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What do the Electoral College, “Fake News,” the Goldwater Rule, and 13 Reasons Why all have in common?

Not much, except they were all cases in the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl this season. In fact, they are just four of the 15 cases/topics that ethics bowl teams at various universities (including my university, Ole Miss) spent the last two and a half months researching and otherwise preparing for.

At this point, you may be asking: “What is…‘Ethics Bowl’?”

From my experience, not many people have ever heard of ethics bowl, and it doesn’t help that the name itself doesn’t explain much (unlike, for example, “policy debate”). It also doesn’t help that the answer is not as simple as “it’s debate.” However, ethics bowl is an interesting mix of educational conversation and competitive debate—a sort of “competitive conversation.” I will further describe it in a moment, but overall, I want to introduce this activity which I have not just enjoyed but also found to be a great educational experience. Ultimately, I would recommend looking into ethics bowl—regardless of whether you are interested in philosophy or whether you are in high school or college—because I think it is a great complement for the (sometimes overly) cutthroat and rigid practice of competitive debate.

What is ‘Ethics Bowl’?

Imagine that policy debate and value debate had a baby, but then abandoned it. Then, the child was raised by philosophy professors who really liked “discussion” but disliked some of debate’s negative characteristics (e.g. sophistry, spreading, soulless/mindless reading of evidence cards), and so the professors attempted to suppress that behavior in their adopted child. With that, you have something like ethics bowl.

For some, that may come across as a negative description, but

1) I am exaggerating (somewhat);

2) Just because it is not “traditional debate” does not make it bad—in fact, it has valuable aspects which cannot really be upheld in traditional debate;

3) It ultimately is what you make of it, much like regular debate.

Thus, allow me to describe it more plainly/concretely.

Basic Format/Structure

Although it is distinct from true “debate,” it is easiest to begin describing ethics bowl by calling it a form of speech and debate, based on its format: there are two teams, a panel of judges, and a topic/question. Teams are made up of 3-5 people at a table in a round. The first team (“Team 1”) is given a question regarding one of the cases, and they must give a speech (“presentation”) that addresses the topic/question. Next, the other team (“Team 2”) provides a “commentary,” to which Team 1 responds. Then the judges ask questions of Team 1. Before each speech, the team is given a brief period of prep time. Then the topic changes, and Team 1 and Team 2 flip roles, and the process is repeated. The judges each score the teams based on a rubric, and the team that wins more judges wins the round. These rounds take place at tournaments which are fairly similar to regular debate tournaments.

One important distinction about the “speeches,” however, is that in some leagues (including the one I have competed in), they can be delivered by the entire team/panel. In other words, a team can—and often will—switch speakers in the middle of the speech. So for example, one person might introduce the topic and outline their side’s response, then “pass it off” to one of the other team members to give a justification, explain the proposal or stance, define key terms, etc.

In short, the format of ethics bowl is reminiscent of traditional debate, albeit with some minor (but notable) peculiarities. This level of similarity also holds true for the topics of ethics bowl.

Content: Cases and Specific Questions

Some people may have heard of ethical dilemmas/scenarios such as the trolley dilemma. Consequently, these people might imagine that these are the kinds of topics debated in ethics bowl. Thankfully, these abstract/hypothetical (and cliche) thought experiments are not the focus of ethics bowl; rather, the topics cover real world issues or “cases” in the areas of government/policy, business, journalism, medicine, etc. (If you want to read through this past season’s cases, you can do so here.) For example, various cases have dealt with guns on college campuses, wage policies (including from a corporate decision-making standpoint), mental health evaluations of pilots, Gonzo Journalism, and plenty of other topics. Thus, whenever someone says, “But I’m just not a philosophy buff/student; I don’t think I would fit in or find value in it,” I note that it’s designed to bring in perspectives from all kinds of fields—and also instill some degree of ethical thinking in these various fields. Thus, it is designed to be considerate of those who are “just not a philosophy buff/student.”

These topics or “cases” form the basis/backdrop for specific questions that are given in each round. These questions may be close-ended and/or clearly related to the case (e.g. “This question is for case 5: ‘Should guns be allowed on campus?’”) or they may be more open-ended or only partially based on a case: at our recent competition, for case 7 (Blackface) we received a question which (roughly) asked, “What are some ethical policies or principles that universities should uphold when responding to speech which may offend students?” In this way, the questions often are action- or policy-oriented, but are not always rigid yes/no, this/that questions: they can be “What principles should guide policymaking in this issue of ______,” or “was _____ an ethical way to _______?” Also, there can be some questions which are heavier on values than on “policy” and its specifics. Overall, these questions of policy tend to emphasize a hearty blend of policy-debate pragmatism and thoughtful creativity.

One important thing to note is that we do not know the specific question/prompt until the round starts, at which point we only have a few minutes to prep our response. To handle this, we have to prepare ahead of time, researching the cases and determining our stances on certain aspects of each case.

Thus, I consider the content/topics of ethics bowl to be fairly similar to policy debate. Ultimately, it’s in the actual competitive aspects that ethics bowl seems to fundamentally distinguish itself from traditional “debate.”


Debate is traditionally an adversarial exercise, in the sense that there is a motion/resolution/statement with one side “for” the statement and the other side “against” the statement (or, sometimes, just against the other team). Furthermore, competitive debate typically involves assigning sides rather than letting people choose sides—but even when sides can be chosen, the statement is closed or binary (e.g. “X should be done”), rather than an open-ended question (e.g. “What are the key principles for doing or not doing Y?”). Furthermore, many debate forms (with exceptions such as British Parliamentary, since it has four teams) are generally judged based on “Who was more persuasive for their side of the resolution—vote for that team” (although many also consider speaker points as a secondary measure). In all of these ways, for better or worse, debate is more rigid and adversarial than academic.

Ethics bowl is markedly—and intentionally—different from this form of competition.

  1. Team 2 doesn’t have to fundamentally disagree with Team 1; the emphasis is on discourse and thinking.

This is perhaps the most distinct characteristic of ethics bowl: judging is based on communication, application, exploration/consideration, and creation of ideas, rather than just “persuasion.” In other words, the more important criteria for winning are good discourse and thinking. As part of this—and as illustrated in the next sub-section of this article—teams do not have to fundamentally disagree with each other’s stances. Team 1 can say, “The Dakota Access Pipeline should be built,” and Team 2 can say, “We agree, it should be built—but we have different reasons why,” or “We think you failed to address the key objection of critics; how do you respond to the objection of ________?”

As part of this, I should note that some reasonable “kritiks” are legitimate (at least, they seem to be in my league; just don’t call them “kritiks” or make an absurd fuss over capitalism, and you should be fine). This is because some kritiks seek to improve discourse, which is a focus of ethics bowl.

  1. You can choose which side you support…

When faced with a question such as “Should guns be allowed on college campuses?” Team 1 can choose whether they are for or against allowing guns on college campuses. This helps to resolve some of the issues that some people have with competitive debate, in that sides are required to argue for positions they may not believe, rather than support the side they believe to be correct. I do understand both sides of this “you must argue for something you don’t believe” debate, but as stated before, I think ethics bowl offers a good way to balance or complement this (somewhat) “cutthroat” trait of competitive debate.

  1. …And you can craft your own stance.

This can be done to some extent in policy debate, but even in policy debate there tend to be more limits with regards to topicality, the affirmative/negative dichotomy, etc. Going back to the guns on college campuses question, a stance/proposal might be 1) If applicable, consult the state legislature to see if any campus policy changes would be allowed, 2) Host campus discussions—involving experts to give testimony—to inform the student body and faculty about the debate, then 3) Hold a non-binding referendum (i.e. a poll) among the student and faculty body on two or three proposals (e.g. “‘no guns,’ ‘certain guns/non-lethal weapons,’ ‘any concealable handguns’”), 4) Consider the public opinion in addition to other pros/cons… etc.

Thus, there is at least as much—and often more—freedom and creativity allowed in ethics bowl as in policy debate. In addition, it is encouraged that these proposals are not just “the bare minimum to support the resolution” as can be the case in policy debate.

A hypothetical presentation and commentary: the “Muslim Ban”

Case 4 this past season was the so-called “Muslim Ban” (Travel Ban). We didn’t encounter it at the competition, but suppose that we were Team 2 and the question was a simple, “Was the ‘Travel Ban’ an ethical policy?”

Team 1 might open up by briefly describing relevant history, stating that their moral framework is deontology, and then taking the stance of “no.” Then, the team would go on to justify their stance. Let’s say they give three main justifications (or general arguments):

-It is unconstitutional

-It violates “human rights” or “our duties” (based on a deontological framework)

-It doesn’t reduce terrorism

We (Team 2) would agree that it was not an ethical policy in our commentary, but one of our key points would be that the most important justification to mention is that it (arguably) worsens terrorism and counterterrorism efforts. We would claim it is the most important because it (arguably) is the most convincing to people who may otherwise not care about “‘liberal notions’ of human rights.” In other words, we would say that their justifications were just “preaching to the choir.” Furthermore, we would likely challenge the notion that it was unconstitutional—if only to say that “it can’t be settled in this round, whereas other issues are more clear/persuasive.” We may also just fundamentally disagree with their moral framework (deontology), and recommend “cost-benefit analysis” (i.e. utilitarianism) instead, etc.

Ultimately, the point of this example is to illustrate how ethics bowl is not traditional “debate”; it is more accurately a “competitive conversation.”

Availability for Competition

It should first be noted that ethics bowl does not quite have the historical roots of traditional policy or value debate—the actual practice was only formalized as late as 1993. However, it has spread from colleges to the high school level, and overall seems to be growing. Thus, if you were to get involved in this—especially on the high school level—you can be part of this movement. I will admit that joining/competing is not quite as open as Stoa/NCFCA (for example, teams/coaches must apply and be verified/confirmed rather than “just register for the tournament”), but there are definitely opportunities even on the high school level—and even for homeschoolers. Furthermore, showing some organizational and initiative skills (e.g. “I helped organize an ethics bowl team”) will definitely help you later on when it comes to resumes/applications. Thus, the opportunity is out there; I recommend looking into it—whether you are a high school student, a college student, or even a coach/parent.


For all of its (debatable) flaws, I love debate: I like the critical thinking, the competition/rivalries, and especially the valuable communication experience it gives. However, I have also very much enjoyed ethics bowl. It might seem cliche to portray the two activities in a yin-yang relationship, but I have found that ethics bowl, through its emphasis on productive discourse rather than just persuasion, complements the competitive aspects of debate very well. Whereas competitive debate can treat persuasion as a primary goal, ethics bowl treats persuasion more as an action/means which itself should be subjected to ethical consideration. Furthermore, ethics bowl is not just for philosophy junkies; it focuses on a pragmatic range of real-world topics including social, political, and professional issues, in order to improve thinking, discussion, and implementation of ethical principles. Thus, even though it is new, expanding, and changing, if you consider debate to be valuable, ethics bowl would also be a valuable exercise to get involved in—even if only to try it for a season.



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