Debate Team Works on Keeping the Conversation Deep

Published: Feb 14, 2013
UT’s Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl debate team will compete on Feb. 28 in the 17th Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Championship in Austin, TX.
UT’s Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl debate team will compete on Feb. 28 in the 17th Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Championship in Austin, TX.

At the end of this month, a group of UT students will tackle some controversial public issues with ambiguous outcomes.

As finalists in December’s regional competition, beating out schools like the University of Florida, University of Alabama and the Georgia Military College, for the first time in UT history, UT’s Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl debate team will compete at the national level.

On Feb. 28, the team advances to the 17th Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Championship in Austin, TX, as part of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics annual meeting.

“We have done progressively better with each competition,” said Marcus Arvan, assistant professor of philosophy.

Arvan started the debate team when he came to UT in 2009, and has enjoyed watching the students grow, knowing that thinking on one’s feet is a tough skill to master.

“They’re developing views on world issues like gun control, free speech and climate control,” Arvan said. “The benefits are huge in terms of learning how to speak in public in a composed and professional way to present clear arguments.”

The topics the students are faced with come with some deep thinking. The students have to prepare for about 15 cases, making arguments for both sides unaware of which case or which side they’ll be asked to debate. Meeting twice a week since January, the team has combed meticulously through the cases to apply philosophical theories of ethics to their arguments.

“I joined the ethics bowl team because as a freshmen, my first year writing professor had told the class that if you can speak well and write well, you will have the tools to succeed in any profession,” said Marco Tarantino ’14, a philosophy major from Oldsmar, FL, who has since focused his academic career on improving these skills.

In addition to improving his analytical skills, Tarantino has been able to develop an intuitiveness about his actions.

“In life, there are a multitude of choices that a person can make during any given day. Sometimes, these decisions are minute in impact, but sometimes these decisions can create a ripple effect that can affect the community at large,” Tarantino said. “To be able to analyze and foretell what your actions and decisions can cause is, in a way, a sixth-sense of sorts. When someone can master such a skill, they can truly make a difference in the world and at the same time have a better understanding of the progression of their life.”

The case topics range from the ethics of developing and testing climate engineering techniques, to the issues of free speech involved with a Major League Baseball manager who was fired because of his words supporting Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, to the DREAM Act.

Matt Weinburg ’13, a philosophy major from Sudbury, MA, said the camaraderie of meeting intellectual students from around the nation is a big appeal to competing in nationals.

Arvan said that it is his duty as an educator to give students amazing opportunities during their undergraduate experience and to open their minds to ways of thinking about the world. John Williams ’13, a philosophy major with a minor in Asian studies, questioned why more students didn’t get involved in this type of rhetoric.

“Ethical debates involve pushing back on our preconceptions regarding how we should treat other people in both mundane and extraordinary situations. It doesn’t seem wildly unreasonable to assume that this makes us more conscientious in our interactions with other people,” said Williams, of Philadelphia, PA. “The real question is why ethics isn’t a required course at UT?”

Rachael McLain ’13, a government and world affairs major from Belgium, joined the debate team to strengthen her professional skills and provide her with an ethical framework with which to work in law or government. She said the most challenging thing about these debate competitions is defending a point of view that she could be morally opposed to or in which she might not believe.

“Although it is a challenge, it is also a unique and beneficial experience because it forces us to understand other points of views, and to focus on purely logical and ethical principles opposed to relying only on feelings,” said McLain.

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