in her logic class. “No matter how many hours on Fridays I spend in the FAO building, sitting and talking about ethics cases, I never get bored …talking with amazing individuals about ethics, politics, and societal injustice - something that I don’t even talk to my closest friends about,” she said.

The experience she gains in practice sessions has helped her lose her fear of public speaking.

“No one is rude; everyone always gives very valuable critiques. I believe that this helps everyone. Every time I go to practice, I become a better person by learning how to take constructive criticism, and building even better arguments. The point is that the group is brilliant, and I can count on everyone to always do their part.”

Point-maker Clarke joined the team because he enjoys the exchange of ideas and he welcomed “the opportunity to learn about different perspectives that comes with debating points. I also thought it would be an opportunity to develop my discussion and critical thinking skills outside the classroom.” 


He’s preparing to argue at competition and is responsible for doing research and preparing arguments for three cases. One, about the treatment of rats for research, has given him pause.


“While I have previously been aware of the debates surrounding animal rights, I have remained largely indifferent to the issue. But in preparing this case I have realized that our treatment of animals is an important ethical issue and that the assumption that we can use animals more or less however we like cannot go unquestioned. I suspect that it is an issue that I will give more careful thought to outside of Ethics Bowl and I may even conclude that I have to change some of my practices,” he said.


The only other team experience Clarke has had was on his high school’s academic bowl team. “I think that team was more like a group of individuals. We all had our own strengths and that determined who would answer a particular question. But with the Ethics Bowl team, I feel like we are really a team. The fact that we critique each other’s arguments allows us to discuss the issues together. I think this ends up having a cumulative effect on the argument that a particular individual will end up presenting at competition.”


He advises interested students to “be ready for the challenge that comes with trying to sort out thorny ethical questions, having one’s ideas challenged, and, in turn, challenging the ideas of others,” and he encourages anyone to just “go for it.”


Clarke, like Carter, finds his major quite inspiring and is glad he found his way to it.


“I think philosophy has a reputation for being an abstract discipline with nothing to say about what matters in life. But the Ethics Bowl highlights the fact that we are daily confronted with ethical dilemmas and philosophy’s use of careful distinctions and rational arguments are helpful in working through these dilemmas.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.