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Ethics Bowl Overview

Rules, Format, & Significance

For more information, check out "The Educational Significance of Ethics Bowl" by Robert Ladenson.

How Ethics Bowl is Played

In Ethics Bowl a moderator asks two teams of three to five undergraduate students questions that pose ethical problems on topics ranging widely over areas such as the classroom (e.g. cheating or plagiarism), personal relationships (e.g. dating or friendship), professional ethics (e.g. engineering, architecture, business, the military, law, medicine, etc.) or social and political ethics (e.g. free speech, gun control, health care, etc.) In an Ethics Bowl competition two teams are asked different questions. Each team answers its question according to the following format. After the moderator poses a question to a team the team gets one minute to confer, after which it must state its answer. (The team does not respond completely cold, however, because prior to the Ethics Bowl each competing team receives a set of cases that present ethical issues upon which the questions a team must answer at the Ethics Bowl are based.)

After the team states its answer to the question posed by the moderator the judges then have an opportunity to ask the team brief follow-up questions to elicit a teams' viewpoint on ethically important aspects of the question, or to seek clarification of a team's response. After the judges have asked their questions, the opposing team then has one minute to present a response to the first team's answer. The first team then has an opportunity to respond to the opposing team's comments.

The judges have been instructed prior to the Ethics Bowl concerning the criteria they are to apply in evaluating the teams' answers, which are the following:

Clarity and Intelligibility
Was the presentation clear and systematic, and did the team answer the moderator's question? Regardless of whether or not you agree with the conclusion, did the team give a coherent argument in a clear and succinct manner?
Identification and Discussion of Central Ethical Dimensions
Did the team's presentation clearly identify and thoroughly discuss the central ethical dimensions of the case?
Deliberative Thoughtfulness
Did the team's presentation indicate both awareness and thoughtful consideration of different viewpoints, including especially those that would loom large in the reasoning of individuals who might disagree with the team's position?


The IEB is a tiered competition in which the top scoring thirty-two teams in ten regional ethics bowls compete against one another at a national ethics bowl. At the national ethics bowl participating teams will compete in three matches during the morning on the day of the event. In the evening the top scoring eight teams will compete in an eight team elimination consisting of four quarter-final matches, two semi-final matches, and a final match.

In both the regional ethics bowls and the national ethics bowl, four to six weeks prior to the day of the event, each entered team, as well as every judge and moderator, will receive a set of ethics bowl cases. The questions asked of teams are to be taken from this set. As in previous ethics bowls, the moderators and judges will be drawn from distinguished individuals in diverse fields, such as law, medicine, business, government service, engineering, science, academia, and other fields as well.

The Educational Value and Significance of Ethics Bowl

Starting in 1993 as a small intramural event at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), organized by IIT's Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (CSEP), the IEB has grown to become a national competition in which so many schools wished to take part that it became necessary to reorganize and expand it into its current format, involving ten regional ethics bowls throughout the United States, and a national ethics bowl in which the top scoring teams in the regional ethics bowls compete with one another. Here are some of the reasons why we believe that the IEB has appealed so strongly to educators in the area of practical and professional ethics.

Participating in the IEB develops students' intellectual abilities and capacities, deepens their ethical understanding, and reinforces their sense of ethical commitment. With regard to the development of intellectual abilities and capacities, the most salient ethical issues for college and university students are complicated and ambiguous. Contrary to the implied message of a best selling book published several years ago, everything one needs to know about ethical issues on topics such as cheating, plagiarism, personal relationships, gender inequality, campus political controversies, and business or professional ethics in a future career can't be learned in kindergarten. Dealing with such issues places heavy demands upon students' abilities to discern, analyze, and evaluate, as well as upon their capacity to maintain a well organized mental focus under conditions of intellectual (and emotional) uncertainty. IEB participation brings all these abilities and capacities directly into play.

Furthermore, students deepen their ethical understanding of complex, ambiguous, and highly viewpoint dependent questions through participating in the IEB. Ethical understanding in connection with such issues consists largely of the capability to view from the inside ethical positions with which one disagrees, so that one understands the concerns motivating those positions, and, to some extent, appreciates their force. In this regard, students report that when discussing IEB questions before a competition, team members often begin from sharply divergent positions, but as discussion proceeds one or the other of two outcomes tends to result. Sometimes differences of opinion narrow with further discussion. In many instances, however, this does not happen, and yet the students still succeed in reaching agreement upon what their response will be to a given question if asked it at the IEB. This is because the team members who personally disagree with the response have come to view it as a defensible position that a reasonable and responsible person could hold.

Finally, participation in the IEB, we believe, can reinforce a student's sense of ethical commitment. Although the natural competitive inclination of students undoubtedly sparks their interest in the IEB, in our experience this factor has not dominated the event. We like to think that at the conclusion of the IEB the contestants, judges, moderators, and audience experience a sense of coming together, characteristic of joint participation in a significant and valued activity, guided by shared standards with which the participants deeply identify. This is the way it ought to be in our judgment, and the way we want to keep it.

We believe strongly that the IEB fills a unique niche in practical and professional ethics education. It is also great fun. To receive more information, contact:

Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions
Illinois Institute of Technology
Chicago, IL 60616
Phone (312) 567-3619
Fax (312) 567-3016