Those and other real-life cases are being discussed over pretzels and vegetable platters as five Montana State University philosophy students prepare for a national championship on ethics.
In their first year of competition, a 16-year-old college senior from Bozeman, an Assiniboine and Sioux Indian from Wolf Point, the president of the MSU Philosophy Club from Missoula, and two friends from the East Coast qualified as a team for the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.
The national contest will be held Thursday, Feb. 22, in Cincinnati. To prepare for the competition, the student philosophers met two hours every Monday to thrash out the ethics of 15 cases they received from the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. They'll address at least six of the cases at nationals.
"I enjoy it very much," said Denean Standing of Wolf Point. "I don't think we take the time in our lives to think if things are ethical or unethical, so it's sort of fun to think about ethical things in the real world."
Standing said she competed in humorous duo events in high school, but had no experience in ethics competitions until the Northwest Regional Ethics Bowl in November. That's where the Ethicats won second place, losing by only four points to the University of Washington.
Roger Hunt of Boston said he was immediately interested in joining the team after hearing about it from Kristen Intemann, assistant professor of philosophy at MSU. Intemann, the team's advisor, had led a team at another university.
"It has been a great experience to develop arguments with other students," Hunt said in an e-mail from Boston. Hunt will fly to Cincinnati on his way to New Zealand for a study-abroad program.
"Initially philosophy seems like an individual practice," he continued. "That is misguided. Through this experience, I have learned how philosophy is a product of group work, much like a lab team in a science course."
Other members of the team are Justus Johnson of Missoula, president of the MSU Philosophy Club; Kevin Lande, 16, of Bozeman; and Liz Arce of Wilmington, Del. Intemann said she announced the formation of a team in the fall, and five people responded. Since five is the maximum allowed on a team, they all became Ethicats.
"One of the things that's great about this group of students is they do this because they love philosophy," Intemann said. "They love thinking about these ethical issues. "That's part of the fun of this competition."
Lande, who took his first MSU courses when he was 12, said philosophy runs in his family.
"My brother was in philosophy, now sociology," said Lande, the youngest of four children, all home-schooled and early enrollees in college. "Our family has a great deal of discussions analyzing things anywhere from the big questions to the minutiae of everyday life."
Arce said Hunt, a good friend, asked her to join the team.
"I think all of us really love philosophy," Arce said. "This is just a fun way to exercise our knowledge."
Intemann said the national contest is exhausting. It's a one-day event that runs from 8 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m.
The competition starts with a team learning which case they'll address. The moderator then asks an opening question, the team confers for one minute, and one member speaks for 10 minutes. The opposing team has one minute to confer and five minutes to respond to the presentation. After the judges ask questions, the process starts over with the opposing team and a new case. Round one ends after both teams have presented a case. The team with the most points wins.
"They are judged on things like clarity, consistency and focus," Intemann said. "Was the team able to stay with relevant issues? Did they use good reasoning?"
The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics started the competitions about 10 years ago "to make philosophy relevant to real life and get students to apply philosophical theories about ethics to real-world situations," Intemann said.
Evelyn Boswell (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org