Business Ethics

Philosophy 160, Queens College, Spring 2012

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Please click here for debate topics and teams.

Everyone must participate in one prearranged, in-class debate.  Students will be organized into teams, and teams will be matched with topics shortly after our first class meeting.  You may not necessarily agree with the side of the issue you have been assigned. This is not essential, and arguing a different point of view might even be good for you, as it will increase your ability to see things from a different point of view.

The purpose of the debate is to have an extended discussion of an issue that includes presentation of rationale for the different sides of the issue, as well as careful consideration of the cogency of that rationale. The debates provide the class with the oral presentation of a philosophical issue.  We will see how each side of the issue defends their position and responds to criticism of their defense.  Students participating in the debate should present the strongest arguments they can for the position they have been asked to defend.  They should try to understand the arguments as best as they can, in order to intelligently and accurately respond to questions and criticisms about those arguments.  In addition, they should be willing to carefully consider the defense offered by the other side, and to politely and intelligently investigate those arguments, to learn the truth about which side has been best defended.

This activity will develop your oral skills, your ability to present your position clearly, explain it and defend it.  This activity will also develop you ability to work well with others on a team.

Your purpose in this debate is to persuade the class (and the other side) to accept your side of the debate. Persuasion (called “making a case”) involves two elements: showing the value and correctness of your position (hopefully in an eloquent way!), and showing awareness of the concerns of others and that these are not serious drawbacks. You will show the value and correctness of your position in the arguments you will present at the beginning of the debate. These should be logical, coherent, and have clearly defined terms. The concerns of others will be presented to you in the questions asked by the opposing side, and you will need to show that these questions and concerns are not serious enough drawbacks to undermine the arguments you have formulated to support your view.

Debate Topics

Wednesday, 02/29/2012: Can capitalism lead to human happiness?
Monday, 03/19/2012: Is increasing profits the only social responsibility of business?
Wednesday, 03/28/2012: Do corporations have any responsibility to the environment?
Wednesday, 04/25/2012: Is CEO compensation justified by performance?
Wednesday, 05/09/2012: Was the financial industry responsible for the economic meltdown of 2008?

– Each team should develop at least four (or one argument per person) distinct and powerful arguments to support the team’s position. Again, these should be the strongest arguments for the position that you can come up.  Usually the assigned reading should help you here, and you are encouraged to present arguments you find there or in other readings.  Your presentation of the arguments should include relevant and helpful examples to illustrate them. Teams should meet beforehand to consult about opening arguments, order, etc.

– The opening arguments must be typed and handed in to me before the debate. This will be an important record of your team’s work and preparation for the debate.  Typed copies for the class are optional.  (See section below on Preparation Sheet.)

– Very short summaries (one line) of each argument should be written on the blackboard before the debate, to aid the class in following the debate.

Format of the debate

1. Affirmative team’s opening arguments: 15 minutes allotted.
2. Negative team’s opening arguments: 15 minutes allotted.
3. Negative team will question affirmative team: 15 minutes.
4. Affirmative team will question negative team: 15 minutes.
5. Class will question both teams: rest of the period.
6. At the end will be a class vote to determine the winning team.

During the question periods, it is best to direct comments as questions for the other side to answer, so make sure that your remarks are phrased as questions. The key here is to focus on the arguments just presented by the other side.  A side is only as persuasive as the reasons given for its truth. This is the time to test the position: Are the reasons given clear? Do you understand what they are trying to say? Are all the terms clear and defined? Do the reasons really support the other team’s side of the issue? Are they true?

Examples of questions might be:

– Requests for Clarification: You said … , but I don’t know what you mean by that. Please clarify. Do you mean this … , or that … ?
– Requests for Argument. You claimed … . Why do you think that is true? Or: I don’t see any argument for … , and I think you need to give an argument for it. Or: What support do you have for the truth of your claim that … ?
– Objections: You said … . However, we think that this is problematic. Here’s my objection. Or: here is my objection to your argument for … . What do you say in response to this? Or: You mentioned … .  How is that relevant to our topic here? Etc.
– Suggestion of parallels. You claim P. P (or your argument for P) reminds me of so-and-so’s claim that Q (or his/her argument for Q). Are the two really similar? Does comparing P to Q help illuminate P, or is it just misleading?


Your performance in the debate will be included in your course grade. The mark will be a team grade. Factors involved in your team’s grade include:

a. the quality (clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, logical strength) of opening arguments
b. your understanding of the issue as shown by your presentation and your answers to questions
c. your support of your position in the face of questions from the opposing team
d. the quality (clarity, precision, relevance, strength) of the questions you ask the other team
e. the team’s ability to stay focused on the important issues (on the topic and on the questions/problems raised by the reasons presented by the other side)
f. class assessment of the team’s performance and strength of presentation

Class voting guidelines

Ideally, the team that wins the debate would be the team that successfully defends its reasons and successfully undermines the reasons of the opposing side. A losing team would be one that cannot defend any of its reasons and cannot undermine the reasons of the opposing side. If, under questioning, a side cannot defend itself, the debate is not yet over; we must still see if the other side can defend themselves. If both teams cannot defend their reasons for their position, I would say that no side has emerged the clear winner and the debate has become a tie. This is a somewhat shabby tie, however. The best tie would be both sides defending the plausibility of their position satisfactorily, and neither clearly taking an edge over the other.

“Successfully” as mentioned above needs to be defined somewhat objectively and by the terms of the voter.  A side may be obstinate, contentiously refuse to cede anything, or simply not understand that they are losing ground or contradicting themselves.  This would be an unsuccessful defense of the position.  Keep that in mind: you have to judge if the side has really defended themselves.

The class should use the period of audience questioning to clarify points and explore arguments further with each team.  How the teams explain/defend themselves in the class period can be relevant to your decision about which team won or lost the debate.

The Preparation Sheet

Each person must write up a preparation sheet for the debate (one page, typed, double-spaced). This is a written brief of the argument you will be presenting in the debate (you may present a summary of your comments and remarks instead of the actual remarks you are planning to make) and an explanation why you chose this argument. Bring this to class with you on the day of debate.

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