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Alabama attorney wins '09 Think-Off

John Pollock, a civil rights attorney from Montgomery, Ala., debated his way to the gold medal over three other finalists in the Great American Think-Off Saturday in New York Mills.

The question asked was: Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?

After surviving the first round, Pollock defeated Erik Schultz, an Air Force master sergeant from Washington D.C. for the title of America's Greatest Thinker.

The two bronze medalists were George Holley, a retail business owner from Tucson, Ariz., and Rick Nichols, a journalist and environmental advocate from Leavenworth, Kan. Along with the medals, each of the contestants also received a $500 cash award.

After two rounds of the debate, Schultz and Pollock advanced to the final round. 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.

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, 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, 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 issue of how we judge those who make extremely difficult individual and personal decisions that conflict with society's view of 'right' is keenly important to me," Pollock said Monday in looking back at winning the debate. "Even after the first round, when I stepped off the stage and didn't yet know if I had made it to the second round, I felt successful because I believed I had connected with some people in the audience on this."

Pollock left the debate with pretty positive feelings about the experience.

"After the event was over, a few of the audience members who spoke to me told me I had caused them to think of some aspects of the question in a different light, and I honestly couldn't ask for more than that," he said. "And I feel the Think-Off's approach of raising very broad questions serves an important purpose in general because people often get into debates about specific issues (wars, privacy, etc) without realizing that they have fundamentally different views about the underlying concepts of right and wrong. Finally, I think intelligent debate is the greatest impetus for positive social change."

And his thoughts on the community?

"As to my visit to New York Mills, our stay in the caboose at the Whistle Stop B&B was an unforgettable experience," he said. "It may be a small town, but the level of interest in New York Mills in cultural events was obvious. My girlfriend and I did have a chance to see one lake, so we only have 9,999 to go in our next trip."

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 Jan. 1, 2010 and published on the Cultural Center's Web page