Portland, OR –

Lincoln-Douglas debate has recently taken a new direction. A rise in the popularity and success of “pre-fiat” type arguments that speak to the role of the ballot or judge, an increasing number of online resources that aim to provide debaters with the information and tools to better engage ethical frameworks, and the evolution of the strategic applications of theory and frameworks have all changed the way debates play out. While it’s hard to say where these developments will ultimately take LD debate, what’s not in question is what this shift is leaving behind.

A couple of years ago, when I was still actively debating, paradigm theory, while not ubiquitous by any means, was nonetheless a concept familiar to any circuit debater. From my experience teaching and competing last year, it seems that this is no longer the case. Ask a junior in high school what the burdens of each debater are under an “Offense-Defense” or “Best Justification” and there is a good chance he/she can hardly answer the question at all, let alone go into a detailed justification of his/her reply. Furthermore, even debaters who can provide the typical examples of “Truth-Testing” and “Comparing Worlds” rarely understand their application to framework debate.

Trends in debate are in constant flux, of course, and paradigm theory might just be one more debate trend fated to eventual obscurity. After all, who still believes in “Offense-Defense” as a paradigm for evaluating rounds (if anyone ever did, for that matter)? One might also argue that judges and debaters alike have no need for paradigm theory, and that their ability to comfortably navigate clashes between consequentialist and non-consequentialist theories proves that paradigm theory is an unnecessary complication. I propose that there is an argument to be made against the wholesale extinction of paradigm theory debates that extends beyond the endorsement of particular paradigms. My position is that specifically advocating a paradigm for evaluation is not a needless complication, but actually an instrumental check against judge bias, a necessity for diverse and educational argumentation, and a strategically valuable tool for winning debate rounds.

First, we should visit the question of judge bias. While judge bias – here referring to the intentional or unintentional projection of personal beliefs into the analysis of arguments made in the round such that undue credence is given to an argument – can occur to an insignificant extent on all issues, failure to provide and justify a theoretical paradigm for framework debates poses one of the greatest risks for intervention. If we accept that for an argument to be coherent it must have three components – a claim, warrant, and impact – it becomes clear how the absence of a theoretical paradigm renders frameworks incomplete. A typical utilitarianism framework makes the claim that actions that maximize the good are ethically required, and warrants it in any number of ways; what it fails to do is impact calculus. Most would say that the impact is logical. If won, the judge would then utilize the utilitarian framework to evaluate offense and identify which side an agent would be morally required to take, assigning a ballot to that side. However, this logical connection only holds if the norm is to evaluate offense under a “Comparing Worlds” paradigm until proven otherwise. To assume a “Comparing Worlds” paradigm absent one being specifically justified, however, is judge bias, given that utilitarian offense could be evaluated differently under “Best Justification,” “Offense-Defense,” and “Truth-Testing” paradigms.

In a case where both debaters concede to a utilitarian framework and impact offense in a manner that implicates “Comparing Worlds,” this bias appears harmless. But any practice that allows judges to make decisions that influence the outcomes of round independent of arguments forwarded in round is a step away from objective and educational discussions. A judge presuming a “Truth-Testing” paradigm would resolve the previously described round very differently. The debaters, having simply assumed justified utilitarianism entailed a “Comparing Worlds” paradigm, would fail to discuss the link between utilitarianism being true and the resolution as a cognitive statement, leaving it up to the judge to presume instead of evaluating the debate. No matter the specifics of the situation, the result is a built-in potential for inconsistency in rendering a decision, which is incompatible with our notion of how debates should occur.

Of course one can respond by saying that what paradigm is implied by an ethical theory is clear and any reasonable judge would consistently make coherent decisions. Though past experience would seem to contradict this, this response brings up a more important question: whether that jump is conducive to educational discourse to begin with. My second point is that specifying theoretical paradigms is a necessary component of educational debates. Outside of the specifics of the issue, any type of engagement on incomplete arguments prevents maximally productive discourse while simultaneously fostering bad argumentative habits, and if theoretical paradigms are to be seen as impacting for traditional ethical theories like I posit above, failure to include them entails incomplete argumentation.

Similarly to all clearly outlined advocacies, specifying a theoretical paradigm allows for clarity and precision, as what debaters defend is clearly spelled out. Yet this is even more important with framework debates that already contain numerous intricacies. Questions of meta-ethics, epistemological justification, ontological foundation, etc., are just a handful of nuances debaters have added to framework debates. Along with each layer come the weighing and prioritization that affect how to resolve clash on the framework. Outlining a clear paradigm is essential for clarifying interaction on these layers by separating educational and fairness considerations from ethical ones. An example of the issues that can arise when this clarification is missing is the notorious practice of couching a real-world decision-making theory standard under a claim that governments must act in particular manner. Of course, how governments act now is irrelevant to considerations of how they should act if we accept the implications of the “is-and-ought” dilemma, meaning that the fact governments are utilitarian isn’t a sufficient reason to prefer a framework. Likewise, educational merit doesn’t provide an independent justification for an ethical theory. If we are concerned with education though, it does provide a reason to utilize the decision-calculus independent of its truth.

Furthermore, failing to delineate the ethical components of framework discussion from the theoretical ones will often negatively impact the flow of the argument. Since theoretical paradigms as I have outlined them serve to impact ethical theories, they function as constraints on what theories are relevant, as well as answer how and why they are relevant. This means that we must reconcile the paradigm question before discussing the ethical one; to attempt and resolve the ethical framework first would both be impossible and uneducational. For instance, if a debater wins that a utilitarianism framework is correct, yet their opponent justifies truth-testing, the first debater must modify their framework to show how it justifies propositions, which is both difficult and highly counter-intuitive to do. Likewise, if it is shown that utilizing a utilitarian calculus is uneducational in that it stifles creativity by, e.g., forcing us to be overly pragmatic, we would have reason to not use one even if it were consistent with the paradigm justified in round.

Throughout my argument, you may have noticed that I have avoided talking about specific theoretical paradigms as correlated with particular ethical theories. This is, of course, not to say that particular combinations are not more educationally consistent than others, but rather to illustrate that there is no one-to-one correspondence between ethical theories and theoretical paradigms. Almost any ethical framework can function under a theoretical one with enough adjustment or flexibility, and it appears to me that this is a conversation worth having, whether in round or outside of it. Without a revitalization of paradigm theory in the debate space, we risk losing out on the educational merits of the less popular and intuitive paradigms like “Best Justification.” In forcing debaters to take a stance on these issues rather than defaulting to assumptions held by the judge and the community at large, the potential for “Best Justification” or “Offense-Defense” modeled cases is pragmatically speaking only possible if theoretical paradigms are important to begin with. The lesser known paradigms fell out of favor due to the lack of acknowledgment or engagement on the theoretical paradigm issue round, and I fail to see any indication they will make a resurgence independent of this issue. My point though is less that these paradigms have specific inherent educational merits that we are missing out on, but rather that clash between them and the more widely accepted paradigms is valuable and only possible once we place emphasis on theoretical paradigms once again.

While, as you can gather from my arguments, I am of the firm belief that the educational aspect of debate should be prioritized above its competitive aspect, paradigm theory is not without strategic merit. First and foremost it provides debaters with a higher, exclusionary layer on the framework debate that they can use to hedge against different frameworks as well as framework answers. Second, it can allow for much more positional and strategic casing. Theoretically one can justify a “Comparing Worlds” paradigm and prioritize utilitarianism as being the most educational system, then read a meta-ethic, followed by generic justifications for utilitarianism. This gives one three layers to resolve the framework debate in one’s favor. More strategic is a framework like “Best Justification,” which allows you to approach casing through a more diverse set of cases. On this topic for instance, it seems consistent with “Best Justification” to advocate a coherentist approach to epistemic justification and then suggest that social beliefs about presuming consent are most coherent. As another example, one can justify an “Offense-Defense” paradigm that would allow one to leverage framework against skep triggers if one feels uncomfortable engaging permissibility or presumption; conversely, the option exists to us0e a “Truth Testing” paradigm to force opponents to answer skepticism arguments as well as to justify their theoretical legitimacy.

The possibilities go on, but what they ultimately add up to in this case is that we shouldn’t be so quick to abandon old traditions in the pursuit of more progressive debate. Theoretical paradigms may seem archaic when compared to traditional theory debates and framework issues; however, the utility they once served hasn’t gone away. In evaluating the progressive direction the activity is headed in, I think that theoretical paradigms can help guide us to a better future.