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Just what we need: Thoughtful, ethical young people are launching into the world

By Kristen Fuhs Wells
Executive Director, Association For Practical And Professional Ethics
Published in the Indianapolis Business Journal, June 2, 2023

In some ways, the scene was the antithesis of what most of us have come to expect. Although they were dealing with controversial questions and often opposing viewpoints, two groups of people didn’t square off and shout at each other. They didn’t resort to name calling or outrageous accusations. And they didn’t hold tenaciously to entrenched positions.

They listened and empathized. They discussed and reasoned. Then, they presented positions based on just and ethical considerations.

As I watched these groups of college students – participants in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (APPE IEB) National Competition – passionately but respectfully offering thoughtful responses to tough questions, I realized an old rock lyric had bubbled to the surface of my mind: “The kids are alright.”

Held annually, the APPE IEB presents teams of college students with a set of prepared scenarios drawn from real-life ethical challenges in education, business, health, life and politics. For example, this year they wrestled with questions like these: Should a high school basketball team rein in its scoring against a weaker opponent? Can artists’ copyrighted creations be used in tattoos? Should citizens be rewarded for turning in lawbreakers? Is separating grade school students by scholastic abilities a modern form of segregation?

Their challenge: Analyze such thorny issues and present clear, focused and thoughtful positions with an appreciation for varied perspectives. These are issues without a clear right or wrong answer; teams that do well can explain their reasoning for a position as well as understand differing perspectives.

In other words, these emerging leaders prevail through critical thinking, ethical reasoning and democratic deliberation, the very attributes that many employers say they are seeking in young professionals. In fact, a few years ago, one of the tech giants did a data crunch to find out what attributes most correlated to success in that organization. None of the top attributes had anything to do with technology. Instead, they all focused on so-called soft skills, including: possessing insights into others (including different values and points of view); being a critical thinker and problem solver; being able to make connections across complex ideas; communicating and listening well; and having empathy toward one’s colleagues.

These are exactly the characteristics students get from approaching complex, ambiguous and difficult-to-resolve issues through an ethical lens. Having crafted rational responses to topics such as artificial intelligence, racial profiling and criminal justice reform, they have prepared themselves to be thoughtful citizens and valuable contributors to businesses, nonprofits, academia, government, the armed services and more.

Certainly, these are smart young people. They’re graduating with minds packed with facts, with expertise in defined subject areas and with skills suited for the next phase of their lives. But they’re also graduating with the ability to complement data and information with ethical reasoning, and to balance their moral intuitions with others’ perspectives, experiences and points of view.

As a result, employers who hire students trained to compete in an ethics bowl will find themselves with bright employees who think critically, consider various perspectives, desire fairness and believe that a willingness to change your mind is not a weakness but is, instead, evidence of growth and self-confidence.

So, yes, as I watched the college students from places like this year’s champion, the U.S. Naval Academy, wrestling with ethical dilemmas and making civil and solid arguments for what they believe is right, I did indeed find myself thinking, “The kids are alright.” And then, considering that these young people are about to launch into the world, I found myself adding, “Maybe we’ll all be alright, too.”