NSD Update ‘State of Debate’ Round Table

Ari: This is the first installment of a National Symposium for Debate round-table discussion that aims to treat several issues that have recently received considerable attention in conversations about the state of Lincoln-Douglas debate. The organizing theme of our round table is, broadly, the question of whether LD, as it is currently practiced, has become disconnected from the educational mission of the activity and lost touch with common sense. Our discussants this time are Eric Palmer, Larry Liu, Emily Massey, and Jeff Liu. We may do another Google Hangout Video Chat in the future rather than typing, so be sure to contribute comments and questions below.

1. Recently, some have argued that sophistical arguments and strategies have become too central in present day LD. What is sophistry in debate? How should we deal with it?

Eric: I think that there are certainly arguments that we might, with some justice, classify as sophistical. The main class of arguments I have in mind are ones that do not make good logical sense – that is, arguments that are invalid and which lack plausible implicit premises. These arguments are commonly introduced in the explanation of the significance of a link level argument, e.g. when a debater power tags an argument as “automatically disproving the resolution” or as “taking out the whole framework.” I think this kind of thing can be resisted by judges, without giving up much of what we take to be good “tabula rasa” judging, by bearing in mind that the ultimate task of the judge is to construct an argument, based on the considerations given by the debaters in round, for or against the resolution. Arguments that do not make good logical sense cannot plausibly figure in this kind of story, regardless of whether or not the debaters say they do. In other words, I do not think debaters have the right to dictate the logical significance of arguments, and I think good judges will sort out the logical implications of arguments on their own.

I do think that recently there has been an upswing in the use of straightforwardly abusive arguments (particularly various arguments belonging to the “necessary but insufficient burden” family) and in the abuse of theory arguments for strategic purposes. I think to deal with this we need a new paradigm for thinking about theory that would (a) clearly delineate brightline standards for abuse, so that straightforwardly abusive arguments end up falling obviously outside of the bounds of the requirements of fairness, while (b) limiting the power accorded to the debater initiating the theory debate. I think the present “competing interpretations” model, coupled with the artificial restriction of the possible ramifications for theory debates encoded in the contrast between “drop the argument” and “drop the debater,” does poorly by both of these criteria, and has (somewhat paradoxically) made it easier both to defend abusive arguments and to advance spurious theory arguments. I hope to finish up an article detailing an alternative approach soon.

Larry: Sophistry in debate is generally not determined by the content of the arguments themselves, e.g. whether the arguments are descriptive, normative, consequentialist, skeptical, etc., but rather by whether conclusions follow from premises. I think these arguments are most often seen in convoluted link chains to extinction impacts or in bastardizations of framework arguments which are divorced from the author’s intentions.

Emily: I’ll take Eric’s characterization of sophistical arguments for granted; as I’ve always heard the term “sophistical” used, it’s synonymous with illogical.

Of course debaters make illogical arguments. I wouldn’t say, though, that this problem is worse today than it used to be. In many ways, LDers today make far better arguments than they used to. When I graduated in 2010, for instance, many people were still running impact-justified standards. Framework debate today makes much more sense.

I disagree with Eric on the right way for judges to deal with illogical arguments. We should not give up tab judging, even to the seemingly modest extent he proposes. Instead, judges should accept debaters’ explanations of arguments’ logical significance (even if these explanations are wrong) except when they conflict with what the other debater says, in which case the judge should resolve the conflict in a way that minimizes intervention. This paradigm better assesses who did the better debating. The fundamental thought behind tab judging is that the way to figure out who did the better debating is to base one’s decision, to the greatest possible extent, on what the debaters did in the round. After all, if one debater makes an obviously illogical claim but her opponent fails to point out what’s wrong with it, then the opponent hasn’t done a very good job on that part of the debate.

In practice, tab judging rarely forces you to vote on terribly illogical arguments. Tab judging is not mindless judging; it’s just that what you think about is how to minimize intervention, not which arguments are truer. Most of the time, debaters contest each other’s claims, either explicitly or implicitly. Even if the neg extends a response he claims “takes out the whole framework,” the aff is likely extending an argument for her standard that she claims is more important than any other argument on the standards debate. If only one debater compares the arguments for these two claims and explains why his comes first, the judge should accept his analysis – he’s at least made an effort at responding to his opponent’s argument, while the opponent has done nothing. If neither debater pays lip service to the other’s argument, then in order not to pick arbitrarily, the judge must look at both and figure out which implicitly takes the other out.

Eric’s proposal leaves it up to the judge to decide how debaters’ arguments interact, even when the debaters have made arguments about this. Yet, argument interaction is one of the most important skills debaters can learn. Debate, unlike, say, a speaking competition, forces you to confront someone else’s arguments and figure out how your own arguments work against them. It’s not enough just to present your position and hope the judge likes it more than your opponent’s. This debating skill is invaluable for any kind of thinking that involves arguments. It’s easy to come up with an argument for almost any claim; the difficult part is figuring out how to resolve conflicts between them. If judges ignore debaters’ explanations of argument interaction, then debaters have little incentive to hone this skill. Also, such a decision usually fails to reflect who did the better debating, since the better debater is the one who can use his arguments more strategically against the particular arguments his opponent has made, not simply the one who enters the round with a sounder case.

I also worry that Eric’s paradigm would cause more bad and inconsistent decisions. In the last few years, LD has gotten much more complex, and judging has not kept up. Given the rate at which LD is changing, it is a lot to ask of judges to figure out the absolutely correct implication of every argument. A judge who understands debate without being steeped in the philosophy under discussion can more easily render a good tab decision than decide the truth of individual claims.

Finally, if the implications of arguments are fair game for judge intervention, then why can’t judges intervene at other levels of the debate, too? Debaters make illogical steps in the internals of arguments, so it seems that Eric’s argument also justifies judge intervention there.

Jeff: I have very little to add here regarding the question itself. I agree with Eric that judges ought to ignore invalid arguments. One important point worth noting is that I do not think that judges have the jurisdiction to intervene against arguments containing what they believe to be false premises. Empirical disputes about the truth or falsity of the premises of arguments should be left to the debaters. In a similar vein, judges should not intervene against arguments with seemingly implausible conclusions, merely on the basis that the conclusions seem implausible. The main point I think that we all agree on is that sophistical arguments are characterized by invalidity, not by intuitive implausibility.

I don’t really want to get too much into this, but I do think Emily’s view on “tab” judging is problematic. Suppose one debater offers thirty obviously invalid arguments, arguments like “The sky is blue. Thus, you automatically affirm.” As judges, we don’t really think that those are arguments at all; we don’t think that the opponent should have to go through and line by line each of the thirty arguments, pointing out that the blueness of the sky has nothing to do with the resolution’s truth or falsity. Regardless of whether the opponent answers them or not, these “arguments” cannot be voting issues. Now, most cases of invalidity are not nearly as clear as the example I just gave, but I do think most judges implicitly abide by some principle like “Judges ought to ignore arguments that are obviously invalid.”

This is a judgment call, and I don’t think judges should intervene in every case where they think an argument is logically fallacious. A good standard to hold is that the argument must be so obviously invalid that a defense of the argument’s validity would be almost inconceivable – i.e., in the example above.

2. How should judges treat counterintuitive arguments? Should judges automatically accord such arguments less weight, or exclude them altogether? Should judges automatically consider responses aimed at undermining the intuitive merits of moral frameworks, or should debaters have the burden of defending the relevance of such considerations to the choice of ethical theory for the round?

Eric: The fact that an argument is counterintuitive is often prima facie evidence that it is wrong. But I also think that it would be ridiculous for judges to say that intuition-based arguments, particularly on the framework debate, automatically have weight, regardless of what the debaters say. There are powerful arguments in moral epistemology against the use of intuitions as evidence for favoring one moral view rather than another, and such arguments should be taken seriously by judges, and not automatically discounted based on paradigmatic considerations. The point of debate is, after all, for students to develop their own intellectual skills and outlook, and I think the kind of approach suggested here runs the risk of subverting that in favor of a model of debate where the job of the debater is to study the argument preferences of judges and adapt to them. This teaches salesmanship, not argument.

Those who advocate this kind of approach ought to be careful what they wish for. People who make these kinds of proposals often do so with the assumption that other judges are liable to share their sense of what is intuitive. But consider this: I find consequentialism in moral theory to be repugnant. That’s right. I do not just think that the view is wrong on theoretical merits. I find the notion that one might intentionally kill, rape, or otherwise violate the fundamental rights of an innocent person for the sake of the “greater good” repulsive, and I do not even believe that an individual has an obligation to save five people where she might otherwise save one (that is, I accept the position famously defended by John Taurek in his paper “Should the Numbers Count?”). If I were to take my intuitions to be of decisive importance on the framework debate, I do not think I would wind up accepting consequentialism in any framework debate.

I should note that while it is often alleged in debate that broadly deontological or non-consequentialist positions are distinctively counterintuitive because they do not factor the consequences of actions at all, this is incorrect as a characterization of almost any view in this general family. Kant, for instance, clearly acknowledges the existence of a fundamental positive interpersonal obligation – the duty to aid others when they are in need, provided you are able to do so. What he rejects is the thought that one can aid others even where doing so involves violating the core requirements of justice, e.g. by intentionally murdering an innocent person in order to prevent someone else from killing other innocent people. So properly speaking, debaters running non-consequentialist arguments should not say that foreseen deaths do not link to their standard. They should instead say that considerations linking to the duties of justice, or of respect for persons, are always prior, and silence competing considerations connected to positive obligations.

Larry: I think there is a default view that our intuitions matter, but the default should not override in-round argumentation. Although intuitions are important, I’ve always been in a quandary about what to do with intuition based arguments—these arguments, particularly on framework debate about “justifying repugnant conclusions,” have always seemed to really be impacts with no link or at best, a very marginal link. Competing counterintuitive conclusions also seem to be irresolvable.

Consider a util-deont debate. The debater defending deontology argues that utilitarianism could cause us to disregard the mentally handicapped if they lacked utilitarian value for society. The debater defending utilitarianism then argues that deontology also justifies the same conclusion: the mentally handicapped lack the capacity for practical reason, the fundamental justification for why we ought to treat people as ends in themselves. I am not sure that there is a good way to resolve this debate beyond washing these two arguments. In any case, it seems that any framework taken to its logical extent will justify SOME counter-intuitive conclusion, and an argument like “THIS JUSTIFIES RACISM!” is really just a rhetorical ploy. These arguments in reality are not arguments at all, or at least, extremely low quality arguments.

Emily: I see no reason for judges to treat intuitive considerations differently from any other considerations on the framework debate. Any argument on the framework debate counts more under some meta-ethical views than under others, and arguments from intuition are no exception. Maybe self-interested rational actors would choose your standard as a rule to live by, but that doesn’t matter if your opponent wins that the only relevant arguments on the standards debate are those that speak to the form of the U.S. government. In the same way, an intuitive objection wouldn’t matter under a meta-ethic of practical reason.

Ideally, debaters explain which types of consideration take priority. If they don’t, then the judge has to figure out how to resolve the framework debate in a way that minimizes intervention. Certainly, if neither debater has proven that intuitions don’t matter, judges should give them some weight. But this is true of any kind of consideration on the framework debate and not unique to intuitions.

Jeff: The question here is somewhat deceptive, because I think there are two ways of thinking about what it means to “automatically” consider intuitive responses—either as an open or a rigid default. By open default, I mean the judge goes into the round with the default view that intuitions matter, but will be open to shifting off the default upon in-round contestation of that view. The open default seems necessary to resolve most debates. So-called “LARP” debates that occur under consequentialist frameworks usually assume that certain impacts are undesirable, without justification. Judges and debaters in these debates usually just assume, intuitively, that things like death, pain, genocide, racism, etc. are bad. We don’t think that debaters should have to warrant these assumptions out (unless they’re contested).

By rigid default, I mean that the judge goes into the round with the default view that intuitions matter, and will not budge on that default regardless of in-round contestation. For instance, one way debaters like to (implausibly) argue that impacts to racism are irrelevant is by claiming that the impact ‘racism bad’ is only an appeal to intuition, and our intuitions should hold little to no weight in moral methodology. Most judges in this situation would reject the “no impact to racism” argument on face. This just gifts the debater an impact on the basis of a judge’s personal opinion (no matter how obvious it seems that racism is bad, it still rejects an argument on the grounds that the conclusion is implausible, rather than on the grounds that the argument is invalid). We should instead hold the debater facing the “no impact argument” accountable for arguing either that we ought not discount our moral intuitions, or that racism is morally repugnant for reasons beyond its intuitive undesirability (these don’t seem like hard arguments to make).

Part II will be posted Monday.

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/