Ethics Competition

Hundreds of students from across the United States and Canada have been building their ethical and practical reasoning skills and deepening their understanding of ethical issues in preparation for the Nineteenth Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl competition. It will be held on February 22 in Costa Mesa, California, during the annual conference of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPA).

During the last two months of 2014, teams of undergraduate students competed in regional competitions; thirty-two teams qualified for the 2015 national debate tournament. They will bring their reasoning ability, understanding of ethical issues, and competitive spirit to Costa Mesa, prepared to tackle questions from among a wide-ranging set of ethical problems.

The intercollegiate ethics bowl was created in 1993 at the Illinois Institute of Technology, home of the Center for the Study of Ethics. It began as a small intramural effort but four years later the first nationwide bowl competition was held in conjunction with the APPE annual conference. The intercollegiate competition is still held in conjunction with the APPE conference, and the concept has grown to include a two-year college ethics bowl effort and a high school ethics bowl as well. That’s a lot of students exposed to ethical considerations every year.

How does it work? At the intercollegiate level, according to the APPE website:

The competition focuses on selected cases developed by APPE ethics faculty, researchers, and professionals; covering a wide range of disciplines, including but not limited to, business, engineering, journalism, law, medicine, and social work. In the competitions students demonstrate their ability to (1) understand the facts of the case, (2) articulate the ethical principles involved in the case, (3) present an effective argument on how the case should be resolved, and (4) respond effectively to challenges put forth by the opposing team as well as the panel of expert judges. …

Each team receives a set of cases which raise issues in practical and professional ethics in advance of the competition and prepare an analysis of each case. At the competition, a moderator poses questions, based on a case taken from that set, to teams of three to five students. Questions may concern ethical problems on wide ranging topics, such as the classroom (e.g. cheating or plagiarism), personal relationships (e.g. dating or friendship), professional ethics (e.g. engineering, law, medicine), or social and political ethics (e.g. free speech, gun control, etc.) [The] panel of judges may probe the teams for further justifications and evaluates answers. Rating criteria are intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant considerations, avoidance of ethical irrelevance, and deliberative thoughtfulness (APPE website).

Last year’s winning team of three students from the University of Montana prepared advance responses to 15 cases that addressed “ethically gnarly questions” (questions that don’t really have a direct answer) on such topics as ethics and technology, bioethics, the use of drones, off-label prescriptions, and even the naming of public parks after controversial people (Anderson, 2014).

Ethical issues often are “gnarly”, something that many corporate training efforts don’t always give credence to. But they could, possibly by using past regional and national bowl competition cases (available at to guide discussion. In the meantime, thousands of students have developed and continue to develop strong reasoning skills about complex ethical issues. Perhaps some of them are your potential recruits from high schools, colleges, and universities near you.

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APPE. About Ethics Bowl [Web page].

Anderson, Courtney. “‘Bearly Ethical’ Students Win National Ethics Bowl.” March 5, 2014.