What Makes a Successful Team?

The John Stuart Mill Cup is not a debating competition and does not use British Parliamentary style format. In the Cup, teams pick their own position on the issue, there is no effort to ensure that opposing teams present contrary opinions on the issue, and the goal is not to beat the opposing team into submission. The Cup is, at heart, a collaborative discussion.

The goal is to demonstrate breadth and depth of thinking about difficult and important ethical issues. In fact, teams are rewarded for the degree to which they eschew adversarial positioning and instead adopt a more collegial, collaborative stance.  In other words, teams are strongly encouraged to think of themselves as being on the same side as their opponents. That is, both teams are working together trying to solve a difficult problem—while impressing the judges with thoughtful, considered analysis and support.  Listening to the other team with an aim to affirm, gently correct, supplement, or build on their argument is a prudent approach and one that expresses the ideals of the Cup.

Teams are not penalized nor rewarded based on whether one person speaks or everyone speaks. We understand that each team has its own process:

  • Some divide up the cases so that individuals are responsible for a certain number of cases; as a result, one person would present. Other teams ask that each member of the team becomes responsible for a particular aspect of all the cases; as a result, all team members would speak.
  • Either of these strategies, as well as variations on them and entirely different ones, is feasible and scoring is neutral on this issue. However, judges do not know which approach a team will take unless they are informed. Therefore, to dispel any preconceptions that a judge may harbour, we urge that a team outline its presentation when it begins—that is, the team should explain who will be discussing which aspect(s) of the case and why. This way, the judges will know what kind of presentation to expect.

Successful analyses will include a clear and detailed understanding of the facts of a case. Since cases are often highly complex, researching the topic or incident involved may be helpful. Students are encouraged to consult all available resources so as to understand each case in all its complexity, determine their positions, and make the strongest possible presentation. Teams should not assume that merely presenting factual information will impress the judges. Teams need, in addition, to make strong arguments for their positions. And if a team introduces a specific fact not contained in the case, the team should cite the source (e.g. “according to a 2017 article in National Geographic…”).

Teams should think of their pre-competition prep time as an opportunity to gather and assess arguments supporting a wide range of points of view rather than to seek only those sources that support opinions the team already holds. As team members analyse the range of arguments, they should strive to get inside the heads of those that have different beliefs and concerns than the ones with which they are familiar. What motivates people to have certain beliefs? What are their values? A team should also ask, “Why is this case hard?” If it doesn’t seem hard, it is a good sign a team is not probing deeply enough. The cases are supposed to challenge worldviews. Asking questions like these will help a team solidify its own position.

During the Presentation period, a team should make sure it briefly introduces the case and identifies the central moral question. A team must clearly and systematically address the case question asked by the moderator. After presenting a position, a team should explain why others might have different points of view and what those points of view might be. Empathize with these other positions even if your team disagrees.

The Commenting team’s role is NOT to present its own position on the case but rather to help the other team perfect its presentation; this is done by being thoughtful, critical listeners during the Presentation and then, during the Commentary, pointing out flaws in the Presentation, commenting on its strengths, noting what has been omitted or needs further development, etc.—all of this is in the interest of making the presentation of the case stronger.  Commenting teams are expected to ask insightful questions that target the primary position, key implications, or unaddressed central issues.  When scoring Commentary, judges will consider the questions raised by the Commenting team and whether the questions addressed truly substantive issues—in relation to both the presentation and the moderator’s case question.  A ‘question shower’ or ‘spit-fire questioning’, during which a Commenting team rapidly asks many questions in an attempt to overwhelm or dominate the other team, is inconsistent with the aims of the Cup, and will not be rewarded.

Although teams are allowed to and should pose questions in the Commentary, the Responding team is under no obligation to answer any of those questions. The Responding team should, however, be able to answer the most crucial or morally pressing question or two (in the event that there are more than two questions).  On occasion, the Responding team members may discover that they want to modify or perhaps change an aspect of their initial position as a result of the Commentary. In some cases this indicates that the team did not fully think through its initial position. However, because the Cup is about ethical inquiry, and because changing one’s mind in the face of serious problems with one’s view can be a sign of intelligence, changing or modifying a position is not necessarily negative.

Judging the quality of a team’s performance is subjective and difficult. It is easy for teams to fault or blame judges if they lose a match. To fully understand how each judge reaches a decision, please read the scoring rubric. The Cup seeks to recruit judges from a wide variety of backgrounds: some are philosophers or professional ethicists; others might come from a range of professional fields such as business, education, medicine, or journalism. Part of the task of a successful team is to communicate reasoning effectively to judges who have different viewpoints and life experiences.

Because of judges’ diverse backgrounds, it is not essential for teams to reference specific ethicists or ethical theories: doing so is not a requirement of a good answer, nor is it indicative of a poor answer. The argument matters; it is not necessary to name the philosopher associated with the argument. Keep in mind that a team is speaking to a broad audience: many judges have no formal background in philosophy or ethics, and may not understand your reference to “Kantianism”. A good strategy is to explain ethical reasoning in terms everyone can understand.

If a team member does refer to “deontology”, for example, make sure the reference is accurate. A judge may question a team about that specific theory during the Dialogue.

**In short, remember that philosophical name-dropping is not a substitute for presenting a sound argument.**