Is it ethical to dine out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you think the government should be able to restrict or ban platforms like TikTok? Is contributing to fast fashion wrong, even if it is the only thing you can afford? These are all questions that college and high school students grapple with in an ethics bowl.

In an Ethics Bowl event, teams develop a stance around a topic and engage in discussion with another team, striving to work out a compromise. Judges ask the teams questions, awarding points to teams that provide good answers that move the conversation forward.

The Northern California High School Ethics Bowl (NorCal HSEB), held over Zoom from Jan. 16 to 17, hosted over 200 participants from 27 high schools. Organizers sent participants into 13 breakout rooms, each with a volunteer moderator and three judges. 

Judges for this event included Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Dean of Humanities, Tyler Stoval.

“The format itself is designed to encourage a more respectful, engaged conversation,” said UC Santa Cruz collegiate coach and managing director of the Center for Public Philosophy (CPP)  Kyle Robertson. “Students are expected to approach the discussion as if they’re trying to come up with a good answer, not disprove the other side. In an ethics bowl, you’re supposed to move the conversation forward and talk together about how you solve the problem.”

The event was hosted by the CPP, which also coordinates ethics bowls for under-resourced high schools, the Migrant Education Program, and inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

CPP created an invitational event for under-resourced high schools when event organizers saw the same, well-resourced schools competing in the NorCal regionals every year. In the invitational event, participating teams are partnered with a UCSC team member or philosophy student. This event also includes a Spanish-language bracket. With no winners or losers, schools can return to the next year’s invitational or compete in the regional event.

This year, the event was co-organized by associate director of the CPP, Janette Dinishak. Dinishak’s helped organize the event and gathering moderators and judges.

“The Northern California High School regional ethics bowl involves a lot of outreach to volunteers and teams to get everybody who is participating lined up and ready to go,” Dinishak said. “That’s a huge task, and it takes many months to get in order because we have one of the largest regional ethics bowls in the nation.”

Before COVID, UCSC collegiate team members would act as mentors and coaches for some regional and invitational teams. But this year, Dinishak said there was low interest from regional teams, so undergraduate mentors were not used for the NorCal HSEB Regional. 

Cypress Charter High School’s coach Travis Parker says the graduate student coaches he has worked with in the past would create schedules with the team individually to help students understand the structure of ethics bowl and discuss their individual cases. 

“It’s a role model situation. The students not only are getting help with their team and case studies, but they’re seeing somebody who’s a few years down the path from them,” Parker said. “They’re relatable, but they’re also inspirational.”

UCSC alumna and former UCSC Ethics Bowl team member Aliye Swaby, who previously volunteered as a moderator and judge for both the English and Spanish events, says ethics bowl is special because it encourages team members to effectively collaborate with people who have differing views.

“Going in, my team didn’t like each other,” Swaby said. “Now, we’re all best friends. I think this was really special because it’s not just arguing, it’s not just rhetoric, or debate. It’s really working together.” 

Swaby says part of what makes ethics bowls special is the autonomy teams have over their stances and arguments. This helps students develop relationships with their teammates by discussing their thoughts and rationale. 

The winner of the NorCal HSEB, Stanford Online High School Team One, will move on to the National HSEB competition on April 20 and 21. 

“There’s a real need for spaces for high school students to engage in a deep and meaningful way with some of the big, deep questions that maybe are not answerable,” said Cypress Charter High School’s coach Travis Parker. “What drives me [to continue coaching] is wanting to make sure that there is a place for everybody to really think about these things.”