Ethics Bowl shows what is missing in political discourse

  • March 3, 2021

“We look forward to hearing what you have to enrich the discussion,” said one student to an opponent at the second annual Ethics Bowl Feb. 27 in discussing whether or not pardoning criminals gave justice to the victims. “I’m excited to hear what team B has to say,” said another young competitor with a smile.

Such pleasantries with the opposing team is not traditional competitive etiquette, even in debate, but it is the norm at the Ontario High School Ethics Bowl, and is in fact encouraged, said Jeffrey Senese, president of the Ontario High School Ethics Bowl hosted by the University of Toronto Philosophy Department.

“I think an Ethics Bowl is different than a debate in a way that's really important for the current climate of political discourse,” said Senese. “The current climate, as we all know, is such that conversations can become really controversial quickly and a debate almost antagonizes that climate. There's two sides and your job is to defend and attack aggressively, you're not supposed to consider the nuance. You're not supposed to consider both sides.

“We encourage that kind of collegial spirit in the debate. Considering nuance and considering the degree to which your position might be flawed isn't interpreted by the judges as weakness. It's actually interpreted as strength because it shows that you're open-minded enough and willing to pivot if the evidence and the argument is convincing enough.”

During an Ethics Bowl, teams of high school students discuss ethical dilemmas taking place at the forefront of world politics. Such dilemmas might include: how we ought to deal with assisted-death, sexting and gene editing. Though competition takes place in a debate-style format the tone is deliberately non-combative.

An aftercall is meant to foster more civil respectful discourse over some of society’s most controversial topics.

Canterbury High School of the Performing Arts in Ottawa was this year’s provincial champions collecting a $1,000 prize. Loyola Catholic Secondary School from Mississauga finished first in the round robin, before being upended in the finals. However, the team will be joining Canterbury at the national championships in late April and will receive a $500 runners up prize. 

The provincial roster of 20 teams featured five Catholic high schools: Loyola, Assumption College in Windsor, St. Augustine Catholic High School in Markham, St. Francis Xavier Secondary School in Mississauga and Marymount Academy in Sudbury. Like last years’ inaugural event, approximately 70 per cent of participants were girls. 

This year the event took place via Zoom with judges able to watch on as discussions played out between schools. Students used the breakout room feature to communicate with teammates, so despite being online organizers were able to protect the integrity of the event.

American in origin, the Ethics Bowl made its way to Western Canada in recent years and since then continues to expand across the country. The Philosophy Department at U of T was approached about expanding the Canadian High School Ethics Bowl into the province and the first bowl in Ontario took place in early 2020, just weeks before the first pandemic shutdowns. 

This year teams presented their viewpoints to the panel of judges from nearly all Ontario universities from a wide range of disciplines and working professionals in various fields. 

Organizers say the event promotes an art and skill that many worry too few in positions of power and influence in society have yet to master. Senese says the skills needed for such civil debate may provide the antidote to some of the polarization we see in the world today. 

“During the global pandemic I think we’ve all realized how important ethics is,” said judge Samantha Brennan, dean of College and Arts at the University of Guelph. 

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