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What is Ethics Bowl?

Over thirty years ago, the Ethics Bowl began as a classroom activity. Bob Ladenson at the Illinois Institute of Technology created an innovative model for presentations in his ethics classes that promoted active questions and thoughtful responses as part of in-depth conversations about ethical dilemmas. When he invited a local university to compete with his students using the model, the Ethics Bowl was officially born. Since that time, the bowl has grown both nationally and  internationally with versions adapted for different age groups. Individual fields (e.g., the Archeological Ethics Bowl and the Senior Military College SMC Ethics Bowl have also developed their own versions. At the core of each competition is the Ethics Bowl Way, a method of engagement that fosters deep understanding, moral awareness, and civil discourse.

The Method

The Ethics Bowl model of dialogue teaches participants to examine the underlying moral features of conversations that often remain unaddressed. Interlocutors learn the content of moral theories, how to apply them, and develop skills to navigate moral disagreements in a polarized world. 

The conversations are based on cases, which are crafted so that they remain politically, ethically, and perspectivally neutral. Case writers intentionally try to draw readers into the complexity of a situation even when there seems to be an obvious answer. For example, a case may ask whether the proliferation of electric vehicles, especially via mandates, is ethical? Participants must then consider not only the long-term effects of climate change but also the immediate effects on impoverished communities that rely on the ability to repair traditional internal combustion engines. What about eco-friendly battery disposal? What is the effect of EV’s on the power grid? Can locally-owned gas stations be converted to charging stations, or will even more small businesses have to close? Can we afford not to switch to EV’s given the potential harms of rising temperatures, pollution, and ocean levels? This kind of complexity quickly draws readers away from the knee-jerk reactions we tend to have.

As they try to answer these questions, participants learn an enormous amount about the issues in general and ethics in particular. They learn that the facts on the ground, so to speak, really matter. They become acquainted with moral theories—such as Utilitarianism, Deontology, Natural Law Theory, Care Ethics, etc.—and realize that well-intentioned people can disagree about whether something is good or bad, not merely because they were raised a certain way but because they have good arguments for their views. 


Critically, participants become practiced in the art of conversation. As we work through tough issues we develop in active listening, de-escalation, charitable interpretations, avoiding logical fallacies, perspective-taking, and a host of other skills. Guided discussions and thoughtful responses end up helping us make better decisions to live together fruitfully as leaders, scholars, citizens, and friends even when we disagree. 

APPE Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl

The Association of Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) hosts the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl (IEB). Each year, two sets of cases are released: one for regionals, one for nationals. Twelve regional competitions determine which 36 teams advance to the national competition which is hosted at the annual APPE conference. Teams are judged not only for the strength of their arguments but also by how well they respond to others (whether they advance a conversation rather than merely “take down their opponents”), whether they do so with civility, and whether a layperson could understand their points. At each stage, teams must address complex problems with moral arguments and take care to connect their ideas to ethical concepts such as fairness, justice, and care. APPE provides a host of free resources to anyone interested in learning more about IEB, including those interested in starting a team at their university. 

National High School Ethics Bowl

The National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB) was modeled on the APPE Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl and modified for age-appropriate complexity and length. The Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the official home for the National High School Ethics Bowl. The NSHEB supports regional competitions for high school students as well as a National Championship each year, with a new set of cases for each competitive level. The Parr Center maintains an archive of past cases that teachers can use in their classes, offers kits for starting a team, provides videos of past matches for reference, and sponsors a case writing competition (with publication and monetary prizes). The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) also offers an ethics case writing project (with publication and monetary prizes) to encourage students to think about the complexity of moral issues and to practice writing cases that foster curiosity, critical thinking, and civility.

Middle School Ethics Bowl

The Middle School Ethics Bowl is modeled on the high school format and modified for age-appropriate levels of literacy, history, science, and social complexity. Founded at the Kent Place School (NJ), the MSEB offers fewer cases for team members to prepare, and the format allows more time for extended,  exploratory conversations between teams, and between teams and judges. This not only teaches young students to think through ethical issues collaboratively, but also helps them develop curiosity and critical thinking skills. Teachers who want students to learn more about a range of ethical issues and to develop skills of critical thinking, writing, and perspective-taking can encourage students to submit cases to PLATO’s ethics case writing project (with publication and monetary prizes). 

Intergenerational Ethics Discussions

The Philosophy Teaching and Learning Organization (PLATO) focuses on introducing philosophy to young students to give them the opportunity to explore big questions through philosophy and ethics. They use the Ethics Bowl method of dialogue in many educational support initiatives to bring people of all ages together to explore ethical questions through Intergenerational Programs. Rather than a competition-based team model, students, parents, community members, and seniors engage in a thoughtful conversation guided by a discussion leader. This approach to inquiry prompts all age groups to reflect on their own experiences and to consider the experiences of others when posing questions and making claims, and it builds greater understanding and appreciation for others within the community.

APPE Corporate

Corporations, like individuals, are faced with difficult ethical questions and trade-offs. Executives and employees must be able to weigh competing values in fraught situations that have massive implications. The APPE Deliber8 format provides business leaders with an opportunity to practice the skills of civil discourse and ethical reasoning using the kind of real-world examples they deal with every day. Business leaders attend this professional development workshop at the annual APPE conference, developing the necessary skills for ethical business practice and promoting a culture of ethical responsibility. 

Extending Moral Education Broadly…

The Ethics Bowl model of dialogue can be used more broadly than as a competitive event between teams. As seen above in PLATO’s Intergenerational Ethics Discussions, this method is remarkably versatile and has now spread across age groups, schools, workplaces, and around the world. Ethics courses (theory, applied, and General Education) and co-curricular community engagement events (such as TCPE’s Just Conversations events) can all use ethics bowl cases to foster discussion and inspire moral learning. The range of cases across all the different age levels (community, middle, high school, collegiate, and professional) provides a rich resource for teachers and learners alike for better conversations between friends and citizens about ethical and political topics. 

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