Ethics Bowl

Department of Philosophy

At some point, everyone faces a moral dilemma. The question is – how often do we take the time to seriously examine how to make a decision using ethical reasoning?

Established in 2010, the Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl (THSEB), hosted by the UT Department of Philosophy, is a competition for high school students to discuss controversial ethical issues. It provides students with the opportunity to sharpen their critical thinking and moral reasoning skills and prepares them to become leaders of the next generation.

Disagreement on a variety of issues is a hallmark of a modern democracy. In order to function, a society needs citizens capable of engaging in respectful deliberation and dialogue about an array of controversial and complex issues with an emphasis on reasoning. At its heart, the Ethics Bowl is a discussion – not a debate.

“The spirit and essence of the Ethics Bowl are captured in the gathering of passionate and intelligent students who aim to articulate what is truly valuable and important about life,” said Alex Feldt, senior lecturer of philosophy and THSEB director. “It allows students to prepare themselves for engaging in conversations they will undoubtedly encounter in college and beyond. It prepares them to be thoughtful citizens in our democracy.”

Before competition, volunteers visit schools and work with students to develop their arguments and critical thinking skills. During the competition, teams analyze issues and present their ideas to a panel of judges. There are no right or wrong answers – only the sincere attempt to articulate what the team thinks is truly valuable and important from an ethical standpoint. Although aimed at promoting a collaborative and respectful discussion, the event is a competition. The winning team goes on to compete at the National High School Ethics Bowl.

The focus on engagement, reasoning, and critical dialogue benefits student learning by honing skills proven to boost standardized testing performance, which Tennessee educational standards target. In addition, students have social and intellectual interactions that allow them to be considerate of other perspectives when making moral judgements and decisions. Several participating schools have even added philosophy to their curriculum.

“In a democratic society like ours, we are always going to have disagreements and, in particular, moral disagreements,” Feldt said. “To function well, we all need to be able to engage each other in respectful debate and dialogue rather than retreating to our corners. The Ethics Bowl helps students develop a foundation for thoughtful discourse.”

The Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl is co-sponsored by the UT Humanities Center and supported by Home Federal Bank.