Taking ethical debates from the ivory tower to the town pub

Brad Chick, spouse of Rotarian Karen Kelly and a judge at the Big Ethical Question Slam, tallies his scores.
Photo Credit: Jim West. All rights reserved. Not for reuse.

Consider this situation: You are caring for a hungry girl whom you can’t afford to feed. What do you do? Do you steal food, or do you let her starve in the name of law and order?

For many people, thorny ethical questions can be difficult to swallow. For one nonprofit in Michigan, USA, and the Rotarians who support it, moral ambiguity is a dish best served with a cold beer.

In February, A2Ethics.org hosted the third annual Big Ethical Question Slam at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub in Ann Arbor, drawing a diverse crowd of students, retirees, professionals, and academics to weigh life’s dilemmas over a few pints.

An entertaining dilemma

During this spin-off of a pub trivia night or poetry slam, teams compete by responding to hypothetical questions drawn from a hat. Subjects include the theoretical -- How do we quantify ethical dilemmas? --  and the topical -- Can doping athletes like Lance Armstrong redeem themselves? -- with some broaching sensitive territory -- Should drone warfare be prohibited on moral grounds? A three-judge panel critiques and rates the teams’ two-minute responses, while about 75 onlookers fill out scorecards to determine the “people’s choice.”

“We conceived of the slam as a ‘think-off’ version of ‘Dancing With the Stars’or ‘American Idol,’” explains Jeanine DeLay, president of A2Ethics, which aims to promote ethics through education, social networking, and community events. (A2 is a nickname for Ann Arbor.) “We didn’t want it to be too highbrow. The point is to engage people in ethics discussions in a fun way.”

“Rotarians look to The Four-Way Test when we’re ethically evaluating whether to do something, but people come from different perspectives and have their own moral yardsticks,” says Karen Kerry, one of several Rotarians in the audience at Conor O’Neill’s. Kerry is the 2014-15 president of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, which hopes to enter a team in the next contest.

“People have gotten away from this long history of gathering in places for issue-based discussions: The Greeks had their acropolis, and the Romans had their forum. At least we can do it here in our Irish pub.” Kerry’s husband, Brad Chick, an Internet entrepreneur and former philosophy student, agreed to be a judge for the competition.

Asking the tough questions

The atmosphere in the bar is congenial; after all, it’s a snowy Thursday night in a college-town pub. People whisper to one another and jot down notes over fish and chips. Erin Mattimoe, an A2Ethics board member and the evening’s master of ceremonies, keeps the crowd on task as she reads the question at hand, anonymously submitted through the organization’s website before the event: In an election, is it unethical to vote for a candidate you feel isn’t qualified -- if you agree on one key issue?

Teri Turner steps up to the microphone as the sounds of conversation and clinking glasses fade. She represents a team of staff from the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. “I would argue that voting on one key issue is not unethical,” she says. “For example, I might be a pacifist who does not want her children to go to war, and I might find a candidate who’s unacceptable in every way except that he’s antiwar.”

“Having spent most of my life voting for the lesser of two evils, I think that was a great answer,” responds judge Peter Jacobson with a laugh. “Nicely argued.” Jacobson is a professor of health law and policy at the University of Michigan and director of the Center for Law, Ethics, and Health at the School of Public Health.

A showcase for new ideas

Teams come from a range of institutions and groups, including a liberal-arts-focused prep school, an integrated marketing communications agency, the clinical research administration program at Eastern Michigan University, and the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, a nonpartisan political organization that promotes civic engagement.

“Bringing together this many people to talk about ethically focused questions -- all from different backgrounds, from organizations with different mission statements -- you’re going to hear something new,” Mattimoe says.

“The slam gives people who are not in the same professional orbit a chance to come together for an evening and talk in a setting that isn’t confrontational, that doesn’t encourage taking sides,” DeLay says. “We’re providing a new showcase to people like Rotarians who are working to make their communities places that value, support, and celebrate ethics and civic-minded practices.”

Adapted from a story in the August 2013 issue of The Rotarian