Facing the Ethical Dilemmas of Our Time: Manhattan College’s Ethics Bowl Team Places High in Northeast Regional Competition

by Kiersten Thompson, Contributor

Manhattan College’s Ethics Bowl team ranked high in the Northeast Regional competition last semester, earning 10th place out of 20 teams and beating schools like Penn State and Yale University. 

The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl is an annual competition during which teams representing their respective colleges and universities debate on various contemporary ethical issues. Teams are given 15 cases to prepare for and do research on, often with student members being in charge of specific cases. On the day of the competition, each team has three matches. The first team has seven to 12 minutes to present their position on one of the cases picked by the judges. The opposing team responds for five to eight minutes and then the first team responds back. Afterward, judges would ask questions pertaining to the team’s position on the ethical issue. 

Manhattan College’s Ethics Bowl team earned 10th place out of 20 teams in the Northeast Regional competition last December. 

Due to the pandemic, the competition last December was held virtually through Zoom which affected the way students communicated. Instead of passing notes in person, members would converse via a private Zoom chat. For MC students Aubrey Lefkowitz, a senior philosophy major, Roberto Velez, a junior marketing major and Peter Janny, a junior business analytics major, it was their first competition. The new virtual environment posed difficulties, particularly for Lefkowitz, who was put at a disadvantage due to problems with the app. 

“There was a problem that I was having, where when I was placed into a breakout room, it would take me like 45 seconds to get there and then 45 seconds to get back,” Lefkowitz said. “So there would be these periods where we’d be allowed to confer with the team and the judges would say, all right, you have 30 seconds to talk and, and I wouldn’t be able to be a part of that conversation.”

Through Zoom, teams presented their positions on ethical issues that they prepared ahead of time, like the ethics of Civil War reenactments, affirmative action, protests and property destruction, concealing medication for dementia patients, the opt-in versus the opt-out system for organ donors, and do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders in regards to COVID-19 patients. One topic in particular, the DNR case, was difficult for members of the team, especially due to its current relevance. Titled “The Good of the One vs the Good of the Many,” it explores the ethics of withholding resuscitation of COVID-19 patients.

“Approaching that case was really, really tough just because, you know, there’s the cold hard facts side of it right, let’s see, let’s assess the damages one way or the other,” Lefkowitz said. “But you really have to detach emotion from something like that because…what you’re talking about is obviously, it’s really delicate and it’s, it’s hard to come at it, you know, without maybe sounding insensitive or without being misconstrued a certain way.”

Harrison Fluss, an assistant professor in the philosophy department, served as supervisor for the team. Fluss utilized his experience competing and being a judge in Ethics Bowl competitions, and his background in philosophy to prepare students by laying out ethical theories and playing devil’s advocate. He echoed the same sentiments as Lefkowitz regarding the DNR case. 

“I think that just dealing with what’s happening in the world today, that really struck me … these are really life and death issues and we need to be sensitive and careful and I think that Aubrey, who was doing the primary research for that case, did a lot of work on the Hippocratic Oath and how do we interpret the Hippocratic Oath with this,” Fluss said. “That was really important, theoretically and I think, practically too.” 

While the team felt sufficiently prepared for this case, facing the judges’ and moderators’ questions was another story. Marshall Strawbridge, a senior philosophy and political science major, was one of the captains of the team. He expressed that although he and the team believed they were well prepared for the DNR case, they weren’t prepared for when the moderator asked a question they had not anticipated. 

“We felt very well prepared for the case and thought it would be a slam dunk, but the moderator framed the case with a question that we weren’t prepared for,” Strawbridge wrote in an email. “We still won that round and I think we adapted well, but that’s the challenge of the ethics bowl. You never know what a thoughtful judge or moderator will ask and you have to be able to think on the fly. That’s why it’s important to have a solid understanding of the facts of the case and the ethical framework your team is using.”

The topics explored required extensive research and reevaluation of one’s positions. One such topic, regarding the ethics and meaning behind Civil War reenactments made Lefkowitz and Velez rethink their initial positions.

“When we started out I was against [the topic] because I just thought if it’s a hot topic, if it’s making people uncomfortable, [then] let’s just not [do it], but then I did a lot of research into it and once I applied the framework in particular, I started to see kind of all these holes in my reasoning, and I was learning things that I didn’t know before,” Lefkowitz said. “I was really apathetic towards the case when I first got it. I was like, we got more important things to be talking about, but by the time I was done with it, it was like my baby. I put all this work into it and then I felt really strongly by the end. So that was a transformation that happened through the course of preparation and competing.”

Preparing for and debating difficult topics like the DNR and Civil War reenactment cases have helped these student members individually in gaining a valuable skill set. It has helped members improve their public speaking, think critically, practice presenting their viewpoints in a civil manner and educate themselves on important issues to name a few.

For Velez, he was able to improve his public speaking skills which he initially had difficulty with. 

“I’m not great at public speaking,” Velez said. “So this has helped me tremendously in that manner. Not only that, it’s helped me gain a new perspective on certain things, on ethics…as this being my first time being in a debate team, the team was very welcoming, and the experience was very…easy.”

The Ethics Bowl team is currently looking to recruit more members and prepare for the next competition in December. The new cases have not been released, but student members still have meetings open to everyone once every two weeks to go over cases and thought experiments. The team will have faculty talks and they are currently planning a showcase debate on some of the topics they prepared for in the past such as the opt-in opt-out case for organ donors, and the covert medication case for patients with dementia. 

The Ethics Bowl competition is not simply about beating the opposite team, but also about sincerely exploring the ethical issues presented. Teams can even agree with each other, and add to each other’s arguments.

“What makes [the] Ethics Bowl different from say Lincoln-Douglas style debate is that we aren’t assigned a position, nor do the cases come with ethical questions attached to them,” Strawbridge wrote in an email. “That to me is closer to how ethical dilemmas are presented to us in the real world. Rarely are the questions we’re faced with easily reduced to for and against a certain proposition. Ethics Bowl teaches you to identify the many different ethical questions relating to contemporary issues and rewards students and teams who are able to appreciate and articulate the nuances in them.”

Editor’s Note: Peter Janny is the Sports Editor of The Quadrangle