Since 2014, the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has organized and run the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl. Modeled after the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, the High School Ethics Bowl involves teams of students analyzing a series of wide-ranging ethical dilemmas. The competition utilizes case studies relevant to youth, such as questions about plagiarism, peer pressure, abuse of social media, free speech, gun control, cloning, parental consent, and stem cell research. 


Although the High School Ethics Bowl is competitive, it is intended to promote collaboration. Teams do not have to take adversarial positions; in fact, they can agree with each other. They are not required to hold fast to an assigned perspective or refute each other’s points. Instead, students have a forum in which to engage in dialogue, and they are judged on the quality of their analysis and the degree to which they engage in a thoughtful, civil exchange.


The Ethics Bowl is about giving an insightful perspective on each case, one that an intelligent layperson should be able to follow. The competition values students’ reasoning abilities, and the emphasis is more on the broader ethical implications of the cases and less on a rule-oriented approach. It’s not about memorizing ethical theories or important philosophers, but is designed to promote thoughtful, civil dialogue about difficult questions. Judges for the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl are drawn from the local legal, education, and philosophical communities.


After consulting with all our coaches in fall 2020, we decided not to hold a formal event in 2021, but instead arranged a series of two-hour virtual scrimmages between schools between April and June 2021. In the fall, participating schools were all given 10 cases to consider and discuss over the course of the year, with some schools beginning to meet in the fall and others waiting to start until winter. There was no fee to participate this year.


Scrimmages each include two cases, both involving a presentation, a commentary on the presentation, a 10-minute open dialogue, and judges’ questions. They are not scored, but each scrimmage involves three judges who provide detailed feedback at the end of each scrimmage, often engaging in an extended conversation with the students about how the scrimmage went.


Across the board, the feedback from the coaches and students has been enthusiastic. Appreciating the flexible opportunity this year’s format has offered, students have appreciated the thoughtful and interesting conversations they have had with one another about topics such as:

·      Should schools hold classes virtually during the pandemic? 

·      Should buildings and institutions be renamed if their namesake has a problematic past?

·      Is it ethical to dine-in at a restaurant during a pandemic?

·      Is it unethical to buy fast-fashion clothing? 

Read these and the rest of the 2021 ethics bowl cases here


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