Pre-Fiat Arguments by Emily Massey, Grant Reiter, and Geoff Kristof

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.

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  • Fr Mon

    Article sounds racist, anti-black and white supreme to me.

  • Christian Quiroz

    I think that one of my teammates puts it best:

    “Thousands of children are born into a world of hate and discrimination. We accept this world because whenever we argue against it, society concludes that the world of discrimination is “better”. Society doesn’t allow us to speak against this at all. We fight and fight again but what do we get? A hyper-masculine homophobic racist society in which there is no escaping. Debate gives me a voice, a small one yes, but a voice. Through this voice I tell others the truth of our world and reveal to them that racism, sexism, classim, that all these horrible -isms do exist and need to be stopped. I’ve met many who now share my views and I hope to start an eventual change in society. Slow but a necessary change, all through debate.”

  • alex smith

    Ryan Wash asked it, Jared asked it, and I’ll ask it: debate is fair for *who* now?

    • travisfife

      This comment and the comments like it are truly absurd. Think about what the article said – they are indicting a particular type of pre-fiat argument and one that we can all agree is logically incoherent. Nothing they said advocates judges to ignore these arguments or opponents stop responding.

      More importantly though, their article doesn’t say these positions are bad in general. Rather they are outlining an indict of an argument they find to be false. If I told you there was a logical gap in some argument, your response wouldn’t make sense if you just said that exposing this gap is oppressive. You have to explain how this gap doesn’t exist or change the argument to avoid that. Even if this article was treated as debate law, their criticisms are avoidable for the most part and the arguments can still have a place in debate given they are presented in a more coherent manner.

      I think you and others posting about privilege in this discussion are conflating the position in this article with other attacks against different types of arguments.

      • Martin Sigalow

        You know I’d never really thought I’d be defending a comment Smitty made on the Update but your comment is pretty wrong.

        “Think about what the article said – they are indicting a particular type of pre-fiat argument and one that we can all agree is logically incoherent.”

        It is abundantly clear from all of the comments on this thread external to and include the privilege stuff that “we” do not agree that “a particular type of prefiat argument” doesn’t make sense. Also, pepsi challenge: describe this argument for me, please? As per my comment, I’m pretty sure that most of the four different arguments are indicting wildly different types of arguments, some of them rare. Plus, the article is framed as “prefiat arguments are bad generally,” so you give out too much credit.

        “Nothing they said advocates judges to ignore these arguments or opponents stop responding.”


        “More importantly though, their article doesn’t say these positions are bad in general. Rather they are outlining an indict of an argument they find to be false.”

        Depending on what you meant by “bad” there this is trivially false, trivially true, or answered above.

        “If I told you there was a logical gap in some argument, your response wouldn’t make sense if you just said that exposing this gap is oppressive. You have to explain how this gap doesn’t exist or change the argument to avoid that. Even if this article was treated as debate law, their criticisms are avoidable for the most part and the arguments can still have a place in debate given they are presented in a more coherent manner.”

        You miss the point. Most of the privilege stuff on this thread, as indicated by their choice of comments, is an indict of the way that fairness/theory arguments are employed to answer prefiat positions, a stance explicitly endorsed by the authors of this article. And, if you understand the way that the privilege argument plays out, it directly responds to the fairness good arguments, which should answer your “it’s logical” argument.

        “I think you and others posting about privilege in this discussion are conflating the position in this article with other attacks against different types of arguments.”


        All of this said, if you want contribute productively to this discussion Smitty, you should probably post a real comment somewhere on the thread, where you see someone making an argument and answer it from the point of view you take here.

    • Fritz Pielstick

      I love ya, Smitty, but I’m not even sure how many times I’ve seen you vote on theory. A lot.

      • alex smith

        You should watch me judge college debate – I vote on “the criticism proves that your theory argument is politically or ethically bankrupt and is a link to the criticism” like it’s my job. I vote for that argument quite a bit in high school too; it’s just that no one ever makes it.

        I will have more substantive thoughts on the article later. The cliffs notes are that I don’t agree with it (although I do agree that the pre-fiat and post-fiat distinction is problematic and that the “pre-fiat” framing went out of fashion in policy years ago for very good reason) and that I think some of that stems from an artificially narrow conception of “fairness” and of what a warranted argument looks like. I also think the article relies on some straw men. Having been judging for nearly a decade now, good critique debate does not look like the authors portray it at all. I could come up with lots of examples, but the Emporia video is probably a good enough one. Watch it.

        But I will say, as a last spoiler, that the authors’ refrain to “fairness has to constrain substance” is pretty thin. At the very least, I don’t think it’s possible to answer this question without answering the question that’s already been asked: “debate is fair for WHO now?” (It might show, for instance, that the “fairness constrains substance” folks have some serious uniqueness issues to grapple with).

  • James McElwain

    Part of the reason why lazy responses like “You’re privileged” get dropped in response to articles like this is because there is a huge lack of reciprocity when it comes to discussing these issues. No one ever argues that phil framework should “die out naturally” yet the authors of this article are able to say the same about pre-fiat args with such ease it is scary. I would suggest that the authors engage with the lit to try to understand why other people feel these positions actually have warrants, but when you’ve already concluded that an entire type of argumentation needs to “die out naturally,” it seems unlikely that y’all would be willing to do so.

    Given that y’all admit that it’s unlikely that people will stop running these arguments any time soon, it seems way more productive to try to understand why other people care about these arguments than simply to assert that they need to die off. It’s pretty cynical to assume that people only run these arguments because they win. There are definitely problems with how these arguments are run, but if your actual motive is to make debate a better, more educational space, y’all should be starting discussion about how these positions can be run better, rather than not run at all. I’m sure that debaters could be explaining their warrants better, but it seems like y’all have already made up your mind that there are no warrants in the first place.

    • Rebar Niemi

      well said.

    • Emily Massey

      Apparently the phrase “die out naturally” offended people. We were not expressing some personal vendetta. All we were saying is: if opponents made ideal responses and judges made unbiased decisions, good arguments would tend to win more. So the fact that illogical arguments are winning more is an indication that debate is not ideal right now. We hope it becomes more ideal. Is it really so offensive to say that one hopes that more logical arguments will win more in the future?

      Also, I would not take personal offense, though I would disagree, if someone said he thought philosophical framework debate was illogical and that he hoped it would die out naturally. There is a huge difference between pointing out a logical problem with an argument and insulting the character of the person running the argument. Our article does the former, not the latter. I even sympathize with the motivation behind a lot of these arguments (who doesn’t want debate to be more accessible?), but that’s totally irrelevant to the question in which our article is interested.

      There are certainly philosophical positions I hope will die out naturally. For instance, I hope that no one will still be running Ataner affs (Whitman has been running one since Blake, to further convince you that this “die out” phrase means nothing personal) by TOC. This is because the arguments in the Ataner article seem pretty bad to me. If I saw Ataner affs at TOC, I would take it as an indication that debaters never figured out good responses, or that judges hacked for Ataner (unlikely), which I would think was unfortunate.

      The article never ASSUMES that pre-fiat arguments are unwarranted. We are responding to a current trend which we’ve observed, and we MAKE ARGUMENTS throughout for why the way we’ve seen people run these arguments does not make much sense. Throughout the comments, people have gestured toward some ideal pre-fiat argument, which we have yet to see, but this is not really responsive to our article.

  • rkuang

    might be worth watching
    (ps northwestern definitely does not make the argument “can’t vote on that cuz the ballots says so”)

    • Jack Ave

      ^We need these discussions in LD.

    • Anon

      Damn, if only they had read this article. They might have won, because these positions are so illogical amirite.

  • dmoerner

    There seem to be two dominant threads in the objections to this article.

    1. That the practices critiqued by the authors exemplify ‘bad’ prefiat debate, in part because the prefiat impacts are underexplained and underwarranted. See Jeff Hannan, Ryan Carelli, anon808, and others below. Many of these posts make two further claims: (a) that ‘good’ prefiat debate is possible, although none of them give any real substance to what a good warrant for prefiat normative impacts would look like, and (b) some suggest that empirically ‘good’ prefiat debate is the norm. I think that (b) is definitely false, and I’d be interested in more discussion of what good prefiat debate looks like to satisfy (a).

    2. That prefiat impacts of the form ‘oppression is bad’ are sufficiently justified by appeal to our moral intuitions. See the Anonymous post which cut Korsgaard and Daniel Tartakovsky. An explicit appeal to moral intuition is made by Anonymous, and suggested by Tartakovsky.

    What I find bizarre is that the kind of intuitive warrant given in (2) seems like an obviously inadequate warrant to satisfy (1a). Why? Because appeals to intuition, particularly moral intuition, make it utterly mysterious why the impact is supposed to be prefiat at all.

    Consider what Tartakovsky says: “why should judges’ default assumption be that “oppression is not bad” rather than “oppression is bad”?” This is ambiguous – what does “bad” mean in this context – that is, is it postfiat or prefiat? It seems to me that the intuitive support for Tartakovsky’s appeal rests on our postfiat assumptions about standards debate – that ‘bad’ is used in the same abstract sense as in ‘violating autonomy is bad’. Consider how his own thought experiment is about a postfiat framework debate. But to establish a prefiat impact he needs a different sense of ‘bad’ – one that directly links to the ballot. I think a better test for the intuition he needs is, “Why should judges’ default assumption be that “oppression shouldn’t be evaluated any differently from other postfiat normative impacts” rather than that “oppression should be evaluated at a prefiat level”?” And my intuitions here are definitely for the former.

    Maybe there’s some plausible way to answer (1a). But I don’t think that appeal to intuitions as in (2) will do it. And if people who defend the use of prefiat arguments appeal to (2), I think the article is right to say that their impacts should really be evaluated postfiat level. Personally, I’ve never seen a defense for (1a) which wasn’t just regurgitated policy cards or an appeal to intuition.

    • Daniel Tartakovsky

      My comment – that the judge is more justified in defaulting to “oppression is bad” than to “the badness of oppression is indeterminate” – is actually quite limited in nature. I don’t claim that the judge’s default position that “oppression is bad” is a sufficient way to justify pre-fiat impacts (certainly the default “death is bad” is post-fiat). That would imply that any debater could label any impact pre-fiat and automatically win “framework.” I do not make that claim (if I did, I would presumably have to deny that they would have to weigh their impacts against their opponent’s impacts). If anyone’s interested in talking to me about other questions – I haven’t really thought much about the broader issue of pre-fiat justifications – we can talk at the Harvard tournament or by email ( No time now.

    • Anon

      I did not make an outright appeal to intuition, I said that we should not immediately discount intuition. I even said that intuition is certainly nit the only thing relevant, but intuitions are important. The rest of my comment explained that predict arguments actually make justified normative conclusions. They either speak to a general moral/political truth, or a constitutive norm of debate, or both.

    • Sam Anderson

      “Consider what Tartakovsky says: “why should judges’ default assumption be that “oppression is not bad” rather than “oppression is bad”?” This is ambiguous – what does “bad” mean in this context – that is, is it postfiat or prefiat? It seems to me that the intuitive support for Tartakovsky’s appeal rests on our postfiat assumptions about standards debate – that ‘bad’ is used in the same abstract sense as in ‘violating autonomy is bad’. Consider how his own thought experiment is about a postfiat framework debate. But to establish a prefiat impact he needs a different sense of ‘bad’ – one that directly links to the ballot.”

      This seems to misunderstand how K’s generally work. It seems to me that most K’s that claim a prefiat impact (not all of them though) will have pedagogical or prefiat impacts in the case, arguments about how the other side is operating off of oppressive modes of thought or ideologies and the ballot propagates them which has real-world implications. If the case structure is something like “affirming promotes biopower/statism/etc.” -> “extinction” -> “alt: reject bad thing” with a sentence tacked on about how fiat is illusory, I agree, that is a bad K. If the critical position has a developed role of the ballot with authors writing about the implications of their theory in an educational context, or the importance of local struggles against oppression, or anything about harms stemming from an oppressive mindset and not merely oppressive policies then that’s not unwarranted.

      Your pre/post-fiat intuition claims don’t really make sense either. It’s not that judges intuitively should believe that post-fiat oppression is bad and pre-fiat oppression needs a warrant (if anything, it would be the other way around). Rather, oppression is bad in any context, that’s what’s intuitive. The K argues that voting aff perpetuates oppression in the real world (the pre-fiat world), therefore it’s intuitive that voting aff is bad. Yes, it’s just an appeal to your intuitions, but a) all normative claims are either an appeal to intuition on some level or contain a bad leap of logic (if a debater deductively proved the One True Morality that would probably be a pretty big deal), “oppression bad” just cuts to the chase, and b) it’s no more an appeal to intuition than theory is. I’ve never seen a metaethical justification for why the judge should care about fairness, yet no one calls that “an appeal to your intuitions”. If carded positions from scholars (some of whom are explicitly writing in the context of debate) are unwarranted, how do you treat the one sentence blip “Fairness is a voter because debate is a competitive activity and unfair arguments skew your evaluation of the round”?

    • Erik Baker

      “This is ambiguous – what does ‘bad’ mean in this context – that is, is it postfiat or prefiat?” This is extraordinarily disingenuous. I think it’s plainly clear what “bad” means in this context: exactly what “bad” means when anyone who prioritizes genuine engagement with actual problems in the world over empty sophistries uses it to condemn injustices. The demand for a rigorous warrant for why prefiat impacts like hostility towards minorities or exclusion are bad prioritizes logical rigor over lived experience and the chance to make things actually better. I don’t understand why oppression’s status as an impact that isn’t purely fictive is insufficient to warrant unique consideration.

  • Emily Massey

    Some of what I said to David responds to your post. I’ll also respond specifically to what you’ve said about our first argument, since many other commenters have said the same thing. Basically, we agree. Our first argument does not apply to all pre-fiat arguments in principle. It just applies to the variant about which we specifically wrote this article (see the first sentence of the article). Many people have pointed out that this variant, in which the pre-fiat argument is used as a justification for a post-fiat standard, is not a good way of making pre-fiat arguments. I’d have to say they’re right about that. However, it’s not true, as some have said, that this is an uncommon use of pre-fiat arguments. On the contrary, it’s what I’ve seen in countless rounds this year (and I’ve judged a lot of tournaments) and heard about from many others.

    • Martin Sigalow

      I see you’ve engaged a lot more threads than mine on here, so I’ll make an effort to not take up too much of your time so you can get to those.

      You are right that we don’t disagree much. I do think, though, that prefiat arguments about the role of the ballot reframe what judges use to make a determination of who wins the debate. In this way, I don’t think it is problematic at all for a role of the ballot involve a “post-fiat” determinant in order to show who won the debate. I do not think there is a contradiction when a person says “the role of the ballot is to vote for the affirmative if they win that resource extraction is more oppressive than environmental protection and to vote negative if they win the opposite.” This doesn’t require they win that “they” ultimately reduce oppression in this debate. If the judge has a duty to reject things that are oppressive, and resource extraction is the worst form of oppression, and the negative is intrinsically tied to resource extraction (this is definitely the worst part of this syllogism, so it is out of sync with their other arguments for ROB generally, which is why doing this post-fiat thing while aff is not as strategic while doing it as negative), then the judge should vote affirmative. My answer to your first argument was an answer to your reason why some conceptualizations of the role of the ballot didn’t make sense in the context of these role of the ballots.

      Obviously if the role of the ballot is “vote for the debater whose act in this debate space minimizes oppression more” and then they just talk about extraction being oppressive and sit down, then their offense probably doesn’t link, unless they also make arguments about how speech-acts against challenges dominant power structures. I think what has happened is that people nowadays tend to have vaguely worded role of the ballots. I think that in these cases I would examine the warrants to determine what their arguments actually justify.

      I hope this clears things up.

      • Emily Massey

        The problem is that the only way I’ve ever seen those arguments run, their reason for why the judge should “reject” oppression is that the role of debate is to stop real-world oppression. I’m also not sure what an argument would look like for the claim that the judge’s role is to use a standard of minimizing oppression on the post-fiat level, regardless of the normative framework debate. That would have to be a very strange argument.

        • Martin Sigalow

          It would work like this: the role of the judge is to vote against things that are oppressive. The negative is inextricably tied to extraction (again, I’d attack this part), so voting for the negative is an endorsement or resource extraction, while voting affirmative is a rejection of resource extraction. Resource extraction is inherently oppressive. Therefore, the judge should vote affirmative.

          You are right that the warrant for a ROB that is a rejection of oppression is often warranted by arguments about oppression being bad in the real world, or something. But think of this as a procedural and not an aggregate: oppression is bad, so we should reject practices associated with it. The negative is such a practice. Therefore, the judge should vote against them.

          What I think Dmo points out, and what we are in agreement on as far as these arguments are concerned, is that at the intermediate levels of debate people are pretty bad at employing pre-fiat arguments in ways that make sense.

          • Emily Massey

            Right, my question is about how they would warrant the first step in that argument: “the role of the judge is to vote against things are oppressive.” Later in the comment you say “oppression is bad, so we should reject practices associated with it.” If oppression is bad, all that seems to justify is that the judge shouldn’t do oppressive things (or maybe, even, should not allow oppression as a foreseen consequence, though of course that depends on whether the specific argument for oppression being bad is deontological or consequentialist). But I don’t see how it would justify that the judge should vote aff just because the aff stops oppression on a post-fiat level.

          • Martin Sigalow

            Alright. I think I see where the confusion lies now.

            Most role of the sophisticated role of the ballot arguments do not simply say “oppression is bad.” The claim amounts to proving that the judge should reject practices that are oppressive, so in that sense the consequences are similar in some debates. However, the argument does go the extra step you seem to think it does not go. These arguments are explicitly that the judge should vote against ideologies that are oppressive, not just that they shgould think that oppression is bad, in a truly vacuous way. These arguments are usually grounded in the constitutive role of the judge as an educator, or make claims that debate is a unique space that oppressive ideologies must be resisted within. These arguments definitely exist, and are specific to the judge’s unique obligation. My use of “oppression is bad” was just shorthand for the earlier role of the ballot argument. The reason that this particular rejection of oppression can often be procedural and not aggregate lies in its structure, in the same way that theory being a procedural lies in its structure, not just in its warrant for fairness being good: it is an argument that the judge should reject practices that are oppressive immediately. It being consequentialist or deontological in its warrant is structurally (and, as indicated in my top-most comment, substantively by most metrics) not relevant; the structure of most role of the ballot arguments as I have described simply demand that it be applied procedurally when the judge is determining who won the debate.

            I think this confusion is evident in you last sentence: “…the aff stops oppression on a post-fiat level.” What does it mean to “stop x on a post-fiat level” in a world where both debaters acknowledge that fiat is illusory and the resolution doesn’t actually get implemented? The answer, in the context of these role of the ballot arguments, is “it is shown that resource extraction is tied to the negative and is worse than environmental protection which is tied to the affirmative.” The aff hasn’t really “stopped” anything. They haven’t acted. They’ve just said that if they isolate within the negative something the judge should by their own duties as an educator explicitly reject by signing the ballot against them, they win. Let’s use an extreme, stupid, and absurd example for the purpose of clarity (and not for the sake of intuitive appeal, per se): The resolution is “Resolved: Environmental protection should be prioritized over racism when the two are in conflict.” The aff would say that the judge is an educator and has special obligations to reject racism, and that voting negative would run contrary to that since it would amount to ideological consistency with racism, and that voting affirmative is required. The aff hasn’t “done” anything, but they have shown, on the “post-fiat level,” as it were, that the judge’s obligation kicks in.

            Also, I’ve really enjoyed the discussion. Thanks for being cordial and stuff.

          • Emily Massey

            I can see how the argument you’re citing is a logical possibility, but I’m still skeptical that debaters make it. At least, in all the rounds I’ve ever seen, this is not the argument their authors are actually making. I also think it would be a really weird argument.

            It seems to me that you’re being too generous in your interpretation of “the judge’s role is to reject oppression.” This claim can be interpreted in at least two ways:

            1. The judge should not do things that are oppressive or allow debaters to do things that are oppressive. The judge should educate debaters in a way that leads the debaters to resist oppression in their real lives. It is constitutive of debate to not oppress people and/or to produce people who will resist oppression.

            2. The judge should vote against arguments that, if acted on in the real world, would cause oppression. (In your example, this would apply to any argument the negative made in favor of resource extraction.) This is true even if the debater making those arguments does not act on them in the real world, cause them to be acted on in the real world (they’re post-fiat), or believe that they should be acted on in the real world. On this topic, this means the judge should vote based on whether environmental protection or resource extraction is less oppressive. It is irrelevant whether the debaters’ arguments actually cause any oppression. In fact, the judge should vote against them even if doing so actually causes more oppression in the real world/produces debaters who are less willing or able to resist oppression in the real world.

            All the authors I’ve ever seen carded were making the first argument, not the second. I can understand why someone would think the first is true. I can’t say the same about the second. Yet we agree that the type of pre-fiat argument on which this article focuses would require the second, right? Maybe this discussion would be more productive if you could you give me some examples of authors who make the second argument, because I honestly have never seen any.

          • Martin Sigalow

            Ah, an empirical question. This is a little easier to resolve I suppose.

            I’ve seen debaters make this argument coherently at least five times. When you say “this is not the argument their authors are making,” this is sometimes true. I would start with the caveats, though, that a) the vast majority of authors are not talking about debate itself, obviously, but something that a debater will parallel to a debate situation, and that b) sometimes this argument is made analytically and well. b) is obviously correct, and I think that all of my comments above are sufficient to show that what quite a few of these authors are actually talking about is analogous . More specifically, I will say this: most authors are talking about acts of “intellectual endorsement” or encouragement. My comments above prove that, in many situations, the affirmative can win that voting for their opponent is an intellectual endorsement of a set of positions that are objectionable, i.e. extraction is colonialist and the intellectual should not endorse colonialist things (as I’ve said in every other comment, this point is contestable).

            Yes, it would require the second type of argument. I should note that my kids don’t exactly go for the K with alarming frequency so I may not have many cards to straight up show up, though others might. However, this card, in the context of security, is pretty good at making the argument that the role of intellectuals should be to reject objectionable stances using discourse. It’s a long card because it’s from policy debate (where a fair few of these arguments, as debated well, lie)

            Richard Wyn Jones, Professor International Politics at Aberystwyth University, “Security, Strategy, and Critical Theory”, 1999, p. 155-163

            “The central political task of the intellectuals is…critical security studies.”

            Any K debaters listening into this convo (not many, judging by the number of likes on this thread) could be free to chime in with more ev if you have it.

  • Jacob Nails

    “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.”

    The level of irony here is hard to fathom.

    There is absolutely an epidemic of debaters using pre-fiat claims to exclude certain
    VC arguments, but the impact is “oppression” far, far less than it is “strategy skew” or “debatability.”

    “Skepticism is bad because it causes oppression.”
    “Skepticism is bad because it kills my turn ground.”
    Pot, kettle.

    • Grant Reiter

      This really doesn’t make much sense to me. Our article never encourages debaters to read theory instead of engaging positions substantively. We only say that theory (especially fairness) should come logically prior to these pre-fiat arguments.

      • Jacob Nails

        You’re right that this isn’t a direct refutation of the article; I am actually sympathetic to the conclusion that pre-fiat standards for post-fiat cases are bad for debate. However, I find it hypocritical that many of the debaters who bemoan these strategies employ the exact same logic in a different form.

        On a side note, I disagree with your reasoning that fairness must come
        logically prior. It seems like they should be weighed here.

        • Grant Reiter

          I can see why you think they would be weighed. It would make sense to weigh an education argument with a pre-fiat argument because both are about making debate a better place. But our argument is not that fairness is good for an external reason like deterring future abuse. Fairness is a voter because the judge can’t determine the better debater if one debater has skewed the playing field (that’s a jurisdictional reason).

          • Jacob Nails

            1. The “skewed evaluation” is never absolute. A debater writing their theory shell in a sans-serif font might skew evaluation of that same shell ever so slightly in their own favor, but since this casts only very slight epistemic doubt, the 98% risk that the initial shell is true could still outweigh.

            I think “fairness precedes education” can be a very strong argument, but it will depend on comparing the impact to fairness versus the residual risk of the education impact, and that will in turn depend on the magnitude of the skew. Hence the debate will come down to weighing.

            Replace “education” with any other pre-fiat impact like anti-colonial discourse, anxiety towards death (Bronx…), or fun. The same logic applies.

            2. I’m skeptical that this logic extends to pre-fiat VC warrants at all. Consider this example. AC reads a plan and says lans
            are educational. NC reads ‘T – general principle’ and claims their fair shot to win substance was skewed, e.g. by unlimited prep burden. Does the neg have to respond to the aff’s education standards? Of course!

            It’s not enough to say “my ability to answer the AC was skewed, so you have to resolve fairness before you can determine who was more educational.” You still have to win theory.

            The skew claims are usually of the nature “I don’t have time to cover theory and substance” or “the quality of my substantive ground was skewed.” These are reasons the post-fiat layer was skewed, and so the neg shouldn’t be forced to engage it. These do not establish that the pre-fiat debate was itself skewed, so they don’t indict other pre-fiat claims.

            There are exceptions to this second point.
            An abusive pre-fiat kritik alternative might skew the pre-fiat layer, so theory might indict the ability to evaluate the K. However, that’s not generally the nature of abuse claims with pre-fiat VC warrants. The issue is usually that they unduly skew substance, e.g. by making it too hard to win framework or to turn the AC contention.

  • Jack Ave

    NSDUpdate is the ground zero for the high school version of the PRL.

    • BenjaminKoh

      We will post articles submitted as long as they are permitted as acceptable (e.g. not an ad for a used kayak or hateful messaging). NSD is not trying to forward a certain curriculum via the articles posted (the head to head series is LITERALLY two people who disagree about an issue). I have yet to reject an article that has been sent to me. While I was directly involving in the writing of the H2H articles (to coordinate responses for instance), this nor for instance Richard Dunn’s or Ty Joplin’s article were from my own initiative. They were submitted to me. Especially in the guise of this article, not everybody at NSD agrees with it. At least I for one disagree with some elements of it and am formulating a response.

      • Jack Ave

        My comment was meant to be taken in a sarcastic manner. NSDUpdate posts a lot of awesome articles. I don’t think NSD is actually forming a coalition against Ks nor should anyone else.

    • Jacob Nails

      80% of the responses so far have been extended line-by-line criticisms of this article. Not exactly an echo chamber.

  • anon808

    This article wildly overgeneralizes critical positions. It did, however, do an impressive job of knocking down a straw man though. I don’t have much time but here is a brief list of some reasons why this article flops.

    RE 1. Assuming that all (or even most) critical debaters claim that voting for them solves whatever dehumanization they bring up isn’t a fair assumption at all. Many critical or “pre-fiat” debaters simply claim that either a) it’s critical to have dialogue on important social issues or b) debating about fake worlds isn’t a productive use
    of the debate space so we should talk about issues that actually effect us as individuals instead.

    RE 2. I think very few pre-fiat debaters would claim that they’re single-handedly
    making the debate space some magical utopia. I also think that it’s a huge
    mischaracterization to claim that pre-fiat debaters are asking for the ballot
    because they’re the better person. Contextualizing what it means to be doing
    the better debating does not force the judge to choose the debater they agree
    with the most. It appeals to (and justifies) what the debate space SHOULD look
    like rather than what it either does look like or what the opponent assumes it is.

    RE 3. This article entirely misses the point here. Most pre-fiat debaters I’ve
    heard don’t claim that the criticism simply precedes fairness. They claim that
    the type of fairness that is promoted under the opponent’s conception of the
    debate space isn’t worth promoting/protecting and that it isn’t actually “fairness” at all.

    RE 4. a) the assertion of circularity is never even attempted to explained or
    warranted (which I find pretty funny). b) most pre-fiat arguments have VERY
    thoroughly justified reasons why “oppression is bad” or why the debate space should be used to deconstruct/challenge certain oppressive norms or practices. c) how is it not true that not even trying to engage a position that is about addressing real social issues is a form of silencing the debater??? The theory shells these kids are reading are ACTUALLY saying that the pre-fiat debater can’t advocate for the position that they are running. That seems like a tactic that is very clearly an attempt to silence them rather than just engaging the position.

    This article just seems to be written from a point of frustration. There are TONS of
    good substantive answers to these critical positions but no one seems to actually take the time to research and develop them in the LD community. When there is a common “post-fiat” argument that people have issues dealing with the natural response is typically to write solid blocks to that particular argument. I’m not sure why this can’t also be the cause pre-fiat arguments.

    “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.”

    This is a REALLY scary sentence to me. You think that this is the right way to approach making smarter responses to positions discussing social injustices? What is so wrong about having to substantively answer these positions?

    • anon808

      Whoops, didn’t mean to post anonymously. I’m Nick Smith. If anyone wants to be pointed in the direction of some articles that would be useful in substantively answering the types of positions outlined in this article feel free to toss me an email at

    • Emily Massey

      On the last part of your post, see my response to David Joannides. We think people should substantively answer positions. That’s why we don’t intervene against pre-fiat arguments. (That’s also one reason I dislike arguments that say people aren’t allowed to substantively answer them because answers “bite into the K.”) We are not advocating that people not substantively answer positions. This article is not strategic advice.

      The other portions of your comment should be addressed elsewhere.

  • Ryan Carelli

    I have a lot of problems with this article, and I think that they stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how good pre-fiat arguments function. Sorry if this is a bit long.

    The first argument regarding the conflation of pre- and post-fiat implications is just condemning bad critical debate, not critical debate as a whole. The alt or advocacy should have justified pre-fiat reasons to vote—that means WARRANTS and IMPACT COMPARISON. Good K debaters never make the mistake the article assumes, the argument is a strawman.

    The second role of the ballot argument endlessly begs the question. Saying that the ballot constrains the judge and the round just recreates the oppressive pedagogies that other academic activities fall in to. The empowerment of the debater is what makes debate so unique. Someone else can bring the discussion along that route, though.

    Even if we put that aside and assume that the ballot asks the judge to vote for the better debater, I think that it is possible to ‘reinterpret what it means to do the better debating’. For instance, what in the world do you mean by debate skill? If I make clear arguments that the judge should distance herself from an aspect of the affirmative’s representations, and win that a post-fiat world doesn’t exist, that seems like a legitimate use of pre-fiat arguments that falls within traditional concept of good debating. The argument this article makes is the same sort of reactionary knee-jerk that you hear from college coaches who insist that an argument must be rejected if it isn’t a ‘competitive post-fiat policy option’ because ‘that hippie nonsense isn’t debate’. Debaters ought to be able to define what debate is, and what debater’s burdens are within rounds, and judges should evaluate from within the framework that debaters establish. All of the problems that are suggested can be resolved within the context of the round by the debaters.

    The judge jurisdiction arguments are nonunique given that a judge has no jurisdiction over the resolution’s action either. How is voting for an imagined better world or debate community any different from voting for imagined plan or resolution implementation? Even under a truth-testing paradigm, why is testing the truth of pre-fiat mindsets or ethical construction any different than the truth of post-fiat impacts or standards debate? These are just arbitrary constructs that the debate community upholds. If the whole community thought that only pre-fiat impacts mattered, we would have a different understanding of jurisdiction claims. “Judge jurisdiction” is a concept created by debaters to maintain what is an entirely arbitrary status quo. If a debater decides to engage pre-fiat debate, the opponent should just make the decision to make framework arguments that judges should vote for post-fiat impacts resulting from USFG action or something of the sort. Jurisdiction relies on assumptions about what good debating is. What I mean is that jurisdiction arguments are just appeals to authority that do not function outside of the context of a framework debate about what it means to debate and what it means to judge, an argument that debaters can have themselves within the round [and do frequently in college debate].

    On the fairness arguments, good pre-fiat debaters don’t claim some sort of magical precedence. They argue that they outweigh fairness in some way or that their advocacy is equivalently fair or that the great educational gains from the advocacy overwhelm the marginal loss of fairness. You can have this framework debate just like you would have a theory debate, I have no idea why this article insists on intervening against the pre-fiat claims. Some pre-fiat claims are even incredibly predictable and core of topic literature [a lot of pre-fiat arguments on the presidential war powers college topic come to mind].

    More strawmen here too, why would a good debater ever intuitively assert that oppression is bad. They do impact calc too. That’s how they outweigh. That’s how they engage the framework debate.

    The ‘competing pre-requisites’ argument relies on this
    assumption that ‘the pre-fiat argument is essentially an unwarranted appeal to
    the judge’s intuition…there are no internal warrants for the opponent to weigh
    against’. First, all that pre-fiat means is that the argument is evaluated
    without the artificial imagined world of resolution or plan implementation. This
    means that mindset arguments, Ks that are not policy action alts [almost all of
    them], and countless other conventionally accepted arguments are pre-fiat. To
    say that a good K alt that happens pre-fiat has ‘no internal warrants’ is
    clearly false. If a debater got up and read oppression bad, they would have to
    warrant it or read an intuitionism framework, otherwise the ‘no warrant’
    response would be perfectly fine. So, while I agree that unwarranted appeals to
    the judge are bad, I don’t think that these reflect what pre-fiat arguments
    actually are.

    Role of the ballot debate, just like any framework debate, can be evaluated in the same way that we evaluate theory or substance, depending on the content of the role of the ballot argument. It is just a comparison of competing claims, and shouldn’t require any sort of presupposition to resolve. If a debater makes the argument that we don’t need warrants for arguments in his/her role of the ballot story, it should be easy to show that that makes debate non-functional.

    • Grant Reiter

      You’re right that some of our arguments aren’t responsive to every pre-fiat argument. But I agree with Moerner that saying “good K debaters” will provide adequate warrants and comparison is meaningless without giving examples of arguments that meet our objections.

      Your arguments about reinterpreting the better debater never answer our three reasons why this interpretation of the better debater doesn’t make sense. I agree that debaters can define what it means to be the better debater. Your arguments just don’t prove that this is the correct interpretation. You also say debate should be different, and the judge “should distance herself from an aspect of the affirmative’s representations.” But the question of the better debating is not a question of what debate should look like. It’s in large part a descriptive question of what debate is in the status quo.

      Then, you say that the “jurisdiction arguments are nonunique given that a judge has no jurisdiction over the resolution’s action either.” But this is only true if the judge has jurisdiction to vote on the pre-fiat arguments in the first place. If pre-fiat impacts don’t matter, then debaters would just need to win why the resolution’s action is normatively bad (i.e. win their FW and win offense to it). So this argument also relies on you winning why your interpretation of the better debater is correct.

      Lastly, your reasons why arguments can “outweigh” fairness would only make sense if theory functioned on the same layer as these arguments. If theory frames the evaluation of substantive arguments, then the judge would not have jurisdiction to vote on the skewed layer of the flow. I do agree with you that if they win that their advocacy is fair or win a counter-interpretation, then that would beat back the theory shell. At that point the judge would resolve the debate on the next highest layer of the flow.

      • Ryan Carelli

        I can link you to dozens of policy rounds where debaters make well warranted pre-fiat arguments. Look up Harvard BS on youtube for some recent examples–I think that this style can easily be emulated in LD given the relative length of the 2NR. I also very clearly discuss how K alternatives are well warranted and often operate pre-fiat. I have faced literally hundreds of these on the college circuit, we can discuss specific examples if you doubt that they exist.

        To respond to ‘objections’ beyond the line-by-line that I already did, you claim, “If you want to justify a standard of minimizing oppression, you need to do it at the level of normative framework debate,” but my argument is simply that this normative debating can have implications for arguments that aren’t post-fiat. The model of debate that I advocate would include the expected warranting, etc, and impact them to some mechanism of decision that falls outside comparison of post-resolution/plan worlds.

        I also think that we may be discussing pre- and post-fiat in different senses, so I want to clarify that pre-fiat merely means that the argument doesn’t ask the judge to vote based on the imagining of hypothetical worlds with or without the plan/resolution [a truth testing paradigm would still be post fiat because it impacts to a contention level that is a hypothetical imagining of the res].

        RE: “Your arguments about reinterpreting the better debater never
        answer our three reasons why this interpretation of the better debater doesn’t make sense.”–My argument is simply that the ‘framework debate’ in the policy sense that defines the role of the judge [for instance, I read the interp “Our interpretation is that EITHER the affirmative must defend the United States federal government (USFG) as an agent OR the affirmative must instrumentally ‘substantially increase statutory and/or judicial restrictions on the war powers authority of the President of the United States in one or more of the following areas: targeted killing; indefinite detention; offensive cyber operations; or introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities'”] is an effective tool for determining role of the ballot. I don’t argue that it IS theory, but that it operates in the same way as theory evaluatively and is functionally an extension of theory argument. Theory debate exists to prevent judge intervention regarding rules and to allow us to define the best debate practices, and framework should do the same. I think that Emporia proves that pre-fiat can be justified on a theoretical framework level. I don’t argue that it always is [I debate for BC, we generally dislike pre-fiat] but that winning it is a part of ‘doing the better debating’. If you justify your practices, the judge should be forced to vote on them.

        RE: “You also say debate should be different, and the judge “should distance herself from an aspect of the affirmative’s representations.” But the question of the better debating is not a question of what debate should look like. It’s in large part a descriptive question of what debate is in the status quo.”–You misinterpret this argument. The ‘distance’ was merely an example of an alt in a K that a debater might win if pre-fiat is justified by framework. Also, I don’t think that defining ‘better debating’ by the status quo is a good model. In that case, no theory argument that seeks to change debate practices would be functional, and I think we all agree that the theory debate needs to develop in a way that improves debate practices. This argument also turns itself because if we just look to the squo to determine better debating, we would accept pre-fiat arguments because they win a LOT of rounds at the highest levels of both collegiate and high school competition. I really do believe that the definition of ‘good debating’ is entirely undetermined and changes by the year. Also, judges bringing presuppositions of good debating into the round just encourages the same sort of horrible intervention that we see in lay debate when a judge thinks an argument is ‘killing debate’ or speed is some sort of sin.

        RE: Jurisdiction Argument–My interpretation of jurisdiction arguments in my original post was that they are a. arbitrary and b. have no impact. I don’t think that you answered either of these things, and I don’t think the arbitrariness of jurisdiction relies on my winning that framework debate [in the policy sense] is a good model.

        RE: Fairness discussion–The exact same arguments that theory makes apply to the framework flow. It is sort of like meta-theory in that sense. From a framework debate perspective, theory frames the role of the judge, not just the evaluation of substantive arguments so your argument really doesn’t respond. My point here is that objections about the layering of debate being skewed aren’t sufficient to reject pre-fiat arguments, as they can be dealt with by using old practices in a new way.

  • DanAlessandro

    “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.”

    This indict of a circular argument appears pretty circular itself. Doesn’t this assume some baseline conception of what the better debating is in the first place? I don’t see how your argument answers them reframing what it means to do better debating. Arguments against pre-fiat debate don’t make much sense absent a fleshed out defense of what good debating is in the first place since they just beg the question.

    • Anon

      “Fairness is important because the judge is supposed to vote for the better debater not the better cheater”

      How could that possibly be circular?

      • DanAlessandro

        read the second paragraph above

        • Anon

          I was being sarcastic. I think that fairness argument wouldn’t qualify as an argument to anyone intelligent.

          • Adam Hoffman

            yo back off my man dan alessandro. one of the nicest, smartest, hardest-balling and most coordinated debaters I’ve ever met

    • Carlos “Duke” Taylor

      Im just going to ask the question that everybody else who read your comment wants to ask. Do you believe that oppression should be neglected or challenged?

    • Emily Massey

      You’re right that we could’ve fleshed this point out more. We were trying to keep the article fairly short. The thought here is that pre-fiat debaters usually don’t reinterpret what it means to do the better debating by appealing to some constitutive norm of debate. They do it by saying it would be GOOD if we used a different definition of better debating (for instance, it would reduce opression). But this is answering the wrong question. The question of who did the better debating requires an answer that appeals to what debate IS. In other words, it is a question internal to the practice of debating, not one about whether that practice is good according to some norms external to the practice.

      • Anon

        A good majority of pre-fiat arguments do talk about constitutive norms of debate. Edmund Zagorin wrote an entire article about what norms are actually constitutive of debate and what norms we believe are constitutive for strategic purposes. If you believe education is a voter, which I assume you do, then the fact that most pre-fiat arguments speak to education should be sufficient. This is just a preliminary, I can provide other examples of constitutive rules if you want. Harvard BS on the college policy circuit has some good examples on their wiki.

        • Emily Massey

          I’ve never heard these arguments in LD, so I doubt that a “good majority” talk about constitutive norms of debate. I just read the Zagorin article, and I don’t think it makes this argument. It seems like just a description of arguments that people make in policy debate, with particular focus on “ethics challenges” like when people accuse their opponents of miscutting cards. He’s not making any normative claims. Finally, no, I don’t think education is a voter, mainly for the reason we give in the article that the judge doesn’t have jurisdiction to vote in order to make debate a better place.

  • anon

    Geoff Kristof has great calves

  • Jeff Hannan

    Your first point is just that pre-fiat positions should be truly pre-fiat; we can all agree that pre-fiat positions that only link to post-fiat standards are not good.

    Your second point makes (masks) assumptions about what ‘debating’ is (I guess it’s like playing an instrument, though why that should preclude discussions about HOW to play an instrument is not made clear), and is also directed at some “they” who run bad pre-fiat positions with unclear definitions, standards, or ROTB arguments. It also ends with this bit of laziness: “But most people would probably take the resolution to have at least something to do with debate, so this interpretation can’t be right.” It might not be right, but it certainly can be right.

    I might actually agree with your third point, but at the very least it is an issue for debate. I don’t understand why/how you believe this point settles the issue.

    The fourth point, again, targets bad pre-fiat arguments that lack explanations. Plenty of pre-fiat positions offer extensive warrants for the harms they identify.

    But really I just think it’s awful that you ascribe intentionality to those who run these positions, assuming that they are only run because they are successful. Many students and coaches support these positions because they believe them to be true, educational, and socially important, and that you ignore those students and coaches in your analysis is one of the many reasons why these arguments are not going anywhere.

  • Daniel Tartakovsky

    For the sake of time, I will just ask one question: why should judges’ default assumption be that “oppression is not bad” rather than “oppression is bad”? I don’t think that the reply that judges should not intervene or take stances on issues is convincing – “oppression is not bad” or “oppression is neither good nor bad” are much more radical and counter-intuitive stances than “oppression is bad.” Not taking a stance on the badness of oppression is not an omission.

    If the AC were to read framework-less arguments with impacts to oppression, and the NC got up and said “there is no reason why oppression is bad”, and the round ended there, it seems absurd to me to just be like, “oh, yeah, I guess you’re right, I presume neg.” You are not refusing to intervene. You are endorsing the claim that it is more plausible to assume that oppression is not bad than it is to assume that oppression is bad.

    Edit: This is intended to respond to the idea that “arguments require warrants.” Sure, but the claim that “there is no reason oppression is bad” is also unwarranted – and given that judges have to assume that oppression is either bad or not bad to resolve the issue, it is more plausible to assume the former.

    • Guest

      I don’t think a judge is necessarily assuming that “oppression is not bad” by requiring a warrant for the claim that oppression is bad. There are three possibilities: 1. Oppression is good 2. Oppression is neither good nor bad (ie permissibility) 3. Oppression is bad. A judge who is a blank state (you do agree that tabula rasa judging is good, right?) would have no way of knowing, absent a warrant, which of the three aforementioned possibilities is actually the case and thus SHOULD vote on presumption in the situation you mention. There is no “risk of offense” because a judge who is a blank slate would believe it is just as likely for oppression to be good as it is for oppression to be bad. I think what you are confusing are permissibility and presumption: a judge would vote neg on permissibility in the case you mentioned if (s)he assumed that oppression was not bad. This is not what I am saying a judge should do. A judge should vote on presumption because of lack of knowledge about whether oppression is good/permissible/bad not because of an assumption that it is not bad.

      • Daniel Tartakovsky

        I think it is implausible for a judge to take the stance that it is just as likely that oppression is good as it is that it is bad. If this is what you mean by “tabula rasa,” then no, it’s not good.

        The assumed impartiality behind the “I don’t know whether oppression is good or bad” stance is deceptive.

        • Guest

          Ok, sorry if I misunderstood what you were saying. I’m curious though, where do you draw the line for what a judge can assume? Can a judge assume that people dying is bad absent a util framework? To me, that would be silly since it is pretty interventionist to assume a certain arguments matters when there are frameworks that would say ends based impacts are unimportant (see analysis above). Additionally, again I’m curious, would you evaluate an impact turn to oppression? If the answer is yes then it seems that assuming oppression is bad is blatant intervention: you are assuming that one of two potentially valid arguments (even though in real life we all agree that oppression is bad, if oppression good is an argument you would vote off, then it is valid in the context of the round) is true. If the answer is no, then that seems to accept that judge intervention is ok which would be a whole separate debate.

          • Daniel Tartakovsky

            I think given no framework arguments at all, yes, I would assume that people dying is bad. I am certainly no expert in any sort of philosophy, but it seems to me that non-consequentialists, for instance, would not take the stance that ends-based impacts don’t matter (absent some sort of violation of a side constraint). I don’t think this is an optimal outcome in a round – presumably we should have some sort of framework debate – but given a choice between voting for a debater who prevents lots of deaths and voting for a debater who is just like, “well we don’t know whether this is good or bad,” I would vote for the former.

            I don’t take many strong stances since I am a new judge and try to be open to discussions with others about how I should evaluate rounds, but I don’t think I would vote on an “oppression good” argument. It’s not about intervention. It’s about creating a safe space for others and checking my privilege. I don’t really care whether a debater who runs “oppression good,” “homophobia good,” “racism good,” etcetera feels bad about losing. Yeah, I’ll “intervene” for the debater who needs debate to be a home.

          • mcgin029

            You feel that “death bad” and “oppression good” are both intuitive and you would have a hard time rejecting either.

            What do you do in a debate round if someone forwards the argument that oppression prevents death? (That is, that strong central governments promote political stability, and that in terms of health and safety, political instability is more harmful than an oppressive but stable state.)

            I don’t personally agree with that argument but it is an argument that has been forwarded.

            The problem is that once you decide that you paradigmatically hold one belief, you commit yourself to all kinds of beliefs.

            Let the debaters debate, says I.

          • Anon

            Merely having the default position that “death is bad” and “oppression is bad,” and being relatively unwilling to move from that default doesn’t mean we won’t weigh arguments that “death is worse than oppression” or vice versa. The argument you posit is just a question of the relative importance of life versus the prevention of oppression. Both oppression and death can still be objectively “bad” in that world.

          • Daniel Tartakovsky

            I suppose I would evaluate it like any other argument. I think the important distinction is that there are multiple arguments being advanced that are linked to each other – it is not “there is no reason why X matters,” it’s “X matters more than Y.” Debaters who argue that we should prioritize impacts to oppression aren’t saying that those impacts matter to the exclusion of all others (not sure why the authors of this article are saying this) – it’s about weighing.

            I don’t see why I can’t assume both that death and oppression are bad in your example (edit: this has been pointed out above too).

            There’s also probably a difference between saying “violating peoples’ rights to promote stability is sometimes justified” and “oppression doesn’t matter, why do we care about your struggle?”

          • Guest

            Ok. That makes sense. I still don’t think I necessarily agree that those things should be assumed but your argument is definitely reasonable. Since I’m busy and you’re right that online forums are less helpful I’m not going to respond. I’ll be at Harvard too and would be open to discussing this in person there (although that might be difficult since I’m anonymous).

          • Daniel Tartakovsky

            Yeah, might be a bit tough 🙂

          • Jacob Nails

            I think Daniel is 100% correct on this point. If the aff proves that affirming saves lives, and the neg says “no impact” and nothing else, I would vote aff. Defaulting to the rather controversial position “there is no reason to believe death is bad” when the negative has not warranted this claim any more than the affirmative seems like the more interventionist paradigm. I don’t see why the default should be Cartesian skepticism rather than common sense.

            Of course you can still impact turn. Incidentally, I am in the middle of updating our death good file as I type this response. This is just a question of default assumptions, which I view as an entirely separate discussion from the pre-fiat framework justifications being discussed in the article.

          • Daniel Tartakovsky

            Not sure how I feel about “death good” yet. An argument like “death is good because we’re all suffering a ton now and it’d be better to die” (obviously oversimplified) seems distinct from saying “your oppression doesn’t matter” or “I don’t care about your oppression impact.” Doesn’t strike me as offensive or harming the safe space – but I have to think more about it.

          • Jacob Nails

            Bringing this back to the original question of the article, I have seen a response to negative utilitarianism along the lines of:

            NU is self-effacing because NU-believers are unlikely to ever reach the critical mass required to engineer collective human suicide, and convincing others of NU only increases suffering because internalizing “death good” tends to cause anxiety and depression, so an NU-believer has reason not to propagate NU.

            This would arguably supply a “pre-fiat” reason not to discuss death good which is still grounded in the philosophical literature that the article’s writers would like to discuss.

        • Guest

          Again, this isn’t responsive to what I am saying. A judge does not assume that oppression is neither good nor bad by voting off presumption in the case you mention: a judge just doesn’t know whether oppression is a) good b) neither good nor bad or c) bad.

          • Daniel Tartakovsky

            I think the stance you describe is essentially just “b.” Even if it’s not, I think it is implausible for a judge to take the stance that he or she knows nothing about the goodness or badness of oppression. I think it is more plausible to assume that oppression is bad.

    • Emily Massey

      I don’t think this is responsive to the article. For one thing, actual rounds don’t look like your hypothetical scenario. The third section of the article concerns instances where the opponent of the pre-fiat argument tries to use their own framework to exclude (or “outweigh,” in your terms) the K and then the K debater says that those weighing or excluding arguments should be rejected because they bite into the K. So the opponent has a competing framework.

      Second, we anticipated this response in the footnote. Even if the judge assumes that oppression is bad, the pre-fiat debater needs much more than this. They also need to win that oppression matters more than their opponent’s impacts and that the conception of oppression with which they are operating, usually one that denies the intent/foresight distinction, is the correct one.

      • Daniel Tartakovsky

        I don’t think I ever suggested that my comment responds to most or all of the article. My comment was not a counter-article intended to justify pre-fiat positions.

        I simply contested your claim that “the pre-fiat argument is essentially an unwarranted appeal to the judge’s intuition that oppression is bad.” I claimed that the judge has more reason to think that oppression is bad than to think that oppression is not bad and that the argument that “there’s no reason oppression is bad” is also unwarranted.

        The footnote does not pre-empt anything I say (I am contesting the “a” point of it).

        I certainly don’t deny that debaters need to win that oppression matters more than their opponent’s impacts. I have never heard anyone deny this. I don’t think anyone does. This is a straw-man.

        • Emily Massey

          Alright cool, I’m glad (sincerely) that we agree that debaters need to win that oppression matters more than their opponent’s impacts, and hopefully you agree with the c-point as well. I’ve actually seen lots of debaters deny this. The whole third argument was about these scenarios, where the pre-fiat debater says that such a requirement “bites into the K” so the judge should reject it.

          I guess on the a-point, I would say that the first thing I said is still responsive, since the opponent’s framework, assuming it said oppressive isn’t bad, would provide reasons rather than just making the no-warrant argument. The no-warrant argument is weighing on the paradigm of evaluation debate: you prefer a warranted framework that says X (not oppression) is the only thing that matters to an intuitive assertion (where nothing like an intuitionist framework is warranted) that says that framework is bad.

          • Daniel Tartakovsky

            Haha yeah, I mean I certainly don’t think it’s sufficient to say the word “oppression” to make framework go away. I just think framework debate should be comparative and am frustrated by the trend of (what I believe to be ) very poor defensive responses along the lines of “there is no reason why oppression is bad,” part of which is incentivized by an approach to judging that I think holds arguments to an unreasonably high standard.

            Maybe I also just haven’t judged enough bad pre-fiat debates.

          • Emily Massey

            Yes, agreed that framework debate should be comparative. Our argument was just that the opponent’s framework justifications can be compared to the intuitive argument that oppression is bad/the only thing that matters, etc.

  • David Joannides

    for a response to much of this article; see the article I wrote titled “Bridging the Gap: Dealing with the Kritik”

    • Emily Massey

      David, I don’t think we disagree as much as you think. First, I’m not sure how your article responds to ours. I was under the impression that your article was meant to be strategic advice on how to respond to pre-fiat arguments. Ours isn’t. These are reasons we think pre-fiat arguments aren’t very logical, not necessarily the responses we would recommend making to them. Turns and specific responses are usually pretty strategic, I agree.

      We also agree that it’s great for debaters to be able to make any arguments they want in rounds. That’s partly why I (and Grant and Geoff) won’t intervene against any arguments. I’ve even voted for pre-fiat arguments a number of times this year. However, I still like to see good arguments win. So yeah, I guess I would like to see these arguments less because I think they are illogical.

      I would also add that if it makes you sad for us to wish that bad arguments would lose some more, then some of these pre-fiat arguments should make you even sadder, like the ones that say the judge should intervene against certain arguments or that the wide-open nature of debate is a bad thing that we need to change. We aren’t advocating intervention against pre-fiat arguments.

  • Anon

    Alternate title: Teaching kids how to avoid having meaningful discussions on questions of privilege.

    • mcgin029

      It is not the case that the debate round is the only, or, I would argue, the best place for students to have discussions about privilege. You might disagree with the second, but asserting that coaches or students who dislike the general approach of pre-fiat debating are ipso facto against “meaningful discussion” is wrong.

      • Anon

        I obviously meant in the debate round; I assume no one reading this website would totally divorce my comment from the context of this discussion. But, if you absolutely must be placated, then sure, my comment would be more precise if it read “Alternate title: Teaching kids how to avoid having meaningful discussions on questions of privilege in debate rounds.”

      • Jared Woods

        Some students don’t have any other space to have discussions of privilege. The debate space is the one place where a lot of students are given a voice that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

        • mcgin029

          That just doesn’t make literal sense. Presumably, a debater who has access to these kinds of discourses has, at a minimum, a debate team and debate instructors. In a truly nightmare scenario where a debater finds that their voice is actively denied expression except when they are involved in debate, the debate round itself is — by minutes — a minority of the time that debaters spend on the activity. I cannot imagine a scenario where a debater is denied the ability to speak in every scenario except for the round itself, but if such a situation exists, I think social services need to be contacted — the debate round is not enough.

          Think about that: if your student literally cannot express themselves except in the debate round, then do you really think the debate round is enough?

          Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s absolutely vital that debaters and all students live expressive lives where their voices are honored and they have the opportunity to be and represent who they are. And I don’t think it’s the case the debate round itself is an illegitimate space for this. But I do reject the idea that for any American student the debate round, itself, is the only place where they can express this voice.

          There is space for discourse outside the round. The debate round is certainly a unique space, but whether it is the best place or a good place for political advocacy is, at least, debatable.

          And as such, someone arguing against the use of the debate round as a platform for political advocacy is not, ipso facto, arguing for denying a voice to their students.

    • Emily Massey

      Look, I think it’s very important to make debate more accessible to less privileged kids. That’s why I’ve volunteered my time at TDC to teach debaters who can’t afford to attend camp. I don’t know how you jumped from our article to the wild–and fairly insulting–conclusion that we want to avoid discussions of how to make debate more accessible or inclusive.

      • Anon

        You actively want one mode of this discussion to “die out naturally.” I never contended that you or the other two authors, as you put it, “want to avoid discussions of how to make debate more accessible or inclusive.” I contended that the point of this article (and if not its intention, then certainly its effect) is to teach debaters how to avoid having that discussion in at least one context. In this article, you never encourage debaters to engage; you only teach them to avoid. That’s what I pointed out above; I didn’t level any personal attack against your character, your desire to improve access, or your efforts to improve access. You’re attacking a straw man.

        On a related note, I have a question: What do you think produces better people– a debate that mostly engages substantive issues of privilege, or a debate that centers around whether fairness comes logically prior to pre-fiat arguments? To me, the former seems like it would produce more empathetic and aware debaters; the latter seems as though it would teach debaters little but how to strategically win a game. Debate definitely has game-like elements, but ultimately, I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that it’s status as a game is more important than its pedagogical benefits. Why, then, does making the arguments in your article, or any argument whose end is to ensure that theory comes before pre-fiat arguments, produce better human beings than engagement with questions of privilege? I just can’t think of a good answer to that.

        Maybe you think that topical debate has more pedagogical benefits than pre-fiat debate, and you want to create a world with more topical debate. That may well be true. I certainly don’t think it is, though, for a few reasons: First, the vast majority of topical education comes not from the round but from preparation for the round, so if a couple rounds every tournament are about something other than the topic, the educational benefits of topical debate aren’t really lessened. Second, many, if not most rounds devolve into theory anyway, so much of the time people don’t engage in topical debate anyway. Third, even if we say theory has educational benefits because it teaches you to think on your feet, pre-fiat positions have the exact same benefit. Except instead of thinking quickly about why it’s fair for you to have not color-coded your arguments, you are thinking spontaneously about how to improve access and reduce oppression. That seems more productive to me.

        But all of this is besides the point: you never give any explanation why the world you advocate produces better people. Your post treats debate purely as a game inasmuch as it only asks which arguments come first logically, and not which arguments are most pedagogically valuable. The latter seems more important.

        • Jacob Nails

          Re 1: I do think topical debate has more pedagogical value (predicable limits, fair ground and such. This debate has been rehashed literally thousands of times in policy, so I won’t do it here.)

          I don’t think 2 & 3 justify pre-fiat warrants. This just means a consistent advocate of topical debate should also favor norms that minimize theory. The same logic would entail “you shouldn’t bother running kritiks because people just read theory instead of engaging you.”

          • Anon

            Then the original post is not engaged in consistent advocacy, because it endorses jurisdictional arguments and appeals to fairness instead of endorsing reasons why topical debate is pedagogically preferable to pre-fiat debate. The article also makes no attempt to explain why its proposed course of action has substantial pedagogical value. The broad thrust of my criticism is that it teaches avoidance instead of engagement by treating debate as nothing more than a game. I don’t think it matters if pre-fiat warrants are “justified” if engaging in pre-fiat debate produces better human beings than the alternative. I am convinced it does.

          • Jacob Nails

            All fair points. I agree that pedagogical discussions would be better than jurisdictional ones.

      • Adnan Toric

        I’m guessing your best friend is black too.

        You think it’s important to make debate accessible to underprivileged kids but you don’t want them to discuss real world issues. You don’t want them to actually learn about the world unless it’s the same western philosophical or util plan based bullshit you’ve been taught through high school debate. Don’t get me wrong, I like western philosophy and it has its place. Other arguments, be they pre-fiat or just something radical, need a place to grow and be dissected. Debate should be a home to all types of arguments. We all enjoy debating, so let people run whatever argument they want. If you personally hate it, don’t vote for it.

        My problem with the LD community back when I debated is the same problem I have with this article. You people always try to learn how to beat the arguments instead of engage it or understand it. If you do try to understand the arguments, then it’s just so you can beat it. Very few people care to learn about very interesting and controversial arguments. I personally had awesome discussions with Matt Dunay about the position I always ran. Ari Parker knew a lot about it too. Kids would try and make the same arguments presented in this article and they would lose because they didn’t try to engage my actual argument. I’ll also never forget that kid Josh A. who got so mad that he lost to a “K” at Harvard my junior year. He ran up to his coach post-round and said he dropped to a stupid k. That’s the type of garbage the high school LD community allows to happen. I didn’t run a traditional “K” and never called myself a K debater. I didn’t like that label and most judges that watched me debate didn’t label me as such either. So before you homogenize pre-fiat arguments as mainly about oppression or something else you don’t want to hear about, take some time to talk to the people running them.

        The arguments presented in this article are terrible.
        “The ballot says vote for who did the better debating” Ok? so? “better debating” is crazy subjective. Maybe the judge thinks whoever could write and articulate the better poem is the better debater. Why do you default to purely logic based expressions of thought?

        How about the LD community stops being exclusionary and CLAIMING to help/listen to minority voices.

        I hardly get on this website but I saw a few close friends post about this article.

  • Anon

    I think that this is an incredibly narrow understanding of pre-fiat arguments, and one that seems to pervade debate. The most telling portion is the assumption that pre-fiat arguments are warrantless, that they assume oppression, or similar things, are bad. First, a good portion of philosophy, particularly axiology, moral philosophy, and political philosophy, begins with what is intuitive- reflective equilibrium, certain transcendental arguments, intuitionism, and certain forms of foundationalism being prime examples of epistemological systems that seek to incorporate or begin with intuitions. Intuitions also seem to have a place in our moral psychology, and theories which either a) incorporate a strong moral intuition or b) explain its existence and offer an alternative have greater explanatory power. As an example, the abstract of Korsgaard’s “On Having a Good” mentions that a certain conclusion “seems to fall afoul of our intuitions about certain cases” and in a way outlines that falling out as the reason for the article. All of this is just to temper the general aversion to the use of intuition. Certainly intuitions should not be the go-to method of justification, but they do place a not insignificant role in philosophy.

    The first point you speak to is a misunderstanding of a good deal of prefiat arguments. They do not usually claim to solve for oppression in the country in question.

    The second point is also somewhat of a misunderstanding. If taken to its conclusion, it would imply an end to theory given that theory seeks to make the round, or in the case of precedent setting arguments for drop the debater, debate a “better place”.

    About the “better debating” argument. I think the comparison to playing an instrument ignores relevant features of debate. Debate is unique in that it does not come with limits. It has rules, time limits being an example, but limits are not pre-given. It is also unique in that it does frame the way we think and act. There is a certain internalization of different ways of thinking about the world that comes from both debating and researching. The fact that many debaters end up pursuing philosophy in college or beyond an indication of this. I also don’t think that ROTB arguments preclude an understanding of “ought” or “should” in that a) they do address obligations individuals, and debaters/judges as well, have and b) the impacts to oppression tend to matter under the other framework. They also seem to address what is good-for-a-debater or good-for-a-judge, which I will get to later.

    On the third point, this is partially another misunderstand and partially a result of bad ROTB arguments. ROTB arguments generally claim to reframe what it means to be fair and/or question whether there is such a thing as a fair debate or how we can know if these things are actually unfair. In that vein, lots of ROTB arguments make claims about knowledge production, which would implicate fairness. In addition, this seems to be the overworked debate between ideal and nonideal theory. Fairness sets up the conditions of ideal theory, but those can be relaxed when we enter into the nonideal, which one can argue that debate is. Anyone who has read Rawls should recognize this parallel.

    The fourth point is answered above, and I’ll get to it below as well.

    Now into a couple of relevant points.

    The first is moral luck. Korsgaard gives a pretty good summary in her discussion of revolution. She writes:

    And this brings us to the second thing that makes this decision different from others. Since these decisions necessarily involve stepping outside of the law, they involve what Bernard Williams has called ‘‘moral luck.’’²⁹ For as Kant says, if you do more or less than the law requires, the consequences are on your head. The form of moral luck Williams describes exists in a case with these features: the agent does something that is, on the face of it, wrong, but may be justified by success. If the project fails, the agent will simply be wrong, and the consequences will be, in his own eyes and those of his victims, on his head. But if the project succeeds, he may at least be justified in his own eyes and in the eyes of outsiders, if not of those of his immediate victims. Williams thinks that the concept of moral luck is a notion inimical to Kantianism, but the case of the revolutionary has exactly this structure. Success makes the revolutionary, legally, the new voice of the general will, and, morally, one who has promoted the cause of justice on earth.

    One could conceive of debate rounds as precisely this situation, where the systems of fairness, theory, topicality, etc, turn against themselves. Korsgaard provides a good explanation of this as well in the same article. She writes:

    Justice exists to preserve the rights and freedom of everyone: this is the idea, and the substantive ideal, of justice. But we all know that the procedures of justice may be used against these very ends. Apartheid South Africa horrified us more, perhaps, than more egregious despotisms, because of its outward forms of legality, its caricature of a modern western democracy. The same is true of America before the civil war. A master recapturing a runaway slave is brutal; but a court’s ordering the slave’s return is a mockery of justice.

    If the arguments in the ROTB are right, and that is certainly a debate to be had in-round as ROTB arguments can certainly be wrong, then debate might be that type of situation: where a space meant to be open to a plurality of arguments and individuals becomes unfair or inhospitable in its methods of ensuring fairness.

    Second is the related division between ideal and nonideal. If debate is a nonideal situation, which is probably true but certainly debatable, then the rules can be relaxed in favor of the substantive fulfillment of justice. This also depends on the individual ROTB argument being correct, which is not something across the board and is a matter of actually debating the arguments instead of brushing them off with theory.

    Now about the warrants for ROTB arguments generally. They tend to speak to what is necessary for debaters to be debaters in a real sense, constitutive obligations, and what is necessary for judges to be judges. If you have ever voted for theory, you have voted for an argument that follows a similar train of justification, albeit one with significantly less warrants. A good majority of ROTB arguments implicate other, assumed, ROTBs, like finding the truth or falsity of the resolution or policymaking. It is interesting that those don’t get the same flak, but that might be another discussion. This is in no way exhaustive of the problems here or even of the justifications for ROTB arguments, but it is preliminary look at why these arguments are misrepresented.

  • Sam_Azbel

    Great article, guys! I specifically have a question about a particular type of argument that I have heard lately that debaters label as an “impact turn to theory.” When responding to theory arguments, many debaters that read these pre-fiat positions will claim that my conception of fairness is skewed because of my socio-economic status and because the debate space is already structurally unfair. The author that I have seen carded most on this issue is Shanara Reid Brinkley. The implication that these arguments are made out to have is that even if fairness comes first, the type of fairness that I am advocating for is pointless because of the inherent oppression that occurs in the world and in the debate space. I would love to here your opinions on this type of argument and what you guys think would be the best way to combat it?

    • mcgin029

      First, while unfairness is generally rampant in society, that doesn’t deny the value of fairness.

      Second, trying to somehow right the scales of fairness in the debate round by giving one debate some kind of advantage in a theory debate impacting to fairness is far too crude to be effective. The judge has no way of evaluating who in the round is subject to more unfairness in their lives in general, and it is not obviously true that privileging one person in a debate round addresses in any meaningful way the kinds of real world structural unfairness they might encounter in their life.

      Third, turn, fairness in debate is one space in which debaters who experience real unfairness in their lives can count on a reasoned evaluation of positions based on merit rather than arbitrary factors. Ejecting fairness from the debate makes it a space just as arbitrary as the rest of the world. Debaters who experience real arbitrary structural oppression can come to debate and expect to win arguments on their merits; rejecting fairness is just one more way to victimize those people. (Consider the incident a few years ago where a male debater running a pre-fiat gender kritik, the core thesis of which was “we need to promote womyn’s involvement in debate,” defeated a female debater in the bid round, preventing her from completing her qual. I don’t know if critical rejection of theory-based fairness was an issue in that debate, but if it were, it would be an excellent example of what I’m talking about here.)

      Put another way: saying that fairness in the debate round doesn’t matter because the world is unfair is like a teacher giving a student an arbitrarily poor grade. Then when the student complains that the grade is unfair, the teacher justifies the decision by saying, “Life isn’t fair. Get used to it.” This is not a recognition of the unfairness of life; it is a *continuation* of it.