Ethics Takes Center Stage at Competition

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Nancy Joseph 03/19/2014 March 2014 Perspectives

Should college athletes be paid?  To what extent should politicians’ sexual indiscretions be forgiven?  Is it ethical to arm rebels in countries where we’re not at war?

These sorts of ethical questions have no easy answers, as high school students discovered at the first annual Washington State High School Ethics Bowl, held on the University of Washington campus in February.

The High School Ethics Bowl was introduced in 2008 and went national in 2013, following in the tradition of the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl.  Both bowls feature teams of three to five students, tasked with analyzing a series of wide-ranging ethical dilemmas. 

“Teams are judged on the quality of their reasoning, how well they organize and present their cases, how well they analyze the case's morally relevant features, and their ability to anticipate and preemptively respond to commentary and questions,” says event organizer Jana Mohr Lone (MA, PhD, Philosophy, 1990, 1996), director of the UW Center for Philosophy for Children.

King Country Superior Court Judge Mary Yu and UW philosophy professor John Manchak (both at left) take notes as students from Lake Washington High School present an argument during the Ethics Bowl's final round.

When the UW agreed to host a regional bowl this year—the first for Washington state—Mohr Lone hoped to attract at least eight high school teams.  To her surprise, 22 teams signed up, representing 100 students from 13 high schools. “It was way beyond our expectations,” she says.

The teams had four months to prepare 11 cases, with topics ranging from marijuana laws to adoption reversals to compensation for college athletes.  Participants were coached by a teacher from their school and a UW philosophy student who visited weekly.

“It’s valuable for people of any age to engage with the kinds of issues the Ethics Bowl is about,” says Chris Jung, a UW philosophy major who coached a team from Kirkland’s International Community School.  “High school is a particularly good age for this type of event because students are starting to more fully develop as individual thinkers.“

Students confer during the competition. 

Jung had been a debater in high school and a debate coach after graduating—useful skills for an Ethics Bowl coach. But while the Ethics Bowl resembles debate with its emphasis on reasoned arguments and nimble thinking, there are important differences. For starters, competing teams are not required to argue opposing positions. They can agree, but they must provide constructive analysis of the opposing team’s reasoning. “It’s competitive but it’s not a debate,” says Mohr Lone.  “There’s not the ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ kind of attitude.  The teams are very respectful of each other.” 

Each round of competition was scored by three judges, with 50 judges volunteering over the course of the day-long event.  They included Department of Philosophy faculty and alumni, College of Education and School of Law faculty, local attorneys, business leaders, and judges.  “We chose people who have experience judging the quality of arguments,” explains Mohr Lone. “We tried to include at least one philosopher on each panel.”

"...the great thing about this event is that you continue learning and questioning your own views even during the competition.”

Purcell and Weaver’s team won the national Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl in 2000.  At this year’s high school competition, students from Seattle Academy took top honors and will compete at the national High School Ethics Bowl in North Carolina in April.

Students from Seattle Academy and their coach celebrate their first place finish. They will compete at the national High School Ethics Bowl in April.

Given the regional Bowl’s popularity this year, Mohr Lone envisions the UW hosting it annually.  She anticipates more schools signing up in the future, which would be both exciting and logistically challenging.  “Realistically, we probably can’t handle more than 26 teams,” she says. “If the event grows beyond that, we may have to encourage people to hold mini-bowls leading up to a regional bowl at the UW.”

That, adds Mohr Lone, would be a lovely problem to have. After all, what could be better than hundreds of high schoolers clamoring to think philosophically?  “One thing we hope,” she says, “is that this encourages more schools to see the potential for high school philosophy or ethics classes.”

High school teacher Noah Zeichner doesn’t need convincing.  He already teaches a Theory of Knowledge course at Seattle’s Chief Sealth International High School, and he found the Ethics Bowl to be a perfect capstone experience. “It was an ideal setting for my students to put the critical thinking skills they had developed over the past year to use,” he says.

The audience listens attentively during the final round of the Ethics Bowl competition.

Purcell hopes the high school students gained as much from their Ethics Bowl experience as he did years ago. “What has stuck with me most,” he says, “is how much you can learn about difficult ethical issues by discussing them with smart people of diverse backgrounds and views who are willing to think broadly and share their thoughts. I hope the high school competitors had that same experience.”

The 2014 Ethics Bowl was sponsored by the UW Department of Philosophy, UW Program on Values, UW School of Law, UW College of Arts and Sciences, and several law firms, including Cable, Langenbach, Kinerk & Bauer LLP; Savitt Bruce & Willey LLP; and Stoel Rives LLP.

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