The ethics of the Ethics Bowl

This Saturday, I was one of the judges at the second annual Long Island Ethics Bowl. I volunteered a few months ago, and since I liked the College Bowl when it was a popular TV show, I thought it might be fun. It was.

How refreshing to find students giving up a Saturday to debate, discuss and consider topics such as whether polygamy is morally wrong or a matter of cultural differences (cultural differences, said both teams I judged); whether a parent of a Down’s Syndrome daughter can forcibly sterilize her (yes, said one team, while the other thought that the decision rested with a medical panel); whether researchers can use their own children as subjects (neither team saw a conflict of duties as parents and researchers); whether it is moral for an executor to hack into the computer of an alleged suicide (neither side considered the matter of privacy, only whether knowledge found on the computer led to family closure).

All the cases were based on real situations and each presented varying degrees of complexity. The thought given by the students to the cases was impressive. While the Ethics Bowl isn’t meant to mimic a debate, there seemed to be desire on the part of more than one team to best their opponents. This seems inevitable when the program is set up as an elimination competition. This element made me wonder what the take-away message was for the students: That the winners were more ethical people than the losers? Did the competition somehow undercut their sense of empathy?

There is no way of knowing what the long-term effect is on Ethics Bowl participants, but it does seem good on balance. Students got to recognize moral issues (not an easy task) and to think about what the right thing to do is in a murky, conflicted situation (and even harder task).

I was most impressed that dozens of teenagers volunteered to exercise their brains this way.

I don’t know why they participated in the Ethics Bowl—for some it probably was because it will look good for college admission. Others, I suppose, want to hone their debating skills. For some it is probably just good fun to be with others who also like engaging in thought-exercises.

The point of the Ethics Bowl, begun 15 years ago and designed as a collegiate program, is to prepare students to be moral people. I don’t know if it does or not. It is conceivable that it may even make some more insufferable by being self-righteous. But my hunch is that simply engaging these difficult moral problems in a forum like this is a good thing. Part of being a moral person is identifying a moral situation and making moral judgments about it.

The Ethics Bowl doesn’t address moral motivation and courage, but no program can do everything. They have taken important steps. What they did was good enough.


An article about the Ethics Bowl appeared in Monday’s NY Times.





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