Theory in Theory by Paul Dorasil and Clifford Chad Henson

Theory in Theory

Paul Dorasil

Clifford Chad Henson


Recently, reigning TOC champion Rebecca Kuang wrote a criticism of theory debate in Victory Briefs Daily.  In addition to comments on the Victory Briefs website, Carlton Bone responded on NSD Update.  This article is an attempt to provide a perspective on theory debate that benefits from both authors having experienced the problems that existed in high school Lincoln Douglas debate prior to the introduction of theory debate and those that were generated as a result of this introduction.



Prior to the introduction of theory, blatantly unfair practices were common and handled (or mishandled) by explicit or implicit judge intervention.  The alternative to today’s introduction of debate theory by debaters in debate rounds was the application of the judge’s own theoretical preferences after the round.  This happened typically without the opportunity for the debaters to know these preferences (through the publication of judging paradigms that now exist) or select their judges on the basis of paradigmatic differences (through MPJ).

We often hear debaters say things along the lines of “A judge shouldn’t vote on a bad theory argument.” or “A judge shouldn’t vote on an abusive position.”  Debaters do not seem to realize that asking judges to do these things requires them to use their own discretion in ways that are unpredictable for both debaters.  We are here to warn you all to not go down that road.  We have been down that road.  We know where it leads.  You do not want to debate in that world.  As you might imagine, many judges excluded things like “all kritiks,” “all counterplans,” and anything that did not reduce to whether morality or justice is more important.  If these seem like reasonable standards, nothing we say here will change your mind.  If this kind of judging deeply concerns you (as it concerns us), then our community needs to develop a clear conception of what a theory argument is, what it should do, and thus when it should be used.



Between two undifferentiated debaters, affirmative and negative, no person should have any expectation regarding which will win the round.  This, and nothing  more, is what is meant by “fairness.” A “fair” debate round is analogous to the flip of a “fair” coin: we know nothing but that there are two sides, and the two sides have an equal likelihood of being selected.  The formal rules and unstated assumptions debaters and judges bring with them to the round should be such that the debate is fair.  Debate theory that tends toward this is “good” theory while debate theory that tends away from or distracts from this is “bad” theory.

Similarly, a debate topic that results in one side or the other being significantly advantaged is a “bad” topic.  This is why we see theory arguments are more prevalent with “bad” topics.  Debaters must use theory arguments to adjust the balance.  Topicality, as another species of theory, is the effort to make the topic as fair as its wording will allow.  An interpretation of the topic that generates fair debate is a “good” interpretation while an interpretation that generates unfair debate is a “bad” interpretation.

It is currently en vogue, and has been for a long time in college, to ask who determines what is fair, and by what standard. It is almost certainly true that characteristics of debaters and judges will influence the likelihood that one side wins; the authors of this article have documented that judges at the TOC prefer debaters from their region, and it may be that there are racial and sex-based imbalances that we were not able to detect taking place at tournaments other than those we examined. If information about debaters and judges provides a reason for people to have an ex ante expectation regarding the winner of the round, to the extent this creates a problem, it is not a problem of debate theory.  Structural problems such as resource disparities or a lack of minority representation are serious and should be addressed.  However, theory arguments are not and have never been an effective means of addressing these problems.  Indeed, only by making debate rounds otherwise fair will we be able to isolate the effects of these problems in order to address them.

In an ideal debate world, debate theory is such that a perfectly fair topic would yield a perfectly fair debate round.  All unfair positions would either be obviously non-topical or interpret the topic in such a way that it becomes a worse (less fair) topic than it can be.  For example, if the only way to fairly debate a topic is to ban counterplans, then we should ban counterplans.  And if we generally operate under the assumption that counterplans are not banned, then we should regard such a topic as bad (unfair).  Since we can’t change the debate topic during the debate round, we have to use theory arguments to exclude arguments that are unfair given the topic.  This implies that an argument as to why a particular practice is unfair must relate to how that practice makes fair debate of a particular topic impossible.  Therefore, as Kuang suggests, generic theory shells that do not relate to a topic in any way should be viewed with suspicion and contempt. This does not mean that judges should reject them a priori.  Rather, debaters should be able to easily answer them.

However, it may also be that with respect to norm setting, some debate practices will tend toward fairness given a wider range of topics or would make it easier for fair topics to be written.  Thus, some so-called generic theory arguments are reasons to reject/permit an entire species of argument irrespective of the topic.  For example, it may be that banning performance (or topical counterplans, or linear disadvantages) as an argument type would make debate fairer, irrespective of the topic or the range of topics that are debated in practice.  Reasonable people may disagree on which norms are preferable.  But this is exactly why the discussion relevant to the outcome of the debate round should take place within the context of the debate round: leaving the norms of debate to in-round resolution gives debaters a say proportionate to their skill and level of participation in debate, and (presumably) coaches a say proportionate to their ability to train large numbers of skilled debaters. This is better than giving judges an unconstrained influence proportionate to their happening to end up in the back of the room.



Debaters should always tell judges exactly how a theory argument should function in the round.  This function should be one of the primary focuses of the theory debate. One remedy may be excluding an argument from the debate round while another remedy may be voting a debater down for engaging in a particularly unfair practice.  Specifically, debaters should explain exactly how a particular remedy will result in either a fairer debate round or a fairer debate norm.  The choice of remedy is also strategic in nature.  What theory does within our construct is say that a particular argument or case position should be excluded from debate.  But excluding a good argument is just as bad as including a bad one. So, punishments should be reciprocal.  A debater whose proposed norm would exclude a good argument should be punished exactly the same way as a debater whose proposed norm would include a bad argument.  If a theory argument calls for a debater to be dropped, then it seems reasonable that answering the argument should result in the initial debater being dropped in order to promote reciprocity.  Alternatively, if the theory argument only asks the judge to exclude a single contention, then reciprocity would not imply that answering the theory argument merits a reverse voting issue.  Debaters essentially place bets on theory arguments when they select voters.

Regardless of the remedy, it must relate to fairness because that is the singular goal of theory argumentation.  Education is a joke of a voting issue.  It has nothing to do with the purpose of theory and has created confusion within the community.  That confusion has generated much of the frustration that Ms. Kuang legitimately voiced.  When a good theory argument deters debaters from running unfair case positions, it increases fairness in the activity necessarily. However, there is no such thing as an anti-educational argument.  So, no argument should be excluded on the basis that it is anti-educational.  And no unfair argument should be included on the basis that it is education because it can always be substituted by a fair argument that provides an equal amount of education.


Theory has two roles.  The first role of theory is to provide a background set of norms that make it easy to write fair topics leading to fair debate.  The second role of theory is topic-specific, to adjust that background set of norms when the topic would yield unfair debate given only those background norms with no adjustment.  Debaters and judges should keep these roles in mind when writing, running, and evaluating theory arguments.  This implies eschewing education as a voting issue and treating voting issues as strategically placed bets, which necessitates that judges use the same thresholds for reverse voting issues as they do for voting issues.

We have a profound desire to know that when we leave the activity, it will be better than it was when we arrived.  We have seen debate improve as an activity during our tenure as competitors, judges, and coaches.  However, a sufficiently strong backlash against theory could reverse the progress that has been made over the past fifteen years. It is important that debaters remember that debate theory is inherently neither liberal nor conservative, friendly to neither large nor small schools, performance- or fiat-focused debaters, but has been considered the friend (and enemy) of each of these groups at various times. Whatever your beliefs about what is good for debate, debate theory is the vehicle with which, if you are right, you should be able to convince others – and thereby gain a strategic advantage.