21st Century Sophism (and its antidote)
The Sophists. We know them as the infamous hucksters of rhetoric in Ancient Greece. For the right price, they could teach you how to manipulate words so that anything would sound good. The trouble with them–at least according to Plato–is that they weren’t concerned with what is just. Better to be convincing than truthful.
The Sophists would love the bicker-fests on modern-day cable television news. They would love listening to how today’s politicians shape sound bites so that the truth is no longer recognizable. And, perhaps, they would also love the high school speech and debate programs that supply our democracy with those talking heads and Members of Congress.
Yes, I’m making a dramatic link between speech and debate programs and the morass of intellectual dishonesty in our political communication. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic, but consider this: what if, instead of rewarding students simply for making convincing arguments, we rewarded students for the quality of their ethical reasoning? What if, instead of rewarding them for understanding how to line up as many facts as possible on one side of an argument, we rewarded them for understanding deeply the many facets of a difficult question? What if our speech and debate programs drew inspiration from Socrates rather than the Sophists?
Is it possible that training bright young minds to think this way could change the world?
This is the idea behind a new concept that is spreading across the country: the Ethics Bowl. Well-known on many college campuses, the idea is trickling down to the high school level with help from The Squire Family Foundation (co-sponsor of this blog) and others. Ethics Bowls are a compelling and competitive way to incentivize students to hone ethical reasoning skills. Using ethical challenges taken from current events headlines around the world, small teams of students display their abilities, critique opposing team’s presentations, and gain important feedback from judges. The process is challenging, requiring a mix of preparation and think-on-your-feet responses, and also more collaborative–the goal is not proving the other team wrong, but proving that your understanding is more nuanced and comprehensive. It’s also terrific fun and tremendously satisfying.
And it gives me, for one, great hope for the future.
For resources on starting your own Ethics Bowl team, click here.
The first annual National Ethics Bowl will be held in North Carolina at the UNC Parr Center for Ethics this spring.
P.S. Some people think Plato and company gave the Sophists a bad rap. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says “While relativism, particularly in the area of morality, is popularly seen as characteristic of sophists generally (see Bett 1989), in fact Protagoras is the only sophist to whom ancient sources ascribe relativistic views, and even in his case the evidence is ambiguous.”