If Hollywood made movies about philosophers the way it does athletes, then the University of Montana’s top finish in the national ethics bowl might fall in the class of “Rudy,” “Rocky III” or, even better, “The Natural.”
While their underdog story isn’t likely to appear in a theater near you, UM philosophy majors Hayden Hooker and Joel Johnson, along with journalism major Alan Rolph and coach Neil Bennett, a graduate student in economics, took top honors last month at the 18th annual International Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.
In doing so, the Grizzly thinkers defeated teams from 32 other schools, including Villanova, Duke and Wake Forest universities. The feat could rank as this year’s Cinderella story.
“This group prepared for three years,” said Deborah Slicer, a UM graduate director and professor of philosophy. “They coached themselves and competed against much larger schools, including Ivy League schools with paid professional coaches.”
With no budget to play from, the team raised $4,000 in travel money by hitting up various university departments. The students absorbed some of the costs on their own to cover the trip – and to linger long enough in Jacksonville, Fla., to take home the trophy.
A very large trophy, it turns out.
“We won this really huge trophy, and carrying that back on the plane wasn’t easy,” said Bennett. “People asked, ‘What’s the trophy for? What are you doing with that?’ ”
Describing an ethics bowl may be filled with intangibles. Part debate, part coffee talk, the competition pits one team against the next, each required to apply philosophical tools to answer – and win – their cases.
A case is best described as a question with no easy answer. If an animal species goes extinct due to human causes, do humans have an obligation to bring the species back into existence or leave it be?
“The way we answered it is, if the extinction is brought about by humans ruining the animal’s habitat, then it’s better that we don’t bring the animal back, because it no longer has a habitat,” said Bennett. “At that point, bringing the animal back is kind of a moot point without a place to live.”
The team was posed with another tickler involving a naïve 18-year-old student embarking on a freshman project. As presented in the case, the student’s project involved research on civil disobedience – work that would take a dark turn.
In this scenario, the student’s research led him to a radical website. He visited the site more often and began connecting with those on the forums. Soon enough, he and his online friends decided to bomb the local mall, but when he showed up, he was met by the FBI.
As it turns out, the website was a sham used to catch radicals. But the question remains: Did the freshman act on his own or was he coerced into it?
“At what point was he acting on his own accord and deciding to do this terrorist act by himself?” Bennett said. “We argued that he’s a young 18-year-old who’s impressionable. His autonomy was taken from him by this website and its users, and he wasn’t reaching the decisions on his own.”
Opinions don’t win debates on ethical issues and human dilemmas. Rather, the team applied long-held philosophical theories to argue their case. Among them, Bennett named utilitarianism, feminine ethics of care, and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.
Judges scored the teams on the ethical relevance of their arguments and their avoidance of irrelevance – along with their deliberate thoughtfulness. While most teams had five members, the UM team had just three, giving its thinkers little time for a mental break.
“We put in a lot of time for this, and the competition was fairly stiff,” said Bennett. “Some of it was applying what we learned in our philosophy classes. Another part was debating the cases. We’d sometimes have arguments and disagreements over aspects of cases, and we’d talk about that at length.”
While the team’s victory wasn’t met with parades, firetruck rides or banners hanging over stadiums, it did get a write-up in the Montana Kaimin – the university’s student newspaper.
Winning the ethics bowl also served as a feather in their cap and it makes for good braggadocio, though that may be another philosophical discussion.
“The coaches of almost all the teams were philosophy professors,” said Bennett, who’s 23. “I’m a grad student studying economics. People were really surprised by how young I was, and without a Ph.D.”