In a time of national crisis, what yields first - civil liberties or security? How do you treat an enemy who doesn't play by the rules? And whose rules do you use?
Events like Sept. 11 are often accompanied by a Pandora's box of moral quandaries. But they're perfect fodder to people like Britt Davis. He's the vice president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges (VFIC), which is sponsoring its third statewide Ethics Bowl Competition this weekend.
Ethics bowls have become philosophers' favorite collegiate sport, in which students volley Kantian theory and slam-dunk Utilitarianism. About a dozen such bowls are held around the country each year.
The VFIC ethics bowl this Sunday and Monday will be held at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. Student teams from 15 Virginia colleges are to compete for ownership of a silver-bowl trophy.
"The questions at ethics bowls usually touch on all areas of life," Mr. Davis says, "but this year we thought it was important for students to weigh in on the impact of Sept. 11."
The competition works like this: Several weeks in advance, teams receive a set of ethical dilemmas to study. At the bowl, a moderator will select one of the scenarios. Each team of about five students is granted a few minutes to discuss the issues, and then a team member presents the group opinion. A panel of judges may seek clarification before turning over the ethical question to an opposing team. Then it's on to the next case. Responses are evaluated for their depth, intelligibility, and judgment.
In addition to regional competitions, the national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl takes place every year in Cincinnati. On Feb. 28, 35 teams from colleges across the country will debate topics ranging from America's position on greenhouse-gas emissions, the Ku Klux Klan's right to "adopt a highway," and the relaxation of the ban on assassinating foreign heads of state after Sept. 11.
"The competition forces students not to have a knee-jerk reaction to issues," says Andy Piker, a philoso-
phy professor at Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, which won the competition last year. "It forces them to slow down in formulating their ideas."
But lest one think the bowls are just a philosopher's festa, they actually attract students with majors ranging from drama to molecular biology, Dr. Piker says.
Rachel Harshman, who just graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) with a degree in engineering, participated in the national bowl for the past four years. She says she joined the team because her math-centered education didn't offer much opportunity to hone public-speaking skills.
Now, Ms. Harshman is a transportation planner in Dallas, and says the skills she gained are invaluable.
"I debate - and question - all the time how to best allot transportation spending," she says. "Plus, it's nice to be able to stand up in front of a large group of people and be like 'I can take this.' "
The concept for the bowls began in 1993 with Robert Ladenson, a philosophy professor at IIT, which now sponsors the national bowl.
"The idea was to develop a capacity for ethical understanding in a world where ethical questions have become more complex, difficult, and ambiguous," he says.
Of course, says Harshman, some mock scenarios are a bit more enlightening than others.
"One time we debated for hours whether it was ethical to walk through a red light in order to chase after your dog who had just broken free from his leash. It was really quite ridiculous," she laughs.