Breaking Down Borders: Rethinking the Interaction Between Theory and Ethics

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.



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  • Rebar Niemi

    It brings tears to my eyes to be quoted in such an eloquent and well thought out piece of debate literature.

  • DanAlessandro

    The judge is no less a moral agent than either debater is. One potential issue that hasn’t been discussed is whether these moral arguments could spill over to the obligations of the judge beyond the theory debate. For example, if one debater won a utilitarian argument that said individuals have moral obligations to maximize happiness, could this be applied to the judge to say the judge has to give both debaters 30s? Or, if a debater won a Rawls framework about helping the worst off in society, would this mean the judge has an obligation to vote for the least privileged debater? I’m curious whether this line of thinking could manifest itself in rounds in a way that would apply to the judge. If so, it could lead to some very messy debates.

    • JacobN1

      I think a pretty easy line to draw is that the judge doesn’t have to do anything other than assign the win/loss based on arguments in round. The judge is under no obligation to assign speaker points, donate to charity, or do anything else based on what arguments are won on the flow.

      Yes, this would theoretically allow for arguments like “I’m less privileged; vote for me,” although I hardly think Rawls would decide debate rounds like that. I’m strongly of the opinion that any such argument that shifts the role of the ballot away from an evaluation of the topic is incorrect, but that’s different than saying that the judge would be out-of-bounds in even considering the arguments.

    • Debater

      The problem with many of these claims is that they forget the context of the ethical conclusions. In terms of your Rawls example, Rawls justifies the difference principle in reference to specific features of the method by which we ought to determine justice. Contrary to, somewhat, popular belief, Rawls does not believe there are any “facts” of justice. Just as Korsgaard is a moral constructivist, Rawls is a political constructivist. His conclusions follow from the procedure of determining just policies, not actions that are just or unjust “sub specie aeternitatis”. In that sense, his conclusions wouldn’t apply to deliberation that don’t deal with political decisions. We can apply his decision procedure to determine what is just or fair within debate, but those conclusions would be vastly different because of the difference in context.

      • DanAlessandro

        The purpose of my post wasn’t endorsing the validity of that specific claim. It was just an example off the top of my head to demonstrate what I was talking about. The point of my post was questioning whether the line of thinking about moral claims applying to other realms of the debate could be extended to include judges

    • Bob Overing

      A judge can be called a moral agent, but it doesn’t follow that a judge should change his/her moral beliefs or act on any particular moral beliefs based on arguments won in round.

      When a debater wins an argument, the judge accepts the argument as true only in the most trivial sense: it is true for the purposes of decision-making, not true in the sense that it would change that judge’s decision-making process altogether.

      Now, someone could make what we would typically think of as a “role of the ballot” claim and argue for a particular judge obligation, but that is different than simply making a Rawlsian framework argument, for instance.

      Does that make sense?

  • Bob Overing

    I don’t think the intervention line of argument is necessary to get to the conclusion John wants.

    Ben, you cite Loland that “in sporting games, the predominant distributive norm is meritocratic. The norm on equal treatment, 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.”

    If this is the case, then fairness applied to a debate is not ethically justified but rather, it is a necessity of the game itself! Fairness is a rule much like time constraints; no one would argue that “time constraints ought to be imposed” is a claim requiring philosophical interpretation (Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect – fairness may require some more interpretive work than time constraints, but it isn’t the sort of work that requires an ethical argument – it requires appeals to facets intrinsic to the game).

    • Salim Damerdji

      “no one would argue that “time constraints ought to be imposed” is a claim requiring philosophical interpretation” There was this round between Alex Teiche and Brian Hodge that begs to differ.

      I also feel like the entirety of Ben’s article re-conceptualizes what the relevant “interpretive work” is. Caring about future abuse or blaming nonculpable novices doesn’t seem as intrinsic to the essence of a debate round as it is intrinsic to the way the world works, which is what philosophy has input on.

      Plus, the Loland quote seems relevant to sporting games that already have rules and a conception of the type of fairness involved prior to playing the game. But excluding time constraints, we don’t have such rules and the conception of fairness imbued in the game, as per Loland, seems to be absent in debate for that reason.

      This isn’t to say I support the interventionist line. From what I can tell, the level of fairness that most judges accept as their baseline is limited to merely evaluating arguments impartially and voting for the debater who wins that you should. Tournaments seem much more explicit about wanting this while intervention is frowned upon.

      If Scoggin has reason to believe Debater A read an unfair case, I really doubt he’d pull the trigger there. It doesn’t sound like a “desirable end” whatever that means. I also feel like you and John assume “what we think out of round” and “real talk” is often based in utilitarian calculus, (“desirable ends”, and the “real talk” lecture) but that’s not at all intuitive.

      • Bob Overing

        My claim is that we can interpret fairness exclusively from the premises of the game itself. There is no reason to bring in external principles (be they deontological, consequentialist, or otherwise). You say “we don’t have such rules and the conception of fairness imbued in the game,” but we do. Loland’s argument is about the idea of a meritocratic game, one that seeks to evaluate skill disparities. I believe that this basis for the activity is sufficient to create a suitable definition of fairness: namely, a state of affairs whereby such a judge evaluation is possible. Concepts like “future abuse” can be said to follow or not to follow from the basis of the activity. I have no reason to think “the way the world works” is relevant here.

        I defend that fairness can be justified intrinsically, but to argue that an instrumental justification is “not at all intuitive” is wrong. It’s certainly intuitive to think that rules for the game should promote particular values (yes, that’s consequentialist); that’s what almost every article on judge paradigms from the 1980s onward discusses. Most people would think that any reason for bringing an external principle to bear on debate rules would have to be based on its effects. Why would anyone accept (to use Ben’s example) Massumi’s view of state philosophy in the context of debate if it were harmful to the activity?

        Yes, of course, you’re going to come back and say “well that assumes we care about those ‘harmful effects’ in the first place.” I am not willing to bite this bullet with you – people debate for a reason, and we can create rules that promote those reasons, whether they’re to learn argumentative skills, to have fun, to win, to learn about the topic, to show off, to get trophies, or whatever! Say your strategy promotes a practice that is exclusive to certain debaters (perhaps a particular minority group), and the opponent makes such a claim. You would think it permissible to respond “so what?” because it’s not philosophically justified?!

        • Debater

          Without knowing it, you have already brought deontological/virtue ethical considerations into the argument. Namely, your argument that fairness is somehow intrinsic to the game is the same argument that Korsgaard uses to justify Kantianism and the same argument that virtue ethicists (Foot, MacIntyre) use to base their conclusions. Furthermore, the idea that “rules for the game should promote particular values” is probably closer to virtue ethics than it is to consequentialism. That is somewhat besides the point, however. The main problem is that at best your argument means that skep doesn’t respond to theory. We still need some idea of what it means for the activity to be harmed or what values to promote or what it means to make the activity better. All of those are relevant considerations for determining the function of theory, fairness, and particular advocacies and yet those arguments require a philosophical debate. Another way of thinking about it is this. As per your explanation of Loland, it seems like fairness within debate is simply the answer to a distribution problem of benefits and burdens. We use it schematically to answer that practical question, and give it content based on what we think is the best answer. Authors like Rawls and Korsgaard think that one conception is the best answer, whereas utilitarian authors might take a different interpretation. It seems unlikely that you can separate theory from the most basic philosophical ideas such as the nature of the good and the right.

          • Bob Overing

            Just because my method is similar to one used by philosophers doesn’t mean that it relies on their philosophical backing…

            Once again, I don’t defend the “instrumental” justification for fairness, but I’ll respond anyway because when thinking about the goals of an activity, it makes no sense to appeal to Rawls/Korsgaard. If we’re discussing how a referee should call a basketball game, we don’t invoke a discussion of ethics. If we’re discussing how teachers should teach mathematics, we don’t invoke a discussion of ethics. Why should we when discussing the rules of debate?

            Yes, I understand the argument that “oh, well any time you talk about what S *should* do, you’re making an ethical claim.” Of course, it’s “ethical” but there’s a point at which the ethical discussion that takes place within phil journals is not useful for theorizing about debate: a) which ethic would you choose? b) on what basis would you choose it? c) why would people agree to it? d) what if debaters’/judges’ views on ethics conflict? e) how could we come to a conclusion about the philosophy applied to debate if there is no conclusion in the literature? f) what if the adoption of one ethic would make people quit the activity? is that something we shouldn’t care about? what if it does not promote education? critical thinking? research skills? all of the things we *think* debate should do? g) do we abandon all our notions of what debate *should* look like simply because they are not meta-ethically justified?

            That would make no sense to me.

          • Salim Damerdji

            Unlike basketball, debating doesn’t have rules we just enforce; we’re tasked with the creation of these rules. Much like math teachers have to wonder what the best way to teach is (ie. many teachers have read Freire at one point or another), we have to justify the ways we operate; there are significant impacts on the real world. And the question of what is good is always philosophical, even if we have to tailor it to debate.

            I’ll just go through the list of questions:
            For A, B, D and E, we just determine which ethic to use based on the one won in-round.
            For C, I’m not sure why agreement matters. Some people may not agree that cx checks is bad, but we don’t seem to care about tailoring our activity to them.
            For F, I’m as confident as you are that educational shits are important parts of debate and it’s not difficult to win that it matters under certain ethical theories won. (They probably matter even if skepticism is true.)
            For G, yeah assuming it’s relevant in-round.

            So yeah, in the time being I guess my point is that everything about the good is a philosophical argument, including your own. The heart of what you’re saying is, albeit simple, philosophical and reasonable: there are these intrinsic goods we all already agree are in the activity/are valuable like fairness and education, so we don’t need to debate about why they’re important. (And you’re of the opinion everyone intuitively would want to maximize these desirable ends, which itself is an aspect of the activity.) I’ll respond to this argument in a bit.

            I’m also uncertain how much of a distinction there is between instrumental and intrinsic justifications of theory. Our ability to dichotomize what is intrinsic to the debate activity and what our debate activity does which is desirable seem to overlap significantly.

          • Bob Overing

            I’ll put out something longer at another time to answer the instrumental/intrinsic question. In short, like I said above, there is no aspect of fairness that cannot be derived from statements of fact about the game itself.

            Important distinction: we debate about the application of the rules, but not about what rules to apply. We would all agree that fairness/education are important, and theory debates are only about the application of those two ‘rules.’ And yes, they’re rules like in basketball; they’re non-negotiable. On my account, debaters cannot argue about these rules. You’ve provided no distinction between debate and any other competitive activity that would suggest differently.

            The question comes down to your philosophical method – you tend to think that every ethical statement need be justified (“we have to justify the ways we operate”), even “vote on fairness,” but many if not most philosophers would agree that claims that are so highly intuitive need not be further justified. No one wants to prove an ethical theory which allows murder to be moral because we would tend to think such a theory gets it wrong. If the 2NR argues, “she said vote on the disad, but that’s a normative claim without a warrant,” would you really expect a judge to vote against it? Of course not, because we have built-in assumptions about how the game works that cannot be overridden by philosophical speculation.

            You agree that it is not difficult to prove that fairness/education are important philosophically. That’s a reason we shouldn’t have this debate in the first place. You’ll say that’s a reason one should just prove it, but imagine a world where any assumption must be proven: ‘aff must prove language has meaning,’ ‘aff must make a role of the ballot argument,’ ‘aff must prove framework is necessary,’ ‘aff must prove their epistemic method,’ ‘aff must prove humans exist.’ Debate would be silly.

            Unrelated counter-example 2: Aff wins a democracy/community-based framework and in response to theory gets to argue that if the theory shell is not accepted in the community, it’s not normatively good. What if the aff framework is skepticism? Will to power? Environmentalism? This wrecks the efficacy of a theory debate. You say fairness is probably normatively good, but you know that the way these debates would go would not be in that direction…

            Counter-example 3: Aff wins a utilitarian framework. Now, to defeat a theory argument, all (s)he has to prove is that this theory shell decreases net goodness. How about the old ‘T = genocide’ card? Yes, if the aff wins a *risk* of a link to genocide, then that certainly would outweigh the marginal benefit to fairness in this particular debate round captured by the theory shell. Of course, that’s a dumb argument and there are answers, but I can’t accept rule that allows this to be even a potential line of argument.

            PS – Teachers read Friere, but not Korsgaard, Parfit or whomever else. Similarly, we should appeal to experts in our field. How about Snider, Ulrich, or Rowland? Why aren’t they sufficient?

          • Debater

            It sounds like you think ethical discussion is divorced from those concerns, but it really isn’t. Just like a debate about political ethics focuses on justification towards people and with other relevant political questions, debate ethics would speak to justifications towards competitors and judges. Education, critical thinking, research skills, inclusiveness and other things are all concerns that debaters and judges have.

            You make an analogy to a game of basketball, but I think that even that has ethical claims involved. There is a reason why philosophers constantly refer to games in their examples (Rawls was a fan of using baseball). When we think of sports rules it seems like they express two general qualities. First, they are responsive to the nature of the game and second to the nature of the players.

            It seems like you base a lot of your arguments on the framework of what assumptions we have going into the game, which is exactly the argument Rawls makes in his justification of constructivism and reflective equilibrium. We can establish practices and values that all people who truly accepted the premises of the game accept (fairness, education, some level of intuition) and build theory norms and applications from there.

            Counter-example 2 – It is obviously true that some ethical theories don’t work in the context of debate ethics, but that should come as no surprise. Many ethical theories don’t work when applied to political theory even though they might in individual morality. I think the above arguments respond to that, in that a debate ethical theory must be consistent with the assumptions and nature of the game of debate.

            Counter example 3 – I would say that this is a reason why util debates in debate are a) stupid and b) not actually how utilitarian philosophers weigh util arguments, but that is besides the point. I also think that this would be captured by arguments in-round (you should be able to show why it isn’t actually genocide or why there is no risk) and by weighing according to the accepted values. If fairness is a fixed point of debate ethics that we use to build more comprehensive ethical views, then it seems like impacts to that would come first, or at least be some type of overriding concern.

            The main problem I see is that you think we need to apply our in-round ethical theories to debate as a whole, but that need not be the case. Rawls makes the argument that political philosophy is separate from moral philosophy because of the aim of the political and the aim of justice, and I don’t see why debate ethics needs to be different.

          • Salim Damerdji

            you dropped the spike!

            “Yes, of course, you’re going to come back and say “well that assumes we care about those ‘harmful effects’ in the first place.” I am not willing to bite this bullet with you…”

      • John Scoggin

        There are a ton of examples where intervention based on fairness even absent in round argumentation seems not only intuitive but just the right thing to do. If I catch someone cheating (like clipping cards) I would vote them down in a second. That being said I think aside from a few egregious examples debaters should have to argue why their opponent is being unfair, however I don’t really see what good can come of suggesting that fairness on the whole is not valuable. Maybe some instances of unfairness don’t justify dropping a debater, that’s fine, but I’ve never heard a good argument for why fairness isn’t important and I don’t think I ever will. Leaving debate open to a number of different forms of argument is valuable for a number of reasons but I don’t think it can be argued that not punishing people for cheating is good for anyone. There have been a number of instances where questionable practices have occurred in round and frankly I think judges have a responsibility to come down on that harder. I see how hard people work in debate, and I think we do a disservice to all of those hard workers when we permit cheating.

        • Salim Damerdji

          We both seem to be adding caveats as to why an emphasis on in-round argumentation can be superseded when a judge spots miscut evidence, so I don’t understand why this disfavors my position.

          The obvious distinction between miscut evi and other unfair/uneducational args is not that miscut evi is exorbitantly more unfair or uneducational (I think 100 a priori’s is much worse), it’s that debaters might not have evidence of the miscut evidence while in-round. Given there are infinitely many cards and people are only familiar with a few of them, it’s not even somewhat likely that in-round argumentation spots miscut evi especially when the card is initially broke.

          At that point, my position, compared to yours, seems to better accommodate our intuitions as to why miscut evi is the exception: the judge is permitted to intervene because in-round argumentation is no longer a feasible means of recourse. It’s not merely a matter of miscut evidence being super unfair/uneducational because there are even more unfair/uneducational positions that judges don’t intervene against.

          Anyhow, you don’t even have to assume fairness matters to enforce norms that literally everyone agrees with; you’re merely enforcing people’s own will and holding them accountable. (Not to mention, literally any ethical theory would say miscut evi is bad.)

          Let debaters determine to what extent and how fairness matters between debaters. The judge should merely evaluate the arguments impartially because this satisfies the judge’s jurisdiction and minimizes intervention. Anything beyond, to me at least, seems to be the position that requires rigorous justification because it’s prima facie arbitrary since it doesn’t stem from the quintessential feature of the activity. We simply do disagree as a community how and to what extent resolvability, fun, education, and fairness matter to how we determine the better debater. Please just let debaters hash this out.

          But that only answers the question whether judges out-of-round should decide to intervene against “undesirable” practices. Well, what in-round arguments could there be to justify fairness doesn’t matter? Well certain ethical theories would and utilitarianism could be one of them. Maybe it’s desirable to think kids should just “deal with it.” My teachers certainly think so. I’ll respond once more to expand on why ethical theories interact with fairness in a bit.

  • JacobN1

    I agree with the article.

    Historically, the common objection that I’ve heard has been “but theory comes first because the judge can’t evaluate the phil debate objectively if the round has been skewed.” I don’t think this response makes much sense. You can’t say “theory comes before reasonability because the judge can’t evaluate the competing interps debate objectively if the round has been skewed” but if you accept the premise that ethics frames theory, then that’s functionally the same argument: theory precedes responses to theory.

  • John Scoggin

    Ben great article!

    I think that the points you bring up about ethical frameworks interacting with theory are definitely true. I do draw a slightly different conclusion though. Theory is inherently interventionist, some people will try to have you believe that judging is completely objective, but it is not and it should not be. While I try to do my best as a judge to not allow my personal biases to influence whether or not I endorse a specific debaters advocacy, there is a limit to how far that can go. When I come in to the room as a judge I bring certain expectations of practice with me. For an obvious example I would not kick one of my students off my team if someone successfully argued that I do so in round.

    Fairness is one of the things that I bring in to the round with me. I am a paid representative of my school and the tournament and I think certain baseline expectation of a level playing field for both debaters is something that is desirable and that my school and the tournament would want. My ballot asks me to determine the better debater, I feel like I can only do that if the place from which their argumentation starts is roughly equal.

    If you are a judge that votes on theory, often you are engaging in an interventionist practice. Many of those practices are not undesirable if they are clear expectations and if they are for the purpose of bringing about desirable ends. Ben’s arguments are all compelling reasons why if you have a view of theory that demands that you never intervene, you must do the interaction with other arguments in order to really determine a winner.

    • Adam Bistagne

      I don’t think the conclusion you draw is necessarily the right one. Judge intervention seems to be a prima facie bad to most people in debate, precisely because it takes the round out of the hands of the debaters and allows non-relevant considerations to factor into what should be a determination of skill.

      I’m partially scared that the reason you have so many upvotes on your post is because people are approving the fact that “theory is interventionist” while not also approving of your belief that “theory is good”.

      I do think that our conception of intervention is probably overly broad and allows debaters to execute unfair strategies and win on low quality arguments. However, I also think that if there are areas of debate
      where intervention could be minimized without these disastrous side effects, then one should take the judging route that minimizes intervention. I think theory is one of these examples where we do not need to rely on this judging strategy to achieve the desirable end of fair rounds.

      Rather, I think the way that theory should be understood is by hashing out a claim that all debaters must be implicitly making, a claim about what it means to be a better debater. Every debater in their case relies on some conception of fairness in order for the strategy and arguments they have presented to be sufficient to convince the judge that they have warranted
      the ballot. Debaters in every round are making an implicit claim when they say that X argument is sufficient to show they won the round because they are assuming that X argument has proven they have beaten their opponent on an equal playing field. I think Bob’s allusion is just an example of the fact that most debaters think they are making an implicit fairness claim in a debate round. The fact that a debater, even when running skeptical arguments, or a judge evaluating the skepticism debate, would still impose time constraints on the round seems to imply that there is a normative fact about fairness that is not refuted by ethical arguments to the contrary. Rather, fairness is necessitated by the fact that debate is a game of skill. I’ll further assume here that most people will accept that this normative fact is irrefutable [debate round arguments cannot affect it], but I’ll defend it if anyone cares to question it.

      The logical leap from the normative fact about fairness to evaluating
      theory debates as we do seems quite simple, since the theory debate is a claim that there is not an equal playing field in the round. If fairness is something necessitated by the debate round, then skepticism or ethical arguments cannot interact with fairness. Ben’s article may be true in some minimalist sense, in that fairness is an ethical argument, but it is not true in the strong sense he wants it to be, because the theory debate will always have argumentative priority over other ethical arguments.

      • John Scoggin

        First, I think your statement about how the current conception of intervention is overly broad means that we are not particularly far apart on the issue.

        Second, it seems really difficult to explain why intervention is bad without appealing to fairness. Seems difficult to evaluate skill if the contest isn’t fair. If it was unclear from my post I don’t think that judges should just choose whatever they think is unfair and drop people for that, rather that they should think fairness is important regardless of what happens in the round.

        • Salim Damerdji

          “My ballot asks me to determine the better debater, I feel like I can only do that if the place from which their argumentation starts is roughly equal.”

          I think this is where the confusion came in. To be clear, I still feel like your position is unjustifiably interventionist, even though it’s been tailored down from what I originally assumed you meant which is “I always try to see if the round has been made unfair because otherwise I’m not meeting what the ballot tells me to do.” It seems your actual position is “I always assume fairness matters both in terms of how I interact with debaters and how debaters interact with each other.”

          I have no qualms about the judge assuming impartial evaluation of the flow. But I don’t think the justification you use gets you to that second plank without intervention. If we do need an equal playing field to determine the better debater or because equal playing fields promote desirable ends, merely having the judge be as impartial as possible would also solve: there’s no credence towards either debater and they can both make arguments to determine how the judge signs the ballot.

          I’m also unsure why you believe voting on theory is interventionist. If we need a fair/impartial judge to sign the ballot, you’re ultimately just trying to respect your jurisdiction, which is the opposite of intervention.

          • John Scoggin


            I don’t think it is fair to characterize my position as a shift because you have to look to the context of my post. Ben wrote a great article about ethical interaction with the voter level of theory. My position is that I don’t allow in round ethical arguments to suspend my belief that fairness is important. I think you can make a legitimate argument that my second point in response to Adam would mean that what I’m doing is not technically intervention, I just think it can be classified as intervention because even if someone made arguments about why fairness is irrelevant I’m not going to consider them. That doesn’t mean that I consider myself the personal arbiter of fairness, like dropping someone for running a case that includes an unfair component, but it does mean you don’t get to argue that fairness isn’t relevant. I think that part of being a good judge is to always give debaters recourse against unfairness, and I think that arguing about whether or not that is even available helps no one. If individuals can argue someone shouldn’t get recourse even if they are abused that doesn’t serve the interests of providing an equal playing field at all. I also think this doesn’t harm debaters in any way because it is a clear expectation prior to the round.

  • Jacob Pritt

    Coach Koh, serving up some TRUTH for the byram hills war machine in a piece reminiscent of the Ari Parker Glory Days. Where is he now? Southeast Asia?