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.

  • FD

    How do you respond to the argument the Bostrom card gives like if we know what is the correct ethical theory then we can always follow it and thus maximize value?

  • MassacD

    Although I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in this article I have 2 questions:
    1. How would a scenario in which debater A extends warrants for a framework and debater B answers them by claiming that the warrants are epistemically suspect play out? Would debater B’s arguments be considered purely defensive even if their warrants would indicate some sort of prior question (stoping extinction, minimizing oppression, etc)?
    2. Why is there a post/prefiat distinction for frameworks? Fiat concerns itself with the action of the resolution so I fail to see how a discussion about a specific action can influence an entire moral theory. Additionally, frameworks employ warrants that are applicable in any situation which would seem to imply that the frameworks that debaters argue for in round are not confined to post fiat criticism meaning we should give arguments like bostrum credence.

    • Emily Massey

      Thanks for the questions, Daiya. I’m glad you brought up the pre- and post-fiat distinction, because that’s exactly what I want to refer to in answering your first question. You rightly point out in your #2 that framework arguments apply on both a pre- and post-fiat level. That’s not what I want to deny, and I’ll explain what I mean through my answer to your first question:

      You bring up the argument that an opponent’s framework is epistemically suspect because it fails to give special weight to X group or impact. As I touch on in the article (see the parentheses “Here I am reading the argument charitably…”), there are two ways to read these claims. To have a clear example, let’s assume it’s the neg making this argument on the Sept/Oct resolution.

      Either (1) The argument is that people in the aff world of presumed consent would not be able to form true beliefs because their society would fail to provide for X group or impact. This is impact-justified in the same way as the examples in the article.

      Or (2) The argument is that the affirmative debater (we’re on the pre-fiat level now) is not able to make true arguments in the framework debate in the round because her society fails to give special weight to X group or impact. If that is the case, the same applies to the negative debater, since they live in the same society (this is especially apparent when these arguments make really sweeping indicts, as of something like imperialism).

      Maybe the argument doesn’t indict an entire society or tradition of thinking but only the affirmative debater’s personal way of thinking. In that case, there are two important points, which actually apply to either the personal or societal version of (2):

      (a) Proving that the post-fiat aff world is imperialist isn’t sufficient to show that the aff debater/debater’s society is epistemically biased. The neg may show that presumed consent is imperialist, but in fact we do not have presumed consent in the United States. So showing that presumed consent is imperialist wouldn’t show that the aff debater/debater’s society is imperialist.

      (b) As you point out, this argument is defense. Showing that your opponent’s framework argument is epistemically biased might give a comparative advantage to your other framework arguments (since they would presumably escape that epistemic bias), but it’s not much of a justification for your framework on its own. Even if imperialism causes epistemic bias, that doesn’t say anything about the question of whether imperialism is MORALLY right or wrong. (See my arguments in the article that morality doesn’t really care about whether you can correctly formulate moral rules as long as you behave well.)

      Moreover, an epistemic bias claim of this sort is extremely WEAK defense if the debater doesn’t point to any specific errors in his/her opponent’s reasoning (missing links, circularity, etc). Basically it has the same problem as an ad hominem attack–you’re indicting the arguer rather than the argument. It’s as if the debater is saying “I know there’s something wrong with my opponent’s reasoning here, but I can’t put my finger on it.” Seems to me that a specific criticism of reasoning should carry more weight.

      Finally, though this point has surely been made before, I’ll again say that this epistemic bias claim would neglect the core question of most resolutions and framework debate: all moral theories may agree that imperialism is bad, but the question is, what ought we to do about it? Should we minimize imperialism, even if that involves being imperialist to a lesser degree, or should we take a more deontological approach?

      Note as well that my necessity/sufficiency criticism applies here, too: the epistemic bias argument, if it did work, would prove only that minimizing imperialism is a necessary standard but not that it’s sufficient. There might be other things that would cause epistemic bias or other things that matter besides epistemic bias.

  • Salim Damerdji

    This article is refreshingly on-point.

    Also of note: these epistemology/ontology cases never actualize the warrant they claim makes their NC preclude the AC. They never get around to saying “And because this is the correct ontological argument, you framework is precluded because of ______.” In other words, sure the NC is necessary to check whether the AC’s ethical system is true, but they never get around to that last part. They never explain why the AC would be false if the NC is true.

    • Emily Massey

      Thanks, Salim! I agree, and this probably applies to framework debates generally–always better when debaters specifically apply their arguments to their opponents’ frameworks.

  • AJT999

    Would concerns with frameworks reliant on the argument that “epistemology/ontology are key to understanding morality” also apply to frameworks reliant on action theory? That seems to be the case since action theory says we need to know what an action is in order to understand ethics.

    • Emily Massey

      I don’t think so, if we’re clearer about what an action theory-based framework argument should be. The argument should be basically a constitutivist one. For instance: actions are constituted by practical reason, and morality governs actions, so morality must be derived from practical reason if it is to apply to actions.

      You say “action theory says we need to know what an action is in order to understand ethics.” That makes it sound as though the argument is that we should create, in the post-fiat world, the preconditions for knowing what an action is and thus for understanding ethics. If that’s a debater’s argument, then yeah, that’s impact-justified in a bad way.