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Manhattanville hosts annual “Ethics Bowl” for local high school students
Last month, teams from several local public and private high schools convened at Manhattanville College in Purchase to engage in a thought-provoking, intellectually rigorous competition known as the Ethics Bowl. We spoke with Siobhan Nash-Marshall, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, and the Mary T. Clark RSCJ Chair of Christian Philosophy at Manhattanville about the premise and purpose of the Bowl, Manhattanville’s role in the nationwide competition, and the increasing importance of ethics studies in today’s world.
For the uninitiated, can you please explain the premise of the Ethics Bowl?
Siobhan Nash-Marshall: There are three facts about ethics that underlie the Ethics Bowl:
- Ethics is omnipresent in the active lives of human beings: all of our actions (and reactions) have ethical components;
- Since it concerns all human actions (including one’s own), since, in a word, ethics is practical philosophy, it cannot be learned or taught solely in the classroom through abstract instruction, and it requires active engagement;
- Since ethics concerns human actions, it does not offer clear-cut, one-size-fits-all solutions. Human agents are both similar and different from each other: they must follow both the same principles and their own individual persons
What do these three facts entail? The first entailment, clearly, is that we are surrounded by ethical issues and problems in every walk of our lives. The second is that we all have to learn how to deal with ethical issues and problems. What does one do if one’s colleague is doing harm to others? How does one even know that one’s colleague is engaging in unethical behavior? How does one articulate the reasons why one’s colleague’s behavior is indeed unethical? How does one discuss one’s colleague’s unethical behavior with the colleague and others, perhaps?
The above skills are necessary for human beings to learn. They are not and cannot be taught solely in a classroom. They require the active engagement of the learner. The learner must do his own thinking, reasoning, and discussing in order to learn ethics.
The Ethics Bowl fosters this thinking, reasoning, and discussing — it gives high school students the chance to do so.
Can you please summarize its format? It sounds like a high school debate team but focusing solely on ethical topics — would that be an accurate description? If not, how is it different?
Nash-Marshall: Ethics Bowls have much in common with debates, but the focus is different. The focus of an Ethics Bowl is not to display oratory or analytic skills. Rather, it is to foster ethical thought and action. How does this difference play out? To begin with, the Ethics Bowl does not assign teams opposing positions for which to argue in a match. The teams need not even argue for opposing positions. What the teams must do is give reasons for their particular solutions to ethical conundra and for their agreement or disagreement with the opposing team.
Should one save a precious work of art rather than a human person if one can only save one of them? Why? On what grounds does one make that ethical choice?
What were the outcome and results of this year’s Bowl?
Nash-Marshall: The event was a magnificent coming together of generations of people who engaged in ethical reasoning. Hundreds of high school students, Manhattanville College students, Manhattanville College alumni, judges, lawyers, medical doctors, and CEOs gathered at Manhattanville at eight in the morning. We spent 12 hours together. We had five rounds of debates in which high school teams faced each other and interacted with panels of judges composed of college students and two professionals.
Seven private schools and seven public schools registered to participate in the event. Arlington Public High School won the title of Champions this year.
The winners of this Bowl go onto regional and national level Bowls. What is that process?
Nash-Marshall: After the Westchester Regional, there is a secondary regional “knock out” competition where Arlington will face off against other champions from surrounding Regional Bowls. If they succeed in winning first place again, they will go on to participate in the National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB), which is held annually at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For the National, the NHSEB presents a new set of cases for the debates. These tend to be even more challenging ethical conundra than those the schools received at the regional level.
How and why did Manhattanville get involved in hosting and facilitating the local chapter of the ethics bowl?
Nash-Marshall: It was actually one of those wonderful coincidences in life. In the fall semester of 2015, I was approached by a teacher from one of the local high schools who came to my office to pitch the idea to me. At the same time, the Provost of Manhattanville asked me to do exactly the same thing. So I invited Jesse Juarez, one of my students, to come to the meetings with me. He and I were convinced by the pitch, and the rest is history. We became the regional organizer for Ethics Bowls in the Westchester area.
And How long has Manhattanville been doing this?
Nash-Marshall: We held our first Ethics Bowl in 2016. Since then, we have gone on to adapt the format of the Bowl for different groups, again, because ethics is a field relevant to all people. We have organized an Intramural Ethics Bowl for Manhattanville Students every Spring semester for the past three years. We have even offered Ethics Bowl-related events for Manhattanville alumni.
What would you say are the goals and aims of the Bowl, both in general and as it pertains to or affects Manhattanville?
Nash-Marshall: The central goal of the Ethics Bowl is to set students on a path to living well in society. Ethics is intimately tied to the good life or, in other words, to happiness. This is a fact that we all recognize but have a difficult time remembering. Ancient philosophers were keenly aware of it. Aristotle wrote what I consider a manual for the good life: the Nicomachean Ethics.
We cannot live another person’s life. Each of us must walk on his or her own two feet. What we can do is equip students with tools with which they can better seek the truth and live the good life. What we can do is give students the means with which to face difficulties so that when they encounter life’s challenges and uncertainties, they can respond to them in a rational and constructive way rather than become passive or aggressive.
Our goal in the Ethics Bowl, first and foremost, is thus to make the liberal arts a part of our daily lives or to use Manhattanville’s mission statement as a motto: “to educate students to be ethical and socially-responsible leaders in a global community.”
What’s been the most gratifying aspect of hosting the Bowl for you and your department and Manhattanville?
Nash-Marshall: The most gratifying aspect of the Bowl is to see how, in eight short years, it has already begun to fulfill this “mission.” Our alumni continue to be involved in the Bowl and its peripheral activities. They are thriving beyond the classroom. They have gone on to graduate schools or into the workforce in every kind of field. Some are teachers; some are in law school; some work on Wall Street. But the Ethics Bowl appointment is one they will not miss. They want to lend their minds and their skills to help their communities and their country.
Do you feel that the Bowl has become more relevant in recent times, especially when looking at stories in our news, in advances in technology (like social media and AI/chatGPT), and our political landscape (for example, Congress proposing to eliminate its own ethics committee)?
Nash-Marshall: Yes, ethical issues seem to be pressing upon us from every side these days, and many of these issues/questions are unprecedented. Ethics and ethical thinkers have been essential at all times, but for this reason, they are perhaps all the more imperative.