Forming an Ethics Bowl Team

What is a high school ethics bowl?

An Ethics Bowl is a collaborative yet competitive event, in which teams are presented with a series of wide-ranging ethical dilemmas and are asked to analyze them as a team; teams are then judged on the basis of the quality of their ethical and practical reasoning, including their ability to present coherent arguments and to recognize and take into account the likely objections to those arguments. An exciting tournament, it is also a way for students to gain valuable insight into ethical and philosophical issues and to deepen their ethical understanding by appreciating the force of ethical positions with which they disagree.

The Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (IEB), which is adapted for high school use, was created by Dr. Robert Ladenson at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1993. For more information about the history and basic format, visit:

Any ethical dilemmas can be used in the event, but many high school ethics bowls rely on those particularly relevant to young students, such as questions about cheating, plagiarism, peer pressure, use and abuse of social media, the right to privacy, relationship responsibilities. However, political and social issues (free speech, gun control, eco-tourism) and bioethical issues (cloning, parental consent) are also of great interest for teenagers.

Resources: To learn about communities around the country that have created high school ethics bowls, visit:

Who needs to be involved in an ethics bowl?

To organize an ethics bowl, whether in a school or between two or more schools, you need at least two teams of five students each, a coach for each team, and a study packet that contains a series of ethical dilemmas. Teams and coaches prepare responses to all of the dilemmas in the packet because the cases posed during the competition will be drawn from this packet. The packets can be presented to participating teams a month or two before the competition.

You also need a panel of at least 3 judges. Judges do not have to be philosophers or have a philosophical background – just an interest in ethical issues. In fact, the creators of IEB envisioned recruiting judges from the community, from such diverse fields as business, education, medicine, law, journalism and politics.

Finally, each competition needs someone to serve as moderator and timer.

Resources: Cases used during the IEB have been archived and are available at no cost (but with proper attribution): This site also contains more detailed information about procedures and judging standards.

How does an ethics bowl work?

During each round, a moderator presents a case (drawn from the study packet).

• Team A confers to 1 minute and responds to the case for up to 10 minutes. [Note: the time intervals are those used in the IEB; you can change them to accommodate your students’ abilities.]
• Team B confers for 1 minute and responds to Team A’s presentation for up to 5 minutes
• Team A confers for 1 minute and responds to Team B’s reply for up to 5 minutes.
• The judges confer and question Team A for up to 10 minutes.
• Judges score both teams.

The moderator reads another case, and this time Team B responds first, following the above procedure.

At the conclusion of the round, the judges confer, grade, and announce their results. The winning team advances to the next round, if it is a tiered competition.

How are teams judged?

Teams are judged on how well they convey an understanding of the ethical theories they cite, how carefully they attend to nuances in the cases, the overall effectiveness of their presentation, how well they embody the spirit of philosophical pursuit of truth as opposed to a combative disposition bent on “winning,” and how well the teams follow the rules and procedures listed above.

At the end of the bowl, scores are compiled and the first, second and third place winners are announced: the winners are determined by the total number of points accumulated during the entire competition. In the event of a tie, the judges make a principled decision as to which team delivered the best overall performance.

Resources: For more detailed information on criteria for judging, score sheets and a training video for judges, as well as other resources, visit (scroll down to the section entitled “The National Championship Rules and Cases”).

Why should my students participate?

According to Michael Steinmann, director of the Stevens Institute High School Ethics Bowl, students learn a great deal by participating in an ethics bowl.

An ethics bowl is an educational experience on many levels: intellectual, personal, and social.

Thinking about ethical issues, first, deepens students’ understanding of the complexity of the problems that modern society continues to raise. A thorough ethical analysis requires that we not only to think about values and moral theories, but also– and primarily–about the different stakeholder views involved in a given case. When it comes to reflect on the ethical dilemmas that modern society creates, either through emerging technologies that have an impact on human life, or through social and cultural developments that challenge our usual perspective on how things are supposed to work, the main questions are: who is affected by this dilemma, and how, and what could be the legitimate interests of these persons or these groups? A sufficient ethical judgment cannot rely solely on one’s own normative intuition, but has to become aware of all the other moral intuitions that possibly might be involved.

For students this means that in preparing for the debate, and in actually debating with other teams, they acquire a broader horizon and a deeper awareness of the moral dilemmas in our society. New technological or social developments can be understood in a more holistic, contextual way that goes beyond the immediate, evaluative reaction that young people (and not only young people!) all too often tend to have.

Second, the ethics bowl reinforces the students’ sense of ethical commitment by showing them what the role of virtues and values in human agency is. The dilemmatic situations described in each case require students to identify the values that are most important for them, to articulate them properly, and to understand the consequences that their possible decision might have. Altogether, this develops their sense for what it means to adopt certain values or virtues and to act according to them. Plus, to articulate one’s own opinion in public, and to understand, accept, and integrate the criticism of others, strengthens one’s sense of responsibility. Defending their analysis against the perspective of others and imaging the range of consequences that their hypothetical decisions might have, helps students to think responsibly about problems and to imagine themselves being both accountable and autonomous agents in a larger social environment.

Finally, the ethics bowl contributes to the attitudes and virtues necessary for the functioning of a pluralistic and democratic society. Debating promotes both the independence of critical thinking and the openness to the positions of others. “Ethics,” as it is practiced here, is not limited to an academic discipline and to the closed circles of expert discourse. It is brought to society as whole and allows students to become educated citizens by articulating and discussing their judgments and concerns. Against the background of public debates often tainted by partisanship, the ethics bowl creates an ideal situation where participants struggle to find out what, from an objective point of view, the best solution to a problem might be. If offers students an idea of what democratic, rational discourse might be, and it also shows them that such discourse actually is possible, even if it does not happen often in real life.

All these three achievements – a deeper understanding of social developments, higher sense of personal responsibility, and capacity to engage in democratic debate – are possible only if students actively participate in the preparation and the competition of the ethics bowl. Their learning is learning by doing, and the education they receive ultimately is self-education that results from their eagerness to excel in this collective activity.

What other details do I need to attend to?

Try to generate publicity for the event: post flyers and use social networks to invite not only the school community but the public. Try to arrange for local press to cover it, and for the event to be videotaped and photographed. You may need to arrange to have:

• A PA system
• Awards and certificates for the winners
• Sets of rules and procedures available

Where can I get more information?

Matt Deaton, University of Tennessee (Knoxville) doctoral philosophy student, created the first high school ethics bowl in his community in 2009. He has also written a detailed handbook outlining the process of creating the bowl. Though it is primarily written for graduate students, it contains much valuable information for teachers wishing to establish a bowl, including a sample flyer, and ways of convincing administrators to support the bowl. It’s available here:SoYouWanttoOrganizeaHighSchoolEthicsBowl.pdf

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