by Sean Riley, PhD | Executive Director of Gravitas
Over the weekend, the Ethics Bowl team consisting of Michael Chen, Theo Greenfield, Angel He, Christine Li, Hunter Magnuson, and Jessica You went 3-0 through the opening rounds before defeating Island Trees in the semi-finals and Roslyn in the finals of the Long Island High School Ethics Bowl. The other SBS team, consisting of Anna Nguyen, Elaine Tian, Arjun Venkatesh, Kevin Wang, Naomi Zhao, and Roger Zhou, finished tied for third. This is the second-best overall result for SBS, bested only by the 2020 teams that tied for first place in the event. SBS has established a dynasty stretching back to 2018 when they won their first championship.
For those unfamiliar with Ethics Bowl, it is a non-adversarial speech competition that rewards teams of students for the quality of their contribution to the conversation with their opposing team. Unlike most other debate competitions, teams are not required to oppose one another. Nor are they assigned diametrically opposed pro and con positions but are able to argue for what they believe. Three adult judges, typically philosophy professors, lawyers, and educators, not only score the debate but participate in it by asking the teams questions that test the premises of their argument. Teams that present nuanced, principled arguments while acknowledging their own weaknesses and respecting other perspectives on the issue tend to succeed. Teams that are combative, uncharitable, unclear, or unreasonable tend to lose. The scoring rubric is designed to punish traditional debaters and reward ethics bowlers.
This year, students debated whether the US drinking age should be lowered, the role parents should be allowed to play in the selection of school curriculum and library books, the responsibilities of charitable donors to ensure their charity will be effective, whether marriage vows still hold after one spouse gets severe Alzheimers, and NIMBY (not in my backyard) cases where communities oppose publicly beneficial facilities being placed in their neighborhoods, among others.
In the final round, Roslyn High School presented on Case 1: “I’m Afraid,” a case about the Google employee who claimed an AI natural language processor, LAMDA, had become conscious and should not be turned off as a result. Their question prompt was: “What capacities would be necessary for granting moral status to AI?”
Stony Brook presented on Case 4: “Happy to Be Alone,” which was about whether Bronx Zoo resident, Happy the Elephant qualified for personhood status. The team answered the question: “What capacities are necessary for granting moral personhood to non-humans?”
These two cases, more than any other cases in the competition, required the high school students to do some metaphysical heavy-lifting, and with many SBS competitors enrolled in the College-Level History of Philosophy class, a course focused on the history of metaphysical and epistemological ideas, they were well-prepared to shine on the finals stage. The teams deftly discussed a variety of viewpoints on what it means to be human, the nature of consciousness, which aspects of human nature ground our moral obligations, and whether non-humans do or ever could share those properties.
The teams’ training from Health & Human Flourishing and College-Level Ethics and Politics also served them well throughout the tournament. They were able to identify the core moral principles grounding their opponents’ arguments and raise common objections to those viewpoints. Or, when teams were inconsistent or unclear on their grounding, they could point that out and suggest ways to improve the argument. Moreover, they could articulate nuanced, principled reasons for the positions they took throughout the day. Perhaps most impressive was their balancing of intellectual humility with intellectual tenacity. They were willing to give ground when they were unsure of something, but they did not resort to relativism or extreme skepticism in the process. Instead, they powerfully defended objective moral standards and the objective value and equality of human persons while acknowledging that sometimes it is difficult to sort out how the objective standards apply in a particular case.
The team moves on to face Regis High School in the New York City/Long Island Divisional competition on February 17. The winner goes on to Nationals at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill at the end of March.