Let’s get ethical

Group image of the high school students, smiling and laughing sitting in between two signs that read

The winning Hamilton Regional Ethics Bowl teams: Socratic Sisters (Humberside Collegiate, back left); Geremy Bearimy (Dr. G.W. Williams, back right); Featherless Bipeds (St. Thomas Aquinas, front). Photo by Jeffrey Senese

Watch out, Debate Club. There’s a new (ish) way to explore different sides of an issue – and based on the 200 or so high school students who descended on McMaster in February, it’s pretty popular.

The students, who were from high schools around and beyond the Hamilton area, were participating in a regional competition to qualify for the Ontario Ethics Bowl — a form of competition that, like debate, encourages analysis of an issue.

But unlike debate, it doesn’t simply reward the defence of a point of view.

“In these competitions, points get awarded on analysis, not rhetorical talent,” explains Allauren Forbes, an assistant professor in the department of Philosophy and one of the organizers of the event.

“It’s more collaborative and less adversarial than a traditional debate, and more concerned with getting to the truth about something than scoring points.”

Organized by the department, the event was the largest regional competition in the province, and the first that McMaster has hosted.

In standard Ethics Bowl competitions, teams receive a series of case studies, often drawn from news events, politics and everyday situations.

A match is held between two teams. The first team presents the central moral issues within the case, after which the second team has a chance to respond, suggesting alternative perspectives or asking clarifying questions.

After the first team addresses that response, they are asked three questions by a panel of judges.

Team performance is judged based on whether they’ve made a clear and systematic presentation of the central moral issues in the case and how clearly and effectively they respond to questions and opposing viewpoints.

Ultimately, what is said is more important than how it’s said, and a clear exploration of the issue is more important than blindly defending a side.

“The formatting isn’t like a traditional debate, where you’re arguing that your side is right, and you’re going to die on that hill no matter what,” says Andro, one member of the six-person Featherless Bipeds team from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School in Oakville.

“At OEB, you try to see things from both perspectives — you’re not just trying to prove the other team wrong.”

In the final round of matches during the February competition, the St. Thomas Aquinas Featherless Bipeds grappled with a team from Waterdown District High School on two cases: one on the idea of fines based on income, and the other on the ethics of allowing people to pay to access health-care services.

Questions flew, competitors conferred, but while there was no shortage of strong opinions, there was also a genuine back-and-forth as one side considered the other’s points and adjusted their arguments accordingly.

“As someone who’s done previous styles of debate, like British Parliamentary style, what sets OEB apart is that it’s so conversational,” explains Andro’s teammate, Michelle.

“It feels like we’re working with the other team, the judges, and the moderator – we’re all in a room trying to bring our discussion to the next level and finding out together what’s moral and what’s ethical.”

All that discussion paid off, too. In the end, the Featherless Bipeds were victorious, qualifying as one of four teams selected to go to the provincial championships.

For Forbes, who helped run Ethics Bowl competitions during her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, this kind of competition is an ideal way to show that the study of philosophy isn’t just concerned with the thinkers of the past.

“Philosophy is relevant here and now, and the study of ethics is important. It helps to answer questions that are meaningful to humanity: What do we owe to ourselves, to each other, or to the planet?” she says.

“It’s great to watch high school students take this seriously, and watch them work together to really analyze and think critically about these big ideas.”

Find out more about Ethics Bowl Canada at their website.

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