Ethics Bowl teaches students to debate complex problems, see more than one side


Members of Bearden’s Ethics Bowl team compete in January.

Erin Conley, Staff Writer

Bearden’s Ethics Bowl team competed in the 11th Annual Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl, sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and the Humanities Center at UT Knoxville.

The competition, held on Jan. 18, brought together more than 170 students, coaches, and volunteers from high schools throughout the region. Throughout the full-day event, teams exchange in engaging discussion and critical deliberation surrounding morally controversial issues.

“Two teams from different schools…face off against each other, judges in the middle,” senior Cooper Lusby said. “One team presents their case, the other team asks questions, the first team rebuts, the judges ask questions to that team, then it alternates.”

At weekly meetings, members of the Bearden team examine specific scenarios of ethical debate and prepare well-rounded arguments for upcoming competition.

“We are presented with a series of moral, ethical dilemmas in the form of case studies,” Lusby said. “They talk about different real-life scenarios and [we are] supposed to apply moral reasoning and argumentation to that in a uniform, consistent, cohesive way.”

The process applies philosophy and logical reasoning to rationally argue for a chosen point of view. Unlike similar clubs, such as debate, teams are evaluated on the quality of their analysis over their ability to defeat the opposition.

“It’s similar to debate, but…again, the dualistic one-side, other-side mentality is not as prevalent,” Lusby said. “You can agree in the Ethics Bowl just as much as you can disagree.”

Often, evaluating the morality of complex issues, controversial or not, provides its own challenges both in and out of conversation with others.

“There are cases sometimes, I think everybody has them, that for a lot of people, hit way too close to home,” Lusby said. “As much as we attempt to put aside our own biases and life experiences, they just get in the way and people get stuck in their own preconceptions about things.

“It makes it very difficult because it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall even within your own team, and it can be very self-defeating.”

Through the process of collaboration, inquiry, and debate, team members learn how to navigate complex, ethical grey areas that expand far beyond the classroom.

“I think Ethics Bowl has that particular quality because it’s so rooted in logic, reason, argumentation,” Lusby said. “It really does prepare you…to deal with difficult scenarios and situations.” 

Added sponsor Mrs. Anne Fine: “Whether you win or lose, really, it teaches [you] to look at all sides or as many sides of an issue as possible. Students have a tendency to go down that road, that single road, and never consider another point of view or another domain of society that might be affected or even consider what they, themselves value.”

Beyond the competitive aspect, the club prepares students for not only higher education, but the rest of their lives.

“The experience of learning how to ethically deliberate and the process of questioning yourself and the morality of the world around you without necessarily pointing fingers…has really helped me become a better person,” junior Tasha Williamson said.