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High School Essay Contest

The BB&T Center for the Study of Moral Foundations of Capitalism Competitions

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. 


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 in the next three years.
The second place award is a $200 cash prize.

How To Enter

The 2017 Essay Contest closed on May 12, 2017. Please join us again next year.

2017 Essay: Poverty, Inequality, Economic Theory and the Human Condition

BB&T Essay ContestTheme: In what ways does our understanding of the human condition affect how we think about poverty, inequality the economy and society? The Case of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

How much do economic factors matter for social outcomes? How does our answer depend upon what we think people are and can do in the first place?

In his Diary of a Writer, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky reflected upon an earlier experience with Russian revolutionaries and their social philosophy. One of them, an atheist named Vissarion Belinsky, had stated “Man’s sins cannot be counted against him ... When society is set up in such a mean fashion … man cannot help but do wrong; economic factors alone lead him to do wrong; and it is absurd and cruel to demand from a man something the very laws of nature make it impossible for him to carry out, even if he wanted to.”

Reflecting upon this in light of his faith, Dostoevsky responded, “In making the individual dependent on every flaw in the social structure, … the doctrine of the environment reduces the subject to an absolute non-entity, exempting him totally from every personal moral duty and from all independence, reduces him to the lowest form of slavery imaginable.”

These two views represent very different angles on human nature and social conditions.

Express in your own words what each of the authors might have meant and how they connect to social theory. Feel free to elaborate to explain them more fully. How might their understanding of what people are and are capable of—especially free will and rationality—have shaped how much they believed people were products of conditions? Why were economic factors so prominent? In what ways might these ideas affect social theory about economic conditions and social problems today?

► Check out the BB&T Essay Contest Resources page to help you write your essay.

Consider the Following

In addition to the above, we encourage students to consider the passage from which these quotations come, and to connect these themes to a wide array of related ideas.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • How are these themes visible in historical, political or current events?

  • Dostoevsky is a novelist, and these themes occurred in his own novels. How are these themes visible in his work or in other literature? In what ways have artists pictured individuals as shaped by the systems, or going beyond them?

  • Visit the BB&T Essay Contest Resources page for more

This variation provides extensive opportunities for cooperation across courses and disciplines, with input from economics, theology, philosophy, English, history, sociology, political science, psychology, etc.

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