Breaking Down Borders: Rethinking the Interaction Between Theory and Ethics

Article by Ben Koh

At its core, Lincoln Douglas Debate answers the question of “what is ethics,” with the question of “are you ethical” being secondary- a framework must be established before substantive offense can be won. It is under this assumption that it’s puzzling that this line of argumentation could occur.

NC: Reads skepticism

1AR: Reads Skep bad theory with a voter of fairness

NR: Amongst other things, argues that skepticism takes out theory because skepticism means there is no such thing as normativity, therefore fairness is irrelevant.

2AR: Argues that skepticism cannot take out theory due to theory and substance being on different planes.

I will not attempt to justify the actual truth of these claims, nor if skepticism would deny the basic assumptions of theory, but rather that the category of ethical argumentation on the theory debate should be explored. The aforementioned scenario takes a misstep in glancing over two inherent aspects of fairness.

First: Fairness is at its basis is an ethical concept. For instance at its basis, fairness as Rawls explains is, “a number of persons engage in a mutually advantageous cooperative venture according to certain rules and thus voluntarily restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to a similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission.” That is to say, the basis of fairness rises from benefiting from cooperation. In the debate context, the “benefit” as Rawls refers to could be the actual ability to debate, or speaking without interference etc. In the same way that it’s considered immoral under most ethical systems to take without recompense, fairness is relevant due to it being the “recompense.” Additionally, equality’s importance is as a moral concept. The utterance that we ought to both start with the same amount of speaking time is morally relevant for it guides or at least constrains our actions, or the rightness and wrongness thereof (i.e. if I go a minute longer in the NR, I would usually be dropped or at least penalized due to its wrongness).

Second, Fairness is normative: A) The idea that there is a consequence to a certain unfair act implies its relevance to our action.  Debaters generally don’t read theory just because they wanted to point out something interesting or amusing, they do so to win or to rid the round of the problematic argument. B) The voluntary concession of the basic rules for the round renders fairness as being “obligatory.” Loland explains, “the obligation of fairness does not arise unconditionally. One basic premise is that the parties are voluntarily engaged. They have chosen participation in favor of nonparticipation and have thus more or less tacitly agreed to follow the commonly accepted rules and norms of the practice play the game. Loland further explains that “in sporting games, the predominant distributive norm is meritocratic. The norm on equal tratemnt, then, becomes a necessary condition for a game to take place. To be able to evaluate the relevant inequalities satisfactorily, participants have to compete on the same terms.  All competitors ought to be given equal opportunity to perform.”

The implication is that an argument that questions ethical assumptions (or even more basically assumptions at all) needs to be open to criticism. In the same way debaters now take into account the theoretical implications of their frameworks (i.e. the line of arguments centered around whether or not “ought is defined as maximizing well-being” is a fair interpretation), debaters should take into account the ethical implications of their theory arguments. Analyzing the way we debate theory further exposes these assumptions. Theory is debated typically in a very utilitarian fashion. Debaters tend to weigh between theory standards under assumed criterions of “what would a policy maker do,” how easy the calculation is, etc. They answer the question of drop the debater vs. drop the argument commonly in terms of solvency, whether or not there is a deterrent effect, etc. It’s no surprise in my mind that most “LARPers” are generally as proficient on the LARP as they are on the theory debate due to the reproduction of skill.

To keep theory argumentation at a standstill in its variation is to deny the basic value in LD in the first place. There’s no reason why we should not question the assumption of how we debate or think about theory in the same way we question the assumptions of right and wrong in LD. A question that follows then is what occurs if we debate theory in a more Kantian sense? Or a more Nietzschean one? Etc. I’m not persuaded by the idea that ethical arguments cannot apply to the context of theory debate. Examples:

1)    If the argument against consequentalism is true that there are infinite consequences, is norm setting ever possible?

2)    If an intention based framework is true, and the violation was not made intentionally, should the one violating still be held culpable for the violation

3)    A polls framework would outline why community consensus is most ethically relevant. If a certain practice is common, would that implicate its moral permission?

Beyond the voter, concepts like competing interpretations, which in some variations claims that only one interpretation is objectively/ absolutely true, could easily be criticized with postmodern arguments. Massumi (a Deleuzian contemporary) would probably argue that the attempt to instill a certain worldview of the round is indicative of state philosophy, where  “The end product would be ‘a fully legitimated subject of knowledge and society’ – each mind an analogously organized mini-State morally unified in the supermind of the State. Prussian mind-meld.” Security K type arguments that criticize the idea of deterrence claiming that mindset is the root cause of the threats it attempts to be prevented can easily apply to drop the debater justifications about norm setting.

Apprehension to introduce this type of argumentation into the debate sphere can be tracked most likely to the tendency of judges to either a) paradigmatically assume fairness is important to avoid annoying and assumptive debates about whether or not fairness is a voter or b) judges not voting on these arguments frequently in the past. However, this line of thought I present does not attempt to claim that fairness is absolutely not a voter. This type of argument generally does not contest if theory itself is unfair or resolvable in a theoretical way, i.e. in the fashion most “fairness not a voter” arguments are made. The goal rather is to reframe the lens of which we analyze theory debates, or analyze “fairness not a voter arguments.” The application fosters discussion about what fairness ethically should imply, not in attempt to create more “frivolous theory debates” or figure out ways to make theory irresolvable. In fact, this mindset would produce better philosophical discussion. By examining the full implication of an ethical argument, debaters could more fully understand what it means to argue X or Y is the correct moral framework beyond just the resolution at hand. Whereas debate about animal rights or compulsory voting does allow for that form of philosophical analysis, this viewpoint allows for full education of ethics to even more frequent, real world concerns of fairness and education. Additionally, most of the historical unwillingness is probably rooted in tendency for debaters to use this avenue of argumentation in a blippy fashion. However in the same way that arguments that are more fleshed out or have definitive warrants are given priority over others, debaters ought to argue this similarly. Rather than treating ethical arguments against theory as a “back up strategy,” this should become a more full, centralized approach.

The purpose of this article is that fairness as an ethical idea, with the same ethical discussion, etc., should not be absent from questioning. The implementation, function, correctness of a conception of fairness, etc., should all be open for debate in the same way that we try to figure out if death is really morally bad after all. The even broader implication is that LD debate should continue to foster questioning. To take a firm stance on basic assumptions is to deny the role of philosophical questioning in the first place. To quote Rebar Niemi, “the notion that any one of us could set some determinate standard for what debate should be is preposterous, uneducational, sanctimonious, and arrogant. I think that the notion that we should teach the already privileged population of debate to be inflexible, dogmatic, and exclusive in their belief sets creates worse citizens, worse people, and ultimately a worse world.”

Justice and Game Advantage in Sporting Games, Sigmund Loland, 1999.

A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, 1971

A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, Brian Massumi, 1992

Tycoons of Piety: On Constructing a delineation between acceptable and unacceptable argumentation, Rebar Niemi, 2012

Much of this article is based on a concept discussed in a lecture Rebar Niemi and I did at NSD this summer called “We do not yet know what debate can do.” Thanks to Kyle Jablon, Michael Overing, James Zucker, Chris Kymn, Jacob Pritt, and Joseph Millman for giving me feedback on this article.