What, if any, ethical limitations should be placed on scientific research? Are household lawns moral? Is there anything morally wrong with creating, buying, or selling NFTs?
These are the sorts of questions one may expect UChicago students to be engaged in—but it may come as a surprise to learn that there are actual collegiate competitions centered on answering these questions. The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl annually hosts 36 universities in a national tournament dedicated to pushing undergraduate critical thinking and moral reasoning.
In just its first year as a registered student organization (RSO), the UChicago Ethics Bowl team placed second nationally to Macalester College. Student leaders Jenna Wong, Gabe Sánchez Ainsa, and Holden Fraser see the rapid success of the team as a hopeful indicator for the future. As Wong, the organization’s president, asks only somewhat rhetorically: “Is debating ethics not the most UChicago thing in the world?”
Yet Wong and her fellow leaders had a rockier road to reach RSO status than initially expected. The third-year, a National High School Ethics Bowl veteran, was surprised to find that UChicago didn’t have a team when she arrived to campus. In Wong’s first year, she filed a petition to create an Ethics Bowl RSO with Student Government—a petition that was ultimately declined. Wong claims that the rejection was “a case where we needed to do something to prove why we were worthy of being an RSO, but we couldn’t do anything to prove it until we were an RSO.” Disappointed but not deterred, Wong and Ainsa organized a group of UChicago students to compete in the Ethics Bowl regionals for 2020–21, with financial support provided by the philosophy department.
In that 2020–21 regional contest, the team placed fifth—one spot short of qualifying for nationals, but a ranking sufficient to prove its worthiness as an RSO. Student Government subsequently approved its petition to be an RSO for the 2021–22 academic year. Since last year, the team has more than tripled its size, from seven members to 30, and was able to field four teams at the recent regional tournament. With more than a little pride, Fraser stated, “It’s impressive that, in our first year as an RSO, we made it all the way to nationals as a runner-up.”
Prior to competitions, the hosting organization distributes 10 to 15 case studies to each team that focus on current events, covering non-fungible tokens (NFTs), lawns, CRISPR, doomsday clocks, artificial intelligence, and a plethora of other pertinent topics. At the competition, a moderator presents a moral question for the two teams to discuss. Each team is randomly assigned the role of either argument or counterargument. Fraser describes the competitions as “like debate without trying to be right all the time.”
To prepare for the competition, the UChicago team dives into deep discussion to determine the primary moral dilemmas, the stakeholders involved, and the team’s ultimate argument. Despite the politically charged nature of some of these questions, Wong stressed that the purpose of Ethics Bowl is to create “a space where people can engage in these critical dialogues with their peers.”
Ainsa acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining productive conversations among 30 people, especially in an organization that “invites strong opinions.” Yet he points out that ethics requires “a level of humility and genuine curiosity about what people have to say.”
While Fraser jokes that Ethics Bowl is “just competitive [Humanities core courses],” the student leaders emphasize that academic inclusivity is critical to any discussion of ethics. While the three leaders all study philosophy, the team has members whose disciplines range from computer science to English. Ethics Bowl is “meant to be accessible. We do a lot of philosophy, but it’s not a philosophy club,” according to Wong. “We think that these questions and the subsequent issues do affect everyone…and everyone can really have an opinion—and an important one—about ethics.”
When looking at the future of ethics, the leaders are excited about the discussion of the boundaries of ethics (“There are none,” says Wong), friendships, climate change, and misinformation. On this last topic, Fraser insists that Ethics Bowl can be a critical antidote: “These conversations push forward critical thinking and nuance, which misinformation deliberately avoids. We recognize why these issues are complex and try to teach people how to talk about them.”
In terms of where the UChicago Ethics Bowl team is headed, the organization is committed to expanding leadership, accommodating more members, and hosting its own competition named UChicagoBowl. Until then, the team may be found probing the pressing crises of our time, an examination the organizational leaders deem necessary to ensure adequate and equitable responses.
“There’s a very big difference between having an opinion, discerning between right and wrong, versus thinking deeply and critically about these issues,” Wong elaborated. “We’re trying to really understand the moral dilemmas behind these issues. We should have opinions on these topics, and we do. So a lot of what we do is pushing our intuitions, asking why we view something as right or wrong.”