Head to Head: Theoretically Justified Frameworks

Sam Mathews (left) and Bob Overing (right)
Sam Mathews (left) and Bob Overing (right)

This is Head to Head!  Two people will argue back and forth on a controversial debate topic. They are presented with word restrictions and limits on time for when they must submit their responses. The winner will be declared upon the posting of the next “Head to Head.” Vote and let us know who you thought won!

Last time, John Scoggin defeated Yang Yi on a 253 to 188 decision. Next up in a rematch of the 2012 Golden Desert final round is Sam Mathews, who won the Cal RR, Iowa Caucus, and Voices amongst other achievements, versus Bob Overing, finalist at the TOC,  Stanford, and Blake amongst other achievements.

Question: Should theoretically justified frameworks be an acceptable argument in debate?

Sam Mathews will argue that they are not acceptable, and Bob will defend that they are.


The primary argument against TJFs is that they’re detrimental to the philosophical education that debaters receive from the round. While common, I think this is one of the best arguments against TJFs. TJFs gut the philosophical discussion of a round because they encourage the affirmative to prevent their framework without substantive justification. Further, they foreclose substantive argumentation about and comparison of the negative’s framework. Negatives engaging TJFs are forced to either spend less time philosophically justifying their own framework and more time linking it into the theoretical claims in the AC, or to run theory. Both are obviously harmful to any educational utility garnered from the round. Perhaps those in favor of TJFs will claim that they are not mutually exclusive with philosophical argument in frameworks. I think this further engenders the harms I’ve outlined above. Justifying frameworks using theoretical justifications in conjunction with philosophical ones is especially harmful to philosophical education. Affirmatives will spend less time developing a clear framework syllogism and more time writing theory frontlines. Some affirmatives even purposefully put poor or bastardized philosophical justifications in the framework in hopes that the negative will overcommit on the substantive layer and make it even easier for them to go all in on theory in the 1AR. Affirmative debaters who are particularly skilled with theory will spend more time honing what they’re already good at instead of developing a more comprehensive knowledge of philosophical literature.

I think it’s pretty clear that TJFs hurt philosophy education. However, this all begs the question of why philosophical education matters.

Many are quick to call philosophy useless or even harmful. I think these sentiments are symptomatic of being uncomfortable with or unused to it. There is immense value to philosophical education because it teaches you to think in a way that other disciplines do not. You’re taught to question every assumption you make and encouraged to challenge the viewpoints of others. In particular, philosophy makes its students more open-minded and less dogmatic. Bertrand Russell is famous for championing philosophy’s uncertainty because unlike any other discipline, it does not give definite answers to fundamental questions. Without a philosophical education, many of us would go through life imprisoned, as Russel puts it, by our prejudices. This is distinctly important in an educational context. Too often we become lulled into the passive trance of taking in information rather than interpreting it for ourselves.

Proponents of TJFs justify them on the grounds that their framework will be more educational or fair for the round. I don’t think that this is the case.

First, TJFs decrease clash in the round because they encourage debaters to jettison their substantive arguments and use preclusion to win their standard. I’ve seen too many rounds where a debater will concede several substantive objections to consequentialism and go all in on ‘util is the most fair because it provides an even division of ground.’ And often times, they’ll be rewarded for doing so with a win.

Second, using a TJF often destroys whatever educational benefit that is being used to justify it in the first place. If I theoretically justify utilitarianism on the grounds that it’s the most applicable ethical theory to real-world decision-making, but then concede substantive objections for why utilitarianism cannot guide action, I’ve lost the initial warrant for why utilitarianism was theoretically good. Debaters will often go all in on theoretical justifications for their framework because such justifications are assumed to function on a higher layer than substantive ones. What judges and debaters alike often forget is that substantive objections can challenge the assumptions made by theoretical ones.



I will argue that not only can frameworks be theoretically justified, but that they must be. I’ll focus primarily on fairness. Counterplans must be fair, kritiks must be fair, and burdens must be fair – why not frameworks too? Debate is important because it is educational, but there are constraints on the ways that goal is achieved. For instance, the AC has to be topical and the NC can only speak for 7 minutes. We should be highly skeptical of any practice that requires us to suspend our fundamental belief in the absolute value of fairness. More than that, there is no one debate argument that can give such great educational benefit that it can outweigh the value the rule of fairness. The rule has tremendous value, for instance, in promoting well-researched clash that produces the knowledge and skills the philosophy hard-liners want. If a debater cannot prove his/her framework is fair, then it should be discarded as a judge would any other unfair argument. This reasoning is applicable to education too – if some framework grossly mischaracterizes philosophical argumentation such that it would produce woefully unproductive and perhaps harmful debate, we should reject it.

Framework itself is only a subset of a theoretical category we already accept: topicality. It’s about defining the terms for the debate. Debaters have been reading T-Ought for years, but recently John Scoggin and I forwarded a version of the argument we called ‘parameters,’ which makes two claims: 1) any moral framework is an interpretation of the word ought or a similar evaluative term such as morally permissible in the resolution, and 2) any interpretation of a word in the resolution is subject to debate only on theoretical grounds. 1) is obviously true. The use of specific moral terms in the resolution is the only reason the types of frameworks in LD are necessary. If the resolution were “The sky is blue,” ethics would have nothing to do with it. 2) should be intuitive too. When we debate about words in the resolution, we do not appeal to the “truth” of our interpretation; rather, we make arguments about predictable limits or neg ground. Think how ridiculous it would be if the neg ran T-compulsory voting on the September-October 2013 topic, and the aff simply asserted, “but my understanding of compulsory voting is just true.” Such a line of argument would be out of place and insufficient. Before debate occurs, one must prove his/her interpretation of the resolution is appropriate for debate in the first place. This burden has been a part of debate theory for decades and should not be discarded.

Now I’ll address the seemingly pre-emptive arguments from Sam. The first is about clash. On face, it seems that theoretically-justified frameworks do not decrease clash; they simply move it to a different part of the debate, which is the part that addresses the resolution. This objection also begs the question because it states that preclusion via theoretical argument is un-educational, yet if employing the other framework would be un-educational or unfair, then there is no good reason to do so. The second point is about the interaction between theoretical and ‘substantive’ justifications. Of course, if a substantive argument would have theoretical impacts, then that should be argued. I see no reason why my position would be incompatible with this.

Philosophical education is important. First, my model provides for better philosophical argument by weeding out poor frameworks through systematic deterrence and exclusion. Sam seems to think that this encourages bad philosophy, but if frameworks are unjustified, they should be easily answered (or un-educational and thus theoretically suspect). Second, my model will still allow for philosophical debate once theoretical constraints are ensured. For instance, the aff could argue for a deontological conception of morality, and a debate over which duties are strongest might ensue. Third, these debates capture the benefits of increased topic discussion and more specific philosophical argumentation. This is far superior to the status quo where debaters can get by without talking about the topic for an entire debate season while reading the same framework on both sides. Theoretical arguments are the only recourse against current practices that allow philosophy to be not only central to the round but the only thing in the round. Something must change.



Bob says that there’s no reason for why fairness shouldn’t apply to frameworks. I think the key distinction between what I’m arguing for and his model is that frameworks should not have parameters built into them. Being fair should not be a proactive reason to vote for one framework over another. If the AC framework is unfair, the negative can run theory on it. I have no issue with that practice.

Further, Bob’s model seems pretty absurd when you think about how it would function in a debate round. If I had to justify why all of my arguments were fair proactively, every single argument I made in the 1AR would have to have an additional argument for why it were fair. And, if theory trumps substance, the arguments I made in my rebuttal would be judged as true according to how fair they were, not according to whether they were actually responsive to my opponent’s position. People use theoretical justifications for their framework like this all the time. But, if it is acceptable to say ‘Consequentialism, while perhaps logically false, is the most fair metric for evaluating the round,’ one could just as easily argue ‘Mandatory voting, even though it doesn’t really increase voter turnout, should be thought of as increasing voter turnout because that is the most fair way to evaluate the round.’

Not only is that model logically incoherent, but also it is also obviously detrimental to any of the educational value of the round. Debates would devolve into competitions of who could make the fairest arguments rather than the best, truest, or most strategic ones. At best, this model of debate would create extremely difficult scenarios for a judge to evaluate. Imagine a scenario where the affirmative won that their turn to the NC was the most fair, but the negative won that the NC offense outweighed the turn. It seems extremely unintuitive to vote for the affirmative because their turn was marginally fairer than the negative’s offense. But, voting for the negative makes it unclear why fairness mattered in the first place.

So, in sum, there is a clear disconnect between Bob’s argument and what I’m advocating for. My position is merely that theoretically justified frameworks, i.e. ones that use parameters as additional or preclusive justifications for the standard, are bad. That does not mean that a debater may not argue that a framework is unfair. Merely, they cannot use theory as a reason to prefer their framework.

Bob might be tempted to say that his argument is merely a topical interpretation of the word ‘ought,’ but that misses the point of my criticism. Bob argues that his view of fairness should be applicable to all arguments in the round.

Now I’ll move to my arguments for why TJFs are uneducational. I make the claim that TJFs hurt clash because they encourage affirmatives to use theory in a preclusive manner to avoid substantively engaging the negative’s framework. Bob responds by claiming that TJFs simply shift clash to the contention level debate. First, this doesn’t avoid the claim that TJFs are terrible for philosophy education. Second, this never happens in actual rounds. The negative is forced to spend less time engaging contention level debate because of the theoretical layers introduced into the framework debate by the affirmative.

Next, I argue that TJFs, when employed, often destroy their own educational value. Bob says that it’s fine if substantive arguments have theoretical implications, and his model is not mutually exclusive with that kind of argumentation. But that’s not my argument. My point is that TJFs innately undermine their own justification. It is intrinsic to using TJFs to win a framework debate that one concedes substantive reasons for why a framework is false and instead goes for theoretical ones. If that framework is logically false, we shouldn’t be using it as an educational tool in the first place. That is what undermines TJFs, and it is unavoidable by whatever model of debate that endorses them because it is intrinsic to their use.

TJFs do not make for better philosophical education. First, Bob isn’t responding to my argument that TJFs A) encourage debaters to less substantively justify their framework, B) bastardize philosophical literature, and C) spend more time honing theory skills than philosophical knowledge. My model can weed out abusive frameworks too. People can run theory on unturnable deont NCs. I just don’t force debaters to proactively justify why their framework is fair when they read it.



Being fair is certainly a proactive reason to prefer an argument. No unfair argument should ever enter the judge’s decision calculus. Of course, the neg can also access the fairness justification by arguing that his/her framework is fair; however, if it were at all less fair, we should reject it. We should never accept a less-than-optimal interpretation of the resolution precisely because it is less-than-optimal!

The following is extremely important: Sam has conceded that the evaluative term in the resolution (e.g. ought or morally permissible) should be interpreted according to what is most fair/educational. Those words, like all other words, are subject to the same standards as T.

There are many interpretations for a given word. Under my model, a debater can argue for a broad interpretation of ought such as “used to indicate moral correctness.” The question is whether or not we should assume such a broad interpretation from the start. The anti-parameters position is destructive because it enforces a T-interp before the debate even starts. This definition should be contestable in round. On some topics and with some literature bases, it makes sense to define the evaluative term more broadly (e.g. on the “kill one to save many” topic), but on others, it makes sense to define it more narrowly (e.g. on the “privatization of civil services serves the public interest” potential topic). The ‘parameters’ model captures the benefit of different types of framework debates for different topics. I see no reason why it decreases framework quality – it’s just a fairness test. Remember my argument about debaters reading the same framework arguments all year. That’s not good philosophy education! This is more complicated than just philosophy vs. topic education.

My argument is not that fairness is the ultimate standard by which every argument is evaluated – it’s only the standard for definitions. Sam’s example is alarmist and irrelevant; it’s about a case turn, which is not a resolutional interpretation. What counts as offense to turn a position is generally a choice exterior to the resolution. Obviously in an instance where the argument does rely on resolution backing, there would be a T debate!

The claim that theoretically justified frameworks decrease topic debate is wrong. I have debated, coached, and judged several rounds where the neg conceded framework in favor of topic debate. Sam’s claim is impossible to verify, but certainly more debates have been about the topic than before debaters started to argue for parameters. In a world without theoretically justified frameworks, there is nothing stopping debaters from avoiding topic debate altogether (in fact, many do).

There’s no reason one must concede philosophical arguments against a framework to argue that it is fairer. I agree that in general, “If [a] framework is logically false, we shouldn’t be using it as an educational tool.” I would also probably have a higher threshold for proving things “logically false” (a 2-second blip doesn’t cut it). Of course a debater can impact those arguments toward topicality standards. Sam just goes too far in thinking that proving something “logically false” is the be-all and end-all of theory arguments. He says that debaters can run theory on “unturnable deont NCs” but this is not so, on his view, if the violator merely proves the framework is logically sound.

Why shouldn’t our topicality arguments be logical and fair?


Who Won?

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Think they made all the right arguments? Did they miss something? Are they wrong? Are they right? Let us know in the comments down below!

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