Think about how much closed-minded thinking goes on in the public sphere: People have their favored view and then squeeze all incoming information to fit with it.
Most traditional debate formats can unfortunately fortify that kind of reasoning. In those competitions (Lincoln Douglas, Policy Debate, Public Forum, etc.) teams are randomly assigned positions–Team A, you’ll be arguing in the Affirmative, Team B, you’re arguing Negative—and their goal is to use reason to defend whatever conclusion they’ve been given.
It’s reasoning with an agenda.
Ethics Bowl is altogether different. Teams aren’t assigned positions; rather, they defend whatever they believe after they’ve thought long and honestly about it. Ethics Bowl is less about persuasion and rhetoric, and more about truth, inquiry, and intellectual honesty. See less
Interesting. Relevant. Real-world. Questions we face ourselves.
These are the things students say about the cases written each year by the National Organization.
Recent cases have concerned contraception, lying to help a friend out of a tough spot, racism, family disagreements, religious freedom, video games, gun control, and much more.
Here’s one example:
Is it morally permissible to listen to a musical artist whose music you love if you find out he holds strong racist beliefs?
The more engaging the cases, the more invested the students are, and the more deeply they develop critical abilities to think, reason, and communicate productively with others. See less
There’s no shortage of disagreement in the world. That’s OK. Dissent and disagreement are hallmarks of democracy. What’s crucial though is how we disagree, how we converse and deliberate with those with whom we disagree.
But when we disagree is when we’re most likely to get irritated, hasty, even emotional—especially when the matter is ethical, political, or personal.
The more at stake in the conversation, the more difficult it is to remain poised, clear-headed, and ready to acknowledge fair points.
Disagreeing is a skill—one of the most difficult and important out there. And cultivating it is one of the paramount goals of the Ethics Bowl. The rules of Ethics Bowl are designed to reward the most productive kind of disagreement.
Here too Ethics Bowl provides a welcome alternative to other debate formats. For a great Radiolab episode on the National Debate Organization, listen to this podcast specifically the section starting at 10:42 and ending 11:05:
At every Ethics Bowl, there’s a palpable sense of congeniality, camaraderie, and collaboration. It’s welcoming and encouraging—not polarizing or antagonistic.
Maybe part of it is that students are explicitly encouraged to “dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable.” We like that. See less
Long before the Ethics Bowl was ever created, the 20th-Century philosopher Willard V.O. Quine wrote:
“Rhetoric is the literary technology of persuasion, for good or ill. . . . Debating teams are promoted in schools as a spur to effective language and incisive thought. They serve that purpose, but only by setting the goal of persuasion above the goal of truth. The debater’s strength lies not in intellectual curiosity nor in amenability to rational persuasion by others, but in his skill in defending a preconception come what may. His is a nefarious knack of disregarding all the discrepancies while regarding every crepancy.”
Crepancy? No idea. What we do know is that Quine captures better than we ever could our first point above. Quine would have loved ethics bowl because it switches the order of priority: it sets the goal of truth over the goal of persuasion. See less
I think what the Ethics Bowl can really do is take those kids that are a) not used to expressing their opinions and b) often taught that their opinions are not important at all, to even once just say ‘OK this is what I think, and this is why.’ Even if it’s only once, it can be really transformative.
Ethics Bowl is incredibly valuable because it allows the generations that are next in line to make decisions about the world, to gather and hold deep discussions on morally confusing topics through many mindsets and values.
I’m consistently inspired by how this event sparks real conversations.
I have been in interviews with law firms and judges and I am almost inevitably asked, ‘So, what is Ethics Bowl?’ In every interview in which that question has been asked I have been offered a job.
High School Ethics Bowl has given my students the opportunity to challenge their moral perspective on important social topics by requiring them to think more in depth on these topics, more so than in any other forum. It is an extremely valuable process to ask students to think critically about the origins of their moral beliefs….
Teams of up to five high school students have the fall semester to develop their thinking on 15 real-world ethical questions (“cases”) put out in early September by the National High School Ethics Bowl organization. In the Winter, each team participates at a regional tournament (“bowl”). The team that is deemed to have displayed the most clarity, depth, and open-mindedness in their thinking go on to represent our region at the National Bowl in the Spring (held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).