Sweet Briar Team Bound for 2008 Ethics Bowl

| February 8, 2008

After months of preparation, a team of seven Sweet Briar students and their coach, assistant professor of government Spencer Bakich, are ready to compete in the 2008 Ethics Bowl.

The event will be held Feb. 10 and 11 at Marymount University in Arlington. In its ninth year, the annual debate is sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges and Wachovia Bank.

Teams from the 15 VFIC member colleges are split into two divisions, and go against each other in four rounds. The debaters must analyze hypothetical scenarios that present ethical dilemmas related to a theme, formulate responses to the problems and defend their positions.

A panel of judges decides the winner of each debate. The two teams with the best win-loss records compete in the fifth and final round. If there is a tie for division winner, the team with the most points advances.

When Bakich and his students began preparing for the event in October, they knew this year’s theme was “Ethics and the Environment.” Led by co-captains and veteran Ethics Bowlers Michelle Sanchez ’08 and Anne Lojek ’09, teammates Katherine Ellis ’08, Diana Simpson ’08 and another veteran, Carlisle Adams ’10, met weekly to practice. Two alternates, Sarah Jones ’11 and Jordana Weiner ’11, also participated.

The students practiced using “cases” they researched and developed on their own, or scenarios written by Bakich. It is his first year coaching, and the students have impressed him.

“They’re really sharp at figuring out the different ethical issues and how to adjudicate the competing ethical claims,” he said.

Adams, who was on the 2007 squad, said the team is applying lessons it learned in a tie-breaker loss against the University of Richmond last year. Both teams were 3-1, but UR had the edge in points and went to the final round, eventually winning the title.

“They always had a really solid ethical framework,” to support their positions, Adams said of the RU debaters. That led her and her teammates to focus more on knowing as thoroughly as possible the philosophical bases of their arguments, drawing on the works of Immanuel Kant and others thinkers.

The SBC team tried to practice on cases as tough as or tougher than those they might face in competition. In one example, Bakich asked the students to decide whether a government should undertake a potentially dangerous chemical weapons disposal operation – eliminating the problem at some risk to a local population – or leave it to future generations when, maybe, a safer method might be available.

Storing the weapons is risky, too, but some critics argue they can be “neutralized” and stored while technology catches up.

“What is the greater ethical question? What is our responsibility to future generations?” Adams said. “You can legitimately argue either way.”

That’s the point of the Ethics Bowl, Bakich said. “The bottom line is that neither of the two solutions is completely satisfactory. Both contain inherent but different risks to different populations.

“Critical to acting ethically is the ability to confront those trade-offs squarely and apply a coherent and consistent procedure of moral reasoning. Ultimately, this is what the Ethics Bowl is about.”

For more information, visit the VFIC online.

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Academics, Government and International Affairs