Competitive Ethics?

Since tenth grade, I have participated in a competition called Ethics Bowl. Every year high school students gather in teams in New York City to talk about ethical dilemmas and give their opinions on how these dilemmas should be resolved. These dilemmas ask questions such as, is it right for you read your sister’s journal? Or is it ethical for China to have a social credit system?

While the focus is on having a conversation with another team/school, three judges decide on a winner in the end, because that’s how Ethics Bowl was designed. When thinking about competition, Ethics Bowl was one of the first things that popped into my mind; there are so many aspects of it to explore.

Even though it is a competition, there is so much to learn from it. One is learning to work with a team. When competing on a team, you have other people to rely on and support you. If you are trying to explain an ethical theory and how it should be applied, a good teammate will have your back if you leave out a detail, helping you develop a strong case on why you have the best solution to the dilemma. With support you can help lessen others’ mistakes and create a higher level of competitiveness. When you build trust and know that someone is supporting you, you can relax and just do your best.

At times throughout the event, you get to see different sides of students. If they are really into an ethical dilemma and feel connected to a solution, it will show—in the tone of their voice, their gestures, and their content. When people have emotional connections to topics, they tend to place themselves inside of the dilemma and release a competitive spirit.

Something funny I find about Ethics Bowl is that it gives ethics winners and losers. One school or team will win and the other will not. While it may be heartbreaking to lose (I know from experience), there is a lot to gain from a loss. A loss can signify that maybe there was something you as an individual could have done better, for example making sure to explain why your team believes their argument is the best one. Losing can also show that the team as a whole could have done better. There is much to learn about yourself and others in terms of improving for future competitions. Takeaways are less clear with winning because winning typically shows that everything went well. Winning in Ethics Bowl usually shows that a team made a clear and sound argument as to why, for example, dinosaurs should not be brought back to life and how that would be immoral. With winning comes a sense of excitement and pride, knowing you and your team have done well.

Ethics Bowl helps all students who participate to see and learn from the perspectives of others. Unlike debate, everyone is allowed to speak and express their opinion. Opposing teams are even allowed to have the same solutions to an ethical dilemma. Many of the cases in Ethics Bowl focus on current issues, helping students think about what should be done in the real world. When I first started going to Ethics Bowl, it was a scary experience, but as I got older, I realized the important aspects to focus on: explaining a dilemma clearly and giving a well-developed possible solution to the dilemma. What is good, what is bad, what is immoral, what is moral? Ethics Bowl has allowed me to reflect on and explore these questions in a competitive context. While I don’t think ethics should be competitive, the competition does open doors for students to have conversations about important issues. Then, after the day is done, they can continue to talk about these issues with family, friends, and classmates. From my experience attending a Quaker school, I believe the most important parts of competitions—all of which I have all encountered in Ethics Bowl—are to work hard, do your best, be respectful and kind, be proud of your work, and learn how you can improve for next time. The best part about competitions is not always the win-or-lose ending, but rather the event itself or process of competing.

Read more: Student Voices Project 2019

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