Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Wages of Niceness

I spent all day yesterday as one of six volunteer judges for the regional Ethical Bowl competition held at the University of Colorado, under the auspices of the CU philosophy department. Ethics Bowl, according to the website of its sponsor, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, is a program in which "teams argue and defend their moral assessment of some of the most troubling and complex ethical issues facing society today. Questions address a wide array of topics in business and professional ethics, in personal relationships, and in social and political affairs."

The students receive the fifteen competition cases in advance and over a period of several weeks analyze them together. Some of the cases for yesterday's regional competition included: should it be a criminal offense not to disclose one's HIV-infection to a potential sexual partner? is it hypocritical for devoted pet owners to eat meat, thereby favoring one sentient species over another? is it permissible for a middle school to cancel its graduation over objections to prayer at the ceremony, rather than simply removing the prayer? is it morally justifiable to air advertisements stigmatizing childhood obesity with the intention of pressuring parents of obese children to seek treatment for them? The competition is not structured as a "for-or-against" situation, where one team defends a "yes" answer to each question while the other team defends a "no." Instead, both teams are judged on the depth, clarity, thoroughness, and insightfulness of their analysis of the ethical issues involved.

So, because I think Ethics Bowl is a terrific program, and because I was so involved with it during my two years at DePauw (our DePauw team was the national champion last year, an amazing achievement for a small college competing against dozens and dozens of other schools of all sizes nationwide), I agreed to serve as a judge this time around.  I also just want to be a nice person, and nice people help when they can, where they are needed.

Then I found out that I'd have to be there at 8 in the morning on a Saturday and have to judge five rounds, ending at almost 6. There went half my weekend!

I complained to one friend: "Isn't there any way to be a nice person without actually having to spend your precious time doing nice things?"

I already knew the answer: no.

So off I went bright and early yesterday morning. As soon as I arrived at the Ethics Bowl venue, it all came back to me, everything I love so much about Ethics Bowl. The students arrived, from University of Nebraska (two teams), Fort Lewis College, Colorado State, and our own team from CU. Two of the teams had driven seven hours to get there. The students had worked so hard to prepare their cases, on top of all their other coursework. They were all dressed up to show themselves at their best. They were ready to talk ethics!

I loved every minute of hearing their thoughts on each case. I loved formulating my questions to ask them in response (one role for the judges). The lunch, a Mexican make-your-own-burrito buffet, was delicious. I was dismissed early, as fewer judges were needed for the final round, and the University of Colorado team was one of the finalists, so it would have been inappropriate (unethical?) for me to judge my own school, if this could be avoided. I came home sooner than I had expected, exhilarated, more in love with Ethics Bowl than ever.

So it turns out that the reward for being a nice person, at least some of the time, just is that you get to do the nice thing itself. And isn't that nice?

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