Carefully Balancing Caution and Creativity: The Winners of the 2021 Aristotle Contest

Published: November 17, 2021

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Every year in the late summer, a special kind of excitement hovers over the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto—it’s when the time has come to read the submissions to the annual Aristotle Contest, a Canada-wide high school philosophy essay-writing competition co-sponsored by the department and the Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association (OPTA).

Another exceptional crop of young philosophers tested their intellectual and creative mettle in 2021, debating on paper their choice of topic: equitable vaccine distribution, the rationality of disagreement, or the ethics of killing animals for food. From a competitive field of contenders, Alyssa Li (University of Toronto Schools, Toronto), Maisy Elspeth (Leaside High School, East York), and Wilson Li (William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute, North York) emerged as the three top-rated essayists, with Sarah Youssef (Port Moody Secondary School, Port Moody, British Columbia) and Jessica Oh (St. Elizabeth Catholic High School, Thornhill) winning honourable mentions for their work.

Jim John, the Department of Philosophy’s director of undergraduate studies and the Aristotle Contest’s principal coordinator, praised the submissions’ general thoughtfulness and vibrant engagement with the complex topics under discussion. “It’s a testament to the students, teachers, parents, and other mentors that even last year—in the midst of a global pandemic that shut down schools and left everyone longing to get away from screens and computers—we had a bumper crop of terrific submissions,” he said.

First Prize: Alyssa Li

Alyssa Li’s “Beyond Borders: A Global Vaccine Solution,” which the adjudicating committee deemed the best essay of the 2021 competition, impressed with its philosophical sophistication wrapped in beautiful prose. By way of John Rawls and other political philosophers, the essay mounts and then skillfully defends the claim that those most at risk from COVID-19 in low-income countries should be vaccinated first, with wealthy countries providing whatever it takes to make that happen.

Alyssa, an avid debater and ethics enthusiast at her high school (as well as a dancer and cat lover), credits the Aristotle Contest and its prompts for sending her in the direction of Rawls and his The Law of Peoples (1993). She cherished the opportunity to consider with creative freedom “moral dilemmas that are relevant to real-life events today,” along the way discovering philosophy’s multi-faceted nature and its presence, in some way, in everything. “Philosophy is truly everywhere—not only in Aristotle’s works, but in every corner of our society today,” she realized.

She appreciated the intellectual challenge of digging deep into thorny questions of ethics and morality—but also found it difficult. “Starting the first sentence” was the hardest, she says, trying to decide how to approach and untangle a topic of great complexity. Considering possible counter-arguments to her view helped her clarify her thoughts. And beautifully so—John considers her essay one of the best ever submitted to the Aristotle Contest.

Second Prize: Maisy Elspeth

Second-placed Maisy Elspeth, now a student in the Joint Honours Program in Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, thrilled at the opportunity to further investigate a topic she has been passionate about for years: animal rights. Her “Veganism as a Moral Imperative” probes Peter Singer’s notion of speciesism to advance a subtle argument about the moral status of nonhuman animals, which, she claims, makes killing them for food ethically unjustifiable.

Maisy’s profound and longtime engagement with her subject matter proved both a resource and a challenge: “I found it most difficult to decide how to format my essay and cut down the word count,” she admits. Finding she did not have room “to say it all” made her repeatedly reconsider and hone her key points. In the end, she not only felt happy with what she produced but also realized that she wanted to write more about bioethical issues in general.

Another insight: “I learned that the 2021 heatwave in British Columbia was not the optimal environment for essay writing. I’m half-joking, but I did write the majority of my piece on the floor of my basement because it was the coolest place,” she laughs.

Third Prize: Wilson Li

In his “Rationality of an Open Mind,” third-prize winner Wilson Li tackled the politics of disagreement. While many people pay lip service to the value of considering the arguments of those with whom one disagrees, Wilson’s work advances a fresh argument for intellectual open-mindedness. Given the essay’s content, the judges especially noted the care with which its author addressed possible objections to his ideas.

Wilson enjoyed “putting my philosophical abilities to the test against my peers,” he says, but also struggled with reaching out for feedback after his first draft. Trusting others academically was simply not something he was accustomed to. But he decided to enter into dialogue despite his trepidation—and it paid off.

Now Wilson, currently a first-year student at Western University, recommends asking for help. He advises his essay-composing peers: “Maintain a careful balance between caution and creativity, learn from both the mistakes and the successes of those who came before you, and don’t be afraid to reach out for assistance.”

Honourable Mentions: Sarah Youssef and Jessica Oh

The two writers with honourable mentions, Sarah Youssef for “A Case against Cruelty” and Jessica Oh for “Money Should Not Factor in Vaccine Distribution,” both still high school students, agree with their peers: working on their Aristotle Contest essays strengthened not only their writing and time-management skills but also encouraged them to delve with greater subtlety into topics about which they thought they had firm ideas. And, to their delight, that proved fun and invigorating!

Once again, the results of the Aristotle Contest make clear: philosophy’s future is bright!

A special thanks for making it possible goes to the teachers, parents, and other mentors who provided guidance and encouragement to the writers as they crafted their submissions. And of course to the hard-working judges from the Department of Philosophy and OPTA.


By Petra Dreiser