NSD Update ‘State of Debate’ Round Table, Part II

Ari: A frenetic weekend of tournament results and adorable prom asks (she said yes!) may have overshadowed NSD Update’s Part I ‘State of Debate’ Round Table on current trends in Lincoln-Douglas debate, so you should read Friday’s post if you haven’t already. Part II features the same group of discussants: Eric Palmer, Larry Liu, Emily Massey, and Jeff Liu.

Part III’s Round Table will feature a couple additional participants selected from the most thoughtful coach-submitted feedback. Comment away!

3. Some have argued that positions that shift debate away from the empirical dimensions of the topic, such as moral skepticism positions and arguably some framework-oriented positions, undermine the educational value of debate. Should all rounds be about the empirical dimensions of the topic, or should debaters be able to shift the debate in another direction if they choose to do so?

Eric: Undoubtedly, debate about the empirical dimensions of the topic is of great significance. But I see nothing wrong with a debater choosing to turn the round into a question about the truth of moral judgments as such. There is considerable value in educating students about this issue, I think, since dealing with the threat of moral skepticism helps one to develop one’s understanding of the foundations of morality (the view in question should really be called “moral nihilism” and not “moral skepticism” since skepticism usually implies a kind of epistemological worry, while error theoretic arguments typically argue that moral judgments are systematically false, not merely unknowable). Skeptical arguments also have a kind of indirect value, because consideration of those arguments can affect our ultimate choice of moral theory. There is some reason to think that Kantian and otherwise constitutivist views in meta-ethics are better placed to avert the threat of moral skepticism, and such views tend to support more or less deontological views at the level of normative ethics. So working through the problems posed by skeptical arguments might lead debaters to better substantive views in ethics.

That said, I think the way moral skepticism is run in debate rounds is generally abusive. A skeptical position in effect imposes a necessary but insufficient burden on the affirmative, but this problem can be remedied if the negative debater only goes for the skepticism position, and concedes the substance of the affirmative case (with the exception of framework arguments that directly bear on the truth of the skeptical position). If the negative debater does this, the abusive effects of the skeptical position are muted: winning defense on the position is sufficient for the affirmative debater to win the round, so the skeptical position becomes functionally sufficient.

Emily: One of the best things about debate is that there are hardly any prescribed rules. Nothing else, in high school or beyond, offers so much opportunity for intellectual creativity. (Perhaps this is why so many great debaters are not straight-A students.) So fundamentally, I oppose limiting the arguments debaters can make. Moralizing about arguments makes debate a lot more like school and a lot less fun.

For another thing, different people are drawn to different types of arguments. Some find empirical questions uninteresting but love philosophy – don’t we want them to debate, too?

Moreover, the reliance on argument in debate is what gives it intellectual value. Debate teaches that argument is the only way to justify one’s views. Deeming certain issues beyond question runs counter to this basic idea. So if you think nihilism is false or certain philosophical questions are irrelevant to debate about the resolution, then you must be able to justify that.

Finally, there’s already an activity devoted to considering the empirical dimensions of topics: policy debate. I see no need to make LD into “short policy.” Sure, LDers can make policy-type arguments, but why restrict them to those kinds of arguments?

Larry: There’s obviously a place for both empirical and philosophical argument. Some philosophical positions and empirical positions are more plausible than others and some arguments also carry more strategic value than others; what arguments should be run shouldn’t be determined by dogmatism but rather by a combination of argument quality and strategic value.

Jeff: I think as coaches we should encourage debaters to be open-minded and versatile. We should discourage dogmatism of any kind, whether that’s close-mindedness to learning about the empirical dimensions of the topic or close-mindedness to learning about philosophy. Both aspects help debaters become well-rounded, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and open-minded people, and those seem to be the traits that an activity based on argument should promote.

4. Another common refrain in the present day LD community is that philosophical positions detract from the educational mission of debate, which, according to this position, is supposed to be to mold debaters into informed citizens, and the kind of people who might someday be policymakers. Is this right?

Eric: I find this argument suspect. If “molding students into informed citizens and potential policymakers” means forcing them to think about moral issues through the jaundiced lens of consequentialism, then I want no part in it. I would not really feel comfortable with an activity that was somehow premised on turning students into worse people. My hope is that LD, insofar as it is premised on the examination of questions of a distinctively ethical character, should do something to make help make students into better people per se, and not just people who are well-suited to occupy positions of political consequence. And I would hope that students who do end up holding various roles in government bring with them the right sort of values, and so I would hope, ideally, that they had thought through some abstract moral considerations that might bring them to the right sorts of views (this assuming that they are not already persons of virtue, in which case I do not know that abstract reflection will benefit them).

The notion that the style of debate we have inherited from policy is somehow more true to the “real world” and actual policy making strikes me as dubious. Real policymakers do not suppose that their primary task in all instances is to consider the likelihood that their actions could lead to human annihilation, since there are not very many political decisions that are more than tangentially connected with this kind of outcome. And real policymakers are not, as a general rule, concerned with what Heidegger, Foucault, or any other so-called “critical” author has to say about the issues they consider.

I should also note that the assumption that policy making is distinctively consequentialist seems to me to be wildly mistaken. Hiroshima excepted, we do not commonly think that the slaughter of the innocent in war is justified, even where more lives might be saved. Our understanding of the laws of war seems to better accord with something like the Doctrine of Double Effect than anything else. We also generally take it for granted that persons enjoy fundamental human rights, and that these rights constrain the formation of policy (again, excepting some unfortunate cases like the Bush administration’s endorsement of torture), and we accept that forms of discrimination like racism and sexism are unequivocally wrong, regardless of the consequences. One might think that these dimensions of ordinary political thinking can be accommodated by rule consequentialism, and that may be true in many cases, but it still stands to reason that there are people in politics who do not accept propositions of this kind simply because of the desirable consequences associated with the adoption of a rule. Many suppose, I would think, that racism is wrong in itself, and not just because of the benefits of avoiding the additional social costs imposed by racial discrimination. John McCain’s opposition to torture, to cite one more prominent example, seems premised primarily on principle, not consequences.

Beyond this, I’ve always thought the idea that the purpose of debate is to produce people suited for political life was presumptuous. Why do my students need to aspire to a government post? Why can’t they be doctors, philosophers, or artists? And if they are entitled to choose that kind of career, why shouldn’t there be room in debate for the consideration of issues that might be of importance to them? A doctor plausibly needs to be equipped with some understanding of non-consequentialist ethics since we do, after all, care about things like patient consent, and we do not, after all, murder the innocent in order to redistribute their organs to the needy.

The use of theory arguments and paradigmatic choices to discourage non-consequentialist or otherwise philosophical arguments has always struck me as stemming from a kind of anti-intellectual prejudice. If you want to make consequentialist arguments of the sort favored in policy debate, then why not defend consequentialism, or at least try to link your arguments into the framework proposed by your opponent, e.g. by pointing out that Kantian ethics supports positive obligations and then winning defense on your opponent’s arguments alleging violations of the basic duties of justice? If you really believe that we ought to evaluate moral and political questions from that kind of standpoint, then why not try to defend it?

Emily: Agreed. I would add that many of the biggest debates in politics seem to be philosophical disagreements about the role of government: Is gay marriage the province of civil authority? Does a mandate to purchase health care infringe on personal liberty? If we care primarily about preparing students to go into politics (though, like Eric, I don’t see why we should), we should encourage philosophical debate. You don’t learn how to debate the role of government by taking the truth of one side for granted in every round.

Larry: The underlying assumption in this argument, and an argument also commonly made in round, seems faulty. I think the value from debate stems not from the fact that we are learning to mimic policymaking or that we will eventually major in philosophy or political science or go to law school, or any other predictive claim of that sort, but rather from the skills that it teaches us.

Debate is a great activity because it allows us to meet and interact with different people from all around the country. It’s a great activity because it teaches us research skills, discipline and integrity in academia, and organization. It teaches us how to think on our feet, to present results in front of an audience, and most importantly, to be confident and successful human beings. What is great about debate is completely and utterly divorced from the content of the arguments themselves.

Jeff: I am not sure anyone really thinks that philosophical positions, just by the fact that they are philosophical, detract from the educational mission of debate. I’ve often heard people say things like “I really hate that no one EVER talks about the topic” or “these framework debates are killing real debate!” But when pushed on those views, I think most of those people take a more reasonable line. They don’t hate philosophy debate per se or think that everyone who does debate should go into politics. Really, I think they are just expressing frustration regarding the number of bad, recycled arguments that are often found in today’s framework debates; I imagine that those same people find bad empirical debate to be almost equally frustrating. Both kinds of debate are educational, because they both help debaters become more well-informed and open-minded, which are traits that serve people well in any career choice.

Many thanks to our discussants in Parts I and II:

Eric Palmer coaches at Walt Whitman and is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He has coached a dozen debaters to elimination rounds at the Tournament of Champions, including a TOC champion.

Jeff Liu coaches at La Jolla. He is a former TOC champion and studies engineering and philosophy at Auburn University.

Larry Liu is a prolific national-circuit coach and former TOC champion. He studies engineering and economics at Auburn University.

Emily Massey is an assistant coach at Scarsdale. She attends Yale University, where she studies philosophy.

Full profiles of today’s discussants can be found at http://nsdebate.org/faculty/