Pre-Fiat Arguments

By Emily Massey, Grant Reiter, and Geoff Kristof


In many rounds nowadays, a debater says something like the following: “Prioritizing environmental protection minimizes oppression, and oppression is the only impact that matters because the role of the ballot is to empower people, so this is a reason to affirm.” This makes no sense, as we will explain in this article. If you want to justify a standard of minimizing oppression, you need to do it at the level of normative framework debate. Obviously, we aren’t opposed to the use of these so-called “pre-fiat arguments” for strategic purposes, but we are mystified that debate has gotten to a point where they are ever strategic. Judges seem not to recognize their clear flaws. There are a few simple reasons these arguments should never win.


First, their role of the ballot arguments say the best thing is to stop oppression (or some variant) in the real world, so the judge should vote for whoever actually stops oppression. Pre-fiat debaters then say that this means we should use a standard of resisting oppression on the post-fiat level and debate about which side of the resolution meets this standard better. They use the pre-fiat argument to justify their standard and then have only post-fiat offense linking to that standard. But guess what…when the judge votes aff, it doesn’t actually cause developing countries to prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction. Your fiat doesn’t extend to the real world. Why should we think that voting aff does anything to stop diamond mining in Botswana, for instance? So these debaters have no link to their own role of the ballot, since they say the ballot should make a difference in the real world.


Second, the ballot tells judges to vote for the better debater. Judges have no jurisdiction to vote to make the world or the debate community a better place. Do judges need to do the Macarena if debaters say they should? No, and for the same reason, they don’t need to act as some kind of critical educator even if debaters say they should. In fact, they can’t use the ballot to do so, since that runs counter to its instructions.


Pre-fiat debaters often respond that they are “reinterpreting what it means to do the better debating.” This interpretation is implausible, to say the least. First, the better debater is probably the person who’s better at debate, not the better person. You wouldn’t say, “Gertrude’s the better musician because she volunteers at a homeless shelter.” Gertrude would be the better musician if she were more skilled at her instrument. Second, their interpretation assumes that “debate” means something like “the activity of resisting oppression” but this isn’t supported by any definition anywhere and obviously clashes with common usage. Third, their interpretation eliminates the role of the resolution, in extreme cases, and the evaluative mechanism in the resolution in all cases. Words like “ought” and “should” become unnecessary since the role of the ballot circumvents any framework debate about what those words imply. But most people would probably take the resolution to have at least something to do with debate, so this interpretation can’t be right.


Third, pre-fiat debaters claim that their impacts precede fairness. To see what’s wrong with this, we need just to remember why fairness matters in debate in the first place. Fairness constrains substance since abuse skews the judge’s evaluation of who did the better debating on the substantive layer. It constrains pre-fiat impacts for exactly the same reason. Even if the better debater is the person who resists oppression the most, abuse skews the judge’s evaluation of who did the better debating on that pre-fiat layer.


Finally, pre-fiat debaters often get rid of responses in a viciously circular way. Most pre-fiat arguments amount to arguments about why the ballot has “real world” implications, and then an intuitive assertion that oppression is bad. They argue that any attempt to circumvent the pre-fiat argument will simply be a real-world instance of silencing or oppression, which is precisely what their argument indicts.


At first glance, this analysis may sound convincing. But there must be a problem with it, since the opponent can construct a parallel argument: the application of the pre-fiat argument to theory or other responses is itself subject to the responses to which it is being applied. For instance, if the opponent says the pre-fiat argument has no impact, it begs the question to reject that response on the grounds that it causes the bad impact of the pre-fiat argument. Here we have a fairly typical scenario in LD: one in which both debaters have competing pre-requisite arguments. Debaters are told to “weigh” when confronted with such a situation. But one weighs by analyzing the interaction between the internal warrants of the respective arguments. Since the pre-fiat argument is essentially an unwarranted appeal to the judge’s intuition that oppression is bad, there are no internal warrants for the opponent to weigh against. The opponent is left with only one response: that there is no warrant for why oppression is bad.[1] But this is precisely the type of response that feeds into the pre-fiat argument.


How to resolve this standoff? Most judges and debaters accept, as a general (default) principle that arguments require warrants, unless a debater argues otherwise in-round. The pre-fiat argument upends this default principle by arguing that “oppression bad” requires no warrant. The problem is that once the opponent contests the paradigm shift, judges have no way of evaluating the debate between competing paradigms of evaluation without already assuming one. Given that the default paradigm is that arguments need warrants, it makes no sense for judges to accept the pre-fiat debater’s paradigm—that some arguments don’t need warrants—in the debate about which paradigm to adopt. The fact that pre-fiat arguments even require a “role of the ballot” section at all also lends credence to the idea that the onus is on the pre-fiat debater to justify the paradigm shift. This is why it makes little sense for pre-fiat debaters to apply their pre-fiat arguments to responses about whether pre-fiat debate makes sense, is legitimate, or requires warrants.


We aren’t really trying to convince anyone to stop running pre-fiat arguments—we understand that as long as they keep winning, people will keep running them. But our hope is that with smarter responses from opponents and better decisions by judges, these arguments will eventually stop winning and die out naturally.

[1] This is simplified for the sake of space. Of course, the pre-fiat debater needs to do much more than win that oppression is bad. They must win that (a) it is bad, (b) it is the only thing that is bad, and (c) the particular conception of oppression with which they operate (usually one that denies the relevance of the intent/foresight distinction) is the right one. Pre-fiat arguments typically assert all of these claims, and an opponent could contest every one of them.