High School Ethics Bowl Teams from Michigan and New Jersey Explore Individual Responsibility and Moral Obligation to Others in the 3rd Virtual Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Ethics Symposium

Ann Arbor, MI – What is the ethical impact of the pandemic on the health and well-being of different communities? What forms of profit-taking and pricing of goods and services are ethically wrong—and right—during a pandemic? What should “essential” mean now and after the pandemic? And how can the essentials—that is, fundamental practices and principles of ethics—create novel ways to deal with a novel health crisis that impacts not just our community but every community across the world?    

These are some of the questions that were under intense discussion on May 27, when teams of young ethicists from high schools in Michigan and New Jersey gathered online for the third in a series known as the Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Virtual Symposia.

The Symposia in their virtual form are an improvised alternative put together by A2Ethics, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit and organizer of the annual Michigan High School Ethics Bowl as well as other popular public philosophy gatherings and educational activities across the state.  

During a typical spring, A2Ethics announces their Case Writing Awards at an annual celebration known as the University of Michigan High School Ethics Symposium. The Symposium gives the stage to high school student philosophers who present brief and reasoned arguments about ethical problems they find compelling, and also gives them an opportunity to respond to questions about their ideas from other students and philosophy enthusiasts at the gathering.

This spring, however, even the weather was atypical. The world tornado known as the coronavirus swept us up, emptied streets and public buildings, closed schools, moved entire populations into quarantine, and resulted in the cancellation of events large and small. Among them was the fifth annual University of Michigan High School Ethics Symposium.

Wishing to highlight the urgent ethics issues introduced or revealed by the pandemic, A2Ethics—like so many other organizations—was forced to rethink the basics: what are these gatherings for?    

As A2Ethics’ president Jeanine DeLay recalls, “Launching this 2020 Virtual Symposium series was a signal of resiliency and resolve. Its lineage flashes back to the convivial confabs where philosophers-to-be and philosopher rock stars, like Socrates and Plato, shared their thoughts on the vital ethical issues of the time. It’s a philosophical party of sorts--students have a chance to show and tell what they have been thinking about and to hear from others what they think. In my mind, it’s a combination of TED talks and ‘America’s Got Talent’ without the pretension, flashiness and competition. And what’s so wonderful is that there’s a lot of talent on display.” 

Named Six Feet and Two Metres Apart in a nod to the necessity of social distancing, the new virtual symposium format has several advantages: there can be more than one; familiarity with online meeting technology eliminates the need for training; and the technology easily enables participation of diverse students, not only from across Michigan, but from other states and countries.  

Toward that end, this year’s third Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Virtual Symposium brought together High School Ethics Bowl teams from schools in New Jersey and downstate Michigan. 

Held on May 27, the event featured 22 students from Kent Place School in Summit, New Jersey. The 18 Michigan participants represented Wayne Memorial High School in the city of Wayne and Greenhills School, Huron High and Pioneer High, all located in Ann Arbor (AA).

The theme of the event was a deliberation necessary for the moment, titled The Pandemic and Ethics: What Do We Owe to Each Other?

The four discussion questions focused on key challenges posed by the current pandemic, specifically:  the ethical impact of the pandemic on the health and well-being on various communities; the main short- and long-term consequences resulting from use of criminal law to deal with violations of shelter-in-place and other public health orders during a pandemic; how ethics can help develop the criteria for “essential” workers and items now and after the pandemic; and what forms of profit-taking and pricing of goods and services are ethically wrong—and right—during a pandemic.

Students, ethics and philosophy teachers/coaches and guests all agreed that the afternoon-long experience was valuable, for a variety of reasons and from a variety of perspectives.

Dr. Karen Rezach, director of The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School and co-organizer of the event, viewed the Virtual Symposium “as an outstanding opportunity for students to share their experiences and insights regarding ‘life during the pandemic.’ The data shows some significant differences in the impact Covid-19 has had in New Jersey and in Michigan. However, the insights that students shared about their personal experiences, and what they considered to be ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ were surprisingly similar. These young ethical leaders demonstrated a keen ability to consider some very complex issues in a thoughtful, expansive way.”

Her comments were reinforced by AA Pioneer teacher and Ethics Bowl coach Brent Richards, who described the Virtual Symposium as “a fantastic opportunity for students to engage in productive conversations.” He envisions ways in which his own school can do “something similar, perhaps on a larger scale, and how we can possibly use an activity like this in our classrooms, enabling students from faraway places to connect over ethical issues.”

That same level of enthusiasm and energy was reflected in the comments of participating students. For Yusuf Mian of AA Greenhills, the Virtual Symposium was “an amazing opportunity for students to take on real issues that are impacting our world and look at them from the perspective of acting ethically and morally. In addition, the fact that we as Ethics Bowl competitors are having the chance to have an actual discussion instead of a debate is so important because of how polarizing many issues are, and because of the lack of real discussion.”

AA Pioneer student Lulu Zhang praised the Symposium as “a new and exciting experience for everyone involved” and proof that “the coronavirus outbreak has pushed us to do things in unimaginable ways.” Her classmate Claire Robinson added that the Symposium gave her hope that “in such trying times, people—and not just people in my town, but across the country—care about making things better, and have ideas for how to do so.”

Event co-organizer and A2Ethics president Jeanine DeLay is quick to point out that this Six Feet/Two Metres Apart Symposium was truly a group effort:

“Much appreciation to Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School for accepting the invitation to co-organize and plan this endeavor. And to Brent Richards, AA Pioneer Ethics Bowl coach for jumping on board as an organizer/planner too. Wayne Eaker of Zengenuity, Inc. gets a big nod for producing the event. Likewise, kudos to Michigan Bowl League teachers: David Kangas (Wayne Memorial) and Kathryn Jones (AA Huron) for signing up on short notice. Thanks to University of Michigan Department of Philosophy Outreach graduate students and philosopher coaches, Adam Waggoner and Laura Soter, and to Mark Randolph, Michigan Bowl League founding member and teacher/coach at AA Greenhills School for serving as moderators. Cheers for all of the student ethicists from Kent Place, Pioneer, Huron, Greenhills and Wayne Memorial High Schools who participated in this Symposium. Finally, an ovation and special acknowledgment to all the 2020 seniors who have remained ‘tinkerers and thinkerers’ until the very end of this unforgettable finale to your high school years.”

Looking ahead, A2Ethics will be moving from meet-the-moment to more permanent virtual symposia in the fall of 2020. 

As DeLay explains, “The post-pandemic era will present several new troubling as well as promising ethics questions for future symposia supporters to consider together, among them questions relating to matters of justice. The inequities and disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color and other vulnerable populations should convince us that the process of determining who is essential must commit us to our moral obligation to define as essential everyone in our society. And to act on that commitment.”