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High School Essay and Workshops

2019 Essay Contest

To engage young people in discussions about economics, the human condition and their connection to the moral underpinnings of capitalism and individual and business ethics, the BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism sponsors an annual essay competition. The competition requires students to write an essay on a topic about the nature of economics, capitalism and the ethical challenges facing business today.


Every discipline dealing with human action and social policy must make assumptions about what people are, what they are capable of, what affects them, before even considering what is good for them. By its nature, a Catholic university is simply more open about the assumptions that are made than other universities in which such ideas creep in, often without reflection. As a Catholic university, the Mount explores the world through a basic view of human existence which is central to Christianity, but also common to other religions and traditions: that people have some capacity for free and creative action, on the basis of reasoned understanding of eternal and universal ideals that can actually exist, and that civil society serves a crucial function in guiding the development of those capacities, and in passing on those ideas by which people act and shape their lives.

Recognizing that we cannot avoid making such assumptions about human nature and human capacity in either our behavioral and social theory or in our moral reflection, the mission of the BB&T Center at Mount St. Mary’s University is to explore when and how such ideas have mattered in economics and in economic phenomena. The high school essay is designed to provide creative high school students with an opportunity to explore those connections as well.

Freedom and Social Theory: What Does it Take to be Free?

This year’s contest draws out the issues through two views of free will and responsibility by the civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King and biologist Anthony Cashmore.

In your own words, compare the views of King and Cashmore on the relationship between free will and responsibility. What view of human existence produces their different conclusions regarding the possibility of free will? How should we approach life, and the study of it, if King is right? If Cashmore is right?

Cashmore addresses crime, but how might his analysis—and King’s response to it—apply to other fields of human behavior or policy particularly economics?


"I do not mean to imply that heredity and environment are not important. Far from saying that environment and heredity have no importance in human personality, what I am really saying is that there is another factor which is the ultimate determining factor: personal response. And herein lies our responsibility. We are not responsible for the environment we are born in, neither are we responsible for our hereditary circumstances. But there is a third factor for which we are responsible namely, the personal response which we make to these circumstances."


"[T]he way we use the concept of free will is nonsensical. The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality, we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. [A]s living systems we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will… If free will is an illusion, then it becomes more difficult to hold people responsible for their actions."

"'Free will' has been a fairly useful fiction but it is beginning to outlive its usefulness. Progress in understanding the chemical basis of behavior will make it increasingly untenable to retain a belief in the concept of free will. To retain any degree of reality, the criminal justice system will need to adjust accordingly. The primary difference would be the elimination of the illogical concept that individuals are in control of their behavior in a manner that is something other than a reflection of their genetic makeup and their environmental history."

The essays from which these quotations come are posted below.

Additional information

You may approach/connect this to any high school discipline: economics, sociology, social studies, political science, history, literature, science, theology, religion, philosophy, art, etc. However, you must consider the above authors and their ideas in your answer.

To assist students who wish to engage these questions, we have provided some additional resources which we believe can help. Below are some reflection questions which may inspire and organize your thoughts. In addition, we have posted articles and book chapters, drawn from various perspectives and disciplines, which touch on human nature in ways related to the essay.

Entry Deadline

The 2019 Essay Contest closes on May 24, 2019.


The contest is open to high school students from grades 9-12.


The first place winner receives a $1,000 cash prize and is eligible for a $1,000 scholarship if they attend Mount St. Mary’s University within three years. The second place award is a $200 cash prize.

John Larrivee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Economics
Director, BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism
Richard J. Bolte, Sr. School of Business
Mount St. Mary's University

Important Information

How to submit

To avoid disqualification, your essay must contain a cover sheet containing the following information:

  1. Your name, mailing address and phone number.
  2. Your current grade level.
  3. The email address at which you may be contacted.
  4. The name and address of your school.
  5. The name of a teacher or guidance counselor at your school who is aware of your essay submission.
  6. The name, email address and phone number of a legal parent and/or guardian who has given permission for you to submit an essay to this contest (only necessary if the contest entrant is under the age of 18).
Please click on the submit essay button above to email your essay to the BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism.

Contest rules

  • Mount St. Mary’s University and BB&T employees, and their immediate family members, are not eligible for this contest.
  • Entrants under 18 years of age must have the agreement of a legal parent and/or guardian to submit an essay to this contest.
  • Entries must be submitted, in English, by May 24, 2019, 11:59 p.m. Eastern.
  • Essay must be solely the work of the entrant. Plagiarism will result in disqualification. MLA format is encouraged for documenting sources.
  • One entry per student, please. No purchase necessary to win.
  • Essay must be no fewer than 1,000 and no more than 1,600 words in length, and double-spaced.
  • The BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism at Mount St. Mary’s University has the right to provide contest deadline extensions when deemed appropriate.
  • Decisions of the judges are final.
  • All entries become the property of The BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism at Mount St. Mary’s University and will not be returned.
  • The eligibility status of the winner will be verified through consultation with the teacher or guidance counselor named on the cover sheet.
  • The prize winner may be invited to Mount St. Mary’s University (either in Emmitsburg or Frederick) for an awards ceremony.
  • The prize winner and all other participants will be notified via email by May 31, 2019. The BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism at Mount St. Mary’s University reserves the right to adjust this date if deemed appropriate.
  • The contest winner agrees to allow The BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism at Mount St. Mary’s University to print his/her name in websites and newsletters and to announce his/her name at events. The winning essay may be posted in any of these media, with full credit given to the author.
  • Winners will be solely responsible for any federal, state or local taxes


Essays will be judged on both style and content. Judges will look for writing that is clear, articulate and logically organized. Mount St. Mary’s University faculty associated with the BB&T Center for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Capitalism will be responsible for judging the essays and selecting a winner.

Possible related questions and approaches that relate to other disciplines

  • In what ways do we think of people as responsible for their economic outcomes? How would King vs Cashmore affect our perspective on education, earnings, job effort, job choice, etc.?
  • What of the concept of responsibility? How much are people responsible for themselves? When and how much are we responsible for others? How might these answers depend upon our assumptions of human nature?
  • Evaluate poverty, inequality and average levels of income, today. How have they changed/how do they compare to historical levels of the past 100-200 years in the United States? What other measures could be used to assess well-being and the distribution of it? In what ways might changes in economic conditions affect how you think of their answers?
  • Both refer to a question of individual control. How much of the question of “control” is internal, (e.g. free will) and how much is external (i.e. outside of people). How does the view of human nature affect that answer?
  • What types of factors are outside people’s control and how extensive are they? What types of factors are within people’s control? Why does individual control matter?
  • If people were free to act on ideas or ideals in ways other than as simply prompted by impulses, what values would matter for social outcomes? In what ways might ideas or values, or changes in them have affected inequality and in what ways in recent decades?
  • What is civil society and what role can it play in addressing poverty and inequality?  For what types of poverty and inequality is civil society the best solution? For this you can consider civil society broadly, but we also encourage particular attention to the role of churches and religion.
  • For what types of poverty and inequality is government the best solution? What types of government policies can help alleviate poverty and inequality?

Extensions to other disciplines

  • Political Science/Theology. In what way does the conception of freedom discussed by King/Cashmore differ from the question of external, political economic freedoms? How are they related? How might different assumptions about how people are affected by circumstances or able to be responsible for themselves influence positions of the major parties/conservatives vs. liberals?
  • History. How might these views have shaped the rise of various movements and ideologies: e.g. progressivism, utopian movements, socialism? How did reflections about freedom play into the American founding as an “experiment in ordered liberty?” King is the famous civil rights activist, and these themes occurred in the civil rights movement he led. How might these themes have particularly mattered for the question of civil rights? In “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, King famously combines his ideas here with an assumption of an eternal/universal law of justice. Why was that assumption particularly important for the civil rights movement?
  • Cashmore is a biologist. What is particularly important about the contribution of biology to these debates? What are the strengths/weaknesses of that contribution?
  • King mentions psychology in his essay. In what ways might psychology as a discipline have particularly insights into these questions?
  • Literature and the arts often provide creative ways to envision these deep questions. For example, in Brave New World, Aldous Huxley portrays people as simply products of genes and environment, and continually engages the issue of materialism and the existence of human freedom and moral law. Feel free to extend your examination of King and Cashmore to explore literature or other artistic works which engage the problem of freedom as raised by King and Cashmore. In what ways have artists pictured individuals as shaped by the systems, determined by them? Going beyond them?
  • How have such ideas shaped the development of sociology as a discipline and its study of the world?
  • What theologians and philosophers have engaged these issues? How have they been raised by other cultures, in other times?

Helpful related articles

The following selections are intended to be helpful resources for writing the essay. The authors range from priests and other people of faith to atheists, and include people across the political spectrum. They include writers from many disciplines: economics, business, sociology, psychology, theology, history, political science, biology, physics and literature.

Other than the King/Cashmore exchange, NONE of the following is required, nor will students be rewarded for doing so, or penalized for not. However, essays will be rewarded for the excellence of their analysis, consideration of the ideas involved, and extension to external sources. Thus these essays can be very helpful to get some of the basic ideas and familiarize themselves with the issues. They also help develop rich interdisciplinary content and will point students to other resources as well. Students are encouraged to seek other resources on their own.