Recent Ethics Debate Regionals: A Look Into a Winning Case

Sutton Caba-Bodie ’24
EE Student Activities Reporter

As the name suggests, the annual Ethics Bowl is a competition of wit, critical thinking, and consideration of how ethics and morality can be argued in different situations.

Ethics debate teams from high schools across Connecticut (such as Masuk, Choate, Hotchkiss, Torrington, Hopkins, Wilcox Technical, and Xavier High) attend and have their skills put to the test by judges, but also by other teams.

Teams face off in six rounds. In each round, a case is presented and both teams take turns to defend their argument, and then are asked questions from the judges and the opposing team and receive constructive criticisms.

The Trumbull High School team faced off against Masuk, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Hotchkiss School. They covered several intriguing cases such as what moral consideration A.I. should deserve if they become sentient, the effect of the Russian and Ukrainian war, when it is morally permissible to ban a book from a school or public library, and the rights of highly intelligent animals. 

When I met with the team, they spoke highly of each other and how their ability to work together and build off of each other helped make them a strong, united force within the debates. In addition, they participated well during debates and when posing questions to other teams. They also defended their positions and demonstrated professionalism.

Their winning case was Happy to Be Alone, a case surrounding a top New York court case about the alleged mistreatment of one of the few elephants in the Bronx Zoo, Happy.

As many of the chosen cases are, Happy to Be Alone is based on a recent issue. In 2022, animal-advocacy groups had sued the zoo claiming that Happy was being held illegally (as elephants are proven to be extremely intelligent animals) and created popular petitions that called for her transfer to a large elephant sanctuary. In addition, the fact that Happy had been held in isolation from other elephants for 10 years only added fuel to the fire. The case explored the question of whether she had the right of habeas corpus, “a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained”.

Our team explored the following questions in an ethical aspect: does the ruling that Happy cannot claim habeas corpus rights (and therefore, is not a legal person) mean that she is not a morally considerable person, what are the moral implication of regarding some or all non-human animals as persons, and are there ways to ensure the well-being of animals other than by granting them personhood status?

*The following is a concise outline of their arguments for this case.

Question 1: Does the ruling that Happy cannot claim habeas corpus rights (and there, is not a legal person) mean that she is not a morally considerable person?

The team took the stance that while Happy should not be considered a morally considerable person, that is not necessarily because of the court’s ruling (“that she is not a person, in a legal sense, and therefore not entitled to a fundamental human right”). They highlighted key differences between law and ethics in the sense that law typically aims to provide blanket situations, whereas ethics is more subjective and circumstantial. What’s more, they deemed that a person is someone who has a personality and complex social interactions and how personhood defines certain rights based on emotions and the ability to understand and interact with the world around you; these actions are not limited to humans but we do tend to exhibit these qualities. They came to the conclusion that while Happy cannot be considered a person, moral consideration is a spectrum that does not only apply to humans. 

Like all creatures, Happy is still affected by the actions of others and in turn, others are affected by her actions, therefore making her morally considerable. In addition, elephants are proven to be one of the most intelligent animals on the planet; they have demonstrated the ability of self-awareness, to mourn their dead, use tools, mimic human voices, an incredible ability to remember experiences/memories, and show empathy. But unlike humans, animals, including elephants, do not have the capacity to reflect on their actions and consequently do not have the full abilities to exercise human rights.

Question 2: What are the moral implications of regarding some or all non-human animals as persons?

Considering factors such as the full extent of habeas corpus in relation to moral considerations, personhood, why personhood warrants different treatment, governmental and societal responsibilities, and the complications that would arise if we did, the team came to the conclusion that considering an animal as a person would warrant giving them the same rights as humans. 

As covered previously, habeas corpus rights focus solely on humans and the key components of being human, like the ability to reflect on your actions, having a personality, complex social interactions and the ability to understand and interact with the world around you. 

In addition, the team introduced why personhood warrants different treatment. Personhood implies that the human, or in this case animal, could be aware of how they treat others and the consequences of their actions. Along with that, being considered a human comes along with governmental responsibility and the ability to protect your rights, such as the right to vote, to education, to work, and more. Lastly, by considering all animals human under habeas corpus, it would imply that they must be granted all rights under that legal principle, causing issues in the fact that they are unable to fight for their rights, the system for certain individuals is extremely complicated (children are seen as people by the law; jailed persons are not given the same rights), humans are legally responsible for the welfare of animals raised in human care, and in all, while many may exhibit human-like behaviors, they all have major behavioral differences.  

Question 3: Are there ways to ensure the well-being of animals other than by granting them personhood status?

The team concluded that yes, there are a number of ways to ensure an animal’s wellbeing. Among these is personhood status, but they do not need to be considered as people in order to have their well-being protected. They covered topics such as what issues do animals face that endanger them, difficulties with determining what is best for them due to them not being able to fully communicate, legal vs moral personhood, and ways to protect animals without giving them legal personhood.

When addressing factors that endanger animals, they delved into how there is a necessity for the government to help protect certain animals’ well-being and their rights when it comes to consequences that humans are responsible for, such as poaching. In fact, there are ways we already do so, for instance animal rights laws. However, the team  pointed out that it is not always easy to know what is best for their well-being due to the fact that they cannot communicate, and that is why it is best to base our treatment of them and how to protect them on science and what would benefit them the most. And while Happy, other elephants, and many animals do check some of the qualities of what defines personhood, like empathy and being sentient, they do not fit all of them, creating certain issues if we were to consider them as legal human beings. In addition, the team highlighted differences between legal and moral personhood in terms of rights, laws, and the government’s responsibilities towards a legal person. But regardless of the law, everyone still has a moral responsibility to do the right thing and not harm an animal. 

Trumbull High’s Ethical Debate team’s case of Happy to Be Alone demonstrated critical and rigorous thinking, careful planning, teamwork, awareness of complications, and an appreciation for multiple points of view. They continue to prepare for future competitions and to reach out to the community. They aspire to reach out to other Ethics teams around Connecticut to bring communities closer together and start up new activities such as public speaking games, ethical workshops, board games, and more. They are excited to continue to expand the club and encourage anyone with a passion or curiosity for ethics and/or debate to attend a meeting and get a feeling of what the club could hold for them in the future.

Once again, congrats to our Ethical Debate team, We can’t wait to see what they do next!


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