NORMAN — Six University of Oklahoma students are interested in doing the right thing. To be more precise, they are interested in determining what the right thing to do is.
Should you raise your children without gender roles? Is bullfighting a cultural art form that deserves protection, or is it simply animal cruelty? Should parents be allowed to spank their children without government interference, or should spanking be declared a misdemeanor?
These questions and more are the types of issues the students debate weekly in preparation for the national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, a fierce verbal competition that is anything but your typical bowl game.
OU's Ethics Bowl team has won the regional competition for two years running. This year, they hope to take the national title when they compete in March in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“It's a debate contest, but the main thing is staying ethically relevant when you argue your case,” said team member Jerod Coker.
The debates center on specific cases, or scenarios, that pose ethical dilemmas. The students are given a set of 15 cases to study before the competition. For each case, team members must come to a consensus, then develop arguments that back up their stance.
“It really makes you challenge your own ethical beliefs as you think about your stand on something. You really have to look at why you believe what you do,” Coker said.
The students can research and develop arguments on each case ahead of time, but at the competition they are not allowed to refer to their research notes.
“It's a little nerve-racking,” says team member Guss Keyes. “When you go into the competition, you just hope you're given a case that you're really strong in.”
Coker is an economics major who says he has always been interested in ethical questions. Keyes, a philosophy major, is a self-described “philosophy nerd” who likes nothing better than “sussing out” issues.
Other team members are Cody Franklin, Jonathan Hagan and Jeff Smith, philosophy majors, and Evan DeFilippis, an economics and math major.
Stephen Ellis, an associate professor of philosophy, and Adrienne Jablonski, director of Student Career and Leadership Development, are the team's coaches.
Twenty-three teams from Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma competed in the Texas Regional Competition of the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl sponsored by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.
At the competition, a moderator poses questions based on a case taken from the set of 15 cases the teams have been allowed to study beforehand. Questions cover ethical problems in areas such as the classroom, personal relationships, professional ethics or social or political ethics.
A panel of judges evaluates answers based on intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant considerations and deliberative thoughtfulness.
“When people go with their gut on ethical questions, they do OK, but this type of debate helps you realize what you're basing that gut reaction on. It solidifies why you think the way you do,” Ellis said.
Sometimes, it changes the way you think, Coker said.
Once a meat-eater, he's now a vegetarian because a debate on animal rights convinced him it was ethically wrong to kill and eat animals.
The debates help students develop their public speaking skills, Ellis said, “but it also leads to good decision-making skills. And, I believe anything that gets you thinking about moral values is good.”
Winners at both the regional and national levels win trophies. Better yet, Keyes said, is the prestige that comes with winning.
“Other philosophy nerds recognize you for it,” he said.