The tension was palpable. The last time the participants in Virginia Tech’s Ethics Bowl had competed, it had been over Zoom, making their ethical arguments through computer screens. Today, they were face to face, with all audience members’ eyes on them.

The Three Grizzly and Hunter Liverpool teams remained calm under pressure, however. They’d spent hours preparing, studying the list of potential competition cases from different angles, and now they were ready for a thought-provoking discussion.

“I came in here pretty anxious, but as it went on, I just entered that flow state,” said Aidan O’Brien, a junior mechanical engineering major and a member of Three Grizzly, after the match.

Three Grizzly was the first to make an argument about returning stolen cultural artifacts to their countries of origin, followed by back-and-forth commentary between the two teams on their arguments — not rebuttals, as in a traditional debate, but raising questions and answering concerns. Afterward, the two teams switched roles, with Hunter Liverpool speaking on the ethical problems with using facial recognition software in law enforcement.

“There are many different ways that these students could come at these issues,” said Justin Horn, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and the faculty sponsor of the Ethics Bowl club. “It was interesting to see how the teams could approach the issues creatively and thoughtfully to make their arguments.”

Virginia Tech’s Ethics Bowl club got its humble start on Zoom in February 2021, with around a dozen students attending the first virtual meeting. Now a registered student organization, the club meets weekly to discuss cases about current and controversial ethical issues.

While most of the participants are in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the group welcomes students, like O’Brien and Liverpool, from all areas of study.

“Philosophy does help when thinking about ethical issues, but we like having a range of majors involved,” said Horn.

The 2022 Virginia Tech Ethics Bowl, held in April, was the club’s second time hosting its own case competition. Eight teams of students participated in a three-round tournament, leading up to the final round.

During the bowl, after Hunter Liverpool answered the judges’ final question about privacy in DNA testing at crime scenes, both teams waited while their scores were tallied.

“I was on the edge of my seat the entire match,” said Ari Liverpool, a junior majoring in applied economic management and a member of Hunter Liverpool. “It was great having another team to challenge ourselves against.”

The final outcome was close, a testament to the intellectual rigor of the match: Three Grizzly earned a score of 159 out of a possible 180, just five points higher than Hunter Liverpool.

Team Three Grizzly, who took first place in the 2022 Virginia Tech Ethics Bowl, delivers an argument during the final round of competition. From left: Clement Mulock, Aidan O’Brien, and Stefan Price-Aguirre. Photo by Mary Crawford for Virginia Tech.

Three Grizzly may have won first place, but both teams came away satisfied.

“This was by far the most intellectually stimulating round we’ve had,” said Three Grizzly’s Clement Mulock, a senior international studies major. “All of their points were fantastic, and it was fun to have a frank, candid discussion.”

“It was my first year, and I’d like to continue participating,” added Hunter Liverpool’s John Hunter, a junior double majoring in psychology and philosophy.

In addition to the intramural competition, the group also participates in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, a national competition organized by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, which has member teams from more than 100 universities. In November 2021, the Virginia Tech team participated in the mid-Atlantic regional competition, hosted by the University of North Georgia. Next year, the club’s goal is to make it to the national competition.

The teams prepared rigorously for their time onstage. During their weekly club meetings and in outside team meetings, they discussed the ethical cases in the competition packet and formulated their arguments.

“The preparation is a lot of the fun of this event,” said Stefan Price-Aguirre, a senior English major and another member of Three Grizzly. “You get to sit down and go through reasons, pro and con, for every single case.”

“We have a very enjoyable, relaxed discussion,” Mulock added.

The respectful atmosphere of the discussions is a major part of Ethics Bowl’s appeal for the students. In a society where debate over ethical topics is frequently polarized and emotionally charged, Ethics Bowl offers a peaceful alternative.

“You get the same practice of public speaking that you get with debate, but it’s a much less confrontational environment, so you can actually listen to what the opposing team is saying and even agree with it if you like it,” said Mulock.

“It’s very civil,” Hunter said. “People actually have time to speak and not be interrupted.”

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For Horn, every Ethics Bowl match is a chance to learn something new from the discussions among the students. It’s also a chance to watch them gain confidence, skill, and strong bonds.

“The teams have to work together, they have to coordinate with each other, and they have to speak with one voice,” said Horn. “Another fun element is the relationships that students form with each other through coming together as a team.”

So even though only one team won the day, all the participants received valuable experience in ethical discussion, as well as a scholarship prize: The first-place team of three people was awarded $750, while the second-place team of two people received $500, leading O’Brien to have a realization.

“Even though you guys came in second, because it’s just the two of you, that’s $250 per person,” O’Brien said. “We all get exactly the same amount!”

“That’s so ethical!” said Price-Aguirre.

“Share the wealth,” Hunter agreed.

The Ethics Bowl case competition was held in conjunction with the second annual Ethics Week, hosted by the Pamplin College of Business’s Business Leadership Center. Other sponsors included Ernest and Young (EY); Altria; the Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics; the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; the Department of Management; and the Department of Philosophy.

The Virginia Tech Ethics Bowl club meets weekly during the semester to discuss ethical issues. All undergraduate students are welcome to attend these meetings. To learn more, contact the club on Gobbler Connect.

Story, photos, and video by Mary Crawford