The New Impact-Justified Standards

by Emily Massey

When I debated five years ago, it was common to hear frameworks like this:

“The standard is minimizing terrorism.

Terrorism kills [#] people every year, making it the largest threat to civilians worldwide.

Terrorism destabilizes the international community, causing wars, etc.”

Then, debaters started pointing out that these frameworks were impact-justified: they assumed consequentialism without justifying it and used weighing arguments as standards-justifications. Impact-justified frameworks artificially excluded other consequentialist impacts and artificially inflated the importance of marginal links to their standard. (Even if annually terrorism kills more people than bee stings, a marginal link to terrorism might be outweighed by a huge link to bee stings.)

This realization was the biggest advance for framework debate in recent memory. Impact-justified frameworks virtually disappeared, and debaters got down to the real task of justifying the underlying weighing mechanism (consequentialism, deontology, etc.). Framework and contention debates started to make much more sense.

But recently, impact-justified frameworks have returned in a subtler and thus more pernicious form. Consider the following framework arguments I’ve actually heard in rounds:

1. “The community is necessary to formulate morality. Thus, the standard is protecting the community.”

This is impact-justified since it assumes that people have a moral obligation to preserve their ability to formulate morality. (It’s just like the Bostrom extinction-first argument.) I’m not aware of any moral theories that place much emphasis on this moral obligation or even prescribe such a moral obligation, much less say it’s the only moral obligation. As long as people are acting correctly, morality doesn’t seem to care if they can formulate the rules according to which they’re acting. So this is not only impact-justified, but it seems even less plausible than the old impact-justified frameworks: At least when people assumed consequentialism, they were making an assumption that many people believe is true.

(Here I’m reading the argument charitably. If it’s not impact-justified, then it conflates the pre- and post-fiat distinction: as debaters in this round, we are capable of formulating morality whether or not the people in the post-fiat world can do so.)

You can also see the same disconnect here as in the old impact-justified frameworks between marginal links to the standard and the justification for the standard: Even if it’s necessary to have a community, it doesn’t follow that any harm to the community short of destroying it is bad.

2. “You can’t know anything if you don’t know your own ontology, and respect for the Other is required to formulate an ontology. Thus, the standard is respecting the Other.”

This argument assumes we have an obligation to know stuff. Not obviously true, and almost definitely outweighed by other impacts. Also, like other impact-justified frameworks, the argument artificially excludes other impacts to knowing stuff: if there are other things that are necessary for us to know stuff, those would also matter.

Another problem with both examples here is that they justify necessity but not sufficiency. Even if respecting the Other or protecting the community is necessary to fulfill some moral obligation, it doesn’t follow that it’s sufficient.

I could go on and on with more examples (discourse ethics is another one, as well as frameworks that say we need to help out some particular group because otherwise our theory of morality will be epistemically biased), but they all follow the same basic form. What’s frustrating is that hardly anyone points out the fundamental problems with these sorts of impact-justified frameworks.

Maybe this is because these arguments are commonly paired with an argument that “epistemology/ontology comes first because it determines how we know morality in the first place” or something to that effect. This kind of rhetoric seems to make debaters give the arguments more credence than they should.

Rather than shying away the moment someone says “comes first,” opponents should break these arguments down into their steps. This should make their impact-justified form clear. Let’s maintain the advance we had five years ago in framework debate rather than sliding backwards into an even worse form of impact-justified standards.