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Winning Ethics: National Competition Comes To Chapel Hill

Ethics Bowl
Parr Center for Ethics, UNC-Chapel Hill

Sandhya Mahadevan doesn’t come off as someone who is likely to back down from anyone. She’s whip-smart, looks you dead in the eye when she’s talking to you, and can’t wait to engage on the events of the day.

But after a few years on her high school debate team, even she was looking for something a little less combative. That’s when she heard about the Ethics Bowl. 

“People were like hey this is kind of similar to debate but it’s more about ethics and morals,” she said. “It’s very much about having a discussion rather than yelling at people.”

Sandhya convinced a few of her friends to join her, and now the East Chapel Hill High School team is a dominant – albeit polite - force in the new and relatively small world of high school ethics bowls. Today and tomorrow, the team will compete in the first-ever National High School Ethics Bowl, taking place in Chapel Hill.

One of those friends is co-captain Joyce Wang. She calls the sometimes difficult ethical conversations the team has “unsettling” but in a good way. She remembers a case they considered about drones.

“I approached it with the mindset that drones are the natural advancement of war technology and as long as we use it with certain restrictions it’s totally, totally fine,” she said. “But one of my pretty close friends, he felt it was morally wrong for a government to have this kind of unregulated power. And we had a round where we had to take each others’ opposite stances and that definitely changed my mind.”

The High School Ethics Bowl was created, in part, to encourage this kind of critical thinking.

“You really have to work to do your best,” said Jan Boxill, the chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and the director of the Parr Center for Ethics, the sponsor of the National Ethics Bowl. “In this case, you have to be able to present it, as well. But one of the things that doesn’t succeed is just rhetoric.”

Topics in the Ethics Bowl – or cases, as they are known – range from open markets for human organs, stand your ground laws, and Facebook privacy rules. The East Chapel Hill High School Ethics Bowl Team has spent months – sometime twice a day – practicing these cases.

At a practice this week in the choir room, the team worked out its presentation on eminent domain.

“So we do recognize that the right to private property is really important,” said Salman Iftikhar, one of the team members. “But ultimately, as long as just compensation is provided on the market-value of the land, the government does have to have the ability to acquire land.”

An opposing team sits nearby, ready to pounce on the weaker parts of their argument - politely, of course.

After the rebuttal, the judges get their turn to ask questions. This is almost always the most taxing part of the competition.

“And so it seems to me now you come back by saying ‘oh, it isn’t a justification, but it’s actually a moral obligation to help these folks,’ so what is your argument?” asks history teacher Brian Link, serving as a practice judge. “I’m confused.”

In the competition, the judges grade each team on the strength of their argument. But presentation is important, too, and adviser and teacher Dan Murphy offers a few tips. They include not tapping their pens, not saying “umm” and practicing saying “eminent domain” instead of “imminent.”

The long, challenging practices end today, as the team will compete for a national championship against 16 other teams from 11 states and the District of Columbia.

But it’s the conversations – hard, complicated, sometimes frustrating conversations - they say they want to continue when they go off to college at places like Stanford, Northwestern, and Georgetown, long after a champion is crowned. 

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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