Fordham’s first Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl team wrestled with complex issues, from housing evictions in a pandemic to this past summer’s racial justice protests, at the virtual Northeast Regional Association of Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl on Dec. 12 and 13. 

“One of the greatest aspects of this experience for students is that they are required to take both sides of an issue. It teaches them how to not only defend a particular position that they have, but also to modify it and take the perspective of those who may have a very different understanding of the issue,” said Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D., Marie Ward Doty University Chair in Ethics, psychology professor, and director of several Fordham organizations. “It also moves us toward a more inclusive form of citizenship, which we need right now in this time of polarization.” 

Navigating ‘Thorny Ethical Issues’

For more than two decades, college students across the U.S. have competed in the national bowl and debated moral dilemmas. 

“It’s really important to get people together to talk through these sorts of conflicts,” said Steven Swartzer, Ph.D., coach and advisor for Fordham’s team and associate director for academic programs and strategic initiatives at Fordham’s Center for Ethics Education. “If you have people come together who are willing to try to figure out how to listen empathetically and see what’s driving the ideas of the other person, I think we can make a lot of progress when it comes to thorny ethical issues.” 

This semester, Swartzer formed a team of six students from Fordham College at Rose Hill, Fordham College at Lincoln Center, and the Gabelli School of Business. They met weekly on Zoom and studied 15 case studies that were provided in advance of the competition. Among the debate topics were the moral justification behind acts of political violence, including this past summer’s protests over the murder of George Floyd, and whether or not Harry Potter fans who have rejected J.K. Rowling’s controversial tweets about the transgender community should also reject her work. 

The team prepared with mock presentations, commentaries, and Q&A sessions, with Swartzer acting as judge. On game day, they wore Fordham maroon to the competition. 

In addition to the normal challenges of working remotely as a team, the group had to overcome some unique obstacles.

Victoria Munoz, a senior accounting major at the Gabelli School of Business and a student in the Accelerated BA/MA in Ethics and Society program, competed two hours ahead of her teammates. She logged in from El Paso, Texas, where the competition start time was 6 a.m., while her three teammates on the East Coast settled in at their computers at 8 a.m. Every time she entered or left a Zoom breakout room, there was also a slight time delay due to technical glitches on Munoz’s end. 

“We only had three minutes to prepare [our statement]. So instead of three minutes, I had two minutes and 30 seconds,” Munoz said. “And for the Q&A section, you only got a 30-second conference period, but our team wouldn’t even take it because by the time I’d get in, we’d have to come out. That was a disadvantage for sure.” 

Debating Dementia and Housing Evictions Amid COVID-19

In their first round against Yale, Munoz and her teammates debated the ethics behind concealing medication in food for dementia patients who were no longer lucid. They argued it was unethical, and won their case. 

“Upholding a patient’s dignity is sometimes put on the back-burner with our healthcare system, because everyone’s so overworked and rushing. So we said that it was understandable that a healthcare worker would want to conceal the medication, but ultimately, that wasn’t the most ethical thing to do,” Munoz said. 

“If we want to be completely ethical, we would have to devote time into restructuring our healthcare system to allow for each patient to have the time needed.” 

Another case considered the morality of housing evictions in a pandemic. Jada Heredia, a junior political science and philosophy major at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, argued that evictions shouldn’t occur during a pandemic because they would increase the danger of viral transmission to the local community. There were other factors to consider as well: What about landlords losing income? Is the relationship between landlords and tenants fundamentally exploitative? Should people have to pay for shelter? How can society reorganize the housing system to make it non-exploitative, yet meet everyone’s basic human needs? 

“There is no such thing as a solitary issue,” said Heredia, who plans to work in the legal profession. “Every case where there’s an ethical dilemma always relates to a greater system; set of values; institution; or network of causes, effects, and impacts on people that requires consideration as well.”

The team placed 13th out of 20 teams, winning against one of two teams from Yale University, losing to the United States Military Academy at West Point and Boston College, and tying with University of Maryland, College Park. 

“This competition made me realize that every single industry will [relate to]ethics,” said Munoz, who plans on becoming a certified accountant and will advise companies on how their accounting processes can be more ethical as an intern at Deloitte next summer. 

“It’s always been true, and it’s growing to be even more true now.”