By Nina Kibria, a senior high school student at Seattle Academy

Three years ago, my 9th-grade history teacher suggested I join my school’s Ethics Club. At first, I hesitated. I liked thinking critically about social issues and discussing them with my peers, but I feared ethics would be a repeat of my experience with middle school debate.

Debate tournaments were cesspools of rivalries, nerves, and overbearing coaches and parents. My teammates and I pecked ruthlessly at the other team’s points to shred them apart, not engage with them. We prioritized winning individual arguments over finding solutions or reanalyzing our actual beliefs, so rarely did I walk away with a greater understanding of the world or another person’s authentic perspective. The whole exercise felt competitive and unproductive.

“Ethics Bowl is not so confrontational,” my teacher pushed, “Come to a few meetings. See how you feel.” 

I took his advice and joined the team. To my delight, we were not assigned to argue “proposition” or “opposition” like in a debate. We were given a set of cases that posed ethical dilemmas and were given free rein to talk about our beliefs on things like whether imposing on others’ free will is ever acceptable or if it is moral to prioritize personal pleasure over civic duty. Instead of these conversations fizzling out after practice like debate, I came home bursting like a shaken soda can with things to tell my parents. My team practiced through the fall and early winter to prepare for the Washington State NHSEB competition in February of 2020, which was judged by adults interested in ethics from the community.

The judges at the competition recognized the value of these conversations too. “Can we have one of these for adults?” they joked. Their request inspired leaders from the University of Washington Retirement Association and PLATO to organize an intergenerational ethics program for both students and adults, which was hosted this October.

When I walked onto the UW campus for the event, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite having served as a student representative on the planning task force, that evening, I was a participant. By the time I arrived, a cavernous room on the second floor of Kane Hall was already set up with delicacies such as cookies, crackers, and cheese varieties to get us in the ethical discussion mindset. 

After grabbing a snack, I joined the sea of red, brown, gray, and white heads of hair clustered around color-coded tables, chatting casually. In total, there were about 40 individuals in attendance, equally split between adults and youth. I was intercepted by an outgoing duo of other high school students who confidently introduced themselves and brought me into the crowd of teenagers. It was my first in-person ethics event since pre-Covid and being around other ethically-conscious teens was invigorating.

Naturally, the high school students and the retirees kept to themselves until the discussion began, but once we were seated at our assigned tables in small groups and the PLATO-selected discussion case was in front of us, we all had something to say to each other. 

Our case, which involved the ethics of taking a job at a company that sells to the US military, brought up personal memories for some of the older participants. One of the seniors at my table kicked off the discussion by telling us about the Vietnam War, the draft, and his opinions on the military as an institution. Sure, it didn’t particularly pertain to the case at hand, but if I had 70 years of experience behind me, I’d want to school some high schoolers too. I often feel close to my generation because social media—like TikTok, Pinterest, and Instagram—binds us through trends and shared ideas. However, my connection to people outside of my age group is limited to relatives. Our discussion gave me an opportunity to expand my insight into other generations. 

I was the only person at my table who had ever been on an ethics team, but the lack of formal training did not prevent any of us from asking questions and voicing our opinions. In fact, the varied range of ethics backgrounds added to the experience by opening up room for mentorship and education. 

My table discussed the case for about an hour until the group share-out when we got to hear what other tables came up with. One table asked if violence was ever morally permissible and how systems of oppression can play a role in that. Another asked how financial pressures can impact your obligations to society. Ninety minutes was not enough time to reach any conclusions, and we had to end with half-thought-out ideas, reactions, and questions still on our tongues. 

On our way out, my friend and I were added to a group chat created by the other high schoolers at the event, which was active for days after the Intergenerational Ethics Discussion. Like me, they were excited to see ethics events resuming post-COVID and were eager to plan more. We began chewing over other possible events for ethics-involved high school students in the Pacific Northwest, but we disagreed over what kind of events they should be. Some argued for a competition, because “People like winning,” while others wanted a space for interested students to engage with each other and encourage people rethink social structures. I fall into the latter. 

I’ve been looking for a place to think critically about social issues but without the unproductive, combative nature of debate and other high school activities that are used as college application cushions. I believe ethics has the potential to offer that environment, and I hope PLATO can continue to facilitate collaborative, critical discussions.

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Thanks for a great article, Nina – what a wonderful insight into intergenerational philosophising. I thought your response to the older participant straying from the subject was very empathetic, but this anecdote does highlight a particular challenge of the format. Were there facilitators at each table who could encourage contributors to stick to the case at hand?

I’m glad you found your way into an ethically engaged community of thinkers after a stressful induction into the world of debating. You might like to take a look at my blog post Questioning Debate, which details six differences between debating and philosophical inquiry and which explains why I, like you, prefer a non-competitive approach. Whether competition has a place in philosophy is also discussed extensively in recent issues of the Journal of Philosophy in Schools (vol 9, issues 1 & 2).

All the best for your studies and your continued involvement in ethical inquiry!