High school students wrestle with ethical quandaries

With coaching from UC Santa Cruz Ethics Bowl team, underrepresented students from regional high schools gather to discuss thorny questions on topics ranging from white privilege to sports and gender at the second annual Invitational Ethics Bowl

The Ethics Bowl from Center for Public Philosophy on Vimeo.

View a short documentary following students at last year's High School Ethics Bowl Invitational.

As an Internet meme, Grumpy Cat is famous for her perpetual frown and seemingly cranky outlook on life. But felines similar to Grumpy Cat, a breed called Munchkin cats that suffer from dwarfism, can also mean a lifetime of pain from hip and back problems.

Is it morally right, then, to buy a cat specifically bred to look like a cute grouch even though it might spend its life in pain?

That was just one of the questions facing nine high school teams brought to UC Santa Cruz on Saturday for the second annual Invitational Ethics Bowl sponsored by the campus’s Center for Public Philosophy with help from a $30,000 grant from the Division of Student Success.

The debaters came from Bay Area schools where more than 75 percent of students either qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and/or are English language learners. The students, dressed in styles from hoodies and jeans to a shirt and tie, swarmed the Humanities Building to discuss thorny questions from hypothetical cases that included topics like white privilege, sports and gender, and standing up to hate speech.

“It (the event) provides a low-stakes way for these students to get their feet wet” in the rigorous art of high school Ethics Bowl competitions, according to Kyle Robertson, assistant director of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Public Philosophy and an organizer of Saturday’s event.

It is also an opportunity, Robertson said, for these high schoolers to learn how to stand up and explain their beliefs—a skill that is not only important in life but is also part of civic responsibility especially in these political times.

UC Santa Cruz Associate Professor of Philosophy Jonathan Ellis, who heads the Center for Public Philosophy, called it, “a new and very special form of debate for high school students. One that’s not about knocking down opposing teams but rather engaging with other teams in the most constructive, insightful, and collaborative ways.”

Ethics Bowl competitions are held across the country but schools in the UC Santa Cruz Invitational often don’t have the resources to field and foster a team. This is where students from UC Santa Cruz’s Philosophy Department and the university’s own Ethics Bowl team stepped in. Five of them spent the last six weeks coaching high school students from Santa Cruz to San Jose in the art of respectful but passionate discourse.

“I want to give back what I learned,” said Juan Ruiz (Merrill ’17, philosophy and critical race and ethnic studies), who is part of UC Santa Cruz’s Ethics Bowl team. He traveled to San Jose twice a week to coach teams from Latino College Preparatory Academy and Downtown College Prep Alum Rock and also mentored students at Costanoa High School in Santa Cruz.

On Saturday, Ruiz was moderating discussions on questions that ranged from whether a student should confront the father of a friend who was making homophobic and sexist remarks in his own home to whether, in order to prevent police violence, officers should have less access to guns.

Sitting around a long table, teams from Costanoa High School and Luis Valdez Leadership Academy huddled and whispered strategies before giving voice to their positions that taking away police officers' guns would leave them vulnerable to violence and that it might be better to cut down on the number and power of guns held by the public instead.

Meanwhile, in an upstairs conference room, teams from Latino College Preparatory Academy (LCPA) and Downtown College Prep Academy Alum Rock (DCP) enthusiastically made cases for and against buying a Grumpy Cat from a breeder. If owners have educated themselves about the possible problems with the cats and are prepared to medically care for them, then they should be allowed to buy the cat, said those from LCPA. Breeders shouldn’t profit from a cat’s suffering, the DCP team asserted.

“Ethics Bowls makes them (these students) comfortable enough to voice their opinions,” said Sarah Guirguis (Cowell ’18, philosophy), who coached students from Diamond Technology Institute in Watsonville and noted how two shy members of her team became more comfortable with speaking their minds. “It gives them the confidence to speak out.”

“It was great to see these students wrestling with questions of real complexity,” said Cowell College Provost Alan Christy, who served along with faculty, students, staff, and community leaders as a judge for the event. “The enthusiasm was wonderful to see.”