On Truth-Testing and Comparing Worlds: Theory in LD Debate Part 1


On Truth-Testing and Comparing Worlds: Theory in LD Debate Part 1

By Jeff Liu

The debate over the truth-testing and comparing worlds paradigms has often been presented as an abstract theoretical question that has little practical application in debates. In this article, I hope to dispel this notion by exploring the effects of truth-testing and comparing worlds on plan/counterplan and topicality debates.

Truth-testing and comparing worlds are views about burden distribution. Truth-testing holds that the affirmative must prove the resolution true, and the negative must either prove it false or deny the ability for the affirmative to prove it true.  Alternatively, comparing worlds holds that the affirmative must prove that it would be desirable for the agents given by the topic to act on the resolutional principle, and the negative must prove that it would be undesirable for them to act on that principle (or that it would be more desirable to act on a competitive principle). While arguably not an inherent feature of the comparing worlds structure, judges adopting a comparing worlds paradigm usually assume that the affirmative defends a stable advocacy throughout the entire debate against which the negative can defend an alternative; comparing worlds is often compared to a “policy-making” paradigm.

One issue that obviously seems to hinge on the truth-testing and comparing worlds question is the viability of plans and counterplans. On this year’s January/February resolution, comparing worlds renders the following understanding of the affirmative burden:

It would be desirable for victims to act on the maxim ‘It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.’.

Debaters might argue that comparing worlds justifies plans because in a world where everyone acts as if the resolution were true, a change in laws or policy regarding the justifiability of deadly force would follow as a result. This conclusion does not follow. We might imagine a world in which everyone acts on that principle but no law regarding deadly force is passed. So the most a comparing worlds advocate could argue for would be that victims ought to adopt the resolutional principle as a part of their moral code. To fiat the passage of a law as a result of everyone adopting the resolutional principle would be effects-topical.

Consider two more examples:

1. Truth-testing AC vs. Counterplan. On this year’s November-December topic (Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need), negatives would read counterplans claiming that individuals should donate their money to some charity or group instead. One CP I heard claimed that individuals should donate to NASA’s space exploration program instead of the needy. Affirmatives would reply that these CPs were affirmative ground; the CP merely proved that the poor were not the group in need but did not deny that individuals nonetheless have a moral obligation to assist people in need. This answer is strongly truth-testing in flavor; it assumes that the affirmative must prove the resolution true rather than defend the desirability of doing the AC advocacy. The negative reading the CP assumed a comparing worlds paradigm; he believed the affirmative was defending a stable advocacy, and that the negative burden was to prove the comparative desirability of doing CP over the AC advocacy. Without arguments in favor of truth-testing or comparing worlds, the question of whether CPs affirmed or negated on that topic became irresolvable because the arguments were based on different assumptions.

2.   1AR Interpretational or Advocacy Shifts. On this topic, suppose the affirmative reads a case about domestic abuse and children. The AC contains an argument that says “I will be open to accepting possible negative T interpretations and affirming under that interpretation.” This line of argumentation seems tied to assumptions made by a truth-testing paradigm. Under comparing worlds, that kind of move would be difficult to make given the commonly-held comparing worlds assumption that the affirmative must defend the comparative desirability of doing the advocacy defended in the AC.

A negative, under assumptions held by comparing worlds, could argue that the kind of “I will meet interpretations in the 1AR” argument involves an advocacy shift. Truth-testers would not necessarily view the debate this way because truth-testing involves no default assumption that offense must stem from an advocacy. The question of whether interpretations are presented as “defaults” vs. whether they are “advocated for”—a question that seems to arise from assumptions made by truth-testing and comparing worlds paradigms—might be a significant cause of the uncertainty many of us face when trying to resolve messy T debates.

To be clear, this second point is merely a related issue to the paradigm debate but not necessarily tied to a bare-bones version of comparing worlds. Most comparing worlds advocates, however, seem to also subscribe to some form of policy-making paradigm, which does rule out advocacy shifts in CX and the 1AR, in tandem with bare-bones comparing worlds.

The two above cases are instances in which debaters should argue in favor of one theoretical paradigm or another. A case in which debaters should not initiate this debate is as an offensive reason to vote against a debater running the opposing theoretical paradigm in the AC or NC. Comparing worlds/truth-testing theory should be run only as a reason to access truth-testing/comparing-worlds offense in the debate.

Consider a common interpretation and violation used by debaters running theory against an AC in which arguments are made in favor of a comparing worlds paradigm:

Interpretation: The resolution is a statement of truth, not comparing worlds. The affirmative must prove the resolution true.

Violation: The affirmative claims that the topic is about comparing worlds.

The affirmative cannot violate the first plank of this interpretation because it just frames the distribution of burdens in the debate. It is a claim about “the resolution,” not a rule about what the affirmative may or may not do; put another way, a debater arguing for a comparing worlds paradigm does not violate a truth-testing paradigm. He cannot violate merely by claiming that burdens should be distributed in a certain way. For example, a debater might defend comparing worlds while simultaneously proving the resolution true (any generic utilitarian AC does this).

Suppose that the affirmative even uses comparing worlds theory to exclude skepticism arguments from a debate. This still would not constitute a violation because he might win substantive reasons to exclude skepticism in addition to theoretical arguments. The affirmative meets because he might prove the resolution true in addition to running comparing worlds theory to exclude skepticism.  The affirmative does not violate unless he literally fails to prove the resolution true—that is, if the negative wins the debate under a truth-testing paradigm.

The most a negative debater could get out of running such a theory argument is access to the skepticism/truth-testing arguments.  Running the theory as a reason to vote would be un-strategic and redundant because to win theory requires winning the debate under truth-testing in order to prove a violation in the first place. Winning the standards of the theory shell would allow the negative to access his skepticism arguments; winning skepticism would prove the violation on theory, but the violation would no longer be needed because the debate would have already been won via skepticism.

If my arguments are valid, then the paradigmatic debate over truth-testing and comparing worlds may be more significant than most of us believe. Judges should adopt a pre-set default on truth-testing and comparing worlds so that they have a transparent explanation for how they resolve debates in which the issue matters but is not mentioned by the debaters, and debaters absolutely must make a greater effort to resolve the issue when relevant so that judges do not have to “intervene” in order to make coherent decisions.

  • paulstrait

    In example 1, it seems to me like the aff wins either way — if
    truth-testing, the Neg’s advocacy is topical and thus proves the
    resolution true; if comparing worlds, the Neg’s advocacy is not
    competitive because there is no disadvantage to the permutation to do
    both. But my knowledge of LD is second-hand so I may be
    misunderstanding a premise.

  • I don’t think there are many strong arguments for preferring one paradigm over the other exclusively, so I think digressing into a theory debate may be less advantageous than some believe. There are lots of good reasons for both kinds of debates—debating the theoretical legitimacy of each preference will probably be a pretty inconclusive endeavor.

    I don’t see why the AC shouldn’t just be allowed to choose a paradigm. If the 1AC is an advocacy and describes a desirable world, the 1N can runs CPs and all that good stuff. If the 1AC adopts a truth-testing position, I don’t see why the 1N would freak out and run theory just so that they can run a CP. That would be horrible for 1ACs that hadn’t already spent 6 minutes defending a plan. Now, they have to win a theory debate to access any of the 1AC’s offense (a typical scene today, unfortunately). Besides, if the 1AC truth-tests, the 1N has access to TONS of new ground. 

    I don’t think this is a reason for theory. I think it’s just a reason negative debaters should be prepared to negate along two axes: (1) that the 1AC’s world is worse than the 1NCs or (2) that the topic is more likely false than true. Shouldn’t be too hard to have very successful strats along both lines on any topic.

    • Anonymous

      I think affs should get to choose whatever framework they want to. If the 1AC adopts consequentialism as their standard, I don’t see why the 1N would freak out and run deontology. That would be horrible for 1ACs that hadn’t already spent 6 minutes defending consequentialism. Now, they have to win a framework debate to access any of the 1AC’s offense (a typical scene today, unfortunately). Besides, if the 1AC runs consequentialism, the 1N has access to TONS of new ground.

  • Rebar Niemi

    i definitely agree that the interpretation you talk about is hella lame. right now people be making sum bad thry args. personally, i think that there are ways to unite both truth testing and comparing worlds in the same paradigm. the best idea for burden structure i’ve heard in ld is affirmative defends the world in which people believe/endorse the resolution to be true/as true, negative in which they do not believe the resolution to be true/do not endorse it. Both truth value and desirability can factor into reasons to endorse or not endorse a maxim, maxims can lead to action or not (allowing both types of positions to comparably coexist) and there can be alternate courses of action or unacceptable side constraints. what this means is that both truth value and desirability can coexist under a paradigm that is a. inclusive and b. more reflective of how people come to endorse maxims/actions in the real world. it’s a combination of what seems true and what seems desirable. i personally prefer a comparative perspective these days, but ultimately i feel the burden is on debaters to defeat skep and weigh their claims against the skeptical claims. i am also very happy to listen to that theory debate. so i don’t think judges necessarily have to choose. i think there are rounds where the debates become truth testing even though no one makes a truth testing argument. the truth testing debate is being won by one side but some meaningless advantage is being won by the other but they are losing the truth debate. do you resolve in favor of advantages even when both debaters tacitly agree to truth testing as the 1st layer of the debate?

    truths are contingent. they have weighable values that can be compared to other truths. i feel that i have transparent explanations for my decisions and based on the round satisfy any concern of a debater or coach. i definitely agree debaters should resolve this issue for judges more so than put it in a judges hand. this is partly why i feel it would be inappropriate to come down stringently on one side or the other. 

  • “Affirmatives would reply that these CPs were affirmative ground; the CP merely proved that the poor were not the group in need but did not deny that individuals nonetheless have a moral obligation to assist people in need. This answer is strongly truth-testing in flavor; it assumes that the affirmative must prove the resolution true rather than defend the desirability of doing the AC advocacy. The negative reading the CP assumed a comparing worlds paradigm; he believed the affirmative was defending a stable advocacy, and that the negative burden was to prove the comparative desirability of doing CP over the AC advocacy.”
    It’s important to emphasize that it’s not enough for the neg in this situation to advocate competing worlds. According to comparing worlds, we should evaluate the resolution according to whether it would be desirable for individuals to act on the maxim “Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need,” and these CPs don’t deny that it would be desirable for them to do so. The neg would have to justify the extra interpretation that the aff must defend a stable advocacy through the entire debate (and Jeff, you acknowledge this when you say this second interpretation is arguably not an inherent part of comparing worlds).

    Even that is not enough in most LD rounds, though (i.e., in rounds where the aff doesn’t run a plan). If the aff is advocating the resolution as a whole, then it’s very strange for the neg to run a topical CP. (It’s obviously irrelevant what the aff did in the AC contentions, since the aff’s choice of offense does not define ground.) In these cases, anything topical seems to be clearly aff ground.

  • I agree with Jeff’s view. One minor question: does anyone still defend the plain-vanilla CW view? I ask because, as the name implies, CW assumes that we are comparing *worlds* — i.e., outcomes, states of affairs — and I don’t think most of us want to preclude deontological considerations that do not derive their importance from the goodness of outcomes. What seems to unify non-truth-testers is twofold: (1) comparative burdens, and (2) replacing truth with something normative. Non-truth-testers seem to agree that both debaters have to advocate or endorse something. Then there is the question of what the default advocacy is for the affirmative and its relationship to the resolution, which (as Jeff notes) is a separate issue. 

  • “Debaters might argue that comparing worlds justifies plans because in a world where everyone acts as if the resolution were true, a change in laws or policy regarding the justifiability of deadly force would follow as a result. This conclusion does not follow. We might imagine a world in which everyone acts on that principle but no law regarding deadly force is passed. So the most a comparing worlds advocate could argue for would be that victims ought to adopt the resolutional principle as a part of their moral code. To fiat the passage of a law as a result of everyone adopting the resolutional principle would be effects-topical.”

    This paragraph is misleading. You are right that such a law would not inevitably follow from the widespread adoption of the resolutional maxim, and that it would be extratopical (not effects topical) for the affirmative to fiat the adoption of such a law. However, the affirmative would have a pretty good argument that if we were to adopt this maxim, it would be likely that society or the government would adopt such a law. This is a garden-variety solvency argument. It would be pretty easy to support, and I cannot think of a reason why it would be theoretically illegitimate.

    • Your point about extra-topicality vs. fx topicality is a fussy one, but could you maybe elaborate? My understanding of extra-topicality is that an aff is extra-topical if the plan involves planks that are not part of the resolution; e.g. on the sanctions topic, a plan claiming to implement a nuclear weapons free zone in Northeast Asia would involve negative security assurances in addition to sanctions. That plan is extra-topical.  My understanding of fx topicality is that the plan affirms the resolution but only as a result of a number of internal links being achieved. That seems to be the more apt description here. The affirmative’s plan is to pass a law, and that happens as a result of internal links involving everyone adopting a moral rule. So, if my understanding is correct (and I’m not sure that it is), then that legal aff would be fx topical, not extra-topical, right? Or, it might be both extra-topical and fx-topical because it includes passing a law in addition to everyone adopting a moral rule.

      Regardless, I certainly don’t think my argument here is misleading. To be clear, I agree that the aff can argue that an impact of affirming involves the passage of a law, and nothing about either truth-testing or comparing worlds would preclude the aff from reading solvency arguments for that impact. But that still would not justify plans, which is the claim I am defending. You can have solvency arguments for impacts, but that’s not the same as saying you can fiat some impact as part of your plan text via an argument for comparing worlds.

      • I agree that CW does not inevitably or necessarily entail that running a plan is theoretically legitimate (it is firmly agnostic on that question, and one would need to defend the theoretical legitimacy of running a plan by reference to other arguments about clash, division of ground, real-world education, etc.). I also agree that given how LD resolutions are worded, it would be extratopical to read a plan, and the aff would have to say “yes, but this is still OK because . . . “. I think we are mostly on the same page.

        One clarification: your reference to “fiating an impact” is confusing. One does not  fiat an impact, and there is no coherent theory of debate in which doing so is OK.    One can fiat that the resolutional agent of action enact a certain plan, but then you would need to make solvency arguments about why that plan would lead to that impact if enacted. Again, the larger point is that comparing worlds involves predictive claims about what people would do and what would happen as a result, and that these claims are inevitable under a CW framework whether or not we believe that the affirmative should read a plan. 

        • It seems to me that under a CW paradigm, you would indeed “fiat impacts” since you evaluate the round based on their relative desirability. Saying that you fiat an impact is essentially a shorthand of saying that “in the world of fiat, X impact occurs”

          • That’s not what it means at all, and posts like yours are what happens when policy concepts get lost in translation. Fiat just means that the plan happens, or, in LD, that individuals actually do act upon the resolutional maxim. The question of what impacts would result from this requires you to make an additional predictive claim (usually a solvency argument). 

          • There is literally no difference between what your post says and what mine does in terms of the definition of fiat and is not, as you say, a bastardization of policy concepts. Posts like yours are what happens when people are too quick to criticize.

            The exact phrase I used “In the world of fiat, X impact occurs” is another way of saying, as you seem to, “When whatever the AC advocates happens (e.g. the plan passes, individuals act on the resolution etc) then X impact occurs as a result of the advocacy happening.” The way I phrased in simply bypassed the longer explanation but all the elements you mention are still there.

            Advocacy Y happens, which, based on predictive claim Z, causes impact X. 

    • Anonymous

      I concur. FX-T assumes that the part of the aff that makes the plan topical is the effect. If the aff advocates that society should accept the permissibility of deadly force, then they’re topical in a vaccuum and can claim governmental spillover as a plausible advantage. If the aff only fiats governmental change, then they’re just not topical.

      I think a better objection to make is that the aff can only fiat a hypothetical victim adopting the maxim of the resolution, not everyone in society.

  • Anonymous

    Truly riveting Mr. Liu, your understanding of these issues is unmatched. We would all do well to read this masterpiece.