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John Pollock wins 2009 Great American Think-Off

The 2009 Great American Think-Off winner John Pollock.1 / 2
Left to right, 2009 Great American Think-Off finalists George Holley, Rick Nichols, Erik Schultz, and John Pollock.2 / 2

John Pollock, a civil rights attorney from Montgomery, Alabama, won the gold medal in Saturday night's Great American Think-Off debate over three other finalists in New York Mills.

Second place silver medalist Erik Schultz of Washington, D.C., is an Air Force Master Sergeant. The two bronze medalists were George Holley, a retail business owner from Tucson, Arizona and Rick Nichols, a journalist and environmental advocate from Leavenworth, Kansas. Each of the contestants also received a $500 cash award.

After two rounds of the debate, Mr. Schultz and Mr. Pollock advanced to the final round. Mr. Schultz argued that the end achieved should always be the measure of the good, and that "there should be exceptional ends behind unprincipled means." He proposed that the ends always justify the means when the end is great as in efforts to prevent another 9-11.

Mr. Pollock asserted that intentionality is more important than the perceived end in determining if an action is good or bad. Arguing that we all must acknowledge that it is sometimes right to do the wrong thing, for example to lie to protect a higher good, he effectively proposed to the audience that the basis of what is right should not be placed on result primarily. He gave the example of a bank robber whose goal was simply to rob a bank but who caused the death of an elderly patron from a heart attack in the process. Within our social contract, Mr. Pollock argued, that bank robber will be charged with murder even though that was clearly not his goal.

Unintended consequences from our belief that we are doing the right thing, Mr. Pollock proposed, can lead to greater evil than we can foresee before we take any action. In the end, the audience agreed with Pollock's understanding that what is right, at least in America, is understood to be an evolving set of ideas, not a static set of principles that never changes.

The finalists were selected through the contest's annual essay competition from more than 500 essays submitted. The Think-Off is an annual philosophy contest sponsored by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in Minnesota. Next year's contest question will be announced January 1, 2010 and published on the Cultural Center's web page