First Faculty Ethics Bowl at UC Santa Cruz to focus on the future

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What role should thinking about the far future—1,000 years ahead and beyond—play in research on campus?

That’s the key question that will be discussed in Ethics and the Far Future, the first UC Santa Cruz Faculty Ethics Bowl, set to take place on May 20 at the University Center’s Bhojwani Room.

Professors David Haussler (The Genomics Institute), Sandra Faber (Astronomy & Astrophysics), and Anthony Aguirre (Physics), will face off with Pranav Anand (Linguistics), Sylvanna Falcón (Latin American and Latino Studies), and Nico Orlandi (Philosophy) to debate how much of our time and resources, if any, should be put into thinking about the far future.

But this won’t be your ordinary run-of-the-mill debate. Ethics Bowl is very different from traditional debate formats. The teams are docked for using rhetoric, spin, aggression, and clever rationalization. Instead, each team is judged on the basis of active listening, flexibility, collaboration, and analytical rigor—essential ingredients for a meaningful discussion on difficult topics.

“What the Ethics Bowl does is get people thinking explicitly about the goal of productive discussion on contentious topics, how difficult that is to achieve, and how all of us could do it better,” said UCSC philosophy professor Jon Ellis, director of the Center for Public Philosophy. “What’s great about it is that it gets people of many different backgrounds and perspectives together, not only talking about pressing ethical questions, but doing so in a way that they’re consciously attending to—what we sometimes call epistemic or intellectual ‘hospitality.’” 

“Nearly everyone would agree that our country needs more of this,” he added. “But so do we ourselves, the faculty, and the campus at large. You might think that faculty are more advanced and skillful at critical thinking, fair-minded active listening, etc. But anyone who’s been at an Academic Senate meeting, department meeting, and so on, knows that this isn’t always true.”

In fact, that’s what Ellis’s own research is currently about—the role that motivated reasoning and bias plays, even in people who care greatly about critical thinking, score highly on various measures of intelligence, and are particularly reflective and well-informed.

“We can be so quick to roll our eyes or express outrage at something we hear,” Ellis added. “There’s definitely a lot to be outraged by, yes, but those quick reactions are so consequential in committing us down a path and making it even harder for the other side not to do the same. Those lightning-quick moments are the source of so much distrust, scorn, and misunderstanding. Ethics Bowl helps you be a little more wary of these human tendencies.”

But Ellis also points out that being hospitable and open-minded doesn’t mean not challenging or raising questions for opposing views, or pointing out serious problems with them.  

Ellis notes that the faculty at UC Santa Cruz have widely divergent views on the question of linking research to the far future, thousands of years ahead. Some say that it is critical that we do this. Yet others say why bother when we have absolutely no conception of what things will be like in 1,000 years. Could we really have any impact on the far future? And what does it even mean to put resources into thinking about it?

In the long run though, the Faculty Ethics Bowl is as much about the process as the content. Ellis described what he hoped the campus would take away from the event.

“One of our main goals is to get the faculty talking and thinking about how we can have better discussions on campus–in classes, department meetings, and with the administration,” said Ellis. “We need more attention to these things. Too many of our students feel they can’t talk for fear of being shot down for expressing their doubts and uncertainties.”

“Another hope is for people on campus to learn about these questions concerning the far future and why some faculty think it’s critical that we be thinking about them. And most importantly, for both sides to hear and absorb other people’s perspectives on them,” he added.  

Ethics and the Far Future, the first UC Santa Cruz Faculty Ethics Bowl, is presented by the Center for Public Philosophy in collaboration with The Humanities Institute. The event is free and open to the public. It begins on campus at 5 p.m. on May 20 at the University Center and will be followed by a public reception. For more information, visit thi.ucsc.edu.