Intentional and Functional Models of Judging

Within academic and public spheres, government officials are often conceptualized in two different ways. On the one hand, a functional approach to these officials regards them in terms of their offices. That is, the title “Secretary of State” has a stable meaning and represents a “real” position which persists even as the person holding the office changes. On the other hand, an intentional approach to these officials focuses on the individual as an agent who makes concrete decisions with the powers she is granted by the social recognition of her title. In this interpretation, the meaning of “Secretary of State” empowers an individual to take certain intentional actions, but the position of Secretary of State is analytically inseparable from an agent acting as Secretary of State.[1]

Within functional approaches, some notion of the “constitutive” requirements of the office seem to have normative force. That is, the office of Secretary of State is established within a legislative and bureaucratic framework, and consequently whenever the individual occupying the office takes an action contrary to that framework, she no longer acts as Secretary of State. The meaning of the title, for functionalists, is analytically inseparable from the norms which constitute it. The violation of those norms, therefore, is an act outside of the position associated with the title.

To many of you it will seem obvious where I am going with this: the standard warrant for a variety of “jurisdiction” arguments in debate relies on a functionalist assumption about roles. While we are no longer talking about government officials and instead talking about judging debate rounds, the same logic applies. The role of judge is constituted by certain norms. Because of this any violation of those norms is no longer to act as a judge. Therefore, judges have no “jurisdiction” to vote on an argument beyond the scope of these norms.

Now there is a considerable debate to be had over which approach is more useful for sociologists and cultural anthropologists in trying to make descriptive accounts of societies. However, those of us in debate are more interested in which approach is superior in describing how judges ought to behave. I intend to propose an argument for the superiority of the intentional model of judging for this purpose.

The role of judging relies on a set of beliefs. A person who is judging must believe herself to be in the appropriate context (i.e. a debate round) and must believe that certain actions are required of someone who is judging. Furthermore, whatever our sociological or philosophical theories say about shared beliefs (or their very possibility), when acting as a judge an agent must at least invoke what she thinks to be the shared beliefs of the debate community about what being a judge entails.

Now, thus far, the functionalist will plausibly agree with this account. They will take those shared beliefs to be binding and to constitute some social role which is analytically independent of any individual occupying it. The problem is that the beliefs which constitute a role are not as stable as the functionalist needs them to be. Any time the functionalist advances their argument they are also engaging in a social activity which invokes shared beliefs. This may be in an article on a debate website, by a student in a round, or by a lab leader in a lab. Whether somebody is judging and making a practical judgment about what she ought to do or not judging but making a conceptual judgment about what judges ought to do, her judgment quantifies over beliefs about shared beliefs. [2]

This leads to the exact problem which functionalists are so eager to avoid – from within the social practices (real or fictional) agents are deliberating about the nature of those social practices. That is, debaters or “debate theorists” places themselves on the same level as the judge and so when they deliberate over the position of judge they give that position an “essential contestability” internal to the social practices which constitute judging. Functionalists have a point when they say it is incoherent for a chess-player, in the standard example, to argue, during a chess match, that it would be more educational if an illegal move were permitted for a turn. Such an action does make the activity itself unstable; yet there is no essential difference between the instability caused by this sort of argument and the instability by an argument about debate made within a debate article or lab.

At this point a variety of objections will be raised. First, one might respond to my claims and say that an essential difference between someone who is not a judge talking about the role of judging and a judge thinking about what she ought to do as a judge is that the latter is practical, and the former is conceptual (theoretical, etc.). However, it seems clear enough that both the person writing the debate article and the judge make a normative claim about what she should do. Furthermore, it seems unclear what the point of debate articles is in the first place if they are not meant to have some practical implication.

Second, it might be argued that there is an essential difference between arguments about judging and the practical judgments of a judge – arguments about judging are regulative whereas the are judge’s practical judgments ought to be constitutive. That is, an argument from outside the role of judging is an argument about what that role should be whereas the argument from within the role of judging is an argument about what the role is. For example, an official at a chess tournament is bound by the constitutive features of being an official at a chess tournament to enforce the rules in the rulebook. But a chess association has the power to change those rules. The official’s duties change when the rules change, but otherwise they are binding. The most obvious response to this objection is that there is no established authority in circuit LD that could make such a complete change to the rules. Even the NSDA has only a very limited power over those rounds. Moreover, this is a bad analogy because the functionalist arguments about judging are not of the form “judges should do x, so let the constitutive requirements upon judges change to x” but rather of the form “the constitutive requirements upon judges are x, so judges should do x.” But this observation leads to another objection.

Third, the functionalist claims on judging are consistently in opposition to the notion that judging can be a role with a contestable meaning. In other words, the functionalist might interpret my argument in the following (informal) stages:

  1. Functionalists make an argument that judges cannot make arguments to themselves about their own role.
  2. There is no relevant difference between someone not judging and someone judging making an argument about what judges should do.
  3. Therefore, the functionalist argument against arguments about judges’ roles indicts itself.

However, the functionalist might contend, the first step is invalid because the functionalist argument is that judges cannot make any argument except from premises about the constitutive features of judging. Thus, even if commentators are not essentially different from judges in this deliberation, they can consistently say that it is a constitutive restriction on the social practice of judging LD that a judge can only accept arguments about her role which are based in the constitutive restrictions on the practice of judging LD.

The problem with this is that it raises the question of what is constitutive of a judge’s role. By entering that discussion, the functionalist must accept that it is contestable matter. So long as the second step of the argument, that there is no difference between someone commenting on how judges ought to behave and a judge deciding how to behave, the commentator cannot escape this problem.

The fourth objection would be that I have contradicted myself by appealing to the constitutive features of an intentional social agent to make a statement against constitutivist principles in general. There are a few strategies to respond to this objection. It might be argued, along some neo-Kantian line, that the only binding form of constitutivism is one based in our nature as agents. I have suggested such an approach to responding to these arguments in a brief published by NSD some time ago.[3] But another simpler strategy would be to point out that I am not proposing that some constitutive rule prohibits judges considering constitutive rules – that would obviously be self-defeating. I am simply contending that the functionalist arguments are themselves self-defeating.

Before we get bogged-down in an endless back and forth, I would like to close by speaking of the intuitive strength of an intentional account of judging and speaking of its actual application in round. It seems to me to be obvious that people judge because they think it will accomplish some good. Even if they are only at a tournament because they need money, most people seem to genuinely care about judging well rather than just judging “well-enough to pass as trying.” This is a more Aristotelian account of intentional action, rather than a Kantian account, according to which the thing which ultimately justifies judging a round is some good. I touched on this subject in my last article, and I hope to expand on it more in the future, but it seems that what keeps the judge loyal to the flow, moreover, is because it is conducive to some good to be committed to the flow. It is not a matter of it being the constitutive duty of someone judging a round as much as it is important to accessing the goods particular to circuit LD. Even David Branse’s paradigm does not say he will only evaluate truth-testing, he says his primary goal is to minimize intervention.[4] And it seems apparent to me that if an emergency were to occur in a round, the flow ceases to matter to a reasonable person because the goods at threat are more important than those goods which are achieved by commitment to the flow.

This elucidation of the intentional account may lead some to think that I have reduced the round to a contest of who can achieve the biggest “pre-fiat” impacts. This does not necessarily have to be the case, however. The goods of the round may not be the sorts of things which need to be “maximized.” Moreover, it is still possible to defend things like topicality and fairness constraints within an intentional model of judging. I simply do not believe that the mainstream functionalist arguments are sufficient to do this work.


[1] This distinction is loosely based upon a distinction made by Knight in Kelvin Knight, Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre, (Polity Press: Cambridge, UK, 2007), pgs. 38-39.

[2] This argument, and its development in the subsequent paragraph is a modified version of the argument put forward in Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Essential Contestability of Some Social Concepts.” Ethics, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Oct. 1973): pgs. 1-9.


[4] David Branse, “Branse, David” (JudgePhilosophies), I certainly do not mean this to be taken as an insult toward Branse, who I count as a friend, just a point about our realistic thinking about rounds.