Since ancient times, discussion and debate has been at the heart of philosophy. It is central to the Platonic dialogues, as well as for the Socratic method – a form of inquiry and debate which scrutinizes opposing viewpoints, in order to bring clarity, coherence and consistency to commonly held beliefs and opinions. As Cicero said of Socrates, he was, “the first who brought philosophy down from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil.”
It is with this Socratic spirit that the so-called Ethics Bowl, an established philosophical debating competition amongst some US universities, is now, in turn, beginning to spread in popularity to the country’s high schools. Paul Vitello, writing yesterday in The New York Times (registration may be required), describes the second annual Long Island High School Ethics Bowl, in which students from eight high schools spent the day debating the intricacies of a range of ethical issues. The purpose of these events, as Gary Squire the founder of the Squire Family Foundation, a Long Island group that promotes the study of philosophy and which sponsored the ethics bowl, is not so much the competitive element or even winning the arguments, as would be in traditional debating competitions, but rather out of a sense that:
“We want kids to learn to think critically. Ethics is a discipline. Kids should be learning it from an early age.”
Whilst these high school ethics bowl competitions are very much in their infancy (the Long Island contest is the only high school level competition in the New York area, and one of just a few in the nation) they are modeled on the established college Ethics Bowl league. The original idea for a college Ethics Bowl was drawn up by Dr. Robert F. Ladenson of the Illinois Institute of Technology, in the early 1990s. Due to its popularity, there has been an annual undergraduate intercollegiate Ethics Bowl since 1997, which is held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE).
In the Ethics Bowl, a moderator poses questions to teams of three to five students. Questions may concern ethical problems on wide ranging topics. Each team receives a set of ethical issues in advance of the competition, and questions posed to teams at the competition are taken from that set. A panel of judges evaluates answers on their ‘intelligibility, focus on ethically relevant considerations, avoidance of ethical irrelevance, and deliberative thoughtfulness’.
As noted on its website, the Ethics Bowl has received special commendation for excellence and innovation from the American Philosophical Association, and received the 2006 American Philosophical Association/Philosophy Documentation Centre’s 2006 prize for Excellence and Innovation in Philosophy Programs.
In an article entitled ‘The Educational Significance of the Ethics Bowl’ (2001) Ladenson outlines and describes the format, procedures, and rules of the Ethics Bowl, summarises its origins and development, as well as analyzing its educational features. Past Ethics Bowl cases can be accessed here.
By Michael B. Gill, University of Arizona
(Vol. 3, Issue 2, March 2008)
By Stephen Finlay and Terence Cuneo, University of Southern California Calvin College
(Vol. 3, Issue 3, May 2008)