Collaboration was key for the Clemson University Ethics Bowl team at the national championship. Not every team showed the Tiger spirit of teamwork.
The five-member Clemson group bested hundreds of other university teams, tying for third place at the National Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, held March 2-3 in Baltimore.
“They were beyond excited, really proud of themselves,” said David Antonini, the team’s coach and a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion.
Sophomore team member Caleb Hylkema said the same Clemson group of five students will return to the bowl next year, primed to compete for the championship.
“I think we’re in a good position to win next year,” said Hylkema, 20, a double major in philosophy and biology. “It’s really good to have the same team because we’ve established a great rapport and we work well together.”
Ethics Bowl teams compete to offer the best responses to contemporary ethical questions on topics such as computer privacy, organ donation, the marketing of junk food to kids and the nuclear threat of North Korea. The college teams are judged on the strength and force of their arguments and application of ethical ideas.
At Clemson, the team trains as a part of an undergraduate Creative Inquiry class.
“They learn to apply ethical reasoning to basic social and political issues that are very contemporary,” Antonini said. “It involves both empirical research and abstract ethical principles.”
The program is perfect for students who love to debate ethical issues.
Plus, it offers a great opportunity for students to sharpen critical thinking and communication skills, Hylkema said.
“I’m really interested in ethical issues and if I were not on the Ethics Bowl team, I’d be thinking about these problems anyway,” he said. “This gives me a structured way to do that. It makes me a better thinker and speaker, forcing me to articulate my ideas concisely and clearly. It requires me most of all to have an open mind.”
Clemson has long fielded top-ranked Ethics Bowl teams, having been named a semifinalist in 2006, 2007 and 2019, second in the nation in 2009 and 2012, and national champion in 2008.
“It’s a pretty rarified air to be up there in the semifinals,” said Charles Starkey, a philosophy professor who coached the Ethics Bowl team when it won the championship in 2008. “You’re up against the best teams in the country. The competition is pretty intense.”
This year, the Clemson team won the right to compete at the national level after placing among the top teams at the regional competition in November at the University of Georgia.
For the national competition, each team receives 15 case studies about six weeks before the event. The cases involve an ethical dilemma on which the team must develop a detailed, persuasive position. In preparing for each argument, the students apply ethical theories while incorporating legal principles, scientific facts and sociological observations.
Students have 10 minutes to respond to cases chosen by the judges. They also are questioned on their responses by opposing teams and the judges.
“The real challenge is making sure you’re prepared to answer any variation of the question that could be asked,” Antonini said. “They don’t know beforehand which cases will be chosen.”
At the national championship, the Clemson team achieved third place among 36 teams from both public and private universities nationwide, including Ivy League schools such as Yale. Oklahoma Christian University tied with Clemson for third place while the University of Alabama at Birmingham earned second place and past champion Whitworth University was named national champion.
The Clemson group’s secret: teamwork.
“Some schools have only one team member speak for the entire 10 minutes whereas Clemson emphasizes having a role for each member to speak during the 10-minute presentation,” Antonini said. “Clemson really emphasizes a collaborative approach, having all five team members involved in every aspect of each case.”
A labor of love
The Department of Philosophy and Religion sponsors the Ethics Bowl team, but the group is open to any undergraduate student.
In addition to Hylkema, current team members are Andy Ackerman (math major with a philosophy minor), Kathleen Dudgeon (philosophy major with a law, liberty, and justice emphasis), Ryan Sweeney (management and marketing major), and Sylvia Wu (philosophy and math double major).
Newer students, called research assistants, also attend their Creative Inquiry class in the hope of being a part of the Ethics Bowl team in the future.
“The idea is to have someone who is very familiar with how everything works when there’s an opening,” Antonini said. “It’s much easier to transition someone onto the team that way.”
An emphasis on continuity also extends to the team’s faculty coaches. Past coaches are always on hand during the academic year to offer advice.
In his first year as coach of the Ethics Bowl team, Antonini received assistance from his philosophy colleagues, including Adam Gies, Stephen Satris, Kelly Smith, Charles Starkey and Daniel Wueste.
“They’re very gracious to provide guidance about what has been successful at the competition in the past,” Antonini said.
Preparing for competition is an intense experience for the Ethics Bowl team members, who juggle full course loads and often participate in extracurricular activities while getting ready for the big event.
“These are very busy students,” Antonini said.
The national Ethics Bowl program fosters a more civil society, Antonini said.
“They’re learning critical thinking skills and to argue and discuss really contentious issues in a reasonable way,” he said. “Learning to engage in civil discourse on contentious issues is incredibly valuable.”
For Hylkema, the Ethics Bowl team is a labor of love.
“It does involve a fair bit of sacrifice,” Hylkema said. “I find the issues so important that it really doesn’t take much effort to find time to work on them. I enjoy doing that work, so it’s not a burden. I love thinking and talking about these really important and interesting issues. It’s definitely worth it.”
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