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St Andrews hosts pioneering ethics debates

Students from across the country will take part in the annual John Stuart Mill Cup, a unique debating tournament in which school teams discuss ethical issues of public concern, at the University of St Andrews this summer (Thursday 6 June).

Hosted by the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs (CEPPA) at the University, the John Stuart Mill Cup is a unique event where students demonstrate their abilities to discuss issues in a thoughtful and constructive way, counter-acting current trends around toxic public discourse.

Unlike traditional student debates, the John Stuart Mill Cup isn’t won by proving the opposing side wrong, rather, it is a collaborative discussion. The team that best displays the virtues of insightfulness, thoughtfulness and civility takes home the ultimate prize, the Cup itself.

The debates will focus on a wide range of cases from drones and cakes to environmental activism and pugs.

Open to high school students across the country, S4 to S6 (Scotland) or years 10 to 13 (England and Wales), the Cup promotes interest in philosophy among secondary school students and civil discourse on issues of public concern.

The Cup, named after former Rector of the University of St Andrews, John Stuart Mill in recognition of his role in promoting this vision of open and vibrant public discourse, will see 60 students compete from across the country.

Mill was a 19th-century British philosopher, economist, public intellectual and parliamentarian. He was anti-slavery and a radical, for his time, on issues of women’s rights and democracy. His 1859 work, On Liberty, has stood the test of time as one of the most stirring calls for robust protection of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, ever produced.

Dr Ben Sachs, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University and founder of the John Stuart Mill Cup, said: “The John Stuart Mill Cup is a unique opportunity for students and rewards not the ability to win an argument but rather the ability to thoughtfully advance debates on ethical issues of public concern.

“The Cup is founded on three fundamental tenets – in a multicultural democracy disagreement about important moral issues is inevitable; members of the public should not shy away from expressing, in the public forum, their convictions on these issues; as a society we could make quicker progress toward reaching mutually acceptable resolutions of these disagreements, without creating resentment and hostility as a side effect, if more entrants in the public debate made use of the philosophers’ toolkit and the attention to logic and fallacy avoidance, the back-and-forth cycle of argument-counter argument-revision, the principle of interpreting one’s speaker’s position as charitably as possible.”

Laura Crichton, Head of Personal and Social Education, Stewart’s Melville College, Edinburgh, who attended with a delegation of pupils for the inaugural John Stuart Mill Cup in 2018, said: “So often in education now we are really just teaching formula, pupils are expected to memorise and just follow a set structure. Education has become how to secure an ‘A’ grade rather than really embracing ideas or genuine discourse. I particularly enjoyed the questioning section of each match and seeing my pupils really think and test their ideas. I loved the concept that disagreement wasn’t an aggressive thing, or a reason to ‘dig in’ but rather an opportunity to develop thought. The absence of pre-written material really meant that they were engaging with the idea of the moment. Preparation this year was also fun as we discussed a range of issues far beyond the realms of our set syllabus.”

The Cup is modelled after the National High School Ethics Bowl in the USA.

The Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs (CEPPA) is a leading research centre of academic expertise in ethics, social and political philosophy and the philosophical dimensions of public affairs.

The John Stuart Mill Cup takes place in the United College, St Salvator’s Quad on Thursday 6 June from noon and is open to members of the public to attend.


Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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