Yesterday we held the second session of the Ethics Bowl unit in a fourth/fifth grade classroom. Two teams of students each gave presentations, engaged in an open dialogue, and responded to judges’ questions about the case I wrote about in my last post, “The Mischarging Mishap.” Three students acted as judges. Other students were spectators, contributing to the event by writing down questions that came to their minds during the presentations and open dialogue and handing them to the judges to ask.

The last time I ran this activity, in a different class, one of our graduate fellows and I served as judges along with students. This time, the three students were the only judges. They took it very seriously, preparing ahead of time, listening closely to the presentations and open dialogue, and the questions they asked were searching, creative, and served to push the participants to think more carefully and deeply about their arguments.

Both teams agreed that Evan should return the money to the store, but they gave many different reasons for this conclusion, some focusing on Evan’s character and feelings (“It feels good to do the right thing”), others on the unfairness of using money that isn’t rightfully his to pay his bills (“It would actually be the store who pays Evan’s cell phone bill”), and others on the fact that Evan chose to support an independent store, knowing it was more expensive, and the challenges of running a small business, especially during the pandemic. The students discussed the possible effects on the cashier’s life if the money isn’t returned and noted all the people who contribute to getting food to a store to sell, commenting that Evan’s obligation was not just to the cashier or the store but to a much larger web of people.

The questions the judges asked included:

“Who is at fault for the mischarging — Evan or the cashier, or should both be held accountable for the mistake?”

“Some of you said it would be selfish for Evan to pay his phone bill instead of returning the money — would it matter if he needed his cell phone to call a relative every day, or if he needed the money to pay for someone’s health care, or something like that?”

“Would Evan still be obligated to give the money back if it wasn’t for Covid-19?”

We didn’t score the event, but the judges all gave feedback to the teams. They were very thoughtful, complimenting the students on their preparation and careful arguments, and on the way the picked up on each other’s ideas. One judge noted that they didn’t sufficiently take into account arguments to justify Evan keeping the money, and observed it’s important to cover all the bases and consider the other point of view in these cases.

The spectators also commented on the ways that when one team made a point, the other team would refer to it and take it further, and that the teams together made a stronger argument than either individual team for Evan keeping the money. One noted that there is a difference between thinking it would be good for Evan to return the money and thinking that he is morally obligated to do so; in her view, the cashier is the one who make the mistake, and it is up to Evan to decide whether to repair it but he is not obligated to do so. Other students disagreed, arguing that once Evan knows that the mistake has been made and that the money he has isn’t rightfully his, he is morally obligated to return it.

There was a lot of enthusiasm about this activity and the students seemed completely engaged. After the event, the student judges made the following comments:

“It was interesting to hear the teams talk about the questions we asked!”

“I liked it because being a judge made me feel important.”

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