The New Age Take on Debate Club

Amidst a polarized landscape, high school and college students are finding intellectual common ground at the Ethics Bowl // Photo Illustration by Jean-Francois Podevin

In Plato’s dialogue Meno, the philosopher Socrates asks, “Is virtue the same in child and slave?” He presses the work’s namesake, Thessalian political figure Meno, further. “Can the child govern his father, or the slave his master: and would he who governed be any longer a slave?” Meno replies, “I think not, Socrates.”

Over the course of several remaining verses, Socrates questions and counter-questions Meno until the latter, once confident of the definition of virtue, unravels into a fit of doubt. Meno comes to the realization that he doesn’t know what virtue is and he has never even encountered someone who has. This is the crux of the Socratic method. It’s an argumentative dialogue aimed at undoing participants’ ideas, beliefs, or opinions from the presuppositions that constrain them. It is a search for ultimate truth. 

But truth is an elusive concept. And amidst our current milieu — where hardened ideological positions are a norm — it feels more elusive than ever. These partisan battles have obfuscated the distinction between correct and politically correct across our politics, economics, media, and more. Yet the way they have seeped into the confines of our educational institutions — often thought to be the protective keeps of pure intellectual inquiry — warrants special scrutiny. In 2015, writers Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff,
published a controversial piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Coddling of The American Mind” and subsequently a book of the same title last summer. Their work critically analyzes the growing tendency of American university students to shy away from ideas that make them uncomfortable, thereby compromising their own intellectual, and even emotional development. Haidt and Lukianoff’s book is  situated within a climate where students, at schools like University of California-Berkeley and Middlebury riot against speakers such as Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos while administrations, like that of the University of Chicago, publish reports rejecting safe spaces as testament to their commitment to intellectual freedom. But in the background of these collegiate culture wars has long been a small but self-contained antidote to them: The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. 

How It Works

The Ethics Bowl was conceived by Professor Robert F. Ladenson at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1993. It’s described in the work, Civility and Politics in Education, as combining “the excitement and fun of a competitive game with valuable experience in practical and professional ethics education.” In its first year, the bowl took the form of a small intermural competition within the school. By 1997, it had expanded into a national, intercollegiate competition with the help of a grant from Sears, Roebuck and Co’s Office of Ethics and Business Practices and has continued ever since. The 2019 competition will take place on March 2 and 3 in Baltimore.   

The bowl is structured so that two teams of three to five undergraduate students are each posed with a different ethical dilemma, or case, which range in subject matter from the personal to professional to political. After conferring for two minutes, each team must present their answer. Oftentimes, however, students are given the cases at least six weeks prior to the competition so that they have ample time to structure their answers. Below is a question from the list of Fall 2018 Regional Ethics Bowl Cases: 

Should We Keep Kosher? 

Last year, two regions of Belgium passed laws prohibiting the slaughter of unstunned animals … These laws effectively prohibit slaughtering animals in accordance with Jewish Kosher as well as Islamic halal standards … Animal welfare advocates believe that kosher and halal slaughtering practices are cruel because without stunning, animals suffer more pain and distress … but opponents point out that kosher and halal slaughtering practices were developed in part to cause animals the least amount of pain possible. They suggest that it is unclear whether modern methods of stunning animals are an improvement in terms of animal welfare.

A panel of three judges, from a diverse range of professional fields, is then offered time to ask students follow-up questions. Usually judges are also given the cases six weeks prior to the competitions. After the preliminary set of judges’ questions, the opposing team has a chance to respond to the first team’s answers, and the first team has an opportunity to respond back. Responses are finally judged on four criteria:

Intelligibility: Does the team state and defend itself in a logically consistent manner?

Depth: Is any consideration which a judge considers ethically important omitted by a team in its statement and defense of its position?

Focus: Does the team base any of its position upon any considerations which the judge regards as off the point?

Judgment: Has the team evaluated the considerations it identifies as relevant in a careful and reasonable way which reasonably justifies the weight the team attaches to those considerations?


Intra-collegiate Ethics

For the past 18 years, The University of Detroit Mercy has hosted an annual Ethics Bowl. While there are other universities in the area that participate in the regional ethics competition — Oakland University, for example, has a class geared solely toward preparing students for the bowl — UDM is the only school in metro Detroit to host an in-house bowl. It’s been headed by Martin Leever, a professor in the philosophy department, since its inception who believes that, “the Ethics Bowl reflects the best of what a university should be but can sometimes fail to be.” 

Despite their structural similarities, the Ethics Bowl is not a debate. It is also not an examination in moral philosophy. “You don’t need formal education in moral philosophy, but I do see students rely on theories of consequentialism by John Stuart Mill [19th century British philosopher], or a reference to [18th century German philosopher] Immanuel Kant’s theories, but it’s more a question of, if they make these analogies, are these analogies apt?” The Ethics Bowl is by and large an exercise in thought that takes heed of the Socratic Method. As a result, students are often forced to defend points of view that they may not fully agree with, as an intellectual exercise. “We really discourage sound-bite, dogmatic answers,” Leever says. Ahmed Al-Hilali, a sophomore who was on the team that advanced to this year’s regional competition notes the aforementioned case when he was forced to argue against the practice of keeping halal (a way of slaughtering and preparing meat that is permissible in Islamic law). Since Al-Hilali is a practicing Muslim, arguing against halal was initially a challenge for him as it conflicts with his own practices. “We had to be the devil’s advocate with the topic. For example, in a lot of Muslim countries you see the livestock grazing on trash. There’s the argument that in order for something to be halal you need to treat the animal fairly from birth to slaughter and that’s not treating them right so that means the food is not halal. We had to give arguments that we don’t agree with but they are valid arguments against our beliefs.” The experience of doing that, Al-Hilali says, helped him emerge from the case however, with a clearer grasp of his own views, but also with a far greater respect for the opposing view. 

The Ethics Bowl reflects the best of what a university
should be but can sometimes fail to be.

—Professor Martin Leever

Valmir Merkaj, a 2013 graduate of the University of Detroit
Mercy, agrees. Merkaj was among a team that advanced to the national
competition that year, though they didn’t place. “The good thing about University of Detroit Mercy is that it’s small enough that it doesn’t play into the group-think mentality, and that’s why something like the Ethics Bowl has been able to be so effective here.” Now in law school at Harvard, Merkaj notes that he still draws upon the ability to detach from instinctual views in order to see “right” more clearly. “It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of another person and see things from their point of view. The Ethics Bowl makes you do that,” he says. 

Spreading to High School

While the amphitheater of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and
intellectual freedom may be the university, these ideas are reverberating loudly through the cafeterias and gymnasiums of high school, too. At Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor on a recent afternoon, several students gathered for Ethics Club practice in the classroom of their coach, Brent Richards. Richards is a philosophy and history teacher who’s been teaching for 18 years and has been running the school’s ethics competition since 2013. Last year, he even introduced a philosophy class to the school’s curriculum, which many students on this year’s Ethics Bowl team took. 

Richards helps organize the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl in partnership with the U-M Department of Philosophy Outreach program, and Jeanine DeLay, a former high school applied ethics teacher  and lecturer at U-M, who now runs A2Ethics, an organization geared toward “promoting public ethics and philosophy initiatives through events, education, and civic partnership in communities everywhere.” 

The high school Ethics Bowl takes its lead from the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl in form and structure. It was established six years ago, and at Pioneer High School, has ballooned in enrollment in recent years — growing under Richard’s guidance, from 10 students in its first year to more than 120 students this year. The national competition will take place between April 5-7 at the University of North Carolina’s Parr Center for Ethics. 

Ethics is a hefty topic for anyone to wrap their mind around, let alone a busy group of teenagers. And these students aren’t here just because “Ethics Club” looks good on a resume (which it will). They’ve gathered after school largely because they’re committed to developing their opinions. “Sometimes I just get scared of changing my opinion based on how I view what I need to think,” says Elizabeth Engel, a senior. “I think one of the benefits of the Ethics Bowl is learning about the ethical theories which gives us a framework for looking at issues which give you a framework for understanding an issue as opposed to just accepting it or feeling like I have to adopt that view as my new opinion on life.” Some students end up changing their opinions based upon the cases they’ve practiced. Lizzie
Williams, also a senior, says that she changed her position on ethicality of an anonymous “bombshell” op-ed, published last September in the The New York Times by a senior official inside the Trump administration who remained undisclosed, and criticized the administration and said many staffers and other officials were deliberately disobeying or ignoring the president’s orders for the good of the country. 

“I would say I am a pretty politically set person, and I originally thought the anonymous bombshell was completely ethical, but the more I looked into it and discussed it I thought, maybe I don’t support this, and I’ve actually come to a personal stance now that it was completely unethical.” Now that’s a statement Socrates would be proud of.