Ethics Bowl: Where Students Explore Tough Decisions

Judge of the tournament Glenn Graber and organizer Matt Deaton at the first annual East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

Judge of the tournament Glenn Graber and organizer Matt Deaton at the first annual East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

High-school students search for ethical solutions in light of moral principles and moral reasoning

Should a prison inmate on death row be entitled to receive a life-saving kidney transplant?  Are classroom surveillance systems an infringement of students’ civil liberties?  These are examples of ethical dilemmas that students learn to analyze in UT’s High School Ethics Bowl.

Most people will face a difficult ethical decision at some point in their lives. Difficult ethical decisions are challenging because they arouse emotions and require an appeal to values over which people often disagree. And, of course, even when people do agree over values, their agreement can rest on error. Yet, conscientious persons cannot settle for mere agreement; they want to appeal not only to agreed upon values, but to the correct values. The result is that with many ethical decisions, people of good conscience can—and often do—reasonably disagree over which option is ethically correct.

While most high-schoolers are aware of the principles accepted by their culture as “right,” their schools are unlikely to offer formal training in how to base ethical decisions on moral principles and moral reasoning. But the Philosophy Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is hoping to change that with a new program designed to engage students in thinking about ethics.

The idea arose at the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics in March 2009, which Dr. John Hardwig, former head of the Philosophy Department, and Matt Deaton, a UT Knoxville doctoral student in philosophy, attended. There they heard about the High School Ethics Bowl program sponsored by the Squire Family Foundation, a group that works with philosophers and educators to ensure that all students in American secondary schools have an opportunity to study philosophy and assists in organizing collaborative yet competitive events among teams from area high schools.

Deaton took an interest in the program, and Hardwig immediately committed his support. They agreed that conducting an Ethics Bowl at UT Knoxville would not only be a great program for high school students in East Tennessee but also a wonderful community outreach initiative for the Department of Philosophy.

TSD Students with their coaches at the East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

TSD Students with their coaches at the East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

The Ethics Bowl, which is similar to but less confrontational than a debate, presents a series of wide-ranging ethical dilemmas to teams and asks them to analyze these dilemmas using the four dominant ethical theories (Kantianism, Consequentialism, Care Ethics, and Virtue Ethics—visit Matt Deaton’s “Ethics in a Nutshell” website for more information) to reason through the case studies and to support their decisions with arguments based on the theory or theories they are using. The tournaments themselves are exciting, but they also offer students a chance to gain valuable insight into ethical and philosophical issues.

“By teaching area high-school students the main theories in the philosophy of ethics, students learn to think through ethical questions in light of moral principles and moral reasoning,” Deaton says. “Though complex, the ethical theories align with common sense ethical principles we all accept, such as ‘treat one another with respect’ and ‘bring about the best consequences’. Therefore, philosophical ethics can appeal to anyone, regardless of one’s religion or politics.”

When Dr. David Reidy became the head of the Department of Philosophy, he continued to give full support to the program. “The Ethics Bowl facilitates careful and systematic moral reflection by young persons and thus helps them to better understand themselves, moral disagreements, the challenges and benefits of being able to justify themselves to others, and the difficult nature of many novel moral issues,” Reidy adds. “This sort of moral reflection is essential if students are to realize themselves not only as persons but as citizens in a democracy.”

The first annual East Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl was held in November 2009. Two schools competed in the tournament, Knoxville Catholic High School (KSHS) and Tennessee School for the Deaf (TSD). The collaboration and competition between the two teams was rigorous and exciting and ended with KCHS as the winner, although all the students learned and benefited from the experience.

Dave Kyser, an English teacher at TSD, had five students participating in the 2009 Ethics Bowl. “This was a great experience for our students. It’s very important for them to learn how to actually think instead of just memorizing facts, because memorizing facts doesn’t lead to the creative use of ideas and materials,” says Kyser. “When our students leave TSD, we want them to be able to think critically and creatively in dealing with the outside world. The East Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl is a great opportunity to broaden their minds and horizons.”

The second annual East Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl will be held on Thursday, January 27, 2011, at 6 p.m. in the University Center at UT Knoxville. Austin-East Magnet School, KCHS, Hardin Valley Academy, TSD, and Webb School of Knoxville have already signed up to participate.

David Goff, a teacher at Austin-East, says he can only speak about the value of their practice sessions, since 2011 is the first year for Austin-East students to participate in the Ethics Bowl program.

KCHS winners of the First Annual East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

KCHS winners of the First Annual East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

“I have greatly enjoyed listening to the students discuss potentially volatile issues in a rational manner. This program has challenged our students to think deeply and logically, to consider issues from different points of view, and to listen thoughtfully to the opinions of others,” Goff says. “It has amazed me to see how willing they have been to learn the various ethics theories used in discussing the issues. I’m looking forward to seeing how the kids respond in the actual event in January.”

Deaton says the bowl is a rewarding event that gives students the opportunity to sharpen their critical thinking skills and practice deliberating serious matters. No experience is necessary to compete. Volunteers from UTK’s Philosophy Department meet with each team to coach them on how to compete in the Ethics Bowl.

Though the teams receive a case pool from which the competition cases will be drawn, they do not know in advance which cases will be used the night of the competition, nor are they given the actual questions in advance. This is to encourage substantive preparation and ensure the answers are genuinely from the students and not the coaches. Although other states’ competitions have used non-philosophers as judges, so far, UTK has exclusively used applied ethics professors from the department. That may change in the future, but for now, the program draws on the wisdom and experience of the faculty. The ethical dilemmas posed can range from those particularly relevant to young students to political, social, and bioethical issues.

“The Ethics Bowl challenges the students to a very difficult mental exercise—changing their points of view about certain issues,” states Kyser. “Through their work in the Ethics Bowl program, they learn to listen to other people’s opinions and try to understand both sides of the issues. Learning to think like this is quite a significant skill.”

Student teams deliberating at the East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

Student teams deliberating at the East Tennessee Ethics Bowl.

“Philosophy, more than any other discipline, has a long history of wide-ranging reasoned inquiry into fundamental moral and political questions,” adds Dr. Reidy. And similar to the primary goal of ancient and contemporary philosophers to prepare citizens to participate in democracy, UT Knoxville’s Philosophy Department is doing its part to prepare area high school students to be informed critical thinkers who will be active and engaged citizens in their local and global communities.

For more information about the Second Annual East Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl, contact Matt Deaton at 865-323-9773 or

—Kim Midkiff