2019 Michigan High School Ethics Bowl Case Studies

​This year's Ethics Bowl, with a ever-growing number of schools and student teams, is packed with real world cases, with real thinking, in real time, about the topics of anonymous newspaper articles to missing money.

Unlike other Regional Bowls, most Michigan Bowl case studies are written by community members, all of whom are working in Michigan or have a longstanding Michigan affiliation. The Michigan Bowl also has a fine editing team: several philosopher coaches from the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy Outreach Program. 

As always, each case is accompanied by study questions to fire up the neurons and jumpstart discussions. And don't forget to take a look at the author bios - you may share some interests with the case writers, or you might meet them on Bowl Day. Several of the case writers come to the Bowl to learn about what you think, and to hear your arguments about their own as well as all the other case studies. 

Case 1: Universal Human Rights vs. Cultural Autonomy

What Western culture regards as barbaric and morally repulsive may be considered morally acceptable or even required in other regions of the world. Historically in China, parents bound the feet of little girls to prevent healthy growth and restrict physical liberties. Historically in India, bereaved wives engaged in self-immolation by jumping into their husbands’ funeral pyres. In Africa and the Middle East, female genital mutilation persists underground to circumvent prohibitory laws. These practices originate from culturally-anchored ideas about male hegemony, and female victims are taught to accept them as normal, moral, and even necessary. The practices stem from traditional aesthetic and moral principles. For example, foot-binding reflects the beauty standard “三寸金莲” that a 10 cm foot is aesthetically pleasing. Sati — the Sanskrit word for "good woman” — originates from the Hindu goddess Sati who immolates herself.

During British colonization of India, numerous efforts to abolish Sati were made, including the prominent 1829 Bengal Sati Regulation. Unfortunately, they were overwhelmingly met with fierce resistance, even by women themselves who voluntarily claim that self-immolation is their inviolable right. The British intervention may have been popularly perceived as arbitrary imperialism instead of kindhearted rescue. Less harrowing examples of clashes between morality as perceived in the West and practices accepted in some other cultures persist to this day.

There are at least three possible views one might adopt in response to conflicting ethical claims and practices.  One is that there is a universal truth in ethics that applies to all cultures at all times; for example, “slavery is immoral” or “terrorism is wrong,” and that even if whole cultures disagree, we can confidently say that their views are mistaken.

A second view is that although there is no universal truth in ethics, a culture may enforce a common morality (e.g., monogamous marriage) because, as Patrick Devlin argues, some core elements of shared morality are necessary to bind a society together.

A third view is that what is most important is individual liberty, and, as John Stuart Mill would argue, people should be free to practice different styles of life within a culture, whether out of purely personal choice or out of a choice to adhere to customs and values in harmony with their ancestral roots. This applies especially to members of minority groups in a multicultural society.

Study questions:

  1. Are there some ethical claims that are universally true, even if some cultures do not embrace them?
  2. Should there be limits to multicultural toleration in the United States; e.g., prohibiting female genital cutting? If so, how would you define those limits? Does it make a difference if all individuals are consenting to the practice?
  3. Should the United States support global efforts to oppose practices in other cultures that it considers to be a violation of “universal human rights”?


Wolff, Jonathan, 2015 [1996]. An Introduction To Political Philosophy, 3rd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mill, John Stuart, 2012 [1859]. On Liberty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Case 2: Literature and Artistic Portrayals

In 2003, the film "Cell Phone" met the Chinese public, detailing the story of Yan Shouyi, a famous talk show host caught in a love affair with his successor, after private information on his phone leaked out. "Cell Phone" has been widely interpreted as a parallel to the life of a famous China Central Television (CCTV) talk show host Cui Yongyuan. When reporters asked "Cell Phone" director Feng Xiaogang whether the main character Yan is based on Cui, Feng denied the parallel. However, the resemblance between Yan and Cui cannot be denied: both were talk show hosts for similar TV channels, and were succeeded by a female host. However, Cui, unlike his fictional counterpart, Yan, was not known to be involved in an affair.

Unfortunately for Cui, and fortunately for Feng, the film’s box office saw great success. The controversy surrounding the film contributed to its popularity. Film critics accused Feng of employing humor as a justification for insult and for manipulating and publicizing other people’s lives to garner attention. Cui criticized Feng as “shameless and full of himself.” Others argued Feng lacks genuine artistic value and taste. To rebut accusations, Feng claimed that art derives its value from freedom of expression, self-reflexivity, and liberated imagination. Further adding, “I just wanted to joke with Cui, but he didn’t get the humor.”

Since "Cell Phone’s" debut, Cui has attempted to avoid paparazzi, many of whom have harassed Cui and intruded upon his private life. One persistent reporter shouted: "Can you dare say you've been faithful to your wife?” Cui told reporters in recent years, “'Cell Phone' has negatively impacted my family,” and that it caused emotional distress, especially for his daughter.

Controversial literary portrayals of nonfictional people are not uncommon. A Western example of the phenomenon finds its source in the enthralling novel Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. The novel is premised on the solitary hitchhiking experiences and Alaskan wilderness expeditions of the late Christopher McCandless. During its critical reception, while some applauded McCandless’ courage for authenticity and nonconformity with materialism, many others rejected McCandless’ actions with disapproval, criticizing him as “an idiot,” “arrogant, woefully unprepared, mentally unbalanced,” and “possibly suicidal” for his lack of consideration of the risks that come with traversing the great Alaskan outdoors by oneself. Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote, “what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.” Additionally, the book’s final sentence, “Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God,” seems to assume or impose certain sentiments upon McCandless and assign specific valor to his death, potentially interpreted as a sign of disrespect.

Study questions:

  1. Are the producer of "Cell Phone" and the author of Into the Wild morally justified in deviating from the depiction of the actual person that their fictional characters are based on? Are the two cases analogous or is one morally worse than the other?
  2. Should there be limitations to freedom of expression? If so, where should the threshold be drawn (i.e. what does it take for something to justify limiting freedom of expression?). Are these cases ones in which that threshold is surpassed? Explain.
  3. Should it matter if the controversial piece of literature/art in question is published during the portrayed person’s life or posthumously? 



Case 3: Bystander Intervention

(Content warning: This case study contains issues on mental health and suicide that may be emotionally challenging to engage with. Please exercise empathy and thoughtfulness when discussing this case study and be mindful that other people’s experiences may be different from yours.)

Imagine it is 11 p.m. Overwhelmed by the monstrosity of homework that looms over you, you find yourself in a deep rabbit hole and stumble across Quora. One thing leads to another and soon enough you disturbingly come across the thread, “What is the easiest way to commit suicide?”

Never having considered or having wanted to consider suicide, you become gravely distressed, yet you browse the various answers to the question written by real people in the comments section. Some responses contain thorough explanations of suicide mechanisms, others soothing words of encouragement and enlightenment, and a couple include grave confessions of despondency and intent of suicide.

As you scroll further down into the sparsely commented sections, you find the post, “The life I have isn’t worth living. I have no regrets. Thank you and goodbye world.” You’re immediately worried that this Quora user is in danger of suicide. To investigate, you click the profile of this user and observe that they have a blank profile picture, an empty bio, zero followers and following, and no recent activity since the time of the post. Thus, you cannot verify whether this person is still active and/or alive after this post, which happened around a month ago.

You remain painfully ambivalent about your optimal course of action and consider several options: commenting on this user’s post, sending a direct message, alerting the Quora team, alerting the police, or completely ignoring the situation. While aware that alerting Quora customer services is the most preemptive method, you feel uncertain whether this remark was made seriously by someone at risk of self harm or in jest by an internet troll. In fact, you’re well aware of various other posts involving declarations of suicide that were investigated, and found to be nothing more than twisted pranks. You are unsure whether to act, given the lack of certainty with respect to the facts of the case and the actual risks associated with this particular individual.

Meanwhile, you observe and sincerely appreciate the effort by Quora to automatically display a message of support in any question containing suicide-related keywords: “There is help: Need Help? Contact a suicide hotline if you need someone to talk to. If you have a friend in need of help, please encourage that person to contact a suicide hotline as well.” However, you note that not every question pertaining to suicide displays such a message, and believe its effectiveness limited.

While deliberating, you envision alternative scenarios. If this occurred to a Facebook friend, you would likely help them overcome hardship with a private message or call. If to a passerby hovering over a bridge, you would likely put off whatever it is you might be doing at that time and instead take the time to talk to them and perhaps notify the relevant authorities. If this were someone who you were more closely related to, you would undeniably extend your unconditional love and support.

After realizing the striking differences in how you would be most likely to act in each of these scenarios, you feel overwhelmed and confused about how the character of personal relationships and changes in physical proximity can possibly exert such a strong psychological effect on your willingness to intervene.

Study questions:

  1. Do you, as an internet and app user, have any obligations to the user in question? If so, which ones and to what extent? Do individual internet users have any mutual obligations, in general?
  2. Should Quora allow posts discussing mechanisms of suicide, mass shootings, to name two examples? Should there be limits to the sorts of discussions people can have on the internet? If so, what are these limits? How should we come to establish them?
  3. What obligations do creators' online platforms have to users? What obligations do users of online platforms have to other users?

Author Bio (Cases 1-3): 

Bonnie Liu is a freshman at Harvard University, planning to study economics, philosophy, or government. As an ethics/philosophy enthusiast, Bonnie served as co-captain of Ann Arbor Greenhills School Ethics Bowl team. During her three year participation, Greenhills won the state championship in 2016. Representing Michigan, they went on to place fourth in the Nationals. Bonnie also helped found the Ethics Youth Council, an A2Ethics-affiliated project, whose purpose is to give high school students the artistic freedom to pursue a project of interest. Bonnie initiated a special podcast series to encourage civil and philosophical discourse among students and the public. Having spent eleven years in bustling Beijing and six years in peaceful Ann Arbor, Bonnie regards herself as a cultural ambassador facilitating mutual understanding, and a global citizen promoting social justice. Bonnie also enjoys memes.

Case 4: Professional Ethics?

The American Bar Association (ABA) publishes “model rules” by which attorneys are expected to abide. Model Rule 6.1 says that a lawyer should “aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico [‘for the public good’] legal services per year.”[1] Furthermore, “a substantial majority of the hours” should benefit either “(1) persons of limited means or (2) charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations in matters which are designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means.” However, comment 12 to the Rule states “[t]he responsibility set forth in this Rule is not intended to be enforced through disciplinary process.”

Jean works at the law firm PKO LLP. Through hard work, she has already completed her required 2000 “billable hours”[2] for the firm for the year, with two full weeks remaining in the fiscal year. She would, of course, like to use these to take a vacation. However, none of her billable hours were pro bono; PKO does not allow its attorneys to count pro bono work towards their billable hour requirement.

Jean recognizes her responsibility under Model Rule 6.1, but also feels eager for a vacation. She is now weighing the following options:

  • Work all 50 pro bono hours over the next week and take one week of vacation.
  • Work an extra 50 billable (i.e., paid) hours over the next week at a rate of $95/hour (since she has already completed her required hours) and donate the extra $4,750 to charity. Take one week of vacation.
  • Donate an extra $4,750 from her regular salary and deduct that amount from what she would have spent on her vacation or other luxuries. Take two weeks of vacation.
  • Ignore the requirement for this year and resolve to do better next year. Take two weeks of vacation.

Study Questions:

  1. Why are certain professions—such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers—bound by codes of professional ethics, while others aren’t? Which professions should engage in such self-regulation?
  2. Should the ABA eliminate comment 12 and enforce violations of Model Rule 6.1 like violations of any other Rule (like those regulating client–attorney confidentiality and conflicts of interest)?
  3. Beyond the textual requirements of Rule 6.1, is working pro bono morally preferable to serving the public good through monetary donations?
  4. What principles should individuals use to decide when, if ever, personal luxury spending (of either time or money) is justifiable?

Author Bio: Cullen O’Keefe is a 3L at Harvard Law School. Cullen graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016 with majors in Philosophy and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. While at the University of Michigan, Cullen served as co-captain of the Michigan intercollegiate Ethics Bowl team. At Harvard Law, Cullen serves as President of the Harvard University Effective Altruism Student Group, which encourages students to think empirically and strategically to maximize the good they do for others. Cullen also currently works as a Research Affiliate with the Future of Humanity Institute’s Governance of Artificial Intelligence Program. Cullen has previously interned with A2Ethics, and has participated in a number of their projects including the Ethics Bowl, Ethics Slam, the Most Compelling Case podcast series, and Sketchy Conversations.

Case 5: Living Forever

The idea of stopping the process of aging is an old standby in science fiction and fantasy. And, thanks to leading research organizations like Calico and the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), it is looking increasingly likely that this fantasy may one day become reality. But, while the development of a technological Fountain of Youth may seem like an obviously good thing, it in fact raises a number of complex ethical questions.

Suppose John is presented with the opportunity to take a pill to stop his biological and cognitive aging, retaining the physical and mental health of a 30-year-old indefinitely. John is tempted: living such a long time would allow him to reach his goals, spend more time in school, advance farther in his career, and watch his kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids grow up. The pill would also make John less likely to develop health problems like Alzheimer’s and stroke, which are associated with aging. If made widespread, this would certainly be seen as a public health success story.

Nevertheless, John feels conflicted. He wonders whether the chance to live without aging would strip away all the meaning in his life. Might he start to take his time with loved ones for granted? Would the pursuit of his goals be pointless knowing there would always be more time to pursue yet another one? John also worries about the broader social implications of the drug. Would everyone be given the same opportunity to end their own aging in an equal manner? Or would the world eventually have an unaging elite consisting only of those who could afford the drug?

Study questions:

  1. Should John take the drug? Why or why not?
  2. How, if at all, would John’s personal decision whether to take the drug differ from the government’s decision whether to promote it as a public health resource?
  3. How might the absence of aging change John’s life for the worse?
  4. Suppose the drug is quite expensive and that most people therefore cannot afford it. Would it be just or morally acceptable to offer the drug to only those people? Or would it be better to deny the drug to everyone rather than offer unequal access to it?

Author Bio: Nick Hollman will be a senior at the University of Michigan in fall of 2018. He is studying philosophy and cognition within the cognitive science major, in addition to a minor in complex systems. Nick is the co-president and co-founder of the Effective Altruism Michigan student chapter, an organization working to use reason and evidence to do the most good, given our limited resources. His current interests relate to the philosophy behind Effective Altruism and how a complex systems perspective can be adopted to aid in doing the most good.  Nick’s long-term goals are aligned with his interests in Effective Altruism and will likely result in graduate school (in philosophy, cognitive science, or complex systems), followed by a career doing research for an organization related to Effective Altruism.

Case 6: The Mystery of the Missing Money

Jan and Mike are best friends with Barbara and Kevin. Both couples include each other in family picnics, parties, and celebrations. The two couples vacation together, their children are good friends, and they have celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with one another’s extended families for years.

Barbara’s niece, Jill, recently had a baby. Jill has been out of work since the baby was born, and while Dad’s income is enough to get by on, money has been tight. One day, Jill calls Jan and Mike to ask if they want to see the new baby. Jan and Mike, delighted, invite Jill to their house.

The morning of Jill’s visit, Mike goes to the bank and cashes a check for $200. He comes home and leaves the money on his dresser. Jill and her mother soon arrive with the baby. After an hour or so, Jill asks to use the bathroom, which is attached to Jan’s and Mike’s bedroom. Upon returning from the bathroom, Jill hurriedly tells her mother that they have to go home to feed the baby. Jill’s mother is perplexed — they had brought bottles — but she agrees.

Later that afternoon, Mike notices that $100 of the $200 is missing from the dresser. Jan and Mike search the room, Mike’s pockets and wallet, the car, and even go to the bank to make sure the missing money wasn’t left there. When the money doesn’t turn up, they conclude that Jill must have taken it when she went to the bathroom.

Study questions:

  1. Should Jan and Mike confront Jill about the missing money?
  2. Should Jan and Mike notify Jill’s family of the incident?
  3. Suppose Jill didn’t take the money, and that Mike simply lost it. How should Jill then react if Jan and Mike accuse her of stealing it?
  4. Suppose Jill did take the money. Should Jan and Mike’s relationship with Jill and her family lead them to respond differently than if the money had been stolen by a stranger?

Bio: A specialist in mediation and organizational learning, JoAnna DeCamp began her career as a senior administrator at Kings County Medical Center and Cornell University. A graduate of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, since moving to Ann Arbor more than 30 years ago, she has designed and implemented team training and learning programs for business, industry and other organizations throughout Wayne and Washtenaw Counties for the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College. Along the way, JoAnna earned her master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan. She is currently a community mediator with the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) in Ann Arbor and the Wayne Mediation Center in Dearborn. She is also a principal with BDL Mediation, a private practice based in Ann Arbor, and a board member of A2Ethics. And by the way, JoAnna wants everyone to understand that she is currently owned by her three-year old and quite spunky and beautiful cocker spaniel, Abbey.

Case 7: Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate

Dr. Julie, an emergency medicine resident physician, is working when an ambulance radios to the Emergency Department (ED) that they are transporting a 35-year-old woman who suffered a cardiac arrest.  The paramedics arrive on the scene to find the patient’s neighbor performing chest compressions; the paramedics are able to regain a pulse prior to transporting the patient to the ED. The neighbor, who recently moved into the building, does not know the patient well.

The patient arrives to the resuscitation bay with paramedics assisting her breathing. When the ED nurses disrobe the patient to apply cardiac monitoring equipment, they see a large tattoo on the patient’s chest reading “DNR/DNI” — short for “Do Not Resuscitate / Do Not Intubate.” There is a palpable change in the atmosphere as members of the team question whether the patient wishes to be resuscitated. People who wish not to be resuscitated sometimes indicate their wishes in a legal document known as an advance directive. The team is unaware of the patient having provided such a document, though the message of the tattoo seems quite clear.

Dr. Julie is leading the resuscitation and needs to decide whether to move forward with intubating (i.e., inserting a breathing tube to help the patient breathe) the patient to ensure that her breathing is supported. This decision must occur immediately and cannot wait for a social worker or nurse to confirm whether the patient has an advance directive. Julie senses that other members of the team have conflicting views on whether to continue the resuscitation or provide comfort care as would be the standard for a patient with a confirmed DNR directive.  Julie has only worked in this state for 2 years and is unsure whether a “DNR/DNI” tattoo has any legal standing. A quick search of the patient’s medical record finds documentation reveals that she is being actively treated for metastatic breast cancer, but the section that would normally indicate whether the patient has a DNR directive is incomplete. 

Study questions:

       1. Should Julie continue the resuscitation and intubate the patient even if that procedure may be against the patient’s wishes?

       2. Do the ED physicians and nurses have a professional obligation to resuscitate the patient if they cannot confirm that the patient has a valid “Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate” directive? Do they have an ethical and legal obligation to interpret the tattoo as the patient’s directive not to be resuscitated?

       3. How might a patient’s age impact clinical decisions to resuscitate a patient with a nontraditional “DNR”?  Might there be less conflict if the patient was 90 years old? 

Bio: Dr. Tyler W. Barrett obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor followed by his doctorate at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He completed an Emergency Medicine residency and chief resident year at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2005. Dr. Barrett then joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In 2008, he was awarded an institutional research development grant and obtained a Master of Science in Clinical Investigation degree in 2010. In 2010, Dr. Barrett was awarded a National Institutes of Health K23 career development award investigating the emergency department management of atrial fibrillation. His clinical goals include quality improvement, opioid stewardship, multidisciplinary patient care pathways, and reimbursement-related issues.

He currently serves as Medical Director and an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Vanderbilt University. In addition, he is an Emergency Medicine team physician for the Nashville Predators and vice president for the Nashville Youth Hockey League. Tyler also returns to Michigan annually to talk with undergraduates at LSA Hub meetings about medical careers. When not at the hospital, Tyler spends time with his wife, Kelly, and 2 boys, Ryan and Jack, at their various school and sporting events.

Case 8: Death Be Not Proud

You are the parent of a 13-year-old, Annie, who has long suffered from sleep apnea due to her enlarged tonsils and is often fatigued and unable to focus in school. You decide to take her to the hospital to have her tonsils removed to relieve her sleep apnea. Annie has not spent much time in hospitals and on the day of the surgery is understandably nervous about the procedure. As you wait, she says, “If something ever happens to me, make sure you keep me on one of those,” pointing to a mechanical ventilator.

The surgery is performed and after four hours in recovery, Annie wakes up. She coughs up some blood. A nurse says that this is normal. Her surgeon has written in her medical record that her carotid artery is abnormally close to the pharynx, increasing the risk of hemorrhage. The next day, Annie continues to cough up blood so severely that her oxygen saturation level falls to dangerous levels. Complications ensue, and though at the time you are told your daughter’s condition has “stabilized,” a day later she is on a ventilator. Two days after that, she is declared brain dead.

The declaration of brain death was made when Annie’s pupils did not react to light, she had no measurable gag reflex, her lungs filled with carbon dioxide when disconnected from a ventilator, and an electroencephalogram showed no brain activity. However, Annie’s skin is still warm. When you sit by her bed or talk to her, you sense that she feels your presence. You can issue directions such as “squeeze your hand” or “wiggle your big toe” and within about 2-10 seconds her hand or big toe will be squeezed or wiggled. Some of your doctors and nurses describe this as a spinal cord reflex, a “Lazarus sign,” which gives the mere appearance of life. Her heart still beats.

Michigan, like all other states, follows a version of the 1981 Uniform Determination of Death Act which states that someone who has sustained the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, is dead.” And while “a reasonably brief period of accommodation” is given to allow families to gather before a patient is removed from ventilation, eventually the “needs of other patients and prospective patients in urgent need of care” require the hospital to remove a patient from ventilation.

You have refused to take her off ventilation for three weeks. A death certificate has been issued (“Brain death. No hope of brain recovery.”) and a senior executive has stated that the hospital will no longer provide care for your daughter.

Study questions:

  1. Can a child make a free, informed choice that we are morally bound to respect? At what age or under what conditions? Did Annie make such a choice?
  2. Before the 1960s, cardio-respiratory failure was the only way to die; i.e., it was the definition of death. With the availability of ventilators, patients without a spontaneous heartbeat could have their respiration and heartbeat sustained mechanically. Some of these patients may be unconscious, in a “persistent vegetative state,” but still have brain activity. They are not dead by any accepted definition. But under new “brain death” criteria, those who have no brain activity are considered to be dead, and health care facilities do not offer medical treatment to cadavers. Is brain activity the best way of diagnosing death? Are there other better ones?
  3. Should health care facilities by required to treat patients who have previously requested treatment, or whose families request treatment, even after they meet the criteria for “brain death”? What if only the family’s private funds are involved? What if Medicaid funds are involved (approximately $150,000 per week)?

Author Bio: Barry Belmont is a Lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan. His primary academic interests lie at the interface of (bio)medical instrumentation and human subjects, including both the scientific and ethical aspects of the work. He earned his PhD at the University of Michigan in biomedical engineering by studying multimodal noninvasive hemodynamic monitoring techniques on healthy and critically ill subjects. He runs a Bioethics Discussion Group which meets biweekly to host roundtable discussions on a host of biomedical issues (e.g., the role of big data in health care, family interests in medicine, vaccination, among the topics). This past summer he taught an introductory engineering course at Shanghai Jiaotong University in which students were tasked with designing a medical device and to ponder its consequences.

Case 9: Celebrity Sexual Misconduct

A celebrity was accused of inappropriately touching someone on their lower back and making unwanted, aggressive sexual comments. The celebrity quickly issued a short, contrite apology. The incident provoked some public discussion, including about whether or not the celebrity should still present at the People's Choice Awards.

The celebrity has since been accused of, and apologized for, inappropriately touching two other people. The discussion surrounding the celebrity’s misconduct has expanded beyond whether or not they should present at the People’s Choice Awards. The discussion now includes:

An examination of the celebrity's apologies. A main criticism is that rather than focusing on the harm done to victims, the apologies focus too much on the celebrity.
Discussion of whether or not the celebrity should remove himself from public life, and if so, for how long.
Discussion about what rehabilitation, punishment, restitution, donations, community service, public education, outreach, and activism should the celebrity should be responsible for. No criminal charges have been filed or appear to be forthcoming.

Study questions:

  1. The celebrity has apologized, but more than a few people question that he's fully contrite and remorseful. What should we require in an apology?
  2. Who should get to decide how perpetrators of sexual misconduct are punished? Should some people’s voices--such as those of victims--be weighted more heavily than others?
  3. Are there differences in what we should require/expect from a public figure versus a private person?

Author Bios:

Pleasant peninsular person Jenny Lyons was born of street magic in 1989, already possessed of an old soul that continues to belie her years. Her close-up magic is Johnny Thompsonesque, and she may be the next great narrative illusionist you've never heard of. Prescient almost to a fault, she seems to always know ahead of time how the machine will grind. She can design anything, anytime, anywhere, to any specifications, and you're probably benefiting right now from one of her (stealth) designs without even knowing it. She regrets nothing.

Freya van Kesteren is a classic Orangewoman who carries the legacy of tulip mania wherever she goes, which led her to predict the 2008 global financial crisis before anyone else. She always has time for a good word and a good tea. Freya is a foremost expert in squirrel biology and behavior, and has disentangled squirrels from each other like 72 times, in relative obscurity and always forgoing publicity. She has settled in The United States of What the Dantean Hell in no small part because England betrayed her. She believes that home is where the heart is.

Jamie Jee is a public health advocate, political activist, actor, and funnyman who's been described as an apparently inscrutable, very serious android who's actually just being tongue-in-cheek a lot of the time. Besides apocalypticism, he is very concerned with baby-boomerism, which embodies the worst aspects of the baby boomers. He learned from Paul Farmer that removing bodies from downstream, besides being ethical in its own right, can help us understand upstream causes, and agrees with Lucy Grealy that most truths are inherently unretainable—that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.

The authors are also members of the Big Ethical Question Slam team known as This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Not Upon Us. In March, 2018, they won the annual Big Ethical Question Slam, held in Ann Arbor at Conor O'Neill's Irish Pub. They are the current keepers of the trophy, The Philosopher's Hat, and are regarded as the Best Ethical Question Slammers in Washtenaw County. Until next year, when they will defend their title in Ypsilanti at the Corner Brewery.  

Case 10: Senate Legislation

You are one of Michigan’s 38 state senators. You represent about 270,000 constituents. Before you were elected to the Legislature, you had a small landscaping business. Frustration about the negative financial impact of government regulations on your business inspired you to run for office. You spoke passionately about this frustration on the campaign trail. Now that you have been elected to a full-time position, you continue to own the landscaping business on the side, but you are less involved in the business’s day-to-day operations.

The Great Lakes Landscapers Association has approached you and asked you to push to overhaul the regulations faced by landscapers in Michigan. The Association’s proposal would weaken the government standards landscapers face in their operations. The package would also allow small landscape businesses, like yours, to operate without having to get a license from the state and having to pay the annual fee to keep the license. If you agree to champion the proposal in the Legislature, you would have additional sway over the specific language of the bills, and you would be able to use your knowledge of the industry to inform your colleagues.

While the package would bring a small financial benefit to your business and to many others like yours, there’s no law in Michigan that bars public officeholders from working on issues that could benefit them financially. However, you have agreed to abide by the rules of the Michigan Senate. These rules say that someone having “a personal, private, or professional interest in a bill” shall not vote on the bill. However, although these rules exist, they are rarely enforced.

Study questions:

  1. Should you agree to champion the overhaul of landscaping regulations? Why or why not?
  2. What is the difference, morally speaking, between voting on a piece of legislation and abstaining from voting---while using your expertise behind the scenes to advise your Senate colleagues?
  3. Should officeholders disclose potential conflicts when voting on bills? If they don’t vote on bills where there are potential conflicts, should they give an explanation of why they aren’t voting?

Author Bio: Craig Mauger joined the Michigan Campaign Finance Network as executive director in January 2016. Before that, he worked as a reporter covering government and politics for a decade. He worked for newspapers in Indiana and spent three and a half years covering the state government and politics in Lansing for Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS News), an online news service. During his time at MIRS News, much of his coverage focused on covering the state Legislature and also following the money in state politics, including tracking the changing role of politically focused nonprofits and the connection between donations and legislative outcomes.

Craig is a graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He, his wife and two sons live in Holt, Michigan.

Case 11: Tenure

At most colleges and universities, professors have the opportunity to achieve a life-time appointment, otherwise known as tenure. When hired to a tenure-track position, “assistant” professors are given 5-6 years to demonstrate their academic strengths, including their skills as researchers, writers, and teachers. If given tenure, assistant professors are promoted to “associate” professors, and are given special job protections. Specifically, they are guaranteed a life-time appointment at the university. A tenured professor may lose her job only if the university is eliminating or downsizing departments. A tenured professor may not lose her job because of the content or methodology of her research or for her teaching ability. The rationale behind tenure is the protection of academic freedom. Tenure encourages honest research and the development of ideas and thoughts that might not be popular among the community. With tenure, professors can “stay intellectually curious and take chances with unconventional work.” If professors could not receive tenure, they might feel compelled to produce research in line with public opinion to please everyone in order to keep their job.

Edward is an associate professor in the psychology department at Midwest College. He received tenure fifteen years ago. Although while an assistant professor he was very research active, received outstanding teaching evaluations from his students, and was kind toward other faculty members in his department, after receiving tenure his research productivity declined significantly, he no longer put effort into his lectures, and he began to act resentfully toward his colleagues. All the other tenured faculty at Midwest College kept up their high standards of research and teaching after receiving tenure.

Edward’s colleagues in the psychology department are frustrated with Edward’s behavior, and wish they could offer his position to someone else. In fact, they already have someone in mind. Anita—who just received her PhD in psychology and is looking for her first faculty position—is an extremely promising psychologist who researches in the same area of psychology as Edward. She could thus take over all of Edward’s classes without a problem. However, the Midwest College psychology department cannot fire Edward and offer Anita the job because Edward has tenure.

Study questions:

  1. Do the pros of tenure outweigh the cons? Would academia suffer if tenure was no longer made available to professors?
  2. Are there alternatives to tenure? Is it possible for universities to encourage honest and important research without removing incentives for high performance?
  3. What does the Midwest College psychology department owe its students? Its departmental faculty? The discipline of psychology?

Author Bio: Deborah Smith Pollard is chair of the Department of Literature, Philosophy, and the Arts as well as professor of English and humanities at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She specializes in African American Literature and Culture.  Her research area is contemporary gospel music. Her first book is entitled When the Church Becomes Your Party: Contemporary Gospel Music.  She is currently writing about Edwin Hawkins’ gospel arrangement of the song “Oh, Happy Day” that continues to be sung around the world and surface in mainstream movies fifty years after it was initially released. For the past three decades, she has hosted and produced gospel music programs in concert venues, on TV and radio and can currently be heard Sundays, 7-10 AM, on WMXD “MIX” 92.3 FM.

Case 12: Anonymous Bombshell

On September 5, 2018, the New York Times published an anonymous opinion piece by a “senior official” in the White House headlined “I Am Part of the Resistance inside the Trump Administration.” The opinion piece claimed that a group of concerned staffers were working to curb the President’s worst impulses and to frustrate parts of his agenda they did not think were good for the country. The article was a bombshell in an already highly contentious political environment.

Most newsroom policies strongly discourage use of anonymous sources because this practice prevents audiences from assessing the reliability of the information they provide. Nevertheless, anonymous sources are commonly cited in stories on sensitive topics, like national security, where leaking has become the main way that reporters obtain information about the workings of the federal government. The rationale is that granting insider sources anonymity may be the only way for the public to find out about governmental and corporate wrongdoing. Without this guarantee, whistleblowers face a great deal of risk, and stories such as Watergate would never come to light.

Due to their speculative nature, direct quotes and statements of opinion are least likely to be attributed to anonymous sources. Exceptions are rare. The Times, for example, had previously granted anonymity to op-ed writers fearful of deportation or death resulting from their published comments. In the case of  “I Am Part of the Resistance inside the Trump Administration,” the paper’s editorial team authenticated the author’s identity and access to the information before green-lighting it. They thought the article’s insights into the functioning of the executive branch were important enough to justify anonymous publication and that the author stood a good chance of losing their job without this protection.

Critics, however, said the Times gave cover to a coward who should have come forward publicly and that speculation about their identity distracted from the article’s contents. The revelations, furthermore, were not substantially different from other accounts and, so, were not newsworthy enough to make an exception. Finally, critics pointed out that the decision further eroded trust in the Times, singled out by the president even before the op-ed as “the failing New York Times.” Its own readers and former public editor had previously criticized the newspaper for overusing anonymous sources. And the effects would not be limited to the Times, but would likely affect trust in all news media, already at a mere 41% among Americans in the context of attacks on the media as “the enemy of the people” and “fake news.”

Study questions:

  1. What duties does the Times have to its readers? Its staff? Fellow journalists? The op-ed author? The author’s fellow White House officials? The President?
  2. Are there other stakeholders that should be considered in making the decision to publish the op-ed anonymously?
  3. Assume that it is sometimes permissible for newspapers to use anonymous sources. What separates cases where use of anonymous sources is permissible and cases where it isn’t?

Author Bio: Sandra L. Borden is a professor in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University, where she also directs the Center for the Study of Ethics in Society. She is the faculty sponsor for WMU’s intercollegiate Ethics Bowl team. Her work has been published in several scholarly books and journals. Her book, Journalism as Practice: MacIntyre, Virtue Ethics and the Press, won the 2008 Clifford G. Christians Ethics Research Award and the National Communication Association’s 2008 top book award in applied ethics. Her other books are Ethics and Entertainment: Essays on Media Culture and Media Morality (co-edited with Howard Good, 2010, McFarland) and Making Hard Choices in Journalism Ethics (with David Boeyink, 2010, Routledge). Borden, who teaches ethics and media criticism, earned her PhD in mass communications from Indiana University, her MA in journalism from The Ohio State University and her BJ in journalism from the University of Missouri. Before joining the WMU faculty in 1997, she was an education reporter and editorial-page editor for the Jackson Sun, a Gannett paper in west Tennessee.

Case 13 - Dear Diary

Genevieve remembers when her sister Nico first got together with Tomas, one of Genevieve’s best friends. It was a little strange at first, but it was also pretty great. Genevieve was gratified to see two of her favorite people so happy together, and she got to spend even more time with them now that they were a couple. Still, in addition to enjoying them as a couple, Genevieve maintained strong, independent relationships with them both. Nico and Tomas built a life together that Genevieve admired and hoped to find for herself one day, and she treasured her friendships with each of them.

One weekend, when Genevieve was house-sitting for Nico and Tomas, she noticed a notebook in an open drawer in Nico’s desk. She couldn’t resist pulling it out and opening to a random page, though she could tell it was a diary. She was shaken when a quick glance revealed writing by Nico about her strong attraction to one of her co-workers. Nico expressed regret and shame, but also acknowledged that she was genuinely drawn to this colleague, and she described her struggle to figure out what to do about it.

Genevieve slammed the diary shut and returned it to the open drawer. She was aghast, but she also felt extremely guilty. She was overwhelmed by mixed emotions. She wondered why she didn’t notice anything different in Nico’s behavior. She was also hurt that Nico didn’t think of her as a trustworthy confidante about something so serious—despite the ways their lives intertwined, Nico had always trusted Genevieve in the past. At the same time, she was angry on behalf of Tomas. Did he have any idea what was going on? Tomas would be devastated. How could Nico feel this way? Finally, Genevieve continued to feel guilty. She should never have opened the diary. Nico deserved her privacy. Maybe this was a fleeting moment in time and things had changed, maybe Nico didn’t really feel that way…

Genevieve was heartbroken and confused. She wondered to herself if there was anything she could do that would make her feel better about this situation. How should she face the pair when they returned?

Study Questions:

1. What should Genevieve do? Would it matter if Genevieve had noticed the date of the entry was the day before? A month earlier? A year earlier?

2. Is reading someone’s diary without their knowledge morally wrong? Why or why not?

3. How, if at all, should this diary entry affect what Genevieve thinks about Nico or her character?

Author Bio: Written by the 2018-2019 National High School Ethics Bowl Regional Case Set Committee Members.

Case 14 - Drawing the Line on Gerrymandering

Throughout most of the U.S., maps for federal and state legislative districts are drawn by state lawmakers. A longstanding complaint about this procedure is that the politicians in office during the redistricting process frequently engage in “gerrymandering,” or drawing maps that help themselves and their political allies retain seats or gain additional power. Given that different areas of a state can have very different demographic and political makeups, drawing district lines in different ways can lead to large variations in who is ultimately elected to office.

In particular, partisan mapmakers can use two strategies to benefit their party. One is “packing,” where partisans try to put as many supporters of an opposing party as possible into a small number of districts in order to reduce that party’s influence in surrounding districts. The second, “cracking,” occurs when mapmakers divide supporters of an opposing party across as many districts as possible, in an attempt to prevent them from having a sufficiently large foothold in any one of these districts.

While both strategies have been commonly used in the past, the rise of big data and sophisticated electoral models have made them powerful tools for establishing a large political advantage. For example, in 2016 Republican congressional candidates in North Carolina received only 54% of the votes statewide but won 10 out of 13 House seats (77%). That same year, Republican candidates in Maryland received 37% of the statewide vote but won only 1 of 8 seats (13%). Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania won only 5 of 18 districts (28%) while receiving about as many votes statewide as Republican candidates.

The primary criticism of partisan gerrymandering is that it is undemocratic. If one party has an electoral advantage that far outstrips its popular support, this diminishes the power of the populace as a whole to enact its political preferences. Moreover, critics argue, intentionally diluting the political influence of some voters seems to violate the democratic ideal that all citizens should have equal voice. Relatedly, partisan gerrymandering might make citizens less politically engaged by making them feel like their votes won’t make any difference. Finally, critics often point out that partisan gerrymandering increases political polarization and undermines political cooperation; districts that are drawn to be “safe” wins for one party or another are more likely to elect extreme candidates than are highly competitive districts, which may favor more moderate candidates.

Yet not everyone views these maps as morally problematic. For instance, some argue that critics underestimate the force of larger cultural and demographic trends in driving politically lopsided districts—for example, that Democratic-leaning populations have been increasingly concentrating themselves in small, densely populated geographic areas. Even though intentional partisan gerrymandering does occur, it is far less significant than it is often portrayed.

Additionally, it might be argued, politicians are not doing anything wrong in using political considerations when drawing legislative maps. This is just a normal part of electoral politics. After all, if these lawmakers were rightfully elected, then it is within their rights to draw districts as they see fit. In fact, some elected officials defend this practice as necessary for faithfully representing their constituents—if an elected representative’s job is to promote the interests of their constituents, it is their responsibility to draw legislative maps that also promote those interests.

Study Questions:

      1. What is the point of representative democracy? To what extent is partisan gerrymandering consistent or inconsistent with that point? 

      2. What interests do citizens have in fair electoral maps? Does it matter whether one is a member of the majority or the minority? Are there any interests that all citizens have in maintaining fair electoral maps?

      3. What, if anything, should be done to prevent or limit partisan gerrymandering?

Author Bio: Written by the 2018-2019 National High School Ethics Bowl Regional Case Set Committee Members.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering
2. https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2018/08/27us/politics/27reuters-north-carolina-districts-court.html
3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/03/28/how-maryland-deomocrats-pulled-off-their-aggressive-gerrymander/?utm_term=.415e4ele9da5
4. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/us/pennsylvania-maps-congress.html 

Case 15 - Data Violence

As more of human life is controlled or guided by computer algorithms, there is growing concern about various biases that these algorithms encode, and the real-world implications of such biases. For example, in 2015 a black developer realized Google’s photo recognition software tagged pictures of him and his friends as gorillas.

Similarly, it was found that facial recognition software struggled to read black faces. Other problems have arisen, including Facebook automatically suspending the accounts of Native Americans for having seemingly “fake” names, Google Translate replacing gender-neutral pronouns with gendered pronouns in English according to sexist stereotypes, and airport body scanners flagging transgender bodies as threats. Some have labelled this phenomenon “data violence,” noting that coding choices can “implicitly and explicitly lead to harmful or even fatal outcomes.”

Some software developers and commentators have claimed that complaints about data violence are overhyped. For instance, some have claimed that these problematic results are simply unfortunate side effects of data analyses and statistical models that are, in other respects, highly accurate and useful. Software developers are not necessarily doing anything wrong when they create algorithms that, for the most part, work very well—even if that software has unintended biases. It may be conceded that in some cases, an algorithm might end up reflecting some broader social injustice, leading to biased results—such as when racial disparities in arrest rates affect the results of software used to predict criminal behaviors.

But even then, developers sometimes argue, the problem is not with the software itself, but with the broader injustices for which the developers themselves are not responsible. Relatedly, some argue that there is a division of labor in software development that makes it the responsibility of the architect of the larger project to pay attention to the broader social implications of the software, and not necessarily the individual engineers who work on them. Or, perhaps, they need an “in-house philosopher” to consider these messy ethical concerns for them.

However, others find this response to be little more than an attempt to avoid responsibility for the way in which their own actions help to reinforce and reproduce biases and injustices. Many instances of racist and sexist errors are due to developers’ biases, stereotypes, and interests. Software engineers carry with them assumptions about what should be considered “normal” or what range of cases they must account for; these assumptions can affect how software is programmed and the types of testing it undergoes.

Furthermore, engineers may often overlook important “edge cases” or the problematic implications of their doing so, because of the fact that the tech industry is overwhelmingly white and male. Given that these software problems disproportionately harm members of historically marginalized groups, there seems to be a further concern that leaving developer diversity unaddressed or viewing these failures as merely instances of poor engineering will not fix the underlying problem.

Study Questions:

1. Who is responsible for the kinds of “data violence” described in the case? Are individual engineers morally responsible, or does the responsibility lie with software architects or software companies?

2. What does it mean for something to be sexist or racist? Can we consider software sexist or racist, even though it doesn’t itself have intentions or attitudes?

3. What, if anything, should software companies do to address data violence?



Author Bio: Written by the 2018-2019 National High School Ethics Bowl Regional Case Set Committee Members.