Senior philosophy major Caroline Gillette and biochemistry major and Bioethics Society of Boston College president Angela McCarthy were among the undergraduates who made BC's first trip to the IEB finals this semester. (Lee Pellegrini)

Should some social media content be censored? How should PPE for COVID be apportioned among patients and medical staff? Ethical questions abound these days—and some Boston College undergraduates have taken their interest in grappling with them to a competitive level.

Last fall, the students participated in the regional portion of the 25th annual Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, sponsored by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, an international organization focused on advancing scholarship, education, and practice in both areas. The BC contingent placed fifth, thereby joining teams from 35 other American colleges and universities that qualified for the national competition, which was held virtually in late February.

At the nationals, BC faced off against Meredith College, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, and Youngstown State University in five rounds over two days, totaling approximately 10 hours of active discussion. The University of Cincinnati won, beating finalists Stanford University, Northwestern University, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

It was BC’s second year in the Ethics Bowl and its first trip to the finals.

The students responded to their opponents and the judges with both professionalism and finesse, and a robust understanding of the material through clear explanations and compelling arguments. I was thrilled to see such a rich display of learning and skill from our students.
Team Coach and Asstant Professor of Philosophy Katie Rapier

Boston College has a long, distinguished tradition in debate going back to its early years, but there’s an important distinction where the IEB is concerned, according to one IEB competitor.

 “The format of the Ethics Bowl is unique from other debate-style competitions in that teams are scored based on how well they consider the merit of all sides of an argument,” said team member Angela McCarthy ’21, president of the student-organized Bioethics Society of Boston College. “The spirit of the Ethics Bowl encourages respectful deliberation over some of the most controversial issues of our time. Instead of encouraging an ‘us versus them mentality,’ it promotes productive conversations about controversial issues.”

 “I was so proud to see their preparation pay off in their performance at nationals,” said BC team coach Katie Rapier, an assistant professor of philosophy. “The students responded to their opponents and the judges with both professionalism and finesse, and a robust understanding of the material through clear explanations and compelling arguments.  I was thrilled to see such a rich display of learning and skill from our students.”

In advance of competition, each team receives a set of APPE-written cases that explore a variety of topics within practical and professional ethics that could range from cheating and plagiarism, dating and friendships, to free speech, gun control or professional principles in medicine, engineering, or law.  

Teams prepare an analysis of each case, and during a match, a case is randomly selected from the set, and teams have three minutes to huddle before giving a 10-minute presentation.  A moderator poses questions designed to delve deeper into the case’s multiple ethical dimensions.

A panel of judges then probes the teams for further justifications and evaluates their answers. Rating criteria are based on intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant considerations, avoidance of ethical irrelevance, and deliberative thoughtfulness. Teams cannot bring notes or confer with coaches.

“It was clear that most of the case questions were dilemmas that doctors or policy makers were grappling with in real time as the pandemic unfolded,” said McCarthy, a biochemistry major.  “Some of the most challenging cases included the ethics of quarantines, and racial profiling with mask mandates.”

Senior philosophy major Caroline Gillette focused on two cases that dealt with the ethics of moderating content on social media, both offensive speech and misinformation.  

“The argument against censorship is built not just on the values of varied public discourse and free speech, but also the fear that ‘de-platforming’ certain speech will push people to less-mainstream websites, where they are more likely to be radicalized,” she said. “On the other side is the argument that some speech is harmful in that it promotes violence or is simply verifiably false, without good means of distinguishing fact from falsehood. These are tough issues both ethically and practically, but the urgency of addressing them is increasingly apparent.”

Other BC competitors included mathematics major Gregory Bormes ’21, vice president of the Bioethics Society, biology major Sophia Chryssofos ’21, and International Studies major Isabelle Jones ’23.

McCarthy noted that BC used this interdisciplinary team composition, atypical from its peers, to its advantage. “The way that I approached problems as a biochemistry major was different from the methods that my teammates proposed as International Studies, philosophy, economics, and math majors. We found a way to integrate our different backgrounds and approaches to develop creative solutions to challenging moral dilemmas.”

To help prepare for the competitions, the team consulted BC faculty members Nadia Abuelezam, Deborah Hurley, Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, and Richard Nielsen, as well as faculty experts from the University of Alabama-Birmingham and the University of Colorado at Denver. The BC team also scrimmaged against the BC Bioethics Bowl members before the nationals.

Jiin-Yu Chen, who served as BC’s director of research integrity until February before departing for the Baylor School of Medicine, coached the team in its first year and through the regional competition, then assisted in nationals preparation before turning the reins over to Rapier.

“When I first met the team, I was so impressed by their intellectual curiosity and ability to translate complex ethical principles into accessible arguments,” said Rapier. “When I became their coach, I felt like my job was easy; the team systematically approached the cases and took the initiative to approach external experts when needed.”

Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | April 2021