The Maryville High School team members didn’t know the right answer to any question they faced in a Feb. 3 competition, and they still earned first place.
The Tennessee High School Ethics Bowl doesn’t present students with questions that have right and wrong answers.
Instead it poses complex ethical dilemmas and challenges them to think critically, examine their values and weigh the pros and cons.
Teams are expected to see multiple sides of an issue, not win a debate, and they answer questions from both judges and the other team about the positions they take on the issues.
What moral decisions should guide driverless cars? Should the best man at a wedding share his misgivings about the bride with the groom? How does loyalty to your nation compare to loyalty to your family?
“These are called ethical problems for a reason,” because they aren’t easy to answer, said Jill Pope, the MHS teacher who coached the team.
In the championship round, they discussed whether surgeons should operate on patients with bodily identity integrity disorder, a rare condition in which people may attempt to injure themselves to cause a disability they believe they should have.
Teams received a packet of 15 cases to study in November but didn’t know until the beginning of each round at the Knoxville Holiday Inn which they would be presenting.
Up to five team members participated in each round. They had no notes and only two minutes to confer before they began presenting their position.
The competition began at 8 a.m. and after six rounds was over around 6 p.m. “They were mentally and physically exhausted when they walked out of there,” Pope said.
MHS participated for the first time in the nine-year-old regional competition sponsored by the the University of Tennessee Department of Philosophy and its Humanities Center.
When they discovered they won the first round with a 3-0 decision from the judges, “That was very motivating,” said senior Krista Nolan.
Judges had no idea which school the teams represented because they each were assigned a name. MHS competed as the Contractualists, facing opponents such as the Existentialists, the Kantians and the Socratics.
Like a team sport, the students gained energy from each other and had to collaborate. “It had to be a well-oiled machine,” sophomore Eva Counts said.
The team members had been working on their cases two or three hours a week since November, ensuring they were well-grounded.
“If you rely on one value for your case, they’re going to come after you and make you prove it,” Pope said.
Students found their positions evolving as they examined the issues.
For example, they may have initially thought a human resources manager should share with a friend accusations of sexual harassment against an employee who was applying for a job at her company, but later they decided the woman had a greater obligation to maintain confidentiality.
Initially Emily Morgan thought an employer should be free to not hire smokers. “You have to look at how you define smoking as a choice,” she said, and the social factors that come into play with that decision.
“There were so many more layers than I ever thought,” said Morgan, an MHS junior.
Participating in the Ethics Bowl changed how students think about issues.
“It’s more than just a debate. It’s more than just a bunch of kids talking to each other,” Morgan said. “It bleeds into your life.”
“I wouldn’t say it has mellowed me, but it has made me more open to other opinions,” she said.
Counts sees the experience as one that has strengthened her ability to represent her opinions and articulate her values.
Maryville’s team will receive a new set of cases to prepare for the National High School Ethics Bowl April 20-22 at the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.