Ethics Bowl – What’s in a Word?

Note: I'll be taking a brief pause on a series I started that will cover rhetoric to look more deeply into the role critical thinking can play in ethical decision-making through a series based on the Ethics Bowl competition described below.

At a recent (virtual) meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA), I met a professor who has been heavily involved with a program called Ethics Bowl that organizes “competitive deliberation” between groups of high-school students over complex ethical dilemmas large (like who should get the COVID vaccine) and small (should a company party feature alcohol).

Participants in Ethics Bowl discuss a common set of cases, each of which sets up an ethical dilemma and provides questions students can use to guide their discussion. For the 2020-2021 season, these regional cases were used to determine who made it into the finals and, just last week, new cases that winners of earlier rounds will engage in were released.

As students participating on Ethics Bowl teams and the teachers who support them dig into those issues, I thought it might be valuable to demonstrate how the critical-thinking principles taught on this site and elsewhere can be used to navigate the specific conundrums that come up in this year’s championship cases.

You can see an example of the role critical-thinking can play when engaging with ethical challenges in this piece which talks about how exposing the hidden premises in an argument can illuminate what we’re really arguing over with regard to distribution of COVID vaccines. While this is not the exact question this year’s Ethics Bowl COVID national case covers (case #12 called “Left Behind, at Warp Speed” talks about the disparity between rich and poor countries regarding access to vaccines), the technique of exposing hidden premises is applicable to problems of global equity (which I’ll demonstrate in a subsequent essay).

For today, however, I’d like to show how another critical-thinking technique: persuasive communication (commonly referred to as rhetoric) can be used to frame a debate which, in some cases, limits the ethical options we consider.

You can read here about why I believe understanding rhetoric is important to becoming a critical thinker. For purposes of this essay, I’d like to focus on three Ethics Bowl championship cases and show how choice of words might be a backdoor way of providing answers based on how questions (or, in these instances, cases) are worded.

Case #9 (Sleeping on Homelessness) talks about ways urban planners try to limit certain activity through architectural-design choices. For example, in order to prevent homeless people from sleeping on public benches, those benches might be segmented with handrails or sloped to prevent someone from stretching out or sleeping stably on the bench’s surface. Studs inserted into flat surfaces are another example of an architectural feature designed to limit activity (skateboarding) that is undesirable in some locations.

The case refers to these features as “hostile architecture” and it is easy to see from the point of view of the people whose activities are being curtailed (like homeless people or skateboarders) why they would consider adding handrails to benches or studs to surfaces a form of hostility. But the people who added those features, who might be concerned over safety of people other than the homeless and skateboarders, are likely to reject that phrase, perhaps preferring alternatives like “protective design” or “safety elements.”

Now it is perfectly fair to reject those phrases as being a cover for aggression or make arguments that the needs of the homeless override the needs of those who do not want homeless people sleeping on park benches, or that skateboarders should not be prevented from rolling on any surface they like. But those cases need to be made without the kind of pre-judgement that comes from asking people why they support “hostile architecture.”

You see something similar play out in case #13 (Universal Basic Income) or #14 (Digital Blackface).

In the case of Universal Basic Income (or UBI), this is a phrase that is more widely used than “hostile architecture,” one which describes a system in which citizens of a country receive a stable “floor” income from government, so it is fair to use it to anchor a debate on the subject. But even so, that phrase carries a connotation, a different one than, say, “government wealth distribution” which advocates of UBI would likely prefer not serve as the starting point for a debate over the subject.

Similarly, the term “blackface” legitimately conjures up images of 19th century white performers painting themselves black in order to create loathsome caricatures of African Americans, a form of art we can celebrate being well behind us (at least with regard to mainstream entertainment). But the phenomenon case #14 brings up involves white people using animated gifs and other media in their online communication that uses images and/or words of African Americans (often celebrities) to add humor or edge to their communication.

Again, one can argue over whether use of such animated GIFs and similar media is disrespectful and exploitative. But associating it with what most reasonable people would agree is an ugly and bigoted practice (blackface, specifically the historical entertainment tradition of blackface) builds into the discussion from the outset that this practice and the use of certain types of online media are equivalent.

As with all entries to this series on Ethics Bowl, I am not planning to provide any answers to questions students should grapple with on their own. But I hope this series will provide a set of critical-thinking tools that can help them on their way.