Ethics Bowl team
From left: Gillian Gray '17, Mira Skladany '19, Lauren Wilson '19, Flora Sheppard '16, Erick Franklund '19, Nick Moen '16 and Emma Thompson '16. Photo courtesy of Flora Sheppard

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While still in its first year, the Whitman Ethics Bowl team is making a name for itself on a national level.

In November, the newly minted team won the Northwest Regional Ethics Bowl at Seattle Pacific University. Last weekend, seven Whitman students competed in the National Championship in Reston, Virginia, where they earned an award for spirit.  

"I am very proud that the Whitman College Ethics Bowl team was recognized with the Spirit of Robert Ladenson Award for exemplifying civility during the Ethics Bowl National Championship," said Whitman President Kathy Murray. "The ability to engage in civil discourse around complex issues will serve these students well throughout their lives."  

Named for the founder of the Ethics Bowl, the Spirit of Robert Ladenson Award recognizes one out of the nearly 40 teams that compete from around the country for demonstrating a high level of engaged, rational discussion. The winner is chosen via vote of rival team members as well as judges, moderators and other coaches, reflecting a popular consensus.  

"What I have loved about this group of students from the beginning is that they engaged in the Ethics Bowl with a genuine desire to dialogue with others to better understand complex ethical issues," said coach Patrick Frierson, associate professor of philosophy and Garrett Fellow in the Humanities. "Even as they have gotten more and more intellectually sophisticated in their thinking, and better and better at working together to effectively articulate their perspective, they've never lost sight of the real point, to engage in ethical discussions with grace and respect."  

The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl is organized by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Teams face off on a wide array of subjects, and judging criteria include intelligibility of arguments, focus on ethically relevant considerations and deliberative thoughtfulness. This year's tournament posed questions pertaining to reproductive technology, the presence of military psychologists in prisoner interrogations, legal personhood for chimpanzees, self-driving cars and President Obama's usage of the term "thug" to describe Baltimore rioters after the death of Freddie Gray.  

"Never having been to the national competition, I didn't know what to expect, other than that it would be competitive," said Flora Sheppard '16, a philosophy and psychology major. "Having the opportunity to see teams from all over the country was exciting because it allowed us to consider the various ethical issues from a wider range of perspectives."  

She said the team met five to six hours per week to practice, in addition to time spent preparing cases independently.  

"We were there to do the best we could, in terms of crafting strong ethical arguments and engaging in productive discussions. It was important to us that we always be respectful and genuinely committed to the discussions for the sake of the discussions because the competition does get intense at times."  

The Whitman team sparred with Macalester College, St. Mary's College of Maryland and the University of Richmond, defeating Macalester. Whitworth University, a fellow Eastern Washington liberal arts institution, won the tournament.  

"To me, receiving the Ladenson Award affirms that our team is committed to the big picture mission and spirit of ethics bowl," Sheppard said. "The best part of the competition was having the opportunity to talk briefly with Dr. Ladenson about philosophy and founding the Ethics Bowl."

According to Associate Dean of Students Noah Leavitt, who accompanied the team on their trip to nationals, "Whitties have a highly developed sense of group support and teamwork, and it's highly satisfying to see that inclination celebrated by people—other college students no less!—with whom our students interact."

Jenna Terry, senior adjunct assistant professor of English and general studies, teaches two Ethics Bowl team members in her Encounters class: Eric Franklund '19 and Mira Skladany '19.  

"The national placement and the award itself are enormous honors," she said. "That Mira and Erick are one third of the team to earn that award, as first-year students in the same Encounters section—well, that's a significant accomplishment."  

Leavitt added, "They demonstrated Whitman's core value that learning is a collaborative endeavor and that learning is best when we work together to understand a complex problem."

For Sheppard and her teammates, coming together with hundreds of peers to discuss ethical frameworks for the complexities of modern life was a study in nuance. As Dr. Ladenson himself explained to her, the spirit of the Ethics Bowl is "not always about being perfectly logical or avoiding all contradictions, but rather the struggle to make ideas work together, to go to great lengths to apply those ideas and to gain deep knowledge of claims before refuting them."