For years, I taught my introductory ethics courses the way that I am sure most philosophy professors do: assign classic (and contemporary) readings, discuss the theory involved, and evaluate those theories with abstract, hypothetical scenarios (e.g. Trolley Car Examples).Then one year a student wrote on her evaluation that she enjoyed the class but could not see how it was relevant to her life. This shocked me. Of all the branches of philosophy, ethics should be among the easiest to pitch as relevant to the ‘real world’! I realized that I needed to reevaluate how I structured that course, and I starting thinking about what I could do to get my students to really engage with the ethical theories we learned.
Among the changes I instituted, the most exciting and promising change was introducing an Ethics Bowl style competition as a class assignment. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Ethics Bowl is a national tournament (held at both the high school and college levels) that features teams competing in debate-style contests. All teams are given packets of moral scenarios and must prepare to defend either side of the moral issues raised in those scenarios. The cases use real life events to raise controversial moral questions. Teams debate a randomly selected case, and are evaluated on the cogency and plausibility of their arguments, the thoroughness of their discussion of the central moral issues raised, and their awareness and sensitivity to other viewpoints. These are the exact skills that we hope our students are developing in an introductory ethics course!
I used the Ethics Bowl assignment for the first time in the Fall of 2015, and it was quite successful. I was impressed not only with my students' moral thinking, but also with their enthusiasm and excitement to participate in the event (students who were not debating were given the opportunity to raise objections/ask questions of the presenting teams before they judged who won). In a survey I conducted after the event, nearly all of my students said they found the event 'fun', and recommended that I continue to use the assignment in future classes.
In the Fall of 2016, I had the opportunity to share my experiences using the Ethics Bowl Assignment with other philosophy professors at the Regional Conference on Teaching Philosophy in the Michigan Area hosted by Eastern Michigan University. You can find slides for my presentation, along with other resources related to running an Ethics Bowl below: