A Case for “Reasonability”

Article by Daniel Selman

I think debaters are underutilizing reasonability when answering theory and you should think that too. It seems like the trend for a while now has been for debaters to accept competing interpretations on face, but in this article I advocate for a nuanced interpretation of reasonability and how it addresses a lot of the issues the community faces right now with the proliferation of new questionable theory norms.

What is reasonability? Its legacy is as a paradigm for evaluating theory that in essence depended on judges’ gut checking against minimal abuse. I agree this generalized interpretation is arbitrary and probably bad. However, there is a way around this: Debaters ought to justify specific paradigmatic issues on the role of theory.

The problem is that debaters assume the norms that stem from “competing interps” and “reasonability” without justifying the specific tenets of the paradigms. For example, “prefer competing interpretations because reasonability creates a race to the bottom” does not justify anywhere that out of round impacts matter just as much as in round or that theory is about maximizing fairness rather than addressing unfairness.

Instead of merely conceding these premises as “communal norms,” debaters should challenge them and justify alternative paradigms for the judge to adopt for evaluating theory. An example that comes to mind is with theory-justified frameworks (TJF). One of the premises they rely on is that the role of theory is to ensure the maximum amount of fairness (my framework is more fair so we should reject yours), but debaters can challenge this by justifying the role of theory as a mechanism to address unfairness rather than maximizing fairness (“Good is good enough”). This highlights the intuitive issues with TJF and is a preclusive way to address them since it impacts to the role of fairness in the round which is a layer that rarely sees clash.

What would these arguments look like in round? Debaters should treat these justifications similar to any other theory argument. Since this paradigm still justifies norms for debate, I think that a form of a text for what you are advocating for is necessary, however it would not need to be in a shell form. In the context of TJF, a debater could argue “the role of theory is for judges to correct unfairness rather than maximizing fairness. Prefer this since demanding maximum fairness destroys substantive clash since debaters can merely exclude positions claiming that an alternative position is fairer. It also destroys theoretical clash since debaters only need to win advantages from their interpretation being good rather than generating disadvantages to their opponent’s interpretation. Addressing unfairness still rejects any positions that cause skews, but makes solely generating advantages for your interp insufficient to vote on theory.”

I think that at minimum this view of reasonability is strategic in crafting positions that hit the same theory argument over and over.  When writing cases, you can include a justification for reasonability, establish a threshold, and explain why you meet that threshold for abuse. For example, when running an aff with a contingent standard, establishing that reasonability means judges should only vote on in round abuse, and not going for the contingency after your opponent reads theory could serve as a quick strategy that could serve as terminal defense on theory. Obviously there are questions of what constitutes “in round abuse” but that’s another discussion for another day.

Essentially, I’m saying debaters should justify the method of gut checking that the classic reasonability paradigm relied on.  A form of reasonability that forces debaters to justify specific norms avoids reasonability’s common objection: its arbitrariness. Instead, debaters can establish a threshold of reasonability and explain why they meet it. Additionally, this co-opts any benefit of norm creation under competing interpretations, as debaters would have to justify norms for the judge to adopt that aren’t commonly addressed through the merely justificatory and not explanatory arguments for competing interps.

I don’t necessarily believe that this is always the best strategy when answering theory, but I do think that it is a layer of the theory debate that is going unnoticed, and that reasonability can help clear up some of the paradigmatic divides on the theory debates that aren’t being addressed.

Have fun y’all.