Questions on treatment of animals, grieving with virtual reality, school honor codes and coronavirus take top prizes

Ann Arbor, MI – High school students from across Michigan got creative over the past few months to write about the issues that mattered to them – and most notably, the ethical dilemmas that accompany them – in this year’s A2Ethics case competition.

Students from several schools participated in the fourth annual contest, submitting 16 cases. Case topics ranged from current and pressing dilemmas about coronavirus, to broader explorations about the Great Lakes or animal treatment by companies.   

Jeanine DeLay, president of A2Ethics, said the case competition stands out in several ways.

“Most traditional writing awards in Michigan high schools recognize student excellence for expository and narrative works. The case writing program is unique,” DeLay said. “It offers students a chance to express differing ideas and informed viewpoints about issues that pose ethical choices that are neither straightforward nor clearly the right thing to do. What’s most impressive is that these cases are on topics students care deeply about and that impact us all.”

The competition was refereed by a top-notch panel of judges with Michigan ties: Peg Eby-Jager, University of Michigan School of Library Science alumna (Master of Arts in Library Science), as well as a book editor and former academic, medical and research librarian; Andrew Barnosky, Professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Emergency Medicine, faculty member of the U-M Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, and the founder and former Chair of the Adult Ethics Committee for U-M Hospitals and Health Centers; and Sean Stidd, senior philosophy lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University, and a specialist in the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the philosophy of mathematics.  

"When I was asked to judge this year's case-writing competition for the annual Michigan High School Ethics Symposium, I was both honored and intrigued," said judge Eby-Jager. "What issues would students choose, I wondered, and how would they work through nettlesome ethical dilemmas?  Reading the cases, I was very deeply impressed.  The issues were well chosen and, to a case, worthy of deep analysis.  Working closely through each and every case, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, I saw how they unraveled ethical entanglements surrounding their topics.  The writing in many of the cases was simply splendid.  The Ethics Symposium and the Case Writing Awards offer a superb  opportunity for high school students to develop excellent critical thinking and writing skills and to realize their own innate talents!"

Clare Hong, from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, took the grand prize and $350 for her case, entitled Feathers and Furs. The case explores the ethics of popular clothing brands like Canada Geese, and the challenge of balancing ethical choices with trying to fit in as a high school student.

"I was excited to hear the surprising news of the win,” said Hong. “Writing about ethical issues allows us to understand how different perspectives affect a single situation, and this opportunity further deepened my passion for ethics."

The three honorable mentions were a school sweep. All are students from Ann Arbor Huron High School. The winners:

  • Jasmine Xu for her case Sick With Guilt. The case explores what the ethical obligations are for individuals to disclose their travel history amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Lief Lin for his case Reuniting with VR. The case delves into the ethics of virtual reality, examining a case in which a mother is reunited with her deceased daughter through VR technology.
  • Co-authors Matthew Yeh and Jasmine Xu for their case Honor Code Manipulations. The case explores the ethics implicit in school honor codes, which often rely on students to report their peers for breaches, and whether, under any   circumstances, academic dishonesty can be deemed ethical.

For Lin, participating in the competition was an opportunity to dig deeper into how ethics play out in real life.

"I enjoyed researching and analyzing my topic and I thought the experience helped broaden my horizons by introducing me to various ethical dilemmas and how they're viewed by our society,” said Lin. “The experience was rewarding and I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate.”

The four winning cases, and all of the other 2020 entries can be found here.

The annual A2Ethics Case Writing Awards are usually presented at the Michigan High School Ethics Symposium, a yearly event, organized by A2Ethics partner, the U-M Department of Philosophy Outreach program members. The event showcases student talent in philosophy and ethics. The Symposium, based on the companionable gatherings of philosophers of all ages in ancient Athens, is a mix of heady and stimulating exchanges on a range of topics the Symposium-goers introduce at the forum.

This year, the Symposium was cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. There may be an ancient precedent. Late in the 5th century, the city of Athens experienced one of its deadliest plagues. During that time, the number of Symposia most likely would have declined. In the aftermath of the plague, many troubling and profound ethics questions, resulting from the outcome of the plague, may have been examined. So, too, post-pandemic, future Michigan High School Ethics Symposium-goers will pose some unsettling and profound ethics questions, as a result of their own experiences during the coronavirus outbreak.