An ethics bowl is simultaneously a collaborative and competitive event in which teams analyze a series of wide-ranging ethical issues. Some topics are of particular interest to young people, for example: cheating, plagiarism, bullying, peer pressure, and social media. Other topics are of broader social and political interest, for instance: religious liberty, group-based discrimination, global climate change, terrorism, issues with the U.S. criminal justice system, etc.
An exciting event for students and spectators, an ethics bowl is a great way for students to deepen their understanding of moral issues that are central to their everyday lives. Diverging in format from debate-style events, teams are not forced to take adversarial positions, and focus on reasoning and analysis rather than oppositional rhetoric. Perhaps most significantly, the event encourages students to consider perspectives beyond their own as they make moral and political judgments.
Each team consists of three to seven members who can work together in advance of the event to prepare their responses to the various cases. During the competition, each team is allowed to have up to five members competing in any given match. Team members for each match must be selected and seated prior to the start of that match, before any case is announced. Substitutions cannot occur during a match, so changes can only be made between each round.
Each year, the National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB) releases a series of cases that will be used in regional events like the THSEB. These cover a wide-ranging array of ethical, political, and social issues. Teams have access to these cases in advance of the event, allowing them to study each one and develop how they might engage with the issues presented. All cases used during the THSEB will come directly from the NHSEB Regional Case set, though teams (as well as judges and volunteers) will not know in advance which cases will be selected for use in each round.
General Competition Format
The THSEB consists of several preliminary seeding rounds, followed by knock-out rounds (e.g. quarterfinals, semi-finals, finals). The number of seeding and knock-out rounds will vary depending on the number of teams that register. Preliminary rounds take the form of individual matches between all teams, with no teams playing each other twice (though you might play a team a second time in the knock-out rounds). Knock-out rounds will take the form of a single-elimination tournament, with teams seeded based on their results in the preliminary rounds.
Individual Match Format
To begin each individual match, a moderator will introduce the competing teams and judges, and note which team has randomly been assigned as Team A (the presenting team for the first case) and Team B (the presenting team for the second case).
After introductions, the moderator will present the first case and the question to which Team A will be responding. Neither judges nor the teams will know in advance which case will be presented or which question will be asked. This is known as the Moderator’s Period.
Team A will then have up to two minutes to confer, after which any member(s) of Team A may speak for up to five minutes (total) in response to the moderator’s question, based on the team’s research and critical analysis. This is known as the Presentation Period. Team A must address and answer the moderator’s question during the Presentation period. In the past, there has been some concern that teams were penalized or rewarded depending on whether one person speaks or everyone contributes. We understand that each team has its own process. Some divide up the cases so that individuals are responsible for a certain number of cases; as a result, one person would present. Other teams ask that each member of the team become responsible for a different aspect of all the cases; as a result, all team members would speak. We let the judges know that they should neither penalize nor reward a team for using either approach: both are welcome.
Because of judges’ backgrounds are so diverse, teams do not have to reference specific ethicists or ethical theories: doing so is not a requirement of a good answer, nor is it indicative of a poor answer. The argument matters; it is not necessary to name a philosopher or ethical theory associated with your particular argument. Keep in mind that a team is speaking to a broad audience: many judges have no formal background in philosophy or ethics, and may not, for instance, understand your reference to Kant. A good strategy is to explain your ethical reasoning in terms everyone can understand. However, if a team member does refer to “deontology,” for example, make sure the reference is accurate. A judge may question you about it during the judges’ questioning portion of the match. In short, remember that philosophical name-dropping is not a substitute for presenting a sound argument, and that sound arguments can be made without any explicit reference to ethical theory.
Next, Team B will have up to one minute to confer, after which Team B may speak for up to three minutes in response to Team A’s presentation. This is known as the Commentary Period. During the Commentary, a team’s role is to help the other team perfect its presentation, not to present its own position on the case. When team members comment, they should think of themselves as thoughtful, critical listeners. Their goal is to point out the flaws in the presentation, to comment on its strengths, note what has been omitted or needs further development; all this is in the interest of making the presentation of the case stronger. Team B is also welcome to pose questions for Team A during their commentary (though Team A is not under any obligation to answer them). It should be noted that the judges are instructed that a “question shower” or “spit-fire questioning,” during which a team rapidly asks many questions in an attempt to overwhelm or dominate the other team, is inconsistent with the aims of THSEB and should not merit a high score.
Team A will then have up to one minute to confer, followed by three minutes to respond to Team B’s commentary. This is known as the Response Period.
The judges will then begin their ten-minute question-and-answer session with Team A. Before asking questions, the judges may confer briefly. This is known as the Judges’ Period. More than one team member may respond to a given judge’s question. Teams must not confer for longer than 30 seconds after a question has been asked.
Judges will then evaluate the Presentation, Response, and Responses to Judges’ Questions by Team A and the Commentary by Team B, and score the teams. After the judges have made their scoring decisions on the first half, the moderator will announce the second case that will take up the focus for the other half of the match. This will follow the same structure as above, with Team B taking the presenting role and Team A taking the commentary role. Teams cannot make substitutions at this stage in the match, as those that were seated at the start must remain for the entire match.
Judges for an ethics bowl do not need to be philosophers, and are selected on a voluntary basis. Past judges have included, in addition to academic philosophers from UT, law enforcement officials, former elected officials, and various other community members with diverse backgrounds and stakes in the event. Teams will be scored based on the quality of their reasoning, as well as how well they:
- Engage in respectful discourse, communicating well internally, as well as with other teams and judges
- Follow official THSEB rules and procedures
- Convey an understanding of relevant ethical issues, and attend to the nuances of each case
- Embody the spirit of the philosophical pursuit of truth, as opposed to a combative disposition bent on winning
The THSEB’s continued success is thanks in large part to the contributions of a substantial number of event volunteers. In addition to judges, volunteers are requested in various other capacities:
- Moderators are needed to read cases, keep track of time, and record scoring information. Students (both undergraduate and undergraduate) from the sponsoring institution are encouraged to volunteer for this role.
- Team liaisons are needed to visit schools in advance of the event to work with students, aid coaches in running practices, and help in various other ways. Faculty and graduate students from the sponsoring institution are generally requested to fulfill this role.
- General volunteers are also needed for the day of the event to provide logistical assistance, event information for participants, instructions to teams, etc.
If you are interested in serving as a judge or volunteering, please e-mail us at THSEB@utk.edu