Disagreements are bound to happen. But some Virginia Tech students have learned the art of debating sensitive topics in a civil manner.

They are members of the university’s 2023 Ethics Bowl teams, and in April they competed in the bowl’s annual showdown.

For the bowl, eight teams of two to four students of all majors argue for or against current topics, such as the use of artificial intelligence judges in courtrooms and whether free speech zones are a legitimate way to protect free speech on college campuses. The first-place team splits a $1,000 scholarship prize, while the second-place team splits a $750 prize.

Justin Horn, collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and the faculty sponsor of the Ethics Bowl Club, said the bowl differs from other forms of debate because the goal is not to “smash your opponents.”

Instead, he said, the goal is to show why smart people may have differing views and to charitably engage and respond to the concerns of others.

Each team receives eight potential topics in advance of the event. The teams’ performances are scored by a panel of judges.

The final of three rounds was held April 4 and was a showdown between the teams “Kant Nation” and “Anti-Kant Nation” — the names a play on their support for, or lack thereof, German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ideology. Ultimately, Anti-Kant Nation took the title.  

Students on this year’s winning team — John Hunter, Ari Liverpool, Josie O'Brien and Sean Scott — shared their advice for navigating difficult conversations.

The 2023 Ethics Bowl winners are (from left) Ari Liverpool, Josie O'Brien, Sean Scott, and John Hunter.

How do you approach conversations with people who have radically different viewpoints?

Hunter: The most important thing to remember is that the person on the other side is a human being. People have different vulnerabilities, but at the end of the day we’re all people and we’re all vulnerable and are influenced in different ways. If someone comes to a certain position, we shouldn’t just assume they’re a bad person and that’s why they came to that decision. Remembering that you’re having a discussion with a human being as a human being — that’s the most important step.

Liverpool: It’s important to truly understand the other person’s viewpoint before you respond and make sure that there is no miscommunication. Just be respectful. If the argument gets too heated, I would recommend leaving the situation. Those types of conversations aren’t very productive.

Scott: You should approach people where they are. When you talk to people, you want to argue for their positions, and try to figure out what they believe. For example, I would try to incorporate their thought processes to better understand their viewpoint.

What life skills have you learned on your ethics bowl journey?

O’Brien: Speaking with confidence and being able to think on my feet, and especially being able to freely answer difficult questions with as much grace as possible. Navigating conflict among teammates — people have disagreements often — and we have to navigate those as best as possible and come together to make a coherent argument, despite those disagreements. That’s probably the greatest skill.

Why should the general public care about these types of debates? 

Hunter: I plan to devote the rest of my life to ethics. So I personally think that it’s super important. With all the technologies we’ve developed, the most important thing to consider is that anything that has the capability of improving the world also has the capability to harm it. Anytime we can take a step back and remember that we’re not just developing technology, we’re not just innovating, we’re not just making money — we’re also influencing people’s lives. There’s nothing more important than being sure that the ways we do that are as positive as possible.

Written by  Kelsey Bartlett