Imagine a competition that values consensus over competition and a capacious, moral imagination over high scores.

Welcome to the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl. 

Started in 2014, the yearly tournament brings together high school students from Detroit to Saginaw to discuss ethical dilemmas in a competition. The point of the encounter isn’t necessarily to win—it’s to understand philosophical concepts and how they apply to moral and ethical problems in the world around us.

“We are often dealing with students who have almost certainly never studied philosophy before,” says Zoë Johnson-King, a Ph.D. candidate in LSA’s Department of Philosophy and the head of the department’s philosophy outreach program, which works with ethics bowl clubs across eastern Michigan. “In the beginning, they are trying to link the material up with what they already know, and you can get some bizarre responses. But by the end of the season, they really develop a much sharper understanding of the connections between cases and concepts.”

Train Your Brain

Students participating in the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl clubs go through 8 to 14 coaching sessions with philosophy graduate students. Some of the sessions entail a boot-camp-style exploration of the major philosophical schools of thought. Others involve extensive examinations of case studies that present challenging, and often locally oriented, ethical dilemmas.

“We start by taking the case studies apart and asking students questions about the material there,” Johnson-King says. “What are the morally relevant features of the case? What implications can you draw from those features? What is your initial reaction, and can you take that reaction and turn it into a general principle that you can apply to other cases?” The questions help students orient their minds toward the kinds of ethical problems presented in philosophy classes, she says, and in everyday life.

The annual Michigan High School Ethics Bowl continues to grow, expanding from 35 student participants to 75 students from eight schools across three counties. The program is “a model for other states,” says A2Ethics President Jeanine DeLay.

“LSA’s Department of Philosophy attracts the best graduate students,” says Jeanine DeLay, the President of A2Ethics, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that promotes public philosophy education and who does the logistical work behind the annual Bowl. “The Ethics Bowl program gives Michigan high school students an opportunity to study with individuals who are not only able to teach them established traditions of thought, but who are also thinking about emerging philosophies, who are writing on these topics and working on these problems.”

There are 12 case studies each year, and about nine of them come from community members, DeLay says. This past year included a piece written by a Bank of Ann Arbor executive and one by a Detroit area teacher. Previous entries have involved the ethical dilemmas surrounding a racist hospice resident—written by a local hospice administrator—and another about Camp Take Notice, a grassroots tent community in Ann Arbor. Using examples from the community is critical, say Johnson-King and DeLay, because they illustrate the relevance of philosophical investigation and make the competition more than just an intellectual exercise.

The students discuss the case studies with their teachers, with LSA graduate students, and with each other over the course of the school year. Then, in February, they bring what they’ve practiced to the big show: a one-day, tournament-style competition held in Ann Arbor.

Polite Fight

Each round of the competition involves two teams, three judges, a moderator, a scorekeeper, and the audience. The moderator reads out a case. The first team gives its response, summarizing the ethical points of the case, and then the second team gives its response, taking the first team’s thoughts and suggestions into account. The goal, Johnson-King says, isn’t to “poke as many holes as possible in the opposing team’s argument, but rather to give further considerations to think about when developing a coherent picture of the case.” After that, the judges get ten minutes to grill the teams with tough questions.

The judges give scores based on how well the second team addresses the first team’s presentation and on the clarity of each team’s response to the prompt and to the judges’ questions. They also judge whether the teams address a variety of different viewpoints, and whether they identify the ethically relevant features of each case. And unlike other high school debate competitions, there are points for civil dialogue.

But judging can be tricky, Johnson-King says. When students from a suburban private school go against students from a city charter school, for example, there are significant social boundaries, and the ways that teams articulate their thoughts and values aren’t always the same. The judges are given explicit instructions, Johnson-King says, to focus “on the quality of the students’ ideas, not on how they say them.”

Everybody Wins

The Michigan High School Ethics Bowl program started two years ago when DeLay first heard about the National Ethics Bowl program, which is run out of the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina. As DeLay was looking into starting a Michigan chapter, the national organization contacted Jon Shaheen (Ph.D. ’14), a then-doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy. Shaheen and DeLay decided to give the program a go: A2Ethics would produce the event, and LSA’s Department of Philosophy outreach program would do the in-school coaching. Johnson-King got involved right away and has since taken the lead on coaching in the program.

The Michigan High School Ethics Bowl has expanded dramatically since its inception, growing from 35 student participants to 75 students from eight schools across three counties. Johnson-King and DeLay both hope to continue that growth and increase the geographic and economic diversity of the competition’s entrants.

As the number of schools increase, students and their schools both benefit. The most important benefit of the program, Johnson-King says, is that students really develop a sharper understanding of broad ethical concepts and of salient connections between different cases. Students also get better at moving back and forth between the details of specific cases and the general principles that may or may not apply to those cases.

“That’s our real goal,” Johnson-King says, “to have people have an easy facility going from the particular to the general and back again.”

The project has inspired some students to study philosophy in college, including three who are currently in LSA. But this is just an effect, DeLay says, of a larger, more widespread familiarity with philosophy, thanks to projects like the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl.

“To the extent that the Ethics Bowl can give Michigan high school students an opportunity to expand their world in terms of thinking and reflecting on the urgent issues of our time,” DeLay says, “we can count it as a success.” “We are introducing philosophical education and philosophical principles to students who have largely not encountered them before,” Johnson-King says. “It’s a great opportunity for students who would never know, unless they happened to try a class at university, if they enjoy it or not. And it’s great to discover students who have a real talent for it and to help students realize that talent, which might have otherwise gone undiscovered.”


Photos courtesy of Jeanine DeLay