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Think-Off asks if we should ever do the wrong thing

Sometimes it feels so right to do the wrong thing. But is that kind of approach the right way to go through life, or does it lead us down the wrong path?

Billy Joel even once sang, "You may be wrong, but you may be right."

America's premier amateur philosophy contest, The Great American Think-Off, last week released the 2009 essay and debate question: "Is it Ever Wrong to do the Right Thing?"

The great debate will be held in New York Mills on June 13 in the school auditorium before a live audience.

Each year a committee first meets around October to throw out ideas and begin formulating a question. After the first couple meetings the committee of six meets to narrow the ideas and word possible questions in an interesting and thought-provoking manner. One concern for the committee at this stage of the process is to make sure they are not looking at a question that is too close to a previous year's question.

Jamie Robertson, Executive Director of the Cultural Center and member of the Think-Off committee, said once they narrow possible questions to around five, the committee submits them to a University of Minnesota professor for his thoughts and suggestions.

After more meetings and discussion, the committee determined this year's question: "Is it Ever Wrong to do the Right Thing?"

"This one had been talked about in previous years," Robertson said of the selection. "The committee decided and the question looked like a good one this year."

Now in its 17th year, previous Think-Offs have taken on issues like the death penalty and democracy. Last year's question touched on the politically hot topic of immigration, asking whether it strengthened or threatened the United States. The 2005 question also led essayists to write about current events such as Homeland Security and the Iraq War. The question that year was: "Which is More Valuable: Safety or Freedom?"

This year's question on the surface is a little more broad, allowing writers to take the topic in many different philosophical directions.

"What we wanted to do is leave it up to the writers," Robertson said. "The key to a good question is for writers to make arguments based on one's personal experience and make those arguments as concrete as possible."

Entering the competition is easy. Just submit an essay of 750 words or less by April 1 (postmark date). You may send your essay in one of three ways: through the mail to Great American Think-Off, New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, P.O. Box 246, New York Mills, MN 56567 or email to (no attachments) or submit on-line at

The key to writing a successful essay is to ground your argument in personal experience. The judges are looking for essays that address this central problem of moral philosophy by speaking about personal experience rather than abstract philosophical reasoning. Tell a good story that shows a firm standing on one side or the other of this philosophical divide.

A panel of judges will select four finalists to come to New York Mills for the final debate to be held June 13. The names of the four finalists, who each receive $500 plus travel, food and lodging expenses, will be announced May 1. The winner is decided by the audience attending the debate and she or he will be named "America's Greatest Thinker for 2009".

Celebrating its 17th year, the Great American Think-Off is a national philosophy competition providing an opportunity for ordinary people to voice their opinions on some of life's more perplexing questions. Last year's question, "Does Immigration Strengthen or Threaten the United States?" was debated successfully by Craig Allen of West Linn, Oregon.