Today’s society is riddled with questions that everyone wants answers to. A group of UCF students is rising to the challenge and is hoping to bring home a national championship trophy in the process.

UCF and the University of North Florida are the only two institutions from the state of Florida that will compete at this year’s Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl National Championship, which will be held on Zoom due to the pandemic on Feb. 27-28. The field of 36 teams also includes Harvard, Yale, Boston College, Stanford and Northwestern among colleges and universities from around the country.

The UCF Ethics Bowl team has been competing at the regional level since 2004 and nationally since 2009, winning the national title in 2011. UCF won the Southeast Regionals in November by besting the University of Florida, the University of South Florida and the Citadel before tying with the U.S. Naval Academy in the finals, allowing both squads to advance to the national competition.

UCF students presented detailed ethical reasoning in responses to questions that covered a myriad of today’s pressing issues: When, if ever, is it ethical to destroy property in response to racial injustice? Is it ethical to make mask policies that differentiate based on race? Is it ever fair for states to require that property owners allow people to avoid paying rent? Should Harry Potter fans stop their consumption of the series and associated artworks due to J.K. Rowling’s sex essentialism?

“Because 2020 was just so hard with so many problems, this year’s cases were really tough,” says Professor Michael Strawser, chair of UCF’s philosophy department and one of the team’s faculty coaches. “These are things that the whole world is struggling with, so it’s very rewarding to hear our students present compelling arguments on such difficult cases. I’m extremely proud of our team’s performance.”

Ins and Outs of Arguing Ethics

Cases are created by the Association of Practical and Professional Ethics and the full slate is given to the participants ahead of the competition. However, the teams do not know which cases they will be asked to argue — without notes — at the competition. Once the moderator reads the question, teams have three minutes to confer with each other before presenting a sound, ethical argument for 10 minutes.

UCF’s team was selected from students enrolled in Honors Case Studies in Ethics during the fall semester. The students prepared for the regional competition during class, in which they researched the cases and developed written and oral ethical arguments for their positions. The national cases were delivered over the holiday break and the students have been preparing during their own free time since the class ended last semester.

The team must agree upon and present a unified front for every argument. Madi Dogariu, assistant dean of the Burnett Honors College and the team’s other faculty coach, recalls a year when the president of the College Democrats and the president of the College Republicans were on the team.

“They had to learn to agree and find compromise and to win the case,” she says. “In general we’ve had members of teams over the years who are on the very ends of the political spectrum and they manage somehow to make it work in beautiful arguments.”

Winners are decided by a panel of judges, who award points based on three criteria: clarity and intelligibility; thoroughness in discussing the ethical parameters of the case; and awareness of alternative perspectives and an appreciation for those perspectives. In other words, teams are awarded points for how they respectfully engage with the opposing team’s argument.

This year’s team says the toughest question of the regional round was whether mug shots should be accessible to the public.

“We could see both sides of the debate and even as a team it was hard for all of us to come down on one side of the argument just because we saw the pros and cons of both,” says Parshva Sanghvi, a biomedical sciences student. “I think for all the other cases, even though they may be of great importance to the current climate, we all had a definitive opinion on whether we agreed or disagreed with the dilemma at hand. But when it came to mug shots we were a lot more confused on which side we should take. Thankfully that wasn’t one of the questions we got at the competition.”

National Championship and Beyond

For the last two months, the team has been pouring over a new slate of questions in the quest for another national championship title. Are social media companies responsible for content posted about QAnon conspiracy theories on their sites? Should individuals who identify as asexual be considered a member of the queer community? Should a city government recommend safe sex guidelines often labeled “kinky” during a pandemic, as New York City did during COVID?

As the students work through these topics, they know they are simultaneously gaining a variety of life skills that include public speaking and how to build a case for a sound, rational argument. Computer science student Julia Warner says thinking of the strongest argument an opponent could make against her case was extremely beneficial.

“You can’t just come up with a poor argument against your own and destroy that. You have to think of the strongest argument,” Warner says. “The mental exercises you have to do to conceptualize the cases I think can be applied to different things you do beyond the ethics bowl.”