Ethics Bowl Team

Ethics Bowl Team

CLAS Acts February 2018

Monthly newsletter for TT faculty of the college

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From the Dean's Desk

Frederick J. Antczak 

The last week has brought troubling news in higher education here in Michigan. I must tell you I’ve been quite shaken by what we’ve learned so far from East Lansing.  I have given a lot of thought and introspection to how there could be such a profound systemic failure involving so many people that went on for so long.  We may assure ourselves that it can’t happen here, but the only acceptable response is redoubling our resolve to prevent it.  It’s up to us to reconfirm our commitment that here, students come first, and nothing—not institutional reputation, not personal legacy, nothing—comes before that. 

Each of us, and all of us, must take responsibility for the climate and safety of our own campus. I resolve to make sure everyone in our college is equipped and prepared to do the right thing, and part of that is making sure you know what to do should a student come to you with a concern.  You can get to GVSU reporting procedures, policies, and other information from  You are also always welcome to reach out to our office to help you navigate the system and refer students to resources and proper procedures.  I’d also ask that you take a periodic look at Sprout for training on Title IX, QPR, and other useful workshops.

That’s all I can say in response to this news just now, mindful of the continuing possibility inherent in such scandals that something even more fundamental and astounding may emerge.  If you have friends on their faculty or staff or among their students, this is a good time to reach out with a message of solidarity. The people I know and have spoken to there were in real need of such support.

You may have also heard the news from EMU.   I am very grateful to work with you at a university that is in better shape to face the coming challenges.  Nothing confronting Eastern Michigan should come as a big surprise to us; we have been talking for some time about demographic shifts and political changes that would affect the funding we have to run the university.  But it’s worth our noting that right now, some Michigan universities are already facing the sharp end of that stick.   Grand Valley has devoted careful effort to the stewardship of our resources, and we work from the deep conviction that a Grand Valley education must be worthy of tuition dollars for all our students.  Yet it’s worth thinking about in further detail, and with a holistic approach.  

We shouldn’t waste time fretting that every flower planted or sport played or building renewed might somehow detract from our overall mission. All of these play some role in recruiting in a competitive market, helping our students themselves plant roots so they can flower and make progress in their education, and generally enriching their experience of the university—and often, ours too.  

More importantly, we can apply what we know (and teach) to good effect in these circumstances.  So for example, even as we teach our students to understand and address climate change, we can ready ourselves to adapt to what comes—for surely, what comes will be different from what we’ve known.  The circumstances of higher education in the next few years will differ from any we’ve experienced since at least the early ‘80s.  But at least we know some of the looming issues: affordability, demonstrating with more concreteness the relevance of education to the future of our students and our state, adapting to the changing needs of a changing student body without diluting our commitment to ask a lot of our students, dealing with accelerating technological change, and wrestling with changing public perception.  Here’s the truth: much more will be asked of us, by way of adaptivity and innovation in our craft, than was the case in previous decades. When I look around at our faculty and staff, I’m moved to say, bring it on.

I promise that we will stay in a vital and candid conversation about these challenges among ourselves, we will work together to stay out ahead of the predictable problems, and--if we ourselves take the large view and apply the lessons we teach our students—it’s my conviction that we’ll make our way toward not just a challenging, but an exciting future.

The joy of our enterprise comes with deep commitment to the students we serve.  Thanks for what you do each day to earn their respect and trust, and to make our university a place with a strong sense of belonging and well-being.  May it always be so at Grand Valley—and may we recognize that at this time, it’s up to us to make it so.

Ethics Bowl—A Left Brain Cause for Optimism

Philosophy’s Ron Loeffler did not go looking for the role, but it found him anyway.  It was actually his colleague Peggy Vandenberg who through her affiliation with the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics introduced the idea of GVSU participating in the Ethics Bowl.  Peggy was not herself in a position to take up establishing a new student activity. Ron realized that having finished a multi-year project, and since he teaches ethical theory (though his own research lies elsewhere), he was able to take up this new challenge and become the team’s faculty advisor.

“We flooded campus email shamelessly to recruit students before Labor Day,” Ron confesses with a smile.  The wide net scooped up 20 interested students for the initial meeting and many were not philosophy majors.  Thirteen have stuck it out, spending three hours every Tuesday evening preparing themselves.

“It’s very cognitive—left side of the brain.”

From a number of possible ethical topics, the students practiced a format that would be unfamiliar in quiz or debate competitions.  Formatted not unlike a classical oration, the students learn to express their position on the ethical question with an opening, a presentation of their main argument, a discussion of/reference to alternative views, and a wrap-up.

When teams from different universities meet, they are judged on the quality they bring to their presentations, but not—as in debate—on the clash of opposing views. 

“There are a bunch of outcome goals,” Ron explains.  “It’s not just about winning.  We are talking about a very different kind of challenge.  These are emotional issues that are to be explored calmly, thoughtfully, and patiently.  Mutual respect is emphasized.”

Students this year took on these issues:

  • Should euthanasia be permitted for existential suffering? 
  • Should universities protect free speech even when it is racially charged, regardless of the speaker's intentions? 
  • Does the Goldwater Rule for psychiatrists (prohibiting them from public ally commenting on the mental health of public figures without previously having examined them) have a chilling effect on psychiatrists who feel they have a duty to warn the public? 
  • Does the exhibition Eric Gill: The Body serve the public good? (The exhibition featured sculptures by the renowned English sculptor Eric Gill of his own daughters, created during a time period when he sexually abused his daughters, and explicitly put the exhibited art into the context of that abuse. The theme of the exhibition was "whether knowledge of Gill's disturbing biography affects our enjoyment and appreciation of his depiction of the human figure") 
  • Should elevated testosterone levels in professional female athletes be a sufficient reason for disqualifying them from competing? 
  • Trusts and corporations have the legal status of personhood. Should natural resources (such as rivers or ecosystems) be granted that status as well? 

    In addition, the students had to be prepared to speak to cases about Gonzo Journalism, the ethics of Podcasting, and the Keystone Pipeline. However, these cases didn't come up in the regionals.

The format as Wikipedia explains is:

...the moderator poses a question to the team, and after two minutes to confer, the team must state their answer within ten minutes. The responding team then has one minute to present a response to the first team's answer for five minutes, and the first team then has a chance to respond to these comments for 5 minutes with 1 minute before to confer. Finally, the panel of judges ... questions of the first team, either to clarify a point, or to elicit a team's viewpoint on an ethical aspect raised in their response. The judges then proceed to evaluate the first team'' response and the second team's comment based on the following criteria: clarity and intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant factors, avoidance of ethical irrelevance, and deliberative thoughtfulness. The round then repeats this format with the second team receiving a question about a different case.

"A major distinction between ethics bowl and debate is that the students get to pick their position.  The other team does not have to argue the other side, but may choose to strengthen the argument.  They are making a space for reason.  They must really listen, point out further connections, strengthen our ability to assess the argument.” Ron goes on to point out that critical thinking is not set aside in favor of cooperation and that the process is less like a courtroom and rather resembles how local administrations do their problem solving.

“The experience makes me optimistic that this is humanly possible.  I’m struck by how our teams converged and were capable of sophisticated arguments for that convergence of views.  They were strengthening the argument and seeing the weakness, and showing the potential for people to agree.  Students felt this too.

Ethics bowl had its beginnings in an ‘ethics for engineers’ course in 1993 taught by Dr. Robert Ladenson of the Illinois Institute of Technology.  It has spread ever since.

The cases are all available open source which is a boon to those teaching ethics courses. 

While our team did not move on to the national competition after their first intercollegiate outing (November 10-11, 2017), they made a strong showing against the very teams who did progress.  The Grand Valley Philosophical Fortnights newsletter proudly proclaimed their participation in the Midwest Regionals at Indianapolis and interim chair David Vessey proved an enthusiastic supporter.

“The three rounds were exhausting,” Ron remembers on behalf of himself and his co-coach Peggy.  “Twelve of the students travelled with us so we had two teams—we can seat 5 for a round so a couple sit out each round.”

Everyone is excited to continue and improve.  Ron has attended an aspiring coach’s workshop and the students have insisted on winter term practice sessions so they have a real opportunity to prep for fall 2018.  They will pour over the major issues the cases raise and work to improve their public speaking. 

“Nationals are in Chicago.  I’ve volunteered to judge and hope that some of the students will travel down to observe,” Ron says looking forward.