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Ethically Sound, DePauw's Ethics Bowl Team

Ethically Sound, DePauw's Ethics Bowl Team

February 27, 2009

"Missouri's legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit illegal immigrants from enrolling in the state's colleges and universities. The bill's sponsor, State Representative Jerry Nolt argues, ‘We're accountable to the people of this state to spend their tax dollars primarily to educate Missouri students and those lawfully present.' He further notes that it is illegal under federal law to allow illegal immigrants to enroll in their colleges and universities. He concludes, ‘While we are obligated to educate children K-12 regardless of legal status, there is no requirement to provide post-secondary education.' Legislators arguing against the bill say that children of immigrants should not be punished for their parents' actions, legal or not." - Case 9, 2008 Regional Ethics Bowl Cases, Fall 2008

Should the children of illegal immigrants be permitted to attend U.S. public universities?

DePauw's Ethics Bowl team will face similar dilemmas when it competes in the 11th annual National Ethics Bowl in Cincinnati on March 5. For the last month, the team has studied 15 cases on which the competition's judges will base their questions. The cases range in content from ones that mix legal and ethical considerations, such as the example above, to open-ended ethical problems with no obvious solution.

In November 2008, DePauw sent two teams to the Central States Regional Ethics Bowl at Marian College in Indianapolis. Team One - composed of Elizabeth "Nicki" Hewell '11, Hallie M. Moberg '11, Todd J. Schmid ‘09 and anchored by senior co-captains David M. Cylkowski and Lauren C. Lefebvre - won the competition and received the automatic bid to the upcoming national competition. ethics_bowl_group.jpgTeam Two's Scott H. Conner ‘10, Shashi Kiran ‘11, Michael A. Sears ‘11, Robert W. Steele ‘11 and Benjamin A. Sweeney ‘10 also had a strong showing, winning two of their three matches on the day.

The DePauw victory continued a winning streak for the school's teams in the regionals. Since 2005, DePauw has won four out of five of the events; their only loss a second-place finish, with appearances at the national competition each year. This success has helped the teams grow a small, but dedicated fan following, including many team alumni, who have traveled from as far as Washington, D.C. and St. Louis - a former member who brought her mother - to watch the team compete.

Ethics Bowl competitions, unlike debate, don't require the two competing teams to take opposing sides of an issue. Instead, the teams are able to choose a side of the issue that they believe is right and focus on building a strong argument for it. During the rebuttal portion of a match, "teams can do quite well by pointing out some considerations that the opposing team ignored," says Cylkowski.

"We spend hours upon hours talking about a case until we're sick of talking about it anymore, but that persistence has probably helped us. There's often real passion about the position that comes out in both practice and competition," says Professor of Philosophy Marcia A. McKelligan, a co-coach of the teams along with Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Robert D. Newton and Nicholas L. Casalbore ‘08, a fifth-year intern at the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Even with the extensive time the teams spend preparing their arguments in advance of a competition, the cases are often worded vaguely enough that teams aren't sure what will be asked. This unpredictability further demands that arguments are made with conviction, but it also creates problems for teams who aren't expecting a new perspective on a case they've discussed for hours. "In one case," explains McKelligan, "a researcher at Ohio State University taught chimps to communicate, but her project lost funding. The university decided to close the lab and move the chimps to another facility in Texas. The case went into detail about the efforts of the researcher, who chained herself to the gate of the lab in protest when the moving vans came to transport the chimps. When the chimps were finally moved, some of them died in the process. We prepared a long speech about what should have been done with the animals and, in light of the deaths, how they should have been treated in a different way. Instead, the question we were asked at the competition was whether researchers have a special obligation to animals that have been taught to communicate. It caught us by surprise."

The judges who ask the questions come from different professional backgrounds depending on the competition. McKelligan says the team sees judges from primarily the private sector at regionals, while the national competition is typically judged by professors and ethicists. The makeup of the panel often enters into the minds of DePauw's competitors, but not enough to change their opinions. "It would be tempting to tailor our remarks to the personalities of the panel, but we really try to prepare our cases on their own merits without thinking too much about how they will be scored by the judges," says Lefebvre.

What has made DePauw's Ethics Bowl teams a regional powerhouse? Cylkowski and Lefebvre think it has something to do with the dedication of the teams' members, and how close they've become as a result.

"Good teams present a coherent argument and have clearly thought through the issues beforehand," says Cylkowski, but "great teams can think on their feet, working together to raise objections, respond to judge's questions and defend their position. I think that DePauw has been successful because we attract strong, committed students who are willing to put in many hours each week leading up to competition."

"We know each other's cases inside and out," adds Lefebvre. "Whereas an opposing team might have dedicated a single team member to a certain case, we have five minds ready to discuss the issues at hand. Practicing together for so many hours each week means that we know each other really well. That bond is essential to a strong performance in competition, just as it is for any sports team."